The Ideological Geography of Israel
To understand the Israeli reaction to the Palestinian uprising (call it Intifada II, Intifada 2000, the Palestinian War of Independence, anything except “The Al-Aksa Intifada,” which carries the seeds of an irresolvable religious conflict), one has to understand the ideological and everyday geography of the country. Israel is a country that sees itself as part of the Western “First World.” It faces Europe (and even more so the US), turning its back to the Arab world. Its prevailing ideology (“Zionism Will Triumph; Fly the Flag” is a slogan blaring across billboards through the country) is almost autistic — completely self-contained, exclusively Jewish, compelling in its internal logic. It is virtually self-evident to generations of Israeli Jews who, through school, the army, the media, immigrant centers, religious life and state-organized celebration, have never been allowed to entertain alternatives.
Except for poor pockets of the country where Jews have been unable to “escape” living with Arabs (parts of Jaffa, Ramle, Lod, Acre, and even there living as separately as possible), Jews live in a closed reality. “Arabs” (the term “Palestinian” is hardly used, and certainly not for Palestinian citizens of Israel, the “Israeli Arabs”) form a certain “picturesque” background. Israeli Jews like to “escape” modern life and retreat to the pastoral landscapes of the Galilee, where they establish “outposts” on expropriated Arab land, or simply enjoy “authentic” Arab humus served by fawning but colorful “characters.” Living with the Bedouins has become almost de rigor for New Age adventurers. To be sure, Arabs work for Jews (much less often work with Jews), but seldom does this lead to social relationships. If, in popular parlance, Mizrahi Jews originating in Muslim countries constitute a “Second Israel” economically and socially, the Arabs in Israel can be defined as a “Third Israel.”
Palestinians, then, have never been an integral part of Israeli Jewish consciousness except as antagonists, spoilers, in certain quiet moments, perhaps, quaint neighbors. And if this is true of Palestinian citizens of Israel, it is certainly true of those of the West Bank and Gaza. An Israeli saying has it that the Occupied Territories are farther from Israel than Thailand. Israelis have a conception of a place called Thailand. They want to visit, to “experience” what that country has to offer. They can buy a guidebook and a ticket. But the West Bank and Gaza (and most of East Jerusalem)? Terra incognito. Blank spaces on their cognitive maps, eliciting if anything fear rather than curiosity. But mostly blankness. Israelis do not know the cities, towns, villages or geography of those places now thrust upon by the news, do not know the people, the history, the culture — and most important, do not want to.
“Peace,” then, for Israelis, is a very abstract concept. It means essentially industrial quiet, no busses being blown up. It carries no implications for the overall Zionist paradigm (Israel’s “meta-narrative” in academic terms), and no self-criticism. The Jews’ claim to the Land of Israel and to a Jewish state is unassailable; Arab claims are absolutely rejected. The status of Arabs in Israeli thought — be they residents of Israel or the Occupied Territories, or refugees seeking the right of return — is remarkably close to the biblical concept of ger toshav, non-Jewish “resident aliens” of the Land: those that are here may remain on sufferance rather than by right, but refugees have lost all claim to residency. Without any legitimate voice in matters that have to do with “internal” Israeli-Jewish rights and claims — “Israeli Arab” parties have never been invited to join a government coalition, and there has never been an Arab minister or senior government official — Palestinians figure into Israeli discussions only as foils, not as actual parties. Arguments over the “peace process” are a completely internal affair between Israeli Jews of the right and left. Once a working compromise is reached, the government merely presents the Arafat with the results, permitting him some minor compromises. This is how the map presented by Barak at Camp David — and which remains by and large Israel’s final position — came about. The map emerged from negotiations (“coordination”) between Yossi Beilin (now Labor Minister of Justice) and National Religious Party settlement leader Hanan Porat. Barak has repeated many times that he intends to achieve a peace that “the settlers will be happy with,” one that leaves 80% of them (320,000 of 400,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem) in their settlement homes.
