Repressive aspect of occupation must stop

By Fred Barschak, April 10, 2014
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In the week in which the Israeli-Palestinian talks appear to be collapsing, it is worth re-examining some of the factors that have led to a breakdown in the peace process time and again.

In 1977, Yigael Yadin, the second chief of staff of the IDF, expressed the dilemma that has faced every Israeli administration in two brilliant sentences.

He said: “I believe in a Jewish democratic state in an area of what once was Mandated Palestine. If I keep a million Arabs [today read 3.5 million] in it, by force, it cannot be democratic, and if I enfranchise them it shall not long remain Jewish.”

Why is this dilemma so hard to resolve?

One consistent obstruction has been the Palestinians’ long-standing insistence on a right of return for the refugees of 1948-49. No conceivable Israeli administration, however benign, could possibly consider such a demand, since it would entail the demographic destruction of the state (let alone the security implications) from day one.

This is not to say that financial compensation for abandoned property is not a proper subject for negotiation, but that is a separate issue.

It is at this point that one should mention the arrival of a new deal-breaker on the Israeli side, which states that Palestinians must acknowledge, in advance, that Israel is a Jewish state.

Israeli somehow takes this position while insisting that the Palestinians should come to the negotiations without preconditions. The “Jewish state” clause only once featured in Israel’s demands during a peace process — in the lead-up to Camp David in 1999.

One must acknowledge that there would be no purpose to any Israeli state if it was not acknowledged by all that this state was primarily for Jews who wish to live there, and that the state had a clear right to control its own immigration policy. But this is a far cry from forcing the concept down Palestinian throats before the negotiations have even started.

One cannot help wondering if this “dealbreaker” is actually designed to ensure that the talks do not succeed. That would certainly win the support of the Israeli ultra-right and those who want no real change.

For the Palestinians, there are at least two deal-breakers.

First, it is inconceivable that the Palestinians or their representatives will agree to be excluded at least from some part of East Jerusalem for ever.

Secondly, it is equally inconceivable that Palestinians will acquiesce in the endless expansion of settlements.

The occupation, which from 1967 to 1977 was described by optimists as “benign”, looks vastly different after two intifadas and the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas.

On the one hand, no single act of stupidity has been more damaging than Hamas’s reply to the Gaza disengagement: the launch of rockets at Israeli civilians.

But, in January 2014, a group of senior Jewish lawyers, all passionate Zionists, went to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in search of the rule of law — and could not find it.

The lawyers found the trappings of a legal system — military courts, lawyers, police, systems of bail. But the system was being run as follows: young people, from 13 to 17, are arrested (usually at night) handcuffed and blindfolded, often not allowed to go to the toilet and denied food and water for hours. According to the lawyers, this system keeps Palestinian society in a state of “constant fear and anxiety”.

April 8 (six days before the Jewish festival of freedom) was the 150th anniversary of the US Senate’s decision to abolish slavery.

The civil rights movement in America was deeply influenced by the Book of Exodus and the concept of freedom of which it speaks.

The concept of freedom under the law is deeply connected with the principles on which Israel and its constitution were founded. What passes for law in the military courts of the Israeli army in the West Bank is the complete antithesis of any concept of law that obtains in the West.

Military occupation may well be unavoidable. But what is going on in the West Bank at this moment is not just occupation, it is occupation with repression.

We may have to wait some time for another bout of “negotiations”. Meanwhile, we can make life a little more tolerable for those who are waiting.

Fred Barschak was an active member of the Yad Vashem committee, 1986-1996

Last updated: 5:13pm, April 10 2014