April 25, 2001
History is a road map for those who learn its lessons and a trap for those who choose to ignore them. It is a maxim the Israeli government seems bent on paying little attention to these days.
While it may seem a reach to find a likeness for the Middle East in Northern Europe, I suggest Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon take a moment to examine England’s occupation of Northern Ireland. The parallels are unsettling, to say the least.
In 1609, James I, vexed by the inability of the crown to subdue the troublesome Irish, seized 500,000 acres of prime land in the North, expelled the clans O’Neill and O’Donnell, and shipped in 20,000 English and Scottish settlers to create a “secure” foothold for England. Some 392 years later, British troops still patrol Northern Ireland.
Jump ahead to April 5 of this year. After almost six months of continued fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Housing Minister Nathan Sharanksy announced the construction of 700 more houses in the Occupied Territories, to absorb, “the natural growth of the Israeli population.” The rationale is a sham—more than 4,000 units of housing are presently unoccupied on the West bank alone—but it highlights an illusion that occupiers have believed throughout history: Move your people in, move the others out, and all will be well.
In Ireland it brought nothing but four centuries of warfare and hatred. It will do no less in Israel.
There are any number of issues behind the recent escalation in bloodshed, but at the center of it lies Israeli settlement policy.
There are more than 200,000 settlers in the West Bank, 180,000 in occupied East Jerusalem and 7,000 in the Gaza strip. In Gaza, 7,000 settlers take up 40% of that tiny, 25-mile strip of land. Some 1.2 million Palestinians share the rest.
Shortly after the 1967 war, the Israeli authorities began to create “facts on the ground,” by seizing Palestinian land and building settlements.
These settlements are separated from the local population by a combination of privilege and power. When three million Palestinians were put under siege last September, the thicket of Army check points, blocked roads and curfews did not apply to the hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers who move in and out of the territories each day, headed for work, schools or shopping.
The results of the six month siege are grim: According to the United Nations, poverty levels in the occupied territories have doubled in the last six months, and Palestinians are now among the poorest people on the planet. Unemployment is 50 percent, and more than $2 billion in damages have been inflicted on the Palestinian economy. More than 480 have died (almost 90 percent of them Palestinians), and tens of thousands have been wounded or turned into refugees.
The placement of the settlements has nothing to do with “population growth” and everything to do with occupation. As blunt talking Sharon told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, their placement is”no coincidence…They guard both the birthright of the Jewish people and also grant us essential strategic depth to protect our existence.” He has also made it clear that he will not evacuate a single one.
Both the Israelis and the U.S. argue that until the Palestinians stop the violence, there can be no peace talks. But what Sharon and Bush (and Clinton before him) refuse to confront is that occupation is a form of violence. When you impoverish a population, bulldoze houses, tear up olive and orange groves, and subject them to humiliating roadblocks, that is violence. And if that population responds by upping the ante and mortaring settlements and an Israeli town or two (rather ineffectively, I might add), why is anyone surprised?
Haven’t we seen this before? Escalation, counter-escalation, quagmire? The British experience in Ireland, and our own in Vietnam ought to give anyone pause. But rather than learning history’s lessons, the Sharon government seems determined to replay its missteps. Public Security Minister Uri Landau’s response to the recent mortar attacks is “A policy of hitting them all the time, everywhere, and not necessarily where the mortars are” until the Palestinians “begin to pay such a heavy price that in the course of time it will become unbearable.”
Following the English revolution of 1642, Oliver Cromwell followed just such a scorched earth policy in Ireland, and the U.S. “free-fire zones” and “strategic hamlets” did the same in Vietnam. Both failed. Collective punishment always does. Even some Israeli leaders know this. “This policy cannot protect Israeli citizens from terrorist attacks,” Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli secret service, told the Israeli press. “On the contrary, this policy will lead the Palestinian society toward further violence and terror.”
In a recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, support for the new intifada among Palestinians had grown from 70 percent to over 80 percent since December, with 73 percent now backing suicide bombings inside Israel.
There is even a grim element of farce in all this. One rather irony- challenged Sharon cabinet member, Danny Naveh, demanded that the Palestinians stop the violence, “in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” The nearly 60,000 names on a black granite wall in Washington should suggest where that “tunnel” is likely to lead.
As in Vietnam, war has a habit of spreading, and if tank shells, mortars, ship bombardments, artillery attacks and infantry assaults don’t constitute “war,” than Mr. Webster needs a new definition of the term. Nor has Ariel Sharon ever seen a conflict he couldn’t escalate. Not only have Israeli troops re-occupied Palestinian territory, Israeli planes bombed Syrian radar sites in Lebanon last week. Are the Israelis really ready to step back into the Lebanese swamp that trapped them for 18 years?
But if war destroys, it also creates. While almost unreported outside of Israel, there is growing unrest among Israelis over the settlements. According to the organization There Is A Limit, more than 600 Israeli reservists have been jailed for refusing to serve in Gaza and the West Bank, and 2,500 others are “gray conscientious objectors,” fabricating medical and personal excuses for staying out of the territories.
“The reservists do not care about the territories,” Ishai Menuchim, a reserve tank commander and leader of There Is A Limit told the London Telegraph. Another battalion commander told the same newspaper, “The army needs to understand that fewer and fewer people are willing to do their dirty work in the territories.”
The settlements can never bring security to Israel, any more than the Plantation of Ulster secured English control of Ireland, or fire bases in Vietnam brought security to American troops. The solutions are political, not military, and they begin with the principle that you cannot take someone else’s land without paying a long and terrible price.