The “Peace Process.” This was the essence of the Camp David dictat that set off the new Intifada. It conforms to the entire Oslo “peace process.” In 1993 the PLO was broke, politically isolated and adrift in Tunis. The Washington talks were going nowhere (although one of the negotiators, Hanan Ashrawi, has always insisted that those negotiations would have achieved more than the Oslo “breakthrough”), and Arafat might have been afraid of losing his leadership to local West Bank/Jerusalem/Gaza figures. If we look at the 1993 Oslo Accords as Arafat’s attempt to sue for minimal terms of surrender, the “take-it-or-leave-it” message of the Camp David “understanding” is understandable. Rather than genuine negotiations between equal partners, the entire seven-year “peace process” has revolved around two problems: What is the minimum Israel must cede in order to retain control over the Occupied Territories, most of its settlements and Jerusalem while relieving itself of their three million Palestinians? And how much can Arafat be allowed to wean from Israel in terms of land, sovereignty and national symbols so that his surrender can be “sold” to his people as liberation? It is on this thinnest of overlaps of interest, between maximum Israeli interests and minimum Palestinian requirements, that the Oslo process focussed.
In this delicate process the Americans played a crucial triple role. First, it backed Israel in its insistence that every issue be negotiated rather than basing the negotiations on international law. This is because in negotiations based on power Israel has an overwhelming superiority, having actual control of the territory as an occupying power. Were international law to be the basis of the negotiatio
ns, Israel would lose its occupation, since every element of it is clearly illegal. That shift from international law to power-negotiations, from treating the territories as “disputed” rather than “occupied,” pulled the rug out from under the Palestinians. It created a situation where they were bound to lose.
Second, the US backed Israel in its “take-it-or-leave-it” approach. It permitted Israel to tremendously strengthen its position on the ground by ignoring Israeli violations of the Oslo Accords, in particular massive settlement expansion, which contravenes Article 31(7) specifying that “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” It neutralized European scepticism over the one-sided nature of the negotiations and it mobilized support for the “process” from its “allies” in the Middle East (the fruits of which were reaped in the recent Cairo Arab Summit which condemned Israel but did not impose any sanctions). It also put Arafat on notice that, in the end, the American-brokered “overlap” was what was to be.
And third, in its attempt to grease the wheels of compromise with dollars – that is, persuade the Israelis to compromise — it has underwritten Israeli “security” projects that only strengthen Israel’s control over the Territories. For example, 29 major Israeli “security highways” and “by-pass roads” throughout the Occupied Territories have been funded to the tune of at least $3 billion (also in violation of Article 31(7). Israel has also been promised the coveted status of “strategic US ally.” The US, however, has offered less to the Palestinians — mainly modest European financial “contributions.” In one crucial area the US has lent its fiscal weight: that of the refugees. Supporting Israel’s adamant position refusing to even consider the return of more than a symbolic fraction of the refugees to Israel proper, the US has offered upwards of $40 billion in compensation for their resettlement in Arab and other countries, and on a modest scale in the emerging Palestinian state.
The Camp David “Understanding.” Although the actual negotiations fell apart, the Camp David “understanding” is nevertheless Israel’s (and the US’s) “last word” on the subject. This is both the cause and the underlying drama of the uprising. Camp David represented Israel’s definitive stand, its final definition of the “overlap” (with a few details to be filled in). And it appears to Israelis that Barak was exceedingly “generous.” After all, the Palestinians will “receive” all of Gaza and 88% of the West Bank (some figures go as high as 95%). But what is hidden in this “generosity?” Several key realities:
- Continued Control over the Occupied Territories/Palestinian State. The fundamental issue underlying the peace process is control versus sovereignty. One assumes that the more territory the Palestinians receive, the more sovereignty they get. This is not true. All the settlements, including their extensive master plans, constitute only about 6% of the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem). But 6% that is strategically located so as to prevent the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state, to ensure the continued presence of 80% of the settlers and to form a “Greater Jerusalem” with an 85% Jewish majority in the entire central portion of the West Bank. The massive 250 mile network of highways and by-pass roads, which continues to be constructed, may well constitute an extra-territorial Israeli web throughout the West Bank, further dismembering a Palestinian state into isolated enclaves separated by fenced-in “security highways,” checkpoints and settlements. While the Jordan Valley may be formally ceded to Palestine, Israel has announced its intentions of maintaining its settlements (perhaps in a long-term leasing arrangement), maintaining a military presence and controlling Palestinian airspace.
