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Israel: Everybody is a Minority

Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, is an outspoken man, but he knows when to hold his fire.

He condemned the killing of an 18-month-old Palestinian child in an arson attack in the West Bank by suspected Jewish settlers last Friday as “terrorism”, but he did not say that the suspects were from the extreme wing of the “national religious tribe”.

Rivlin has not yet commented publicly on the knife attack on Gay Pride marchers in Jerusalem the previous day that wounded six people (one of whom, 16-year-old Shira Banki, has now died of her wounds). But if and when he does, he will not point out that the killer, Yishai Schlissel, belongs to the extremist fringe of the “Haredi tribe”, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not even recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

It would be wrong to use language that paints all the members of the tribes in question as accomplices in these murders, because they aren’t. Even if some of them sympathize with the actions of the murderer (and some probably do), it would still be a political mistake to alienate them further from the mainstream of Israeli society.

But maybe we should rephrase that last sentence, because in Rivlin’s view there no longer is an Israeli “mainstream”. There once was, when secular Jews, mostly of Eastern European origin, formed the majority of the population and everybody else belonged to “minorities”. But higher birth rates among those minorities have turned the secular Jews into just another minority—and he says they should really all be seen as “tribes”.

He said all this two months ago, in a startlingly frank speech to the Herzliya conference, an annual event where the country’s leaders debate issues of national policy. “In the 1990s,” he told them, “Israeli society comprised…a large secular Zionist majority, and beside it three minority groups: a national-religious minority, an Arab minority, and a Haredi minority.

“Although this pattern remains frozen in the minds of much of the Israeli public, in the press, in the political system, all the while, the reality has totally changed,” he continued. “Today, the first grade classes (in Israeli schools) are composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, about 15 percent national religious, about one quarter Arabs, and close to a quarter Haredim.”

The demographic changes, Rivlin said, have created a “new Israeli order…in which Israeli society is comprised of four population sectors, or, if you will, four principal ‘tribes’, essentially different from each other, and growing closer in size. Whether we like it or not, the make-up of the ‘stakeholders’ of Israeli society, and of the State of Israel, is changing before our eyes.”

The most important implication of this change is that barely half of the children now in Israeli primary schools will grow up to be Zionists. The Arabs will not, of course, but neither will the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe that the Zionist project to recreate Jewish rule in Israel is blasphemous. Only God can do that, by sending the Messiah, and the Zionist attempt to hurry it along by human means is a rebellion against God.

Neither of these “tribes” even serves in the military, once the great unifying Israeli institution. Arabs are not conscripted for military service, and very few volunteer. In practice, the Haredim have been exempt from military service for all of Israel’s history as an independent state, although parliament passed a law last year that seeks to end the exemptions.

The Zionist tribes are also divided between the secular Zionists and the “national religious” tribe. The latter reconcile their Orthodox religious beliefs with the Zionist project by arguing that it was God who inspired the early Zionists in eastern Europe to build a Jewish state in Palestine, even if they did not realize it themselves. Most Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and most of their supporters in Israel proper, belong to this tribe.

All these former minority tribes are to some extent alienated from the secular, liberal-democratic Zionist assumptions that underpin Israel’s current political structure. A few members of each tribe are already so alienated that they turn to violence, like the settlers who attack Palestinian children, the Israeli Arabs who run amok and kill Jews, or the Haredi fanatic who attacked the Gay Pride march.

President Rivlin, “Ruvi” didn’t say that explicitly—it’s too upsetting—but he was pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. The current secular Zionist domination cannot continue; the other tribes must also come to feel safe and welcome in a different kind of Israel. Specifically, in a “one-state” Israel that includes all the territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

Rivlin, though an Orthodox Jew, doesn’t really belong to any of these tribes: his family has lived in Jerusalem for more than two centuries. He doesn’t believe that the “two-state solution”—one country for Jews and one for Palestinian Arabs—is viable any more, if it ever was. So he is driven to the “one-state solution”, which requires reconciliation and cooperation between all the tribes.

It’s so radical that it almost makes sense. It’s just hard to believe that it could actually happen.

