Israel's Colonial War

International Socialist Review, March / April 2002


After the September 11 attacks, the Israeli government escalated its violence against Palestinians to the level of open warfare. It claims it has a right to do whatever it takes to "fight terrorism." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a war criminal responsible for the bloody 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila, is now openly calling for a war policy aimed at inflicting as much damage as possible on the Palestinian population, legitimizing mass killing.

"We must cause them losses, casualties!" he exclaimed in early March. Sharon's stated policy now is to smash the Intifada and then make "peace." "They must first be hit hard.... Only after they are beaten will we be able to hold talks."

Last fall, the Bush administration gave Sharon a yellow light. Believing that Arab opinion had to be placated to win support for his "war on terrorism," Bush announced his heretofore secret support for a Palestinian state. Yet, after the U.S. overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the administration determined that it didn't have to worry about Arab opinion anymore. So Bush gave Sharon the green light: You fight your "terrorists," we'll fight ours.

Liberals who chided Bush for not being "more involved" in the Middle East have it all wrong. The administration didn't abandon the peace process because of narrow-mindedness or head-in-the-sand ignorance. On the contrary. It agrees with Sharon's escalation. The U.S. supplies Israel's Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter planes, underwriting Israel's repression. The U.S. has defended Israel's right to assassinate Palestinians they accuse of terrorism and to use "preemptive" attacks on Palestinians.

Yet the U.S. is also concerned about whether Sharon's policy of escalation will work. Hence Secretary of State Colin Powell's reaction to Sharon's early March pronouncements: "If you declare war on the Palestinians and think you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed, I don't know if that leads us anywhere." He also added a warning to Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat, saying that he "has to do more, can do more, and must do more" to call a halt to attacks on Israeli targets.

Bush then announced his decision to send Special Envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region to broker another cease-fire and round of talks. The U.S. wants a "peace" agreement that ends the Intifada in order to get on with the business of winning Arab support for an attack on Iraq. That's why Zinni departed for a "peace mission" at the same time that Vice President Cheney toured the region druming up support for a war mission.

In late February and early March, Israel sent soldiers and tanks into the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, the Balata camp in Nablus, where 20,000 people live in only one square mile, and into a camp in Jenin. Britain's Guardian newspaper described in detail how Israel quickly

killed around 30 Palestinians, and sowed fear and panic as soldiers went from house to house by smashing their way through the walls.... Palestinian witnesses...described how Apache helicopters peppered homes with machine-gun fire.

After invading the refugee camps, Israeli F-16 warplanes fired rockets into Bethlehem and Ramallah.

The continuing Israeli occupation is the central fact of life for Palestinians-a fact that is essential to understanding the conflict. The Israeli assaults make "normal" life for Palestinians impossible. The Israelis used the 1993-2000 period of the Oslo accords to carve up the West Bank and Gaza with Jewish-only settlements, military checkpoints, and Jewish-only bypass roads. Palestinians who avoid the checkpoints to conduct their daily lives risk being shot for "breaking the rules."

"Yesterday at this spot, the Israelis shot eight young men, six of whom were under the age of 18. One was 12," New York Times reporter Chris Hedges wrote about his trip to Gaza, published in Harpers magazine.

This afternoon, they kill an 1 I-year-old boy, Ali Murad, and seriously wound four more, three of whom are under 8. Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered ...but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.

Israel has been successful in portraying its aggression as a defensive response to Palestinian attacks. But this doesn't change the fact that a huge power imbalance exists between Israel and the U.S. on one side and the Palestinians on the other-or that Israel is the occupying power and not the reverse. One measure of this imbalance was the reaction to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah's February 2002 proposal that promises Arab League recognition of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal to 1967 borders.

Although proposals like this one have been on the table for decades, the U.S., Arab countries, and the Palestinian Authority deemed it a breakthrough in achieving peace. Little mention was made of the fact that Abdullah didn't affirm the right of return for the more than 4 million Palestinian refugees living in the Palestinian diaspora.

Every major peace proposal, whether from Arab leaders or Western ones, teaches a numbingly familiar lesson: Half-measures and negotiations dominated by Israel and the U.S. only lead to the further entrenchment of Israel's power and the further disenfranchisement and suffering of Palestinians. In every case, the massive power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians has determined the outcome.

But forces battling in the West Bank and Gaza weren't interested in hearing about international diplomacy. Sharon thought his military escalation would force the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, the end of the Oslo accords, and a "peace" under Israeli guns. However, Palestinian society hasn't collapsed. In recent months, Palestinian forces, Islamic and secular, have regrouped and retargeted their military attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the Occupied Territories. Militias under Arafat's control have taken the lead in this new strategy. As a result, many Palestinians who criticized Arafat for selling out under Oslo have rallied behind him.

Sharon's new strategy has also increased polarization inside Israeli society. Opinion polls show a collapse of confidence in his government. On the right, this has led to calls for full-scale war, permanent reoccupation of the Occupied Territories, and mass expulsion of Palestinians.

More encouragingly, it has given an opening to those who argue for ending the occupation. A March 8 op-ed piece in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz called Israel's policy "a campaign of colonialism":

They are no longer ashamed to speak of war when what they are really engaged in is colonial policing, which recalls the takeover by the white police of the poor neighborhoods of the blacks in South Africa during the Apartheid era.... In colonial Israel, and more especially the Israel in which advocates of "transfer" sit in the government, human life is cheap.... The killing of innocent people is gradually becoming a norm, and that norm is being implemented in the service of a goal that seeks to deprive another people of its freedom and human rights. The Sharon government is turning the territories into one huge jailhouse, and is turning its citizens into warders who are called upon to suppress a prisoner uprising.

More than 250 Israeli reservists have signed a petition that reads, "We will no longer fight beyond the Green Line for the purpose of occupying, deporting, destroying, blockading, killing, starving and humiliating an entire people," referring to the border between Israel and the West Bank. Lieutenant David Zonshein, who helped to draft the petition, told the newspaper,

[You are asked to do things that should not be asked of you-to shoot people, to stop ambulances, to destroy houses in which you don't know if there are people living.

Peretz Kidron, a member of the Yesh Gvul, a campaign to support soldiers and reservists who refuse to fight in the Occupied Territories, told the Jerusalem Post that more than 400 soldiers have refused to serve in the territories since October 2000.

This small but important breach in the Israeli consensus -combined with Israel's failure to crush the Palestinian Intifada-has the potential to undermine Sharon's plans. But if Israel, the U.S., and Arafat use this impasse as an excuse to work out a slightly less onerous Oslo-type settlement, the potential will have been squandered.

Until there is justice for Palestinians-an end to the Israeli occupation and the right of Palestinians to return to their pre-1948 homes-there will be no peace in the region.

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