- Separation Within Integration: Continued Israeli Economic Dominance. Since 1967 Israel has worked diligently to de-develop the Palestinian economy. It has hindered (and until the early 1990s actively prevented) the growth of industry and commerce, and had turned Palestinian agriculture and most of its workforce into completely dependent arms of the Israeli economy. Now, after infrastructures have been united under Israel control and the economies firmly linked (88% of Palestinian products are sold to Israel; more than half the Palestinian workforce is dependent upon employment in Israel), Barak advances a concept of peace as “separation” (“us here, them there”) — unilateral separation if the Palestinians object. In economic terms this means not only maintaining the “closure” but reinforcing it in concrete. In his conception 5-8 “security crossings” will be built between Israel and the West Bank to facilitate trade and the movement of Palestinian workers into Israel, accompanied by several “border industrial zones.” Some Palestinians see separation as an opportunity to develop an independent Palestinian economy, but Israel control and hegemony, built into the physical structures on the ground, will be difficult to overcome. Israel will also exercise meaningful control over all border crossings. Although the settlements will be evacuated from Gaza, Israel will retain a measure of control over movement through the Palestinian airport and its port.
- Continued Israel Control Over Jerusalem. Barak has been praised for his willingness to “divide” Jerusalem. But what does this mean? While Israel annexes some 250 square kilometers around Jerusalem and the large “settlement blocs” contained within them, the Palestinians will be confined to their capital in Abu Dis, separated from the Old City and its surrounding Palestinian neighborhoods by an Israeli highway (#80) and several Israeli “buffer” neighborhoods (such as Ras al-Amud). The Palestinians may receive “functional autonomy” over the Temple Mount/Haram, as well as over the Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City, but they will have no direct access to the Haram. (Israel has proposed digging a mile-and-a-half tunnel from Abu Dis to the Haram).
Nor will the Palestinians have sovereignty over the “core neighborhoods” of East Jerusalem, such as the Salah e-Din commercial area, the Sheikh Jarrah, Wadi Joz and Silwan neighborhoods, or the Mount of Olives. They may be given sovereignty over disconnected isla
nds on the “fringes” of East Jerusalem (Umm Tuba-Jabal Mukaber-Sawakhreh; Shuafat-Beit Hanina), but their share of East Jerusalem will pale in comparison to Israel’s annexation of “Greater Jerusalem,” and will not constitute a coherent or viable territory. Barak’s contention, then, that control of Jerusalem’s holy places is the only major obstacle standing in the way of a Final Status Agreement merely diverts public attention from mundane but ultimately more important “facts on the ground” in favor of dramatic issues such as the Temple Mount/Haram, exploited pointedly for that purpose by Sharon’s visit. When Barak makes concessions on that issue he will be seen as the “rational” and “generous” party, thus facilitating Israel’s creation of a “Greater Jerusalem” under its sovereignty.
The Uprising: Gifts From The Palestinian Street
It seems clear that what for Israel was a “reasonable overlap” is, for the Palestinians, no overlap at all. The Palestinians’ requirements for a viable state — territorial contiguity, control of borders, freedom of movement for people and goods throughout the region, a meaningful stake in Jerusalem as both a political capital and center of Palestinian religious life, resolution of the refugee issue and true sovereignty — are not addressed by Camp David. Yet that was the offer — last chance, take-it-or-leave-it, or else. Camp David was the Final Status Agreement. (One key item of the Camp David Understanding that is often overlooked, but which sent alarms ringing in the Palestinian public, was the article that specified that their signature signified the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that they would have no further claims upon Israel.) In my view, the Palestinian uprising was spurred by fears that Arafat would in the end be forced to sign the Camp David dictat. The Palestinian Street, knowing full well that the entire Oslo peace process was leading inexorably to a bantustan-state and apartheid, rose up as one to prevent the final demise of their aspirations for independence.
