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Heaven or hell?

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Issue 1750


Heaven or hell?

By Alex Callinicos

WHATEVER THE outcome of the present Palestinian intifada, it has already shifted the terms of debate against Israel. A good illustration is provided by recent coverage in the Guardian, which has traditionally taken a liberal pro-Israel position. On Monday last week a huge editorial marking the anniversary of Israel’s foundation lamented:

“We are forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about how the dream of sanctuary for the Jewish people…has come to be poisoned. The establishment of this sanctuary has been bought at a very high cost in human rights and human lives.”

Ian Katz reported from the Occupied Territories later the same week. He expressed the agony of many liberal and left wing Jews: “How can Jews behave like this? How can a people that has for so long been oppressed allow itself to oppress others?” The Guardian editorial quoted sociologist Stanley Cohen:

“Denial of the injustices and injuries inflicted upon the Palestinians is built into the social fabric… The result is a xenophobia that would be called ‘racism’ anywhere else.”

Channel 4 News last Saturday night did a piece about the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian writer and activist Edward Sad calls the growth of these settlements in the Occupied Territories since the 1993 Oslo agreement “cancerous”. They were one of the main factors that destroyed the ill-named “peace process”.

The number of Jewish settlers rose from 275,000 to 400,000 between 1993 and 2000. Successive Israeli governments have encouraged the steady expansion of these settlements.

Today right wing prime minister Ariel Sharon defends their “natural growth”. Channel 4 News exposed what this means. A quarter of the houses in West Bank settlements are unoccupied. Sharon’s “natural growth” consists of small groups of racist zealots moving out of established settlements. They then demand both military protection and infrastructural support from the Israeli state.

The settlers’ attitude to the Palestinians was revealed by one woman who said that the Palestinians would soon stop resisting if every time a Jew was killed or injured a new settlement was built. But the source of the revulsion against Israel goes deeper than the antics of the settlers, who are unpopular in Israel itself. An Israeli spokesman, speaking on the Today programme, said people couldn’t understand that you could be the stronger side and still be fighting in self defence.

That’s absolutely right. People can’t get their heads round the idea that heavily armed Israeli soldiers protected by flak jackets and armoured vehicles who blaze away at Palestinian teenagers wearing T-shirts and armed with stones are acting in “self defence”! But Israel’s military superiority doesn’t mean it is winning.

The commentator George Friedman wrote some weeks ago, “The Israelis now see themselves engaged in a long term war in which military operations will be ongoing, rather than retaliations for specific events.” This certainly fits in with operations like the recent use of US-supplied F-16 fighter-bombers to attack Palestinian areas.

However, Friedman also says Sharon lacks political support: “Sharon recalls that Israeli public opinion forced a withdrawal from Lebanon despite casualties that, from a military standpoint, were trivial. In any prolonged, massive deployment of forces into all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip Israel must be willing to absorb casualties. At this point, it is not.”

Friedman concludes that the Palestinians may “have triggered the best response of all from their point of view-a war of attrition at very low levels that unites the Palestinians, that Israel can neither endure nor withdraw from”. This isn’t a cheerful conclusion. If the intifada continues at its present level, then so too will the brutal revenge that the Israeli Defence Force exacts from the Palestinians.

But the effect will be to continue to force Israel’s supporters to ask themselves whether the Zionist state is the best way to defend Jewish interests. As an Israeli novelist cited by the Guardian put it, “What should have been heaven has become a form of hell.”

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