Israeli Election 2015

Binyamin Netanyahu, “Bibi” to both his friends and his ever-growing list of enemies, is running for a fourth term as the prime minister of Israel. He called the election, two years early, because the leaders of two of the parties in his coalition government had become too openly hostile to his policies. So he is rolling the dice again in the hope of being able to form some different coalition.

That’s what he always does. His coalitions draw mainly on the centre-right and, increasingly, the far right, partly because that is where he stands personally on “security” issues and partly because Israel opinion in general has been drifting steadily to the right. But beyond that, he has no fixed policy. His primary goal is to hold his coalitions together and stay in power.

Netanyahu is hardly unique in this. Professional politicians anywhere tend to divide into two types, the “conviction politicians” and the players, with the majority usually in the latter category. He is a tremendously good player of the game, but it has a paralysing effect on Israeli politics.

Since he cannot afford to come down in favour of either a real “two-state” solution that allows for an independent Palestine or a single Israeli-ruled state that permanently controls all or most of the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel never gets to choose between the two. Until, perhaps, now.

Netanyahu’s excuse for refusing to choose has usually been the lack of a valid Palestinian negotiating partner, and there is certainly some basis for that. Mahmoud Abbas, the “President” of the Palestinian Authority, has not faced an election, even within his own Fatah party, for ten years. Moreover, Abbas has no control over the 40 percent of the Palestinian population who live under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.

But it is more an excuse than a reason. Genuine negotiations envisaging a Israeli withdrawal from most or all of the West Bank and a real Palestinian state, even a demilitarised one, would destroy any coalition Netanyahu has ever built. Going flat-out with the extreme right-wing project for a “one-state” solution incorporating the whole West Bank but denying Palestinians the vote would do the same. Result: permanent paralysis.

Indeed, Netanyahu has even encouraged Israelis to believe that this peculiar status quo can be a lasting substitute for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a ridiculous proposition, but it clearly has appeal for Israelis who would like to believe that they can have security without the pain of territorial compromise.
Meanwhile, however, the outside world has been losing patience. Abbas has been pushing for a November, 2016 United Nations deadline to end the Israeli occupation unless two-state negotiations have succeeded by then. And last week the European Parliament voted to recognise Palestine statehood “in principle” as part of the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

The EU resolution also said that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law – as indeed they are, but it has not been normal for Israel’s allies and supporters to say so explicitly. (The European Union has granted Israel trading privileges so extensive that it is practically a member economically.) The vote was 498 in favour and only 88 against, and there was a standing ovation in the chamber afterwards.

The rot is spreading rapidly. Four national Western European parliaments – Ireland, the United Kingdom, France and Spain – have recently endorsed resolutions in favour of Palestinian statehood, and Sweden has actually recognised Palestine as a state. Other European Union members are on the brink of doing so, and even Israel’s final line of diplomatic defence, an American veto, is no longer guaranteed.

The United States has used its veto on the UN Security Council to shield Israel from resolutions that criticise the country forty-one times in the past forty years. Indeed, it has used its veto for no other purpose since 1988. Israelis fully expect Barack Obama to use it a 42nd time to defeat Mahmoud Abbas’s appeal for a two-year deadline for an agreement on a two-state solution when it comes before the Security Council, most likely in January.

They are probably right, but Obama will be sorely tempted to let people think that he might not use the veto, and perhaps also to push the Security Council vote down towards the 17 March date of the Israeli election, in the hope of influencing Israeli voters to turn away from Netanyahu.

It’s quite common for Israeli voters to push back when they feel they are under foreign pressure to make concessions, so this could actually play out to Netanyahu’s advantage. A great deal can happen between now and 17 March, so one shouldn’t give too much weight to current polls. But at the moment, the numbers suggest that Netanyahu’s gamble on forming a new coalition may not succeed.

And that might open the way to one last attempt to make the two-state solution work.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The EU…guaranteed”)

Gaza: A Little Context

You can see why Hamas doesn’t want a cease-fire in Gaza yet. It is continuing the fight in the hope that international outrage at the huge loss of people being killed by Israel’s massive firepower will somehow, eventually, force Israel to give it what it wants.

