Fifty Years Have Passed

The coming Monday, June 5th, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The one, let me remind you, which led to the Israeli occupation of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (East Jerusalem included). That is why I thought the time had come to take a second look at it. In doing so, my starting point will be a book, Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan towards Peace, which I published in 2004. What did I get right, and where did I go wrong? Does the central thesis, namely that, seen from a security point of view Israel could easily afford to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank, still hold?

The background to the book was formed by the Second Palestinian Uprising, or Intifada. Starting in October 2000 and lasting until 2005, the Uprising was carried out mainly by suicide bombings, claiming the lives of 1,137 Israelis as well as 6,371 Palestinians before it was finally quashed, with considerable brutality it must be said, by then Prime Minister Ariel. Sharon. The number of injured is unknown, but must have been much larger still. In addition, tens of thousands of Palestinians saw the inside of Israeli jails where some of them still remain. The economic damage to Israel was estimated at about 15 percent of GDP; that inflicted on the Palestinians, at perhaps 40 percent. Going abroad during that time, I could not help noticing how, at Israel’s only international airport, there were often more security personnel than passengers.

The way I saw it in 2004, and still see it now, the advent of ballistic missiles has greatly reduced the relevance of territory and, with it, the value of the “strategic depth” long seen by Israel as the main reason for holding on to the occupied territories. In any case, the age of large-scale Arab-Israeli conventional warfare was clearly over. Not only because the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan held; but because, as both the 1956 and 1967 wars had shown, should Egypt’s military try to confront Israel in the Sinai then all they would be doing would be to put their necks into a noose. Should Egypt lose a war in the Sinai, then it would lose. Should it win, then it might face nuclear retaliation. Israel is believed to have as many as 100 warheads and delivery vehicles to match. By targeting the Aswan Dam, the people in Jerusalem have it within their power to turn Egypt into a radioactive lake within rather less than an hour of the decision being made.

Having been heavily defeated in the first Gulf War, Iraq was out of the picture and remains so today. This left Syria which, however, was much too weak to take on Israel on its own and has become even weaker since. At that time as now very few Arabs lived on the Golan Heights, explaining why its occupation by Israel never met strong resistance or drew much international attention. Consequently holding on to it was, and remains, relatively easy and need not preoccupy us here.

In what was surely the most daring move in a remarkable career, Sharon, against howls of opposition, built a fence around the Gaza Strip, demolished the Israeli settlements there, and pulled out. It cost him his life, but he effectively put an end to attempts by suicide bombers to enter Israel proper. To be sure terrorism, now in the form of underground tunnels and rockets, did not come to a sudden end. As if to prove the fact that the role of territory was declining, the rockets in particular gained in range and power, causing much trouble. This kind of terrorism was only brought to an end during the second half of 2014 when a massive Israeli military operation (“Protective Edge”) inflicted many casualties and enormous destruction. Since then an equilibrium, albeit an uneasy one, has prevailed in southern Israel. As is shown, among other things, by a tremendous real estate boom in that part of the world.

This in turn suggests that, had Israel launched the operation in question a few years earlier, it might have spared both itself and the other side considerable grief and trouble. Looking on the withdrawal from Gaza from the perspective of 2017, it appears to have been a great success. It rid Israel of some two million unwilling Palestinians, leaving them to govern themselves as best they can and forcing their leadership into what, in practice, is some sort of accommodation.

During the Second Intifada a beginning was made in constructing a wall around the West Bank as well. A measure, incidentally, which this author of had proposed, in public, as early as 1993. But two reasons have prevented its completion. First, through East Jerusalem, which Israel claims for itself, passes the only highway connecting the two “bulges” that forms the West Bank, making it all but impossible to seal off. Second, the Jewish settlers in the Bank, supported by a considerable part of the Israeli government and public, fear that, should the wall be completed, it would herald at least a partial withdrawal from that region as well. And with good reason; doing so was something both Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert, actively contemplated.

Whether, had Sharon not died in harness and Olmert not been forced to resign, they would have been able to dominate Israeli politics to the point of carrying out such a withdrawal will never be known. At present any attempt to proceed in this direction is certain to be stopped by Israel’s right-wing government and public. Still the example set by Gaza refuses to go away. Hovering in the background, it is a constant reminder that an alternative to present-day policies does exist.

