Middle East

Israeli Occupation

A Conversation with Meir Margalit

An Israeli army bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian house

An Israeli army bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian house in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah last year. (Photo: Said Khatib / AFP-Getty Images)

Meir Margalit is one of the most interesting Israeli intellectuals if one seeks to understand the reality in the Middle East from the perspective of the Israeli peace movement. Born in Argentina, he has lived in Israel since 1972.

Until February of 2003, he was a member of the Jerusalem city council for the Meretz party.

He is a champion — one of the few remaining — of the peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. On account of his habit of donning a construction worker’s outfit and, alongside Palestinians, rebuilding houses bulldozed by the Tsahal — the Israeli army — he was recently dubbed “the Israeli Nelson Mandela” by the Catalan daily La Vanguardia. He is a founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, an NGO fighting punitive demolitions of Palestinian homes, disseminates information about the plight of the occupied territories, and provides strategic support to Palestinian families and communities with a view toward a just and sustainable peace.

Margalit has been accused by his detractors on the right of connivance with the terrorists. In an interview for La Vanguardia on July 7, he stated, “That is a paranoiac absurdity. The ruling Zionism by holding on to its expansionist designs degrades democracy not only for Arabs, but also for all Israelis. We lived through the farce of apartheid in South Africa. With a view toward combating the Israeli apartheid, we founded Meretz, a left-wing alternative for peace and integration.”

We found him very busy, but as always, a gracious host in his Jerusalem office.

Carotenuto: Non-Israelis who see the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with a mixture of surprise and skepticism and, for want of sufficient background to understand these events, are unsure whether this marks a new era in the life of the Jewish state, or a subterfuge through which the colonial policy might be deepened from a position of greater strength.

Margalit: There’s no doubt that the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is an event of capital importance in the history of Israel. But the greater question is what will happen in the aftermath of the pullout.

The feeling is that it may be more a matter of a tactical retreat.

It is not possible to predict what future course the Israeli government will take. If [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon continues with the process of withdrawal, we may be witnessing the end of more than 100 years of conflict. If he instead decides to freeze the process, or even further reinforce the settlements on the West Bank (Cisjordan), this may give rise to a third Intifada more violent and bloody than the previous ones.

To date all indications do not encourage optimism and the Israeli political environment, especially on account of the prominence of religious fundamentalists that identify with the defense of the territories, veers toward the right, and today Sharon is not a likely favorite in the next elections.

On the one hand, there are those declarations made by Sharon himself and his allies [such as Dov Waisglas’s famous statements to the daily Ha’aretz —Editors’ note] in which Sharon himself states that with Gaza the withdrawals come to an end, and that now is the time to reinforce the settlements on the West Bank. On the other hand, the pullout sparks a dynamic that may be stronger than political statements. And I believe that the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip may give rise to a dynamic that leads us to return more territories and reinforces the current process. We historians and sociologists know this, but so do the settlers themselves who today are already fighting tomorrow’s battle, while other elements of Israeli society continue to fight yesterday’s battle today.

You’re saying that with the pullout from the Gaza Strip we are already witnessing in miniature the conflicts that will come about in the event of further returns of land? For the ultra-orthodox, the heart of Jewish identity lies not in Gaza but in Judea and Samaria, as Israel calls the West Bank.

Israeli Occupation

Four wars have been fought between Israel and the Arab states, in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. In the war of 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Golan Heights and Sinai from Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Since the Arab states refused to negotiate peace, Israel continued to occupy the territories.

Sinai, except for the Gaza Strip, was returned to Egypt in 1979, following a peace agreement.

The Gaza Strip, where at least 5,000 Israeli settlers in 21 settlements lived among more than 1 million Palestinians, was evacuated in August 2005.

Israel has at least 244 settlements in the West Bank, and 29 in East Jerusalem. More than 187,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, and fewer than 177,000 in East Jerusalem. Total population in the West Bank exceeds 2 million.

Since 1967, Israel has demolished 12,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem — 5,000 of them from the start of the second Intifada (October 2000) through 2004.

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power is prohibited from moving its own civilians into an occupied territory, forcibly transferring the local population, destroying real or personal property, or meting out collective punishment, among other things.

Israel signed the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and ratified them in 1951, but has since stated that they don’t apply to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.

Sources: Encyclopædia Britannica, C.I.A. World Fact Book, International Committee of the Red Cross, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

The battle raging today does not have as its aim the halting of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, but to prevent Sharon or any other government from pulling out of the West Bank in the future. That is what is at stake these days. The right knows full well that we do not have historical roots in Gaza, and that the preservation of those territories is absolutely indefensible. But the settlers want to make a show of how far they are willing to go in the event of a pullout from the West Bank: to the point of giving fierce battle and the shedding of blood.

The feeling is that the peace movement is isolated from the real dynamic of the events.

For the peace movement, Gaza beggars a rethinking of the situation. In the first place, we are asking ourselves if the old idea of dismantling of the occupied territories continues to be practicable. My feeling is that no politician of this generation will be able to dismantle the settlements on the West Bank. If I am right, the idea of two states for two people is not feasible, and we now need to begin talking seriously about the alternative project of a binational state. In the second place, even if I understand that it seems altogether contorted, many people on the left are contemplating whether it might not be worthwhile, in the immediate future, to vote for the right.

There are many historical instances that incline one toward that view, many peace agreements that were believed impossible, were signed by those who, from the outset, were ferociously pro war, while the world has witnessed many of the worst liberal “reforms” brought about by governments nominally on the left. Often under right-wing administrations, certain left-wing causes are possible that are not feasible under left-wing administrations, on account of the intractable opposition on the right, and vice versa.

In our specific case , the only leaders who have given land back have been those on the right: Begin, Sharon, Bibi [Netanyahu] has even returned part of Hebron. Since the Labor party today lacks politicians of stature, and only the right has the power to return land, many of us on the left are thinking of supporting Sharon in the next elections.

Hence the return of territories as the only plank in the platform conducive to peace, and the conflict with the Palestinians as the only factor that swallows and overshadows all other social conflicts. The years under Sharon and Netanyahu as minister of Finance have also been years of fierce market liberalization and deregulation, and of neoliberalism, all of which have made it so that today one Israeli child in four is poor. Henceforward, only the settlers seem to benefit from the Israeli welfare state, and 97 percent of these will continue to benefit, seeing that the number of settlers in Gaza surpasses 3 percent of the Israeli population and their withdrawal seems like a huge media operation. Even the labor party — like many center-left reform parties all over the world — doesn’t appear to offer any hope on that score in comparison to the parties on the right. In your view as Jerusalem alderman for many years for the Meretz party [the most important of Labor’s factions on the left], isn’t this paradoxical?

The fact is we are living through a paradoxical process. On the one hand, the left is going through one of the worst moments in its history. No one listens to us, no one sees us, it’s as though we had vanished into thin air. But on the other hand, the Israeli right is implementing political agendas the left has been advocating for the past 30 years. We want to withdraw from the occupied territories and it is the right-wing that has always opposed this that is de facto carrying out our political agenda. That is why for us things have never been worse, but never have they been better at the same time. These days our people are very satisfied and are not willing to criticize Sharon, in spite of the fact his statements do not encourage optimism with respect to an eventual withdrawal from the West Bank.

Gennaro Carotenuto is a contributor to the Uruguayan weekly Brecha and a visiting professor at the University of the Republic in Uruguay. He is a member of the Italian Order of Journalists, and a professor of history at the University of Macerata in Italy.

Originally published Aug. 18. Translated from the Italian by Flávio Américo dos Reis.