Middle East

Views from Israeli and Palestinian Newspapers

The Occupation, and Then?

Israeli settlers
An Israeli settler teaches his son how to use a semi-automatic weapon at the West Bank settlement Qedumim (Photo: AFP).  

At 18 months into the Palestinian Intifada against Israeli occupation, the war of attrition has escalated to its most serious levels yet. The cycle of Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities and refugee camps and Palestinian attacks on Israeli settlers and cities has spiraled out of control. Over 1,400 people have died, more than two thirds of them Palestinian. Faced with such a dire situation, some Israelis are showing a propensity for more radical solutions. A recent opinion poll published in Israel showed 46 percent of respondents saw "transferring" Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an acceptable means of ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Pollsters from the Jaffee Center of Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University questioned 1,264 Israeli Jews during the first three weeks of February. The survey, published on March 12, has a 3-percent margin of error.

The results provoked disgust and embarrassment in the more liberal Israeli newspapers, and, for the first time, a public warning from an Arab leader that Israelis should give up dreams of conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing. "Don’t start thinking that you can expel the Palestinians out to Jordan or anywhere else. It will be the biggest danger for Israel if you did it," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in an interview broadcast on Israeli television. "No one is thinking of this," his Israeli interviewer answered, speaking in Arabic.

"Much has been written about the immorality of transfer, but for some reason the campaign with this slogan and its supporters have acquired an image of honesty and rectitude. I want to say that the slogan of transfer involves lying and misleading the public," Binyamin Neuberger wrote in Tel Aviv’s liberal Ha’aretz on March 20. "Firstly, by using the word ‘transfer.’ Everyone knows that aim of the [right-wing Israeli] Moledet Party is to expel Arab residents [from the Occupied Territories]. Why did someone who speaks the Hebrew language as well as Rechavam Ze’evy [The Moledet minister of tourism assassinated last October], who has attacked people for using foreign words, use the foreign word ‘transfer’ instead of the Hebrew word for expulsion? The answer is that ‘transfer’ is softer." According to Neuberger, other euphemisms used by the right include "voluntary transfer," Moledet’s slogan at the last Israeli elections, and "transfer by consent." But in recent weeks, Neuberger wrote, the right has started to talk more honestly about "transfer by war," with the argument that "the Arabs were evicted from here in 1948 and they may find themselves in a new transfer after the war they began a year and a half ago."

Palestinian attitudes toward Israel have for years been conditioned by fear of mass expulsion from the West Bank and Gaza, but since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, the Israeli Arab community has had cause for concern too. "We now hear a party that was only recently in government, Moledet, announcing its aim to gladly deport the Arabs. [Moledet leader] Benny Alon says ‘the universities should be closed in their [the Arabs’] faces, we should make their lives so bad that they conclude that leaving is the best choice.’ There are politicians in Likud too who say from time to time that if we don’t behave as they wish, what happened to our brothers in 1948 will happen to us: deportation," Salem Jubran, editor of the Israeli Arab weekly Al-Ahaly, anxiously recorded in his March 7 editorial. "Incitement against Arabs is just one symptom of the general crisis in Israel. There are racist and anti-democratic forces which are against the peace movement in Israel and against the media in general." But Jubran stressed that Palestinians living in Israel should not react to this incitement by turning their backs on Israeli society. "We should be a force that defends itself and is part of the democratic forces in Israel fighting oppression and racism, protecting human rights, and strengthening democracy," he concluded.

Palestinian academic George Giacaman, writing in the March 20 edition of Ramallah’s Al-Ayyam, saw "new strategic lines" appearing in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians as the United States, the European Union, and Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan began raising more strongly worded objections to Israeli military actions in the Occupied Territories than they had previously. "The right has nothing in the long run except the sword. Sharon’s current dilemma is the local, regional, and international political restraints on the use of force. His current strategy involves a gradual attempt to loosen these constraints in the interests of freeing his hand for more effective military action," Giacaman wrote.