Why has Israel’s response to the uprising been so ferocious? Why has it employed such massive firepower — helicopter gunships, tanks, anti-tank missiles, high-velocity arms, laser projectiles, especially damaging forms of tear gas, snipers and more — resulting (as of this writing) in some 170 Palestinian deaths and some 7000 wounded? The answer has more to do with asserting control than merely putting down an uprising of an unarmed or lightly armed population. The struggle is between Oslo and independence. If Israel succeeds in reasserting the Oslo framework, it can again impose a “peace” that leaves its most of its settlements intact and ensures continued control, both direct military control and control by other means. If the Palestinians manage to shake off Oslo and create new frameworks of negotiations, they have an opportunity to pull a viable Palestinian state out of Israeli apartheid.
The stakes are extremely high, and the Palestinian Street has given Arafat two absolutely critical gifts. It has broken him out of the Oslo trap, enabling him to insist on new frameworks of negotiations that better advance the Palestinian cause, frameworks in which international law, human rights covenants and UN resolutions play a more significant role. And it has internationalized the negotiations, bring in the UN, the Europeans, the Arab world, even the Russians, thus potentially removing them from exclusive American hands.
The uprising was essential to break out of a dead-end peace process. Will Arafat take these gifts given him by his people and translate them into a political program that will lead to genuine sovereignty? Does he have a plan? If he does, then the uprising, for all its pain and suffering, will have had its intended political impact. If not, if we are back in Beirut and no alternative leadership emerges, then the uprising will descend into truly senseless violence, despair and suffering.
Back to the Israeli Paradigm. Israel has strove mightily to de-politicize the uprising. Its calls to “end the violence and return to the negotiating table,” while on the surface reconciliatory, only serve Israeli interests unless the negotiating framework is fundamentally altered. “Violence” is a non-political term, denying the political character of an uprising. “Negotiating table” suggests that the framework of the past seven years will actually lead the Palestinians towards their national goals, which is patently not the case.
But Israeli PR is effective if one does not know the realities on the ground. The picture presented by Israel’s “generous” offer of 88-94%, omitting the significance of the 6-12%, is what allows Israeli’s UN representative to say in the Security Council on October 4 that there exists “an unprecedented Israeli willingness to pursue a path of historic compromise.” The Occupied Territories being farther from Israel than Thailand, Israelis buy into this no less than residents of Lyon or Los Angeles or Tokyo. That is why they were taken so much by “surprise” by the Intifada, why the mainstream “peace camp” is so “confused.” No matter what the Palestinians do, it is by no means certain that Israel is capable of making a genuine peace. Its 33-year policy of precluding a viable Palestinian state by “creating facts” on the ground might well have succeeded. The 400,000 settlers across the 1967 borders do seem to have reached well beyond their critical mass; “dismantling the settlements” appears to be pipe-dream. And Israelis from right to (mainstream) left will never compromise on the exclusive Jewish character of their state, making it difficult to envision even a meaningful compromise on the refugee issue — say, resettling 1,000,000 out of the 3.5-4,000,000 refugees within Israel. The Israeli paradigm will not change. On the contrary, Sharon or Netanyahu are likely to be elected Prime Minister in a few months. In a sense, then, the struggle depends on whether the international community can impose a just and viable peace.
Jeff Halper is the co-founder and director of ICAHD. He can be rea
ched at email@example.com.
First published in NEWS FROM WITHIN 16(8):1-6 (November 2000).