Israel and the New Intifada

December 1, 2000
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Zachary Lockman

In the spring of 1999, as the United States and its allies began to bomb Serbia, and Serbian au-thorities oversaw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians from their homes, I was in Jerusalem with one of my daughters, celebrating Pesach with family members. Like many others, I was horrified by the televised images of apparently endless streams of men, women, and children, whole families, villages, urban neighborhoods, driven at gunpoint from their homes and dumped into makeshift refugee camps across the border.

I was struck by the strong response of many Jewish Israelis to the plight of the Kosovars and the outpouring of support for them. But I was equally struck by the terrible (and, in Israel, almost entirely unacknowledged) irony of the situation: the vast majority of the Israelis who were no doubt genuinely moved and outraged by the brutal dispossession of the Kosovars were at the same time completely unable to grasp that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was itself accompanied - indeed, made possible - by an act of dispossession, in which fully half of Palestine’s indigenous Arab majority fled or were expelled from their homes and turned into refugees. As far as I can recall, only a single Israeli commentator pointed out the parallel, to no great effect.

Though Jews have over the centuries often experienced dispossession, diaspora, and subordination, most Israeli Jews have (sadly but perhaps not surprisingly) found it difficult to muster much understanding and empathy for the Palestinians. This was again demonstrated by the dominant official media and popular reaction in Israel to the outbreak of a new Palestinian Intifada. Not surprisingly, the Israeli right seized on this as further proof that it had been correct all along, that there is no one to negotiate with and nothing to negotiate about, that the Palestinians and other Arabs and all Muslims simply hate Jews, and that ultimately the only thing the Palestinian people understand is force. But the initial response of most Israeli liberals and avowed leftists was not much better: “Look how many magnanimous concessions Barak offered,” they cried, “look how ungrateful these Palestinians are; Arafat has stabbed us in the back!”

This response only confirms how constricted the Israeli liberal vision has been all along. All the talk of peace since Oslo has been one thing; the reality of the “peace process” for the Palestinians has all too often been quite another. That process culminated at Camp David last summer. Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians - take it or leave it - what amounted to the creation of a series of disconnected enclaves, bantustans, separated by massive Jewish settlement blocs and bypass roads that would be annexed by Israel. The offer deprived the Palestinians of their natural capital in East Jerusalem, and left them under the control of a corrupt and authoritarian Palestinian administration operating under Israeli supervision. Yes, Ariel Sharon lit the match with his deliberately provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif, but it was Barak, and 33 years of repression, expropriation, settlement-building, humiliation, and deprivation under both Labor and Likud governments, that set the stage for this explosion of Palestinian frustration, rage, and resistance.

Only a minority of Israeli Jews have so far come to understand that there can be no authentic and durable peace that does not bring a fair measure of justice to the Palestinians, as human beings and as a people. In return for conceding to Israel three-quarters of what was once Palestine, the Palestinians understandably insist on obtaining a viable state of their own in the remaining one-quarter, i.e. the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. A lasting peace will require Israeli withdrawal from essentially all of those territories and the dismantling of settlements, along with serious attention to the claims of the refugees.

As I write, the death toll is close to 250, well over 90 percent of whom are Palestinians, with thousands wounded. Whatever the temporary fixes, there is every prospect of further bloodshed, at least until more Jewish Israelis realize (as some have begun to do) - and can bring their government to realize - that Israel will never have peace if it continues to insist on annexations, settlements, and continued domination. Will that realization come? It’s hard to be optimistic right now. But unless it does, it’s a safe bet that more dark days lie ahead, for both Palestinians and Israelis. In the meantime, the violence and repression that the Israeli state perpetrates, not just in the name of its citizens but in the name of all Jews everywhere, should make it impossible for any of us to remain silent any longer.

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Zachary Lockman teaches modern Middle Eastern history at New York University. He has been writing, speaking, and teaching on Palestine, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Middle East for 25 years. His books include Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948 and (with Joel Beinin) Intifada: the Palestinian Uprising against Israeli Occupation. He is currently a contributing editor of Middle East Report.

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