"But despite the difficulties of the current situation and the efforts of the Israeli government to make the Palestinians pay a higher price for their endurance and resistance, we cannot underestimate the elements of strength we have," he continued. "The presence of the people on their land is a great strategic strength in the middle and long term. When we consider that the number of Palestinians is now 3.25 million, in addition to the million Palestinians inside the 1948 territories [Israel], then Israel’s great problem is: what can it do with us? Bearing this in mind, the [Israeli] Labor Party’s position seems more reasonable from a Zionist perspective, because they are striving to ‘be done with’ the Palestinians by granting them what they can according to Israel’s domestic balance of power and the needs of the state of Israel for land, water, sovereignty in airspace, and security cooperation at the border points."

Other Palestinian commentators saw a "balance of terror" in the seemingly endless war of attrition. "Despite the harsh battles and bloodletting, one feels hope that Palestinians’ power lies not in equaling Israel’s military superiority but in the rightness of their cause and their ability to endure," wrote Palestinian rights activist Iyyad Seraj in the March 12 edition of Jerusalem’s Al-Quds, "But the element that has been decisive in this Intifada is that we have arrived at… a ‘balance of terror.’ The Israelis have become convinced that if only 10 Palestinians were left alive, at least one would fight again and that Israeli security would not be achieved even if Israel put a tank on every one of them. The Palestinian resistance has turned the Israeli military system upside down, and [military] security has no meaning now without doses of political security too."

Though Israel remains fundamentally divided over whether it should give up the territories or not, more Israeli commentators are arguing that it’s time for Israel to cut its losses. "Like the joke about the goat in a crowded house, the best thing you can do with settlement activity is to stop it," Yigal Sarna commented in the March 19 edition of Tel Aviv’s centrist Yediot Aharonot. "There is a chance that in return for bringing the settlers back to their Israeli homes we will gain a Palestinian concession on the right of return, which history will record to [the settlers’] credit. Perhaps this would make up for the bloody price that their remaining in the heart of our neighbors’ land has cost them. Now it is no longer their right, it is their duty to return…. What has been achieved in the West Bank territories: Security? High technology? Art and literature? What has grown there: culture?" Sarna sneered.

Even the conservative Jerusalem Post is carrying articles saying in bitter tones that Israel would be better rid of the territories if the Palestinians are so set on being rid of the army. "At this time, we must prepare our citizens in a better way for the day a deal is implemented. In the short term, this is painful and hard to digest, but in the long term we will reap the benefits," David Neumann argued in a March 20 opinion piece.

Other commentators were more interested in the U.S. foreign-policy stance in the region. "As long as there is talk about steps towards a ceasefire, Sharon can live with the new line of the American administration. His real problem is when [the Bush administration] starts talking about the substance of the ‘political horizon’ and when [it] puts on the table the demand for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, with small amendments," Aluf Ben wrote in the March 19 edition of Ha’aretz. "Until now, the Bush administration has refrained from taking this position, but last week U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer was asked about the weight of ‘the Clinton ideas’ and he answered that the former president had taken them home with him, but they were worth studying. Is this a personal opinion or a hint from Washington?"

Arabs are more suspicious of the idea that Washington has become convinced that the Palestinians should have sovereign control over the occupied territories they live in. "In order to enter a decisive war against Baghdad, the Americans are leaving ‘constructive ambiguity’ in their position on the Palestinian issue and tickling Arab nationalist hopes," wrote analyst Raghid Al Sulh in the London-based, Saudi-owned, pan-Arab Al-Hayat on March 19, "If the American administrations’ hawks are right, the Baghdad war won’t last long, no more than a few weeks. At that point the constructive ambiguity will recede and a desire to be decisive will take its place, and the war on terrorism will move from the Iraqi theater to the Palestinian theater, then to other Arab arenas waiting for the sword of George Bush, which won’t rest until it has uprooted ‘evil’ from the world."