Israel's Iron Heel
by Stephen Gowans
April 22, 2002
While Zionists and many Jews cheered the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, for the Arabs who fled their homes in what became Israel, it was a disaster. They were never allowed to return. UN Resolutions demanding Israel respect the right of return guaranteed under international law were ignored, the Zionist state shielded from censure and sanctions by a United States prepared to exercise its Security Council veto. Today, any Jew can immigrate to Israel. Arabs who fled what became Israel can't. But some can gaze upon their former homes, or what might have been their homes, from squalid, crowded refugee camps only miles from where they, or their parents, or grandparents once lived, exiled for who they are, never to return for the demographic threat they are.
While diaspora Palestinians continue to demand they be allowed to return to their homes, commentators dismiss the demand as unreasonable. It would change the ethnic face of Israel, they say, threatening the ascendant place of Jews in the country's political and social structure. Palestinians are expected to live with their dispossession, quashing their demands for justice in the face of the indifference -- if not open hostility -- of the two powers in whose hands their fate resides: Israel and the United States.
In 1967, more Palestinians fled, often to refugee camps, with names like Sabra and Shatilla. Ariel Sharon, directing Israeli operations in occupied Lebanon, looked the other way as Israel's ally, the Christian Phalangists, ran rampant through the camp, slaughtering men, women and children -- an earlier operation to root out the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure. Terrorism finds fertile ground in dispossession, injustice, humiliation.
The Oslo Peace Process promised a Palestinian state, in return for Yassir Arafat and Palestinians renouncing violence. The state would amount to three parcels of land, unconnected, with no international borders. Control over borders would be retained by Israel. Jewish communities built on Palestinian territory -- the provocative settlements -- would not be dismantled. East Jerusalem -- its annexation by Israel declared null and void by the UN -- would remain in Israeli hands, and the right of dispossessed Palestinians to return to their homes would be forever denied. Give up your claims to justice, the Palestinians were told, and we'll let you live in slums.
Worse, while Israel claimed to want peace, what it really wanted was Palestinian quiescence, and its iron heel was prepared to grind Palestinians into submission. The settlements, long an irritant, and a brazen raspberry blown at international law, continued to expand on Palestinian territory, peopled by fanatical orthodox Jews who believed they had an historical right to other people's homes. Dispossessed Palestinians would have to continue their harsh, unforgiving lives in squalid refugee camps without complaint, without protest, without violence. Israel wanted peace, but on its own terms, above all. And backed by F15s and F16s, by Apache helicopters and tanks and armoured personnel carriers, paid for by US taxpayers, Israelis deluded themselves that if they were brutal enough, the most militant Palestinians would be exterminated, while the rest would be imprisoned, would submit, or, better yet, would turn tail and flee.
When Ariel Sharon lit the match to touch off the dry kindling of simmering Palestinian resentment over decades of injustice, a spark that would ignite the al-Aqsa Intifada, Palestinian stone throwing was met by sniper bullets, attacks by helicopter gunships, missile attacks on crowded intersections, houses razed by bulldozers, blockades, collective punishment, torture and extrajudicial assassination, all illegal, all straight from the Nazi's handbook on how to handle occupied people who resist. If it seemed the IDF (Israeli army) had borrowed from the Nazis, they had. Haaretz, the liberal Israeli newspaper, reported that a top commander in the occupied territories had recommended the German army's methods of operating in the Warsaw Ghetto as a model for the IDF to follow.
Some Israeli army reservists, disgusted by what the IDF was doing in the occupied territories, began to call their colleagues Judeo-Nazis. A refuseniks group emerged, IDF reservists who refused to serve in the occupied territories. Among them is Assaf Oron, an infantry sergeant. "You get used to it in a hurry," he says, recalling his tours of duty in the West Bank. "Many even learn to like it. Where else can you go out on patrol -- that is, walk the streets like a king, harass and humiliate pedestrians to your heart's content, and get into mischief with your buddies -- and at the same time feel like a big hero defending your country?"
