Apartheid “Peace” Explodes

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

The Editors

THE EXPLOSION IN Jerusalem, occupied Palestine and the state of Israel is horrific to contemplate—but not at all difficult to understand.  Underneath what appeared to begin as rioting over “holy places,” the real issue is this: Tens of thousands of Palestinians are risking their lives in the face of live ammunition in defense of their basic human dignity.  And in that act, they have posed the greatest challenge to the “stability” of imperialist control of the Middle East that we have witnessed since the 1973 war.

A briefing from the peace and anti-occupation newsletter The Other Israel put it well: “Such conflagrations do not result from a single provocation, gross and insulting as it may be. There had been quite a lot of fuel building up, mounting anger and frustration among the Palestinians.

“The normal routine of occupation, which rarely gets into the media: another row of olive trees uprooted by order of the Israeli military governor; another settlement extending itself over a parcel of land which a Palestinian family had cultivated for generations; another rough search by Israeli soldiers at a roadblock; another late-night raid on a Palestinian home by Israeli `special units’—all made the more unendurable when peace negotiations are supposed to be going on .  .  .” (October 3, 2000)

Another factor should be underscored: When the Camp David summit ended in failure, Bill Clinton stepped forward and explicitly blamed Yasser Arafat for failing to match Ehud Barak’s “historic concessions.” Leaving aside the gross inequality and injustice that is inherent in the situation to begin with, Clinton’s statement was a cynical play for domestic electoral advantage—and apparently an effort to strengthen Barak.  In fact it only weakened in their respective camps both Barak, who is accused of “giving away too much,” and Arafat who is distrusted for his reliance on America, and emboldened the Israeli right wing for what followed.

Those events, beginning with Ariel Sharon’s armed procession to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on September 28 have made it clear that Israeli withdrawal from all the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is an immediate necessity.  Indeed the question is clearly posed for Israeli society: withdrawal from the territories, or protracted war with the Palestinian population.  Even after the Sharm el-Sheikh truce agreement, the Barak government appears—to judge by deeds, not words—to be choosing the latter option.

The Curse of Holiness

In terms of the way that ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens actually live their lives, the issue of formal sovereignty over the “holy places” of Jerusalem should be the least important.  But because the overwhelming pressure of the United States and Israel has caused Yasser Arafat to give way on every other issue that matters, he has had no choice but to appear unyielding on this symbolic point.

There’s something you’d hardly know from most popular media coverage, which mindlessly repeats the phrase about the Temple being “the most holy site in Judaism.” While Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock have been of special religious, cultural and emotional importance to Muslims for 1300 years, the cult of the “Wailing Wall” remaining from Herod’s Temple dates back a few centuries, beginning among a minority current of pious Orthodox Jews.

Jerusalem was always part of the historical memory of the Jewish people, as of Christians.  But the wall and the Temple—irrelevant as a practical matter to secular Jews and even to Zionism, and of little meaning except as a point of symbolic memory for most Jewish religious practice—assumed special importance only after the 1967 war. (The victors’ first act was to bulldoze a substantial Arab neighborhood next to the site.)

In a poisonous mixture of Israeli nationalist triumphalism and the rise of an Jewish religious fundamentalism proclaiming the imminent Messianic age, the holy aura surrounding the place has served as a cover for successive Israeli governments to relentlessly pursue the reduction of the actual Arab population in “Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

Ariel Sharon’s well-choreographed trip to the Temple Mount—protected by the Barak government with a larger Israeli military security force than the one that captured it in 1967!—made a clear statement: Israel and the Jews are the master race in the “unified Jerusalem.” This ultimate calculated humiliation was exquisitely timed for the Thursday before the Muslim Friday prayers immediately preceding the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah Jewish holiday.

Sharon’s record is well-known in the Arab world, even if largely forgotten here. The principal architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the sponsor of Lebanese fascist militias who massacred close to a thousand Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut in September of that year, Sharon sports credentials as a world-class war criminal.

