By Jeremy Salt – Ankara
In the Guardian recently , Carlo Strenger launched yet another defence of Israel as the democracy in the Middle East. His defence of himself is that he opposes ‘many of Israel’s policies’ and fights the occupation ‘day by day’ but this is only the occupation of land seized and plundered in 1967 and not the land seized and plundered in 1948. Much of this land was never allocated to the state of Israel in the first place and the sovereignty conferred on Israel gave the Zionists no right to take it from its owners. Had they remained, a different kind of democracy would have developed in Palestine, one in which the indigenous people would have retained control of their land through the ballot box. That was why they had to go.
Nothing less democratic can be imagined than the denial of the right even to live in the land of one’s birth. The Palestinian ‘refugees’ did not ‘emigrate’. They were not fleeing an oppressive political system. They were the majority and they were hounded out of their country because only without them could the ‘democracy’ known as Israel come into existence.
Mr Strenger implies that Palestinian Muslim or Christian citizens of Israel enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens. Of course they don’t. Free speech and the right to vote are not the sum total of democracy. Institutional and structural racist discrimination against ‘the Arabs’ extends from the top to the bottom of Israeli society. It applies to land use and is reflected in health, welfare and education statistics and municipal grants and services provided to local communities. It is consecrated in the laws of the land and the rulings of the courts.
On the West Bank the settlers continue to create ‘facts on the ground’ confident in the knowledge that God and the state is behind them. They are certainly right on the second count. On the first no God worthy of worship could possibly countenance what the state of Israel has done to the Palestinians over the past six decades. From time to time the government tries to distance itself from settler ‘extremism’. In fact the settlers have been the instruments of government policy for more than four decades. The racism of the settlers is the racism of the state. The two are intertwined and inseparable. Occupation and settlement are inherently racist. It is no wonder that this country is filled with blind hatred of ‘the Arabs’.
In occupied Jerusalem the ‘democracy’ which Mr Strenger defends is waging a brazenly racist war on the Palestinians. Under international law the entire city is occupied. Apart from the question of sovereignty, 70 per cent of the buildings in the western half of the city were owned by Palestinian Muslims and Christians up till 1948. .In the eastern half they owned all but about two per cent of all property. The fine stone houses eagerly sought by Israeli politicians and wealthy American Zionists belong to Palestinians. These usurpers are living in stolen property. Time does not efface the rights of ownership. Albert Hourani has described Jerusalem as one of the best examples of a medieval Islamic city. Jerusalem does not belong to Israel and Israel needs reminding of that at every opportunity. The city was built over centuries by Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Its wall, streets, markets, mosques and madrasas were paid for with their taxes and their philanthropy. Yet since 1948 the city which is their collective heritage has been living through the blackest period in its history since the Crusades. The tolerance that marked Arab, Mamluk and Ottoman rule over the city for almost a millennium has been all but destroyed in the past four decades by an unholy combination of secular and religious fanatics. They want the Palestinians out of the way whatever it takes. What is good for the Jews is all that counts. They are unable to see that what is bad for ‘the Arabs’ cannot possibly be good for the Jews.
On the West Bank the centre of Hebron has been gutted and ethnically cleansed with the backing of the state. The Ibrahimi mosque has been taken over by soldiers and settlers. Racist fanatics protected by the Israeli military roam the streets. Elderly Palestinians are too frightened to venture outside their front doors. The young are stoned and cursed on their way to school. The state does nothing to stop them and in fact is outraged when the obvious parallels are drawn between these thugs and the National Socialists who humiliated Jews on the streets of Berlin in the 1930s. In East Jerusalem the fate of Hebron is now being imposed on Silwan by settlers funded and protected by the state. One should not leave out the Golan Heights, emptied of 90,000 Syrians in 1967 to make way for settlers, vineyards and day excursions for Jewish tourists. This is the brutal, ugly, racist reality of what Carlo Strenger derides as ‘the self-righteous left’s simplistic world’.