"Without thinking, I turned into the perfect occupation enforcer," he continues. "I settled accounts with upstarts who didn't show enough respect. I tore up the personal documents of men my father's age. I hit, harassed, served as a bad example -- all in the city of Kalkilia, barely three miles from grandma and grandpa's home-sweet-home. No. I was no aberration. I was exactly the norm."
Some Palestinians struck back, against the humiliation, against the denial of justice, against the hopelessness, making their way from the West Bank (Gaza has a wall around it, a prison to keep Palestinian riff-raff out of Israel) with home-made bombs strapped to their chests. Waiting until they were in the midst of a crowded street or restaurant or bus they would detonate the bombs, killing themselves, and dozens of mostly civilian Israelis. The scenes that follow were horrendous. And the Israeli military operation launched in response to the attacks was equally, if not more, horrendous.
Ellen Cantarow, a Jew who has reported for The Village Voice, Mother Jones and Inquiry from Israel and the West Bank from 1979 to 1989, followed the operation: "[A]mbulances shot at and stopped from arriving at their destinations; hospitals invaded and medical personnel prevented at gunpoint from carrying out their responsibilities; people bleeding to death while soldiers block, at gunpoint and in tanks, their safe passage to medical relief; corpses rotting in hospital corridors; relatives forbidden to carry out decent burials (one group of the slain had to be buried in a Ramallah parking lot); civilians shot if they venture out their doors; massive looting and vandalizing of homes; cultural institutions invaded and files destroyed; electrical systems for water pumps destroyed so that whole urban areas have their water supplies cut off; internationals and Palestinian press members wounded by Israeli gun-fire.... six Nablus field hospitals with scores of people in serious-to-critical condition, doctors forced to operate with minimal equipment."
And then came Jenin. It's hard to know exactly what happened in Jenin, one of those refugee camps crammed with thousands of Palestinians living in concrete blocks. Israeli troops didn't allow the media into Jenin. But stories of what happened during the 10-day siege leaked out. The elderly lured out of the camp with promises of water, only to be arrested and strapped to Israeli tanks to be used as human shields. The bulldozing of rows of houses, the occupants inside. As many as 200 Palestinians dead in the camp, according to the United Nations, and the camp now a heap of smouldering rubble -- another home Israelis have driven more Palestinians from.
Ahmed, who fought Israeli troops in the camp, remarked: "We learned from our parents and our grandparents who left their land in 1948 and 1967. We learned: Do not leave your land at any cost." Ahmed, like thousands of Palestinian men of fighting age, had no choice but to leave the land. The camp, in ruins, has been emptied of its former occupants, many of the men who survived the 10-day onslaught, jailed along with thousands of other Palestinians, awaiting transfer to what Israel euphemistically calls a Negev desert "detention camp." It is a concentration camp.
For its part, the West is largely silent, concerned more with whether President Bush's demand that Israel withdraw its forces is sincere, and whether Sharon is really defying Washington, and whether Israeli actions are justified. They're not. They're war crimes, crimes against humanity, never justified, and they should be called what they are, but aren't. Not here.
The hypocrisy is striking, once you perceive it.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is on trial before an international tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity, which, if indeed he is guilty of, would place him in the same company as Ariel Sharon. Sharon's current crimes (his record as an ethnic cleanser and war criminal are well-documented) are all painstakingly described by the media -- though not before much fuller coverage is given to Palestinian suicide bombings -- but never remarked upon as crimes. Instead, Israeli actions are said to be justified as necessary "to defend Israel's very existence," and as a legitimate response to terrorism, the justification treated uncritically, if not furnished, by the Western media. Suicide bombing is presented as vile, criminal and absolutely unjustified, while collective punishment, assassination, looting and the sacking of refugee camps is presented as regrettable, but necessary, and on an entirely different moral plane. This is merely an extension of the tendency to regard acts of terror carried out by "our" side as somehow morally defensible, while the same acts carried out by the "other side" are immoral and evil.