Hamas would be quite willing to give up firing its pathetic rockets – which have so far killed a grand total of three civilians in Israel – if Israel ends its seven-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Dream on.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s goal is harder to define. Domestic political pressure to “do something” about those pesky rockets pushed him into this war, but now he must produce some kind of success in order to justify all those deaths: around 1,150 Palestinians and more than fifty Israelis already.

But what kind of success could it be? He cannot destroy all the rockets – Hamas shows no sign of running out of them – and even if he could Hamas would just manufacture more of them later unless he physically re-occupied the whole Gaza Strip. In recent days, therefore, Netanyahu has redefined the objective as destroying all the “terror tunnels” that Hamas has dug to infiltrate its fighters into nearby areas of Israel.

This makes no sense at all. In order to protect the lives of a few hypothetical Israeli soldiers who might be killed in the future by Hamas fighters using the tunnels, over forty real Israeli soldiers have already died. Besides, Israel can’t stop Hamas from digging more tunnels after the shooting stops unless it can find a way to ban picks and shovels in the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu needs a victory of some sort before he accepts a cease-fire, but he cannot even define what it would be. So, as he said on Monday, “We should prepare ourselves for an extended campaign.” Meanwhile, the slaughter of Palestinians continues, and sympathy for Israel shrivels even in the United States.

It’s not that the Israeli army particularly wants to kill civilians (although it is sometimes very sloppy), but it does prefer to fight a stand-off war with artillery and missiles in order to spare the lives of its own soldiers. In the crowded Gaza Strip, that inevitably means killing lots of civilians.

The 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are living at the same population density as the residents of London or Tokyo: about 5,000 people per square kilometre. You cannot use high explosives in this environment without killing a great many innocent civilians, and Netanyahu knew that from the start, because this is Israel’s third war in Gaza in six years.

So the Israelis are being brutal and stupid, and the Hamas leaders are being brutal and cynical. (Hamas doesn’t really use civilians as “human shields”, as Israeli claims, but its leaders know that Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli fire provide them with a kind of political capital.) But this is not to say that the two sides are equally to blame for the killing. There is a broader context.

Before 1948, only about 60,000 people lived on the land now known as the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of those who live there now are Arab refugees, or the children, grand-children and great-grandchildren of Arab refugees, who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war. They are not there by choice.

Israel has traditionally insisted that the refugees freely chose to flee, although revisionist Israeli historians have debunked that story pretty thoroughly. But which story you believe doesn’t really matter. Fleeing your home in time of war does not deprive you of the right to go home when the fighting ends. Yet the Palestinians have not been allowed to go home, and Israel is adamant that they never will be.

The argument of 1948 still applies: for Israel to remain a state with a large Jewish majority, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants must remain outside it. So most of them are jammed into this narrow strip of territory on the Mediterranean coast – and latterly they have even grown poorer (unemployment is now 40 percent) because they now live under a permanent Israeli blockade.

Israel imposed the blockade after they voted for Hamas, a radical Islamist party that refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Israel, in the 2006 election. Yes, they are more radical than the Palestinians of the West Bank, most of whom are not refugees. But there is no going back, and even in the Gaza Strip most Palestinians know it.

The ancestral lands of the Palestinians in what is now Israel are lost as permanently as those of the American Indians. The “peace” everybody talks about is really just about giving them security of tenure and real self-government in the one-fifth of former Palestine that they still occupy. Unfortunately, that is not even visible on the horizon.

When Netanyahu is addressing American audiences, he gives lip-service to a “two-state solution” that includes an independent, demilitarised Palestinian mini-state, but everybody in Israel knows that he is really determined to avoid it. Israel is therefore effectively committed to penning in and controlling the Palestinians forever.

When their objections to this situation get too violent, they have to be disciplined. That is what is happening now. Just like 2009 and 2012.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 12 and 13. (“It’s…civilians”; and “The argument…know it”)

Gaza 2014

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said something cryptic last Friday, shortly after the Israelis began their latest round of attacks on the Gaza Strip. Condemning Hamas’s conditions for accepting a ceasefire as “exaggerated and unnecessary,” he offered his condolences “to the families of the martyrs in Gaza who are fuel to those who trade in war. I oppose these traders, on both sides.”