Every day brings a new offence. Israel’s lobbyists in the US are now arguing that Barack Obama’s insistence that settlement growth should be frozen amounts to ethnic cleansing of Jews. Unfortunately there are no signs that Obama has the backbone to stand his ground and take the fight straight back to Netanyahu and his arrogant confreres. What is emerging from ‘discussions’ between the two governments is a ‘compromise’ that will allow Israel to maintain ‘natural growth’ while ‘freezing’ settlement expansion for a limited period of time. As each settlement is set within a large area of expropriated land, the growth of existing settlements will continue as before. The number of settlers will continue to rise. In the case of Jerusalem Netanyahu has refused to accept even these restrictions. The ‘international community’ wrings its hands helplessly as though there is nothing it can do. Travelling to Britain and Germany, Netanyahu is given a red carpet welcome.
Israel is a powerful state living in the grip of a deep moral crisis which is the inevitable outcome of Zionist ideology. It could lead nowhere else. Herzl’s plan to drive the indigenous population of Palestine from their homes to make way for European settlers was deeply and intrinsically immoral if no more than typical of the European mindset at the end of the 19th century. His ‘dream’ was partly realized in 1948. The decision of the Israeli Minister of Education to remove the nakba from school textbooks is an attempt to bury the past. If it can be denied then it did not happen. Having embarked on a life of crime the state has simply followed generation after generation. The obliteration of Palestine meant the destruction of close to 500 villages and the calculated oppression of the Palestinians who remained within the borders of the new state in the name of ‘security’. It meant the theft of their land. It meant breaking anyone – organizations, individuals and states – who threatened to wrest the proceeds of this massive historical smash and grab from Israel’s hands. It led to war after war, the seizure of more land and the destruction of the basic human rights of more people as soon as the opportunity came up. It led to the construction of a wall and fences penning in the Palestinians as if they were wild animals (a metaphor indeed used by Benny Morris). It led to massacres and the steady growth of a deeply racist society which is at the same time aggressive, paranoid and undoubtedly deeply fearful at some subconscious level that one day it will have to pay for its crimes. This is the blind moral alley into which Israel has backed itself by putting an atavistic ideology ahead of humanity and universal values.
Israel has had its chances of peace and has rejected all of them. It has done nothing to come to terms with its enemies and everything to antagonize them. ‘Negotiations’ with Palestinian puppets and the heads of corrupt Arab regimes do not fall into the category of coming to terms with the enemy. With its conventional military forces, nuclear weapons and the apparently open-ended support of the US Israel may feel adequately insured against any challenge by the state surrounding it. Yet the danger signals have been flashing for years. Israel’s capacity to impose its will on the surrounding states by military means probably reached its peak in 1967. In 1973 Israel would have been defeated by the combination of the Egyptian and Syrian armies had Anwar Sadat actually wanted to defeat it.
In Lebanon – traditionally the weakest Arab state of all – Israel has suffered a series of strategic defeats at the hands of Hizbullah. It forced out of the occupied south after two decades of occupation and when it sought to teach Hizbullah a lesson in 2006 it was itself taught a lesson. Its ground forces could not even capture villages a few kilometers north of the armistice line. It was the air force that saved them from further humiliation. Now even Israel’s air superiority is being threatened. Since the end of the 2006 war Hizbullah has been augmenting its defences with ground to air missiles. Only a small number of Israeli aircraft (presently overflying Lebanon whenever they want) would have to be shot down for Hizbullah to clock up another psychological victory if Israel attacks Lebanon again.
Now Iran has moved into position as the next Middle East state to face attack by Israel. The prospect of the world’s first military attack on active nuclear installations do not disturb the dream-like somnolence of the ‘international community’. Israel is confident that it can attack Iran and get away with it but Iran has had five years of threats to work out how it is going to strike back. Israel has succeeded in setting up a trade between Iran and Palestine. The US has agreed to ratchet up the pressure on Iran and in return Israel will settle for ‘natural growth’ of its West Bank colonies. But if Iran does not respond to threats and sanctions Israel reserves its so-called right under its understanding with the US to go to war against Iran. There is no telling where such a war would lead and how it would end.
The ‘zionist dream’ is a nightmare. The Palestinians wake up to it every morning and it is still there. It is a succubus clinging to their backs and destroying their past, their present and their future but this is the role Israel has chosen for itself in the Middle East. This is where it wanted to be and apparently this is how the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ wants to be.
– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.