By Jeremy Salt – Ankara
Palestine is the issue but Israel remains the problem. The fact that Israelis do not see their state as the problem is everyone else’s problem only because they can’t see it, and therefore will continue to support the brutality of their state because they think they are in the right. The number of Israelis able to reflect on the past is small. The past for Israelis is Jewish history and the holocaust, and a mythified Israeli history. There are parallels here with Zionism in its formative stages. It is not conceivable that Herzl or anyone else thought Palestine was a ‘land without a people’. Indeed, in the privacy of his diaries Herzl wrote of ‘spiriting’ the ‘penniless population’ out of Palestine, leaving the Arab bourgeoisie to benefit from the presence of the Zionists. Those who followed Herzl rarely spoke openly about what they intended to do with the Palestinians, but when they did, their solution was the same – move them. The euphemism was ‘transfer’. Vladimir Jabotinsky was rare among the leading figures of the Zionist movement in acknowledging openly that this could not be done voluntarily, that the Palestinians would fight for their homeland.
In 1948 the opportunity to get rid of the Palestinians finally arose. Had the UN partition plan been followed by an orderly separation of Palestine into two states the removal of the indigenous people could never have been effected. What would have come into existence was a Palestinian state with an overwhelming Arab majority and a Jewish state about equally divided between Arabs and Jews, with the likelihood that a greater natural birth rate among Arabs would soon have created the anomaly of a Jewish state with a non-Jewish majority. Nothing was more threatening to the Zionists than a peaceful settlement in line with the partition resolution. Only through war could they achieve their territorial and demographic objectives. As the Palestinians could not possibly accept the gift of most of their homeland to an immigrant, settler minority, the war the Zionists could not do without was assured.
Sixty years have passed and the enormity of what Israel did in 1948 does not seem to have penetrated the minds of most Israelis, or if it has they are feigning ignorance, in the same way that the Zionists of the late 19th century pretended not to know that Palestine was already populated. One would think that the population of Sderot would be aware of the past, would know that their town was built on land purged of its Palestinian inhabitants, would see this as a terrible injustice, would see it ultimately as the reason groups in Gaza have been firing rockets at them. But they don’t. They are enraged at the Palestinians for threatening them, but do not seem capable of seeing that what the Palestinians are doing is retaliation in small measure for what was done to them. This is the mood across the country. In the dominant Israeli mindset Gaza is not the result of what we have done to them over the past 60 years. Gaza is the result of what they have done to us. The disconnect between present and past is extraordinary.
Gaza is also a morality play. There is good on one side, evil on the other and nothing in between. The fact that 800 people have been killed in Gaza has little impact in Israel, possibly because Israelis choose to believe what the government spokesmen are telling them, that most of the dead are Hamas ‘militants’. This is a lie – but why not accept a lie and avoid the moral complications created by the truth? Not even the death of 300 children is sufficient to persuade the Israelis that their government is to blame. There are hundreds more children, perhaps more than one thousand, with the most shocking injuries, children without legs, arms and eyes and neither is this enough to jolt the self-righteousness of most Israelis. They know their troops have done the killing and the wounding but the hand that fired the gun or the mouth that gave the orders apparently is not responsible. Hamas is to blame. Bombarded with propaganda, the great majority of Israelis seem incapable of digging out the truth, that Israel did not observe the ceasefire from the beginning; it did not lift the blockade in line with the ceasefire agreement; it repeatedly sent its troops into Gaza on killing missions; and virtually all (if not all) of Hamas’ rockets were fired in retaliation for Israeli attacks. Neither did Israel pay any attention to Hamas’ offer of a long-term ceasefire based on a simultaneous lifting of the blockade and an end to rocket fire.
The fact that this is not even a war but an assault on a mostly defenceless civilian population by the fourth largest army in the world does not register either. Gaza has been turned into a game reserve full of highly armed men shooting people down at will. But, through everything, we are right and they wrong. We are a moral people and they are not. We act with restraint and they don’t. We care for human life and they don’t. We look after our children and they put them in harm’s way (of our planes and tanks). The self-righteous justification is endless but no more than typical of how Israelis have explained away every crime committed by their state since 1948.
Shimon Peres says Hamas needed to be taught a lesson ‘and we are teaching them lesson’. From the lips of a man who has been associated with most of Israel’s crimes since the beginning comes the colonial message. The native must be taught a lesson. This was the conclusion of the district officer in East Africa, the French administrator in Algeria and the British agent in Egypt and now it is Hamas’ turn. The last act of the current brutal drama is now being planned. In cooperation with the US, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bernard Kouchner, Nicolas Sarkozy, Tony Blair and Condoleeza Rice, the midget figure of Mahmud Abbas trailing in their wake, the tunnels will be destroyed, Hamas will be disarmed, international monitors will police the borders and the Palestinian Authority will be given the job of the jailhouse trusty. Then we will have peace – as simple as that. No demands on Israel, no insistence on reparations for the loss of life and massive destruction of property and no war crimes trials for Olmert, Livni, Barak and the airmen and soldiers of Israel’s armed forces.
This game has been replayed over and over again for the past 200 hundred years. The ‘west’, that fanciful concoction of civilization and values joining governments actually bound together by self-interest, fear and greed, is up to its old tricks. It created Israel out of Palestine, it has maintained it, it has never taken any responsibility for what it has done and it remains supremely confident that it can continue to force the natives to toe the line. The lessons from Gaza are many. One is that peace with justice and Israel cannot be mentioned in the same breath. A second is that while the people of the ‘west’ are revolted by what they are seeing, their governments are as duplicitous as they have always been. The European Union stood by and allowed all of this to happen because – it has to be assumed – it wanted it to happen.
Behind the public hand-wringing over civilian deaths in Gaza the heads of European governments wanted Israel to finish off Hamas. What hope is left that any government in the ‘west’, any institution that is dominated by ‘western’ governments will ever take action on behalf of the Palestinians without being pushed by the threat of damage to their own interests through, for example, a repeat of the 1973/74 oil boycott? The answer must be none. Without the ‘international community’ living up to its responsibilities, with the UN Security Council neutered by the United States, the unavoidable conclusion available to anyone watching what has been happening in Gaza is that the world really is a jungle. There are no rules to play by. The covenants and treaties solemnly signed in the interests of global peace are no more than a convenience for the powerful, to be invoked or ignored according to self-interest. A world that cannot bring itself even to protect its own children – or are the children of Gaza not our children? – has reached a sick, sad and extremely dangerous point.
– 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.