What could he mean by that? Surely he was not suggesting that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel and the leaders of Hamas, the Islamist organisation that has effective control of the Gaza Strip, have a common interest in perpetuating the current bloodbath for at least a little while longer.

Yes, he was suggesting exactly that, and he was quite right. This is the third “Gaza War” since late 2008 – they come around more often than World Cups in football – and each one has followed the same pattern. Some Israelis are kidnapped and/or killed, Israel makes mass arrests of Hamas cadres in the West Bank and launches air and missile strikes on the Gaza Strip, Hamas lets the missiles fly, and away we go again.

A few wrinkles are different this time. The kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli hitch-hikers in the West Bank, probably by Palestinians who had links with Hamas (although it denies responsibility), was followed by the torture and murder of a young Palestinian, probably by Israeli vigilantes.

The ceasefire signed after the last round in 2012 was already being violated by both sides for some months before the real shooting started a week ago. And, most importantly, Hamas had achieved a political reconciliation of sorts with Mahmoud Abbas’s rival organisation that rules the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority. But although every turn of the wheel is a little bit different, the pattern remains the same.

So why would Prime Minister Netanyahu be willing to launch Israel’s third war against the Gaza Strip in eight years? Because the nature of his political alliances with other parties on the Israeli right, and especially with the settler lobby, means that he could not make a peace deal that the Palestinians would accept even if he wanted to (which he probably doesn’t).

That’s why he was instrumental in sabotaging the Oslo Accords, the theoretical basis for a peaceful “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during his first term as prime minister in 1996-99. Back in power in the past five years, his primary excuse for not moving on negotiations has been that Mahmoud Abbas could not deliver peace because he controlled only the West Bank, while the intransigent Hamas ruled the Gaza Strip.
Then Abbas stitched together a compromise that brought Hamas back into a unity government three months ago, and Netanyahu claimed that he could not be expected to negotiate with a government that included the “terrorists” of Hamas. So is he now trying to destroy Hamas so that Abbas can rule unhindered over all the Palestinian territories and become a suitable partner for peace? Of course not.

Netanyahu knows, on the evidence of the previous two wars, that Hamas can be battered into temporary quiescence but not destroyed. He also probably realises that if he did manage to destroy Hamas, its place would be taken by a less corrupt and much more extreme Islamist outfit that might really hurt Israel. He is just doing this, with no expectation of victory, because Israeli public opinion demands it.

Hamas’s motive for wanting a little war are more obvious and urgent: it has lost almost all its sources of funding. Iran stopped funding its budget to the tune of $20 million per month when Hamas sided with the Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war.

Egypt stopped helping it after last year’s military coup against Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, and closed the tunnels under the border through which the Gaza Strip received most of its imported goods. Those imports were Hamas’s main source of tax revenue. Hamas is broke, and if it stays broke its control over the Strip will weaken.

Whereas a war with Israel will rally the local Palestinians to its support, and if enough of them are killed Egypt and the Gulf states may feel compelled to give Hamas financial aid. So the only real question is how many dead Palestinians will satisfy both Netanyahu’s need to look tough and Hamas’s need to rebuild popular support at home and get financial help from abroad.

On past performance, the magic number is between a hundred and a thousand dead: around 1,200 Palestinians were killed in the 2008-9 war, and 174 in 2012. After that – assuming that only a handful of Israelis have been killed, which is guaranteed by the fact that Israeli air and missiles strikes are a hundred times more efficient at killing than Hamas’s pathetic rockets – a ceasefire becomes possible.

We have already crossed the lower threshold of that range of Palestinian deaths in the current mini-war, so a ceasefire is theoretically possible now, but both sides will probably press on for at least another few days. Then the ceasefire will be agreed, and both sides will start thinking about the next round, only a few years from now. But the dead will stay dead.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“A few…same”; and “Then…not”)