As Defending Israel argued, and as events since then have clearly shown, the most important problem the West Bank poses to Israel is neither “strategic depth” nor terrorism. The former is rendered all but irrelevant by the advent of ballistic missiles, peace with Jordan, the demise of Iraq, and the Bank’s topography which makes an attack from east to west almost impossible. The latter could be solved by the construction of a wall and a withdrawal. The real threat is demographic. Six and a half million Jewish Israelis cannot go on forever governing an Arab-Palestinian population now numbering some two and a half million and growing fast. In this day and age, indeed, the very idea of an occupation that has now lasted for fifty years is simply crazy. Either pull out, unilaterally if necessary, or risk Israel becoming an apartheid state—which, I hate to say, in many ways it already is.

Finally, East Jerusalem. A story, probably apocryphal, dating to the first months after the June 1967 War illustrates the problem very well. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol is touring East Jerusalem. All around him people are beaming with happiness, but he alone keeps a gloomy face. Mr. Eshkol, they ask him, why all these sighs? In response he says that getting in was easy (as indeed it was). But getting out!

And so, indeed, it has proved. There is no way in the world Israel can be persuaded to give up the Old City and its immediate surroundings, the place which, whatever UNESCO may say, gave birth to the Jewish people well over 3,000 years ago. Nor, given the historical record, is there any reason why it should. But Israel should be able, and willing, to let go of many East Jerusalem neighborhoods that were recently joined to the city and have absolutely nothing to do with holiness. Such as Sheik Jarach, Dir al Balach, Ras al Amud, and quite a few others. All are inhabited exclusively by Palestinians and all are poor and underdeveloped. As in the case of Gaza, a withdrawal from them, even if it has to be carried out unilaterally and even if it only leads to a modus vivendi rather than peace, would be a blessing, not a curse.

With the 1967 war’s fiftieth anniversary coming soon, what is the point in waiting?

Turmoil in the Holy Land

ShowImageThe Holy Land is in a turmoil. Certainly not for the first time, and almost certainly not for the last. For those of you who have forgotten, here is a brief timetable of the Palestinian-Jewish/Israeli conflict over the last century or so.

1860 –              Palestine, divided into three separate districts that also include parts of what today are neighboring countries, is governed by “the Unspeakable Turk.” Perhaps 80 percent of the population is Arab, mainly Sunni. But there are also some Christians—around 15 percent—and Jews. Christians and Jews are treated as Dimnis, second-rate people with fewer rights than Muslims.

1860 –              Following the Crimean War the Porte comes under pressure by the Western Powers. The latter demand, and obtain, concessions for their own citizens who live in Palestine as well a native Christians and Jews. As a result of the “Capitulations,”, as they are known, these minorities start drawing ahead.

1881 –              Jewish immigrants, mainly from Russia, start arriving and establish some new settlements. Right from the beginning, these settlements come under attack by local Bedouin who have always lived by plundering the peasantry. Thus the immediate background to the clashes is not political but socio-economic.

1897                The First Zionist Congress is held in Basel.

1904-1914       The so-called “Second Wave” of Jewish immigrants starts arriving. Zionist activists buy land, often from absentee landowners who live as far away as Beirut. The local fellaheen, seeing the land on which they have lived for centuries sold from under their feet, try to resist.

1914                Turkey join World War I on the side of the Central Powers.

1917                The Balfour Declaration, in which His Britannic Majesty’s Government recognizes the Jews right to a “National Home” in Palestine, is issued. As a result, the conflict, while still mixed up with economic, social, and religious issues, becomes political par excellence. Two peoples—“Arabs” (not Palestinians, a name that only gained wide currency during the 1960s) and Jews claim ownership over the same land. As they still do.

1918                The end of World War I leaves Palestine, along with Jordan and Iraq, firmly in British hands.

1920-21           The first Palestinian Arab Uprising, directed against the Balfour Declaration as well as the Jewish settlement.

1922                Winston Churchill, in his capacity a Colonial Secretary, arrives. He and his staff draw the borders between Palestine and the neighboring countries.

1929                Another Palestinian Uprising, triggered by a conflict over the Wailing Wall, breaks out. It is directed against both the British and the Jews. It is suppressed, but not before two Jewish communities, the ancient one at Hebron and the new one at Motza, right across the road from where I live, are wiped out.

