Milton Viorst on Israel’s Tragic Predicament
Posted on Feb 1, 2008
Zertal and Eldar, whose disciplined research complements Shulman’s passion, lay out the process by which these wrongs were piled on. The guns of 1967 had barely fallen silent before Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the land surrounding it, then adopted the concept of “liberation” to disguise the breach of international conventions that barred the transfer of population to territories occupied in war. Within a few months the army had substituted the Old Testament names Judea and Samaria for the internationally accepted “West Bank.” It was in those early days that the symbiotic relationship between army and the settlement movement was established.
The settlers spoke of “redeeming” the land for the Jewish people. This was a concept venerated by Zionist thinkers, but in the occupied territories it had little legal foundation. So the army came to the rescue by proclaiming that settlements were essential to military security, a notion to which international law was more sympathetic. Security became the bedrock justifying not just military policies but the web of decisions by Israeli courts that rationalized the excesses in the daily behavior of the settlers. To this day, security—whether or not the concern is valid—remains the rhetorical premise of Israel’s ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land, and for the wave on wave of restrictions that Israel imposes on Palestinians in their pursuit of everyday life.
My own experience as a journalist in the occupied territories began in the 1970s, when Palestinians were still traumatized by the disaster of the Six-Day War of 1967. Having been badly bruised by the misgovernment of the Jordanians which preceded it, they imagined that Israeli rule was unlikely to be worse. West Bank life throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s was rather serene, and Gaza was far from the hellhole it later became. Men earned decent wages working in Israel, and the standard of living—refrigerators and washing machine became commonplace—was rising. Universities were absorbing young people; travel by car and bus was easy. The absence of danger drew Israelis to local restaurants to dine on Arab delicacies, tourists visited from abroad and émigrés often returned home to be with their families. Except in the refugee camps and at a few guard posts at crossroads, it was rare even to see soldiers, much less to feel their intrusions.
Settlements at that time were few, but, after the Likud Party won the election of 1977 on a pro-settlement platform, that began to change. Within a few years, settlers living in temporary trailer parks were driving through Arab villages on their way to work, stopping for groceries in street markets en route home. At the same time, Palestinian demography was changing, with the rise to maturity of a new generation that did not know 1967 and which found the settlers’ presence provocative. Though serious violence was still uncommon, occasionally a teenager threw a rock and smashed a windshield.
I recall once visiting a settler family living at the end of a narrow, rutted road in the shadow of an old British police station. Over the kitchen table, a young mother argued passionately that the army should provide settlers with more protection from the nearby Arabs. Rather naively, I asked whether she saw any possible compromise between the settlers and their neighbors, who had lived on the land for centuries. Her answer: “There is no compromise. This is our land. The Torah says so.” Slowly, it became clear that these Jews were planning to stay, and the new generation of Palestinians rising to maturity sensed that patience had serious limits, and that action was required if Israel was ever to evacuate them. Meanwhile, Israelis were growing increasingly comfortable with the spoils of their 1967 conquest. In 1987, a spontaneous, basically nonviolent uprising called the intifada broke out. Since then, with only brief respites, the confrontation between the sides has grown steadily more intense, and more brutal.
Of all Israelis, Ariel Sharon was the one most responsible after 1977 for the settlements’ relentless spread. A sound tactician as well as a strategist, he perceived Israel’s limits and, according to Zertal and Eldar, he warned his followers not to trespass boundaries set by the Americans, whose support for the country he considered crucial. Throughout the administrations of Ronald Reagan, father Bush and Bill Clinton, however, the Americans rarely protested Israel’s policies, and when Sharon became prime minister himself, the president was George W. Bush, who set no boundaries at all.
Bush, in an interview prior to his recent trip to the Middle East, reminded an Israeli journalist that Sharon, his host on his first visit to Israel, in 1998, took him on a helicopter tour of the West Bank. As Bush recalled it, Sharon, “pointing to a hill, said this is where I engaged as a young tank officer in my first battle, and see how far [near] it is to our capital and our civilization. His purpose was to make clear to me the strategic issues facing Israel.” The tour clearly made an impression. As president, Bush publicly promoted a two-state solution but sent Sharon a letter promising that Israel need not contemplate reversing the reality of the settlements. Israel’s latest figures reveal that 280,000 Jews now live in 130 settlements in the West Bank, in addition to 200,000 in East Jerusalem, roughly a tenth of the country’s population. Though Bush proclaimed Sharon “a man of peace,” Sharon’s words made clear his own agenda, belying that judgment.
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