Friday, August 8, 2008

Doron Isaacs - Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans

This article is a response to Samantha Beckbessinger's August 4th piece 'A weak debate' and forms part of the Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans series. For guidelines on submitting your own article click here. To read previous contributions click here.



Misrepresenting the facts

By Doron Isaacs


Sam Beckbessinger’s article on the UCT report-back by members of the recent delegation of South African human rights leaders to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is familiar: like most apologia for oppression, it steers well clear of political reality and nit-picks over semantics.

That I will come to, but first a more serious issue must be dealt with: that a good proportion of the reporting is completely false. Corrections must be made to basic errors of fact.

  • Beckbessinger writes that all four speakers alleged that “the situation arose from a sinister plot to exterminate the Palestinians.” That is a bizarre fabrication – nobody suggested that.
  • It is more serious to misquote someone like Geoff Budlender, South Africa’s best human rights lawyer and current Chair of the UCT Senate. Beckbessinger claims him to have said that “only cataclysmic violence will displace Israeli power, terrifying as this is for all of us”. That quote seems to imply that Geoff has resigned himself to accepting such violence. He simply did not say that. In different words he spoke of cataclysmic violence to make what seemed like two obvious points: firstly, that all peaceful means of ending the occupation must be urgently used to obviate the need for any violence, and secondly, that when politics fails, it creates a mental vacuum in which violence seduces the oppressed. He specifically said that violence was not a tenable strategy.
  • Beckbessinger writes: “Isaacs went a step further than this, claiming that the Occupation mimics the violence of the Holocaust.” Seriously, you can’t just go around inventing quotes like that. I would suggest the editor of this blog to familiarise himself with this country’s law of defamation before publishing such fantastical journalism.


I have welcomed a great deal of the criticism that has been leveled at the delegation. It has created space for debate and differences of politics. It is tempting not to engage with gutter reporting, but I will spend some time replying to what appear to be the premises of Beckbessinger’s opposition to the group.


Firstly she contends that we have “no appreciation for the complexity of the conflict’s political history.” She shows her own appreciation for this complexity by making the claim that the “system of control over the area was developed as a response to persistent security threats to Israel.” What I tried to convey in my brief remarks at UCT is that the occupation has little to do with Israel’s security. This has been a crushing realisation for me, a person who has spent his entire life invested in the difficulties of Israel.


I will offer just one example. It concerns a very simple thing: How people
in the West Bank move from place to place. There are 2,5 million Palestinians in the West Bank[1] and 462,000 Jewish settlers.[2] Of these settlers, 271,400 live in the West Bank proper beyond the municipal border of East Jerusalem.[3] There are 36 permanent checkpoints that scrutinize Palestinian cars entering Israel.[4] But besides the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, as of May 2008, the Israeli army had 63 permanent checkpoints within the West Bank[5]. According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there was an average of 90 additional flying checkpoints – checkpoints not fixed in one place – within the West Bank. These present a potential inconvenience to the West Bank Jewish settlers. There are about 130 settlements the Israeli government considers legal and 105 it considers illegal, all clearly illegal in terms of international law: it is illegal to settle a civilian population in occupied territory.



To allow for the free movement of Jewish settlers within the West Bank, Israel is developing an entirely separate road system. Israeli roads are being built to connect settlements and bypass Palestinian villages and town – in official documents these are called “fabric of life” roads. But duplicating every road is impossible, so many roads previously used by both Israelis and Palestinians are now for Israelis only. The military governor calls these “sterile” roads. As one drives through the West Bank one sees village after village having had its road access – which is many cases dates back centuries - blocked by huge piles of earth. In March 2008 there were 512 physical obstructions in the West Bank.[6] People must take a much longer route, walk on foot, or simply accept that they do not have the right to travel.[7] Again, this has precious little to with protecting Israel. It is for the advantage of the Israeli civilian population living in occupied territory in violation of international law.


To move between villages and areas requires permits. One needs a permit for a car and for yourself. If you ride a horse you need a permit for your horse. If you are a farmer whose grapevines have been cut off by the Separation Barrier, you need a permit to tend to them. Even so this permit will permit you 24 days access per year because this is what Israeli agronomy experts have determined is needed to harvest grapes.


There are many other examples. Settler and Palestinian water networks and electricity grids are being separated, with settlers receiving more power and water per person. There are different legal systems: If a settler and a Palestinian commit the same crime against the same person in the same place they will be tried in two different courts under two different and unequal bodies of law.


What I am describing is happening to a large extent on the east of the Separation Barrier – the area designated, even in the most conservative Israeli peace proposals, as land for a Palestinian state, alongside Israel. The settlements will soon have made that impossible, if they haven’t already. Far from providing security for Israel, the Israeli occupation presence in the West Bank is a great threat to Israel’s viability.


Israel claims that its occupation of the West Bank is driven by security imperatives. The reality is that much of it is in service of an ideological settler project. Most people in Israel do not support this project but, as the former Deputy Attorney General of Israel, Talia Sasson, told us, the state has funded it overtly and tacitly throughout (partly due to Israel’s fractional political system.)