As the rage of the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem spread throughout the camps and villages of the West Bank and Gaza, the police forces of the Palestinian Authority faced a choice: Either use deadly force against their own population, or join the rebellion and confront the Israeli war machine.  For a few days, at least, the Palestinian police made the latter choice (whether on orders from above or initiative from below).  It was during that crucial time that the wave of revolt also swept in Arab towns in Israel, a development with its own momentous implications.

The Israeli military, for its part, put into operation a plan that was already reported in the Israeli press several years ago in anticipation of such a potential confrontation.  Calling in massive firepower and concentration of forces, the Barak government deployed helicopter gunships, tanks and rockets against Palestinian security forces and unarmed civilians alike.  The televised shooting of a twelve-year old child, and dozens more killings not caught on camera, are the inevitable results.

It was at the funeral of one such Palestinian victim in Ramallah on October 12 that a crowd of young men pursued two arrested Israeli reserve soldiers into the police station and killed them. The crowd believed them to be Israeli undercover operatives—that is to say, an assassination squad.  The murder naturally horrified the Israeli and international public—and, it must be honestly stated, revealed the stunning incompetence of Palestinian police authorities who could not protect prisoners in their custody.  (Nor did they arrest the alleged perpetrators, some of whom are now reported to have been seized by an Israeli undercover abduction team.)

But make no mistake: Such incidents flow directly from a state of war in which one side can inflict as much damage and casualties as it wishes with machine-gun and helicopter gunship fire, while the victims can only take revenge on whomever they can get their hands on.

On the military level, needless to say, the results of such battles are predetermined in favor of the world’s fourth most powerful military.  Politically, however, the uprising of a people oppressed and humiliated beyond human endurance changes the equation of the “Middle East peace process”—a process that peculiarly has been crumbling and consolidating at the same time.

What Means This Peace Process?

South African apartheid, promulgated as official state doctrine in 1948, took forty-five years to dismantle, at the cost of indescribable suffering, leaving a legacy of social misery that under the best of conditions will require decades to overcome.  Yet during the 1990s, as South Africa painfully broke from apartheid, Israel/Palestine has been moving in the opposite direction, toward a new apartheid.

The greatest irony (and also mystification) of this extremely alarming and tragic development is that it has been consolidated under the rubric of something called the “Oslo peace process” and “Wye River Accords,” and more recently Bill Clinton’s Camp David Summit.  The basic truth of Oslo is that by enabling Israel and the United States to evade the requirements of longstanding UN Security Council demands for Israeli withdrawal, it set in motion a process that leads not to two states, but a disconnected Palestinian bantustan subordinated to Greater Israel.

The “apartheidization” of Israel-Palestine is exceptionally complex and full of ambiguities.  Some factors actually point to the possibility of a better outcome—for one thing, inside Israel itself the Palestinian Arab citizens (close to twenty percent of the Israeli population) have won certain formal civil rights gains.  Yet they continue to suffer monstrous forms of official discrimination.  This fact, rather than religious fervor, explains why the uprising of 2000 has taken greater root among this sector than the Intifada of 1987-91, which remained mostly confined to the Occupied Territories.

Another fact is that the terms of Israeli Jewish society’s national “great consensus” have been shaken up in recent years.  Based on David Ben-Gurion’s central Zionist axioms—a state based on institutions of Jewish privilege, demanding unconditional Jewish solidarity and permanent political-military mobilization against enemies without and critics within—this ethos has been undermined both by interlocking class and secular-religious polarizations and by the demonstrated Palestinian desire for peace.

The hegemony of the ugly ideology of Jewish supremacy need not be assumed to be permanent defining features of Israeli society—an important hope for all those who aspire to a democratic and binational future, however distant such a future may appear.  But let’s be clear.  When it comes to the fundamental questions surrounding the “final settlement” of the status of the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza—the form of the Palestinian state-to-be-declared, its economic viability, the right of dispossessed Palestinians to return home, control of Jerusalem—the results are dictated almost entirely by one fact alone.

That fact is overwhelming Israeli military and political supremacy, guaranteed by the United States as a matter of official policy and written into the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties alike.  The importance of the U.S. role simply cannot be overstated.

