Eretz Israel is not an empty country … On no account must we injure the rights of the inhabitants. Only “Ghetto Dreamers” … can imagine that Eretz Israel will be given to the Jews with the added right of dispossessing the current inhabitants of the country. This is not the mission of Zionism. Had Zionism to aspire to inherit the place of these inhabitants—it would be nothing but a dangerous utopia and an empty, damaging and reactionary dream …
David Ben-Gurion, 1918.
The father of his country wrote these words early on in the project of Israel—still in its dreamy, pre-natal state—responding to the hardline mitteleuropa sensibility of conquest, which had overtaken the rhetoric of his fellow Zionists. Years later, in the 1930’s, he would still speak of the fraternal kinship between his Arab “neighbours” and “brethren,” and the Jews, and their common destiny. But decades of conflict, and the pressures of a public life, would erode his idea of comity with the Arabs, and he ended up an enthusiastic supporter of the settler movement. A case of “as goes the Man, so goes the Nation,” you might say.
Today, that “reactionary dream” is fully upon us, and Israel’s political establishment is seduced by dangerous utopianism—the logical outcome, perhaps, of a nation founded in dispossession, now at the limits of what it can achieve by force.
The time is long past to ask, “What does Israel want?” We don’t need utopian answers from millenarians believing in divine right—no prophetic rhetoric, thank you, from a pre-modern twilight of gods and covenants. Rather, we need practical, 21st Century answers. If Israel wants the Palestinians to vanish—some quickly, others dispossessed in slow motion increments over years—then let her say that to the world. This month’s seizure of 1,000 acres of West Bank Palestinian land by the state—intended to link settler blocs in a chain to Israel—echoes another of Ben-Gurion’s famous pronouncements, “It doesn’t matter what the goyim say, but what the Jews do.”
Quite so—amid the vast wreckage of another pointless campaign against the captive Gazans, and the resulting international condemnation by, well, the goyim, we Jews just keep doing what we have done since 1948: destroying the Palestinians. A fifty-day operation—shooting fish in a barrel, as we say here in the ‘States—leaves 2,100 dead, over 500 of them children; 10,000 injured; as many as 300,000 displaced, and perhaps some 60,000 Gazans now permanently homeless. As the school year begins for a quarter-million Gaza students, dozens of school buildings lie in ruins, or double as shelters for displaced families. The economic and industrial output of the Strip is reduced to ashes; hospitals, mosques and apartment towers are destroyed; vital infrastructure for an at-risk population is shattered. This is what we Jews do, apparently, with regularity.
Are we to believe all this was over the ineffectual, largely symbolic rocket fire? And what of 2009? And 2012? The pattern suggests otherwise—no matter how much Israel “explains” each of its attacks as “responsive” to this or that, the strategic agenda remains consistent since 1967: the ghettoizing of Gaza and its unruly residents, while the West Bank is slowly digested. It enforces and continues the dispossession from the founding of the state, and cannot be viewed in isolation or out of context.
It’s fashionable in the West to ask why the Palestinians don’t just stay down on the canvas, and save themselves a beating—polite discourse shakes its head at the sight of a fighter who doesn’t know when he’s lost, and tactfully looks away. Yet Israel’s periodic poundings confirm that they are not beaten—the very fact of continued resistance is an affront to Israel’s totalitarian control, and the Gazans fight back anyway they can, out-gunned and bloodied.
The disproportionality of the destruction visited on Gaza—which some estimate may take ten years and many billions of dollars to repair—signals a new moral low for Israel in its biennial bloodletting. This was about much more than rockets— it says, through the lesson of brute force, the ghetto will be pacified. Sound familiar? Israel’s military campaign against a mostly defenseless, urbanized population is a continuation of removal by other means. Its total war on the material facts of Palestinian life—physical, civil, generational—is meant to reduce any hope of statehood likewise to rubble. The message to the world is, “watch what we Jews do.”
But what do the Palestinians want, in practical terms? The answer is easy: they want what other people want—to live free, with self-determination, and respect. As a 21 year old college student in Gaza—who has just survived her third bombardment and invasion, losing her home—tells me, “I’m not Fatah or Hamas, but I support the resistance, because at least we have our dignity.”
First and foremost, the Palestinians want an immediate end to the blockade of Gaza: no more closed borders by Egypt and Israel; no more denial of the land, sea and air. Gaza shall have an airport, a seaport and land crossings; the West Bank will have freedom of movement and open crossings with Jordan. The Palestinians will compete in the global marketplace. This fundamental right is not subject to negotiation. Israel may have her reasonable assurances about what constitutes free traffic and trade, but the blockade must end. Hamas has recently agreed to the Palestinian Authority’s sole control of crossings—and Israel will, one day, sit down and work this out with PA representatives who are from the resistance group. Why pretend otherwise?
There will be no disarmament of the Palestinians—they have a right to maintain self-defense forces like any other people. When every two years, your neighbor kills some 2,000 of your citizens, why on earth would you agree to disarmament? Instead of insisting on the impractical, perhaps Israel should focus on fostering an environment in which the gun is no longer reached for, but one in which justice replaces conflict.
The settlements must be removed, under terms and conditions to be negotiated in the future. Every acre, every dunam, every olive tree alienated by housing code, administrative law, military occupation—whatever elegant ruse Israel chooses to cloak its thievery—must end today. Settlements are illegal. Israel’s leaders made this monster—let them dismantle it. Ultimately, there is no other way to peace.
Finally, Israel should accept a long-term hudna, or cease-fire, if the resistance groups offer it—ten years of a “time out” might permit the breathing room needed for a new generation of Israelis to push aside her obdurate, reactionary leadership, clear the ideological dead-wood, and let light in on a dark land; while likewise permitting a new generation of Palestinian leaders to determine perhaps not what it wants, but what it needs. Should Israel end the blockade, commit to self-determination for the Palestinians, and non-interference in their affairs, a decade without violence could be secured for both sides. No one can guarantee an end to all inter-communal violence—be it a Baruch Goldstein, or a West Bank teenager bent on vengeance. But the institutionalization of violence—Israel’s policy objective of “mowing the lawn,” for example—must end. Hamas has guaranteed other lengthy periods of relative stability, during which violence was all but eliminated, and it can do so again, provided Israel has the courage to recognize fundamental Palestinian rights. As another Baruch—the Jewish philosopher Spinoza—once famously wrote, “There can be no hope without fear.”
It would appear to almost all observers that the two-state solution has one foot in the grave. Only the complete removal of the IDF and all settlers from the West Bank might revive it. Anything short of that points the way toward a single state—maybe not next year, but someday. Extremist ideology, colonial ambition and outright racism is ascendant in Israel, at the precise moment when realism needs to prevail. “Fortress Israel” cannot survive in a permanent combat stance, against its neighbors and brethren, the Palestinians.
It is true that the long-term hudna would leave key issues unresolved. It is not meant to address final borders, the right of return, or other core disputes. A hudna is not meant to tackle “recognition” or compel a change in Hamas’ charter. Yet it makes a necessary first step towards détente—to use an old word from the Cold War: another seemingly intractable conflict between two enemies vowing mutual destruction which, in the end, turned out to be unrealistic.