None of this, of course, excuses Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians. At UCT I was very emphatic in condemning this. I said:


“The armed struggle, particularly violence against civilians, has been a disaster for Palestinians. It has been a politically bankrupt strategy that has come at a terrible moral cost. As Nathan Geffen said on Monday night in Bokaap, the net effect of suicide bombing has been to kill off the once-vibrant Israeli peace camp, and to strengthen the right around the world.

… it is wrong, and a political failure.

Domination must be erased, not replaced by a new domination of the dominated. The Palestinian freedom struggle must not simply be against the occupation, it must be a moral alternative to it. If that were the case many more people, including Jewish people around the world, would find it easier to support.“

The prevailing wisdom in Jewish circles is that present-day terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians have a history that pre-dates the occupation. It is true that Jews and Arabs have clashed violently since the early days of Zionism, but it is a sobering fact that the first suicide bombing in Israel was in the mid-90s, after Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish zealot, murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs.


The other received wisdom is that the territories currently occupied by Israel were the undesired spoils of a defensive war in 1967. Israeli historians have now seriously undermined that claim. Tom Segev, foremost among Israel’s historians, in his recent book 1967: Israel, The War, and the year that Transformed the Middle East (New York: Metropolitan, 2005) writes as follows:

“There was indeed no justification for the panic that preceded the war, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it…”[8]

“Three days after the war, [Minister of Defense Moshe] Dayan went before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and reiterated his claim that Eshkol’s government had caused war to break out by exacerbating tensions with Syria.”[9]

“Before the first anniversary of the war, the Prime Minister’s office published another booklet in the series “Know What to Sat”, which included the following statement: “The fact is that until this day no Arab ruler has shown a willingness to reach a peace treaty with Israel.” This was not so: Nasser offered at least a “nonbelligerency” agreement , and Hussein had offered a peace accord.”[10]

These are not quotes taken out of context, they are fragments of a sustained argument that Israel went to war by choice, without clear objectives, and subsequently allowed national pride and hubris to result in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It must be acknowledged, as Segev does, that Israel was not single-handedly capable of putting an end to the conflict over Palestine, and that Palestinian obduracy played a significant role.[11] But Segev’s critique of Prime Minister Eshkol and Defense Minister Dayan is far more withering:

“Lacking vision, courage, and compassion, captivated by the hallucinations of victory, they never accepted Israel’s role in the Palestinian tragedy, or perhaps they simply did not have the courage to admit it; this was probably the main inhibition. And perhaps they truly believed that one day they would succeed in getting rid of them.”[12]

Beckbessinger allows that “something needs to be done to alleviate the human rights abuses in the Occupied West Bank”. What will put an end to these abuses? Violence against Israeli civilians is not a moral or strategic option. Industrial action by Palestinian workers is hard to foresee because the globalised labour market has partly replaced them with illegal migrants from the far east. What remains then? Simply a peaceful and moral politics that creates a groundswell of support for human rights groups in Israel and Palestine and pushes back the ongoing deepening of the occupation. This is exactly the kind of politics with which the recent delegation is engaged.


***

Doron Isaacs studied at UCT. He is Coordinator of Equal Education and co-organised the recent SA Human Rights Delegation to Israel & the Occupied Palestinian Territories. For more info visit www.humanrightsdelegation.org.


[1] The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

[2] Btselem (http://www.btselem.org/english/Settlements/Statistics.asp).

[3] Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

[4] Btselem (http://www.btselem.org/english/Freedom_of_Movement/Checkpoints_and_Forbidden_Roads.asp).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] It is technically incorrect to call these roads Israeli-only roads. In some ways it is more correct to say Jew-only roads. On the roads there are large yellow signs erected in terms of the law. They say: This road can only be used by (1) an Israeli citizen (2) a person with a permit to use that road (3) a person who entered Israel on a tourist visa or (4) anyone who could become an Israeli citizen under the law of return, i.e. all Jews in the world. (The 1 million Arab citizens of Israel do fall into the first category, and technically, Palestinians can acquire permits, but few do.)

[8] Segev 1967 at 16.

[9] Segev 1967 at 414.

[10] Segev 1967 p 563.

[11] Segev 1967 p 522.

[12] Segev 1967 p 542.


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  3. Hi Doron... interesting article. I def agree with u that the settlers are a problem. As i suppose most israelis do. however i think the question you disagree on is should israel withdraw with a peace agreement or without one? prob before all this happened in gaza ppl would have supported unilateral withdrawal. But now it seems to get israeli support their needs to be a two state agreement. And although u can blame the israeli right, i think hamas's (and other groups) desire to establish an islamic state on the entire land of israel - is a pretty severe barrier to any sort of peace proccess. And maybe thats why jewish supporters dont take kindly to one-sided critiques of israel. Because its easy to throw blame- but what about solutions? And its clear that the problem isnt just israel or even the suicide bombers or the IDF- its that the palestinians cant come to agreement about what the solution is. And they need to decide what they're fighting for - their own state? one secular state? What? otherwise they're just fighting.

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