1936-39           “The Arab Revolt” (note that people still speak of Arabs, not Palestinians). It, too, is directed against both the British and the Jews. It, too, is suppressed. But not before London makes important concessions. Those include 1. An end to Jewish land-purchases. 2. Limits on Jewish immigration, which from this point on is to bring in no more than 15,000 people per year for five years. 3. A promise of “evolution towards independence” within ten years.

1947-48           On 1 December 1947, a day after the UN decides to partition the country, the Jews and Arabs of Palestine go to war. By the middle of June, by which time the remaining British have withdrawn and the State of Israel has been official proclaimed, the Arabs have been substantially defeated. Armed intervention by the neighboring Arab states, aimed at assisting their brothers, also fails to achieve its purpose. By the time the war ends in January 1949 some 600,000 Palestinian Arabs, about half of the Arab population west of the Jordan, have been turned into refugees. The State of Israel is an established fact. However, it does not include either the Gaza Strip, which comes under Egyptian military rule, or the West Bank, which is annexed by Jordan.

1967                The June 1967 Six Days War brings the Gaza Strip, with an estimated 500,000 people, and the West Bank, with an estimated 1,500,000, under Israeli rule. With the west Bank comes East Jerusalem which from this point on becomes the focus of the conflict. Since then the population of these two territories combined has grown to an estimated 4,000,000.

1977                The Right Wing Herut (later Likud) Party comes to power in Israel. The number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which until then was very small, starts skyrocketing.

1979                The Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt proposes a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict within five years. In practice, though, nothing happens.

1987                In December the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, breaks out. At first it takes the form of demonstrations and mass riots. Later there are stabbings, shootings, and some bombs.

1993                Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Front (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo Agreements. Parts of the West Bank come under Palestinian rule; parts, under mixed rule; and parts remain strictly under Israeli control. The Agreements also provide for a five-year transitional period during which the parties will try to end the conflict.

2000                No progress has been made towards finding a solution. Triggered by a visit by former Israeli Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, the second Intifada breaks out. Its hallmark is suicide bombings. By 2004 it is more or less suppressed with enormous damage to the West Bank City of Jenin in particular.

2005-6             The Israeli Government, under Ariel Sharon, withdraws its forces from the Gaza Strip. The latter comes under a Palestinian Faction known a Hamas. Hamas chases the PLO out of Gaza and vows to continue “resisting” Israel, which is “besieging” the Strip by exercising strict control over the movement of people and goods. In response, Hamas fires mortar rounds and rockets, later missiles, into Israeli territory.

2006-14           Repeatedly, Israel launches military operations in an attempt to put an end to Hamas’ attacks. Repeatedly, it fails. Still, Operation Protective Edge, which was launched in July 2014 and wrought vast destruction in Gaza, does seem to have taught Hamas a lesson of sorts. Since then the border, though not quite peaceful, has been relatively calm.

2015                The third Intifada, whose hallmark so far has been knifings carried out by individuals, breaks out.

Outlook: Eight times during the last century—1920-21, 1929, 1936-39, 1947-48,1987-93, 2000-2005, 2008-14 (Gaza), 2016—did the Palestinian Arabs try to match whatever armed forces they had against those the British Empire/the Jewish Community in/Palestine/Israel. To no avail, since Israel, its Jewish population having grown almost a hundredfold during the same period. With one of the world’s more powerful armed forces, it still continues to “besiege” the Gaza Strip and occupy the West Bank. This is an Ur-clash between two peoples that claim the same land. Even should the present disturbances come an end, a political solution of any kind is not in sight.

What should be done: Speaking as an Israeli now, given that real peace is out of reach for a long, long time to come, there seem to be two courses. The first would be for my country to complete the wall it has built around the West Bank in such a way as to get rid as of many Palestinians, specifically including most of those who live in East Jerusalem, as possible. That done, it should tell the settlers it is withdrawing and take as many of them as possible along. If, after that, the Palestinians in the West Bank still cause trouble, then Israel should deal with them as it dealt with Gaza in 2014. This has long been my own position; however, unless pressure is applied form outside it is very unlikely to happen.

The second would be to hope for the collapse of the Hashemite Kingdom and its occupation by Daesh or some similar organization. That would create an opportunity to repeat the events of 1948 and throw the Palestinians of the West Bank across the River Jordan. This is the “solution” a great many Israelis secretly favor. And the longer the present uprising lasts, the larger their number will grow.

What will it be?