This is why the apartheid features of the “final status” of the Occupied Territories, mainly already agreed by Barak and Arafat except for sovereignty in Jerusalem, were pretty well predetermined:

  • The great majority of the Palestinians dispossessed in 1948 and 1967, still living as refugees or exiles, were to have their rights to return home irrevocably signed away by their own leadership.  Some kind of compensation fund (mostly with U.S. money) will be set up, most of which will inevitably disappear into the treasuries of various administrative bureaucracies.
  • A Palestinian “state” was to be declared.  A “state” in name only, exercising ostensible sovereignty over disconnected Palestinian population centers, this miserable entity will have no room for population growth, too little land for agricultural development and in any case too little water for either.
  • Israel would retain control of “security” for the main settlements, build “bypass” roads for Jews-only transport around the Arab cities, and control water resources.  The Palestinian Authority is to be held responsible for suppressing anti-Israeli resistance without regard for due process, without prohibitions on torture, arbitrary arrest or any human rights oversight.

When the diplomatic elites tell us that a final settlement “was almost in our grasp,” except for finding a formula on sovereignty over Jerusalem, they are telling the truth in the sense that these issues have been pretty well settled.  If this sounds very much like the apartheid-era South African bantustans, that is exactly the point.  Yet there is at least one feature that is even worse.

The South African system, at root, was a fiendish mechanism of labor control designed for the most efficient exploitation and political suppression of Black labor.  Its very success created the material basis for a powerful labor movement that apartheid ultimately could not repress, which would play a pivotal role in the system’s demise.

By way of contrast, the apartheid-under-construction in Israel/Palestine is designed to maximize the economic separation of the two peoples.  While sectors of Israeli industry became heavily dependent on Palestinian labor in the two decades from 1967 to the beginning of the intifada, Israel under the Labor Party governments of Rabin-Peres-Barak has partly reversed this trend, preferring to rely on temporary “guest labor” from Asia and impoverished Eastern European states (notably Romania).

The intent of Labor Party policy is to push Palestinian labor to the margins, even while setting up Israel to be the center of a Middle East free trade zone. This ideologically-driven fantasy is just as destructive, and probably even more militarily aggressive (though less well known) than Ariel Sharon’s failed brand of territorial Greater Israel proto-fascism.  It is also the Israeli strategic vision generally preferred by Washington, which is why everything possible will be attempted to (if you can choke down the cliche) “revive the fading Middle East peace process.”

So what next?  On the surface, the “peace process” is crumbling, and will almost certainly bring down Barak (if not also Arafat) with it. But around the major points outlined above, the framework of the “final status” of occupied Palestine is intact, and consolidating.  If the current administration cannot make this part of Bill Clinton’s “legacy,” there’s always the next one.

Given the relationship of forces—vastly worse for the Palestinians today than in the 1980s, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the catastrophe of the Gulf War—the new Palestinian uprising is not likely to shatter the framework.  What it does—and this is one crucial fact —is to show how difficult and dangerous the neoapartheid peace will be to police, and how hard it will be to enforce an agreement establishing Israeli supremacy over Arab Jerusalem.

Israel’s Internal Crisis

Another fact, possibly the most important of all, flows from the uprising of the Arab towns inside Israel.  One reason (among many others) why this is so significant is that the consolidation of an apartheid reality in the Occupied Territories is going to feed right back into Israeli society itself.

Whenever the final-status agreement is signed, it’s almost certain to entail the removal (with much highly telegenic pathos) of perhaps a few tens of thousands of Israeli settler fanatics from West Bank population centers.

These people, among whom the national-religious-messianic current is strong, will have to be resettled inside Israel and handsomely paid off. According to the logic of Zionism, it would seem likely that they would be the human material for the “Judaization of the Galilee,” meaning that they would be given lands to be confiscated from the already impoverished Arab sector of Israel.

The fact that the Arabs of Israel have joined the current rebellion is a warning of the possible response: a genuine civil war inside Israeli borders.  In this sense, the Palestinians inside as well as outside Israeli state boundaries are defending not “holy places,” but themselves.

Their struggle—and a timely international response to the profound human rights and political emergency in the West Bank and Gaza—may go a long way to determine whether Israel can evolve toward a democratic state of its citizens, or whether the entire region slides deeper into the nightmare of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

ATC 89, November-December 2000