Milosevic, it is said, led a regime that discriminated against Muslims in Kosovo and ordered a brutal crackdown on a guerilla group (described as late as 1998 by the US State Department as a terrorist organization, a point that is almost always overlooked) that sprang up to resist Serb repression, (a group that didn't restrict its attacks to non-civilian targets -- another point almost never mentioned.) Change the names, but not the acts Sharon has committed and Milosevic is accused of. The Serbs become the Israelis, Milosevic becomes Sharon. You can imagine the entire tenor of the discussion changing. The KLA would be condemned as a terrorist group and Milosevic's crackdown would be excused as a necessary step to root out terrorists and defend civilians and safeguard the federation.
But that's where the parallels stop. Milosevic allowed monitors into Kosovo, while Sharon refuses to allow monitors into the occupied territories. And Serb forces carried out operations in their own territory, and therefore weren't under the jurisdiction of international law, while the IDF operates in occupied territory, and therefore is under the jurisdiction of international law. Worse, Israel is in breach of UN Resolutions calling for its withdrawal and yet, Milosevic (leading an internal anti-insurgency operation) is on trial before an international court, while Sharon (leading an occupation army that brazenly flouts international law) isn't.
The alleged massacre of dozens of civilians at Racak by Serb forces (now believed to be a fake) provided the pretext to launch a massive air war against Yugoslavia. Prior to the latest Israeli offensive, over 1,000 Palestinian had been killed by Israeli forces, victims of collective punishment, snipers' bullets, missiles fired from Apache helicopters, and beatings. And with the massacre of 200 in Jenin alone in the latest offensive, who knows what the number is now. And yet as the death toll mounts, Washington stands by, saying the right things, but doing nothing.
And so Ariel Sharon carries on, reproved for being too vigorous in his response to terrorism, but knowing he won't be dragged before an international criminal court, he won't be reviled in North America as a war criminal, and that Washington won't order a humanitarian bombing campaign to end the slaughter. Sharon is on America's side; his terrorism will be excused.
In the meantime, Americans practice a double-standard, condemning whatever war criminals and human rights abusers frustrate Washington's geostrategic goals, excusing or ignoring those that serve American interests. Saudi Arabia, an absolute monstrosity of human rights abuses, despotism, and exporter of the harsh Wahhabi brand of Islam favoured by the Taliban, is sheltered from criticism while China, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Belarus are condemned for lesser offenses. The 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, which killed hundreds if not thousands of Serb civilians and left thousands permanently disabled, will be justified with the continuing illusion that justice is being served at The Hague, while Americans send their tax dollars in the form of helicopters, tanks and missiles to Ariel Sharon, who should be arraigned before an international court, but won't be.
As writer Robert Jensen puts it, he, and every other American taxpayer, have killed Palestinians. But maybe he doesn't go far enough. By giving Israel the room it needed to be able to deny Palestinians justice, Washington, and its taxpayers, have all but guaranteed that Palestinians would resort to terrorism, and that ordinary Israelis would pay the price, as targets.
If Israel, if Americans, if the world, wants to end the deaths of Palestinians and Israelis, then Israel must abandon the iron heel. And in its place, the remedies laid out under international law and countless UN Resolutions must be enacted: withdrawal of Israeli to its pre-1967 borders; dismantling of the settlements; the right of return.
The problem has never been terrorism. It's always been what makes people terrorists. Not irrational hatred, or bigotry, or anti-Semitism, or anti-Americanism. Not even poverty. Terrorism springs from unrelieved injustice, from victims who find themselves with no non-violent, lawful means of redress, often because lawful redress, as in the case of Washington sheltering Israel with its Security Council veto, has been blocked. Guns and tanks and helicopter gunships, army patrols and bulldozers and curfews, concentration camps, torture and slaughters, can't wipe out terrorism, because they can't resolve injustice. They only create more.