Israel’s “Withdrawal” Toward Apartheid

Against the Current, No. 120, January/February 2006

David Finkel interviews Jeff Halper

“FROM SHARON’S POINT of view it’s a done deal. Israel has won its century-old conflict with the Palestinians,” writes Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

“Surveying the landscape — physical and political alike — the Israeli Prime Minister has finally fulfilled the task with which he was charged 38 years ago by [former PM and leader of the Israeli right wing] Menahem Begin: ensure permanent Israeli control over the entire Land of Israel while foreclosing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.” (Article of the Week, “Setting Up Abbas,” October 6, 2005,

This stark understanding of the “Middle East peace process” following Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza this past summer is in startling contrast with what American media conventionally portray as that “historic breakthrough toward a two-state solution.” Halper’s view, however, is shared by many observers who know the situation best.

Four years ago, shortly before visiting the West Bank and Israel in January 2002, I had read an article by Halper, discussing the vanishing window of opportunity for a meaningful two-state solution, called “Five Minutes to Midnight.” When we spoke in Detroit this October, I reminded him of that piece and asked, “so what time is it now?” “It’s an hour and a half later,” Halper responded.

Rebuilding Homes

Jeff Halper is an anthropologist who has been active in peace and justice struggles in Israel since he moved to that country from the United States in 1973. He serves as coordinator of an activist organization, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which extensively documents the destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli army, particularly in the area of occupied East Jerusalem, mostly on the pretense that they were constructed illegally without housing permits.

In reality, such permits are almost always denied — after thousands of dollars have been spent in the futile application process — leaving people no choice but to build illegally, exposing themselves to the continual threat and trauma of demolition.

The emotional as well as physical and financial effects on families are horrifying, particularly on children who may come home from school to find their homes turned to rubble. This practice, combined with numerous other policies of daily brutality and humiliation of Occupation, has produced a silent under-the-radar ethnic cleansing:

“Since the start of the Second Intifadah (September 2000),” Halper notes, “about 200,000 Palestinians have left the Occupied Territories, notably the West Bank, many of whom were the better-educated and the Christian populations. Bethlehem for example is now almost empty of Christians. What we call the ‘quiet population transfer’ has succeeded in leaving the masses without leaders and more easily manipulated.”

Meanwhile, the numbers of Israeli settlers, who were around 200,000 at the inception of the Oslo Accords in 1993, by the end of 2001 had become 400,000 and around 450,000 today.

ICAHD’s response to the home demolition crisis is to mobilize Israeli citizens and international activists to rebuild homes — often more than once — as an act of resistance and solidarity.

“This isn’t some kind of charity or humanitarian aid,” Halper emphasized in his slide-show presentation to a church audience in suburban Detroit. “We come in only when the Palestinian family wants us to partner with them in resistance. We use Palestinian contractors for supplies. It’s economic as well as physical solidarity.”

The meaning of the destruction of the Palestinian economy is revealed in one of Halper’s most agonizing photographs of the destruction, for the second or third time, of the home of his friend Salim Shawamreh. The soldiers with the guns are Israeli, but the man on the bulldozer knocking down the home is a Palestinian Arab, indeed an acquaintance of the Shawamreh family, who went to work that day and received an assignment for demolition he simply cannot afford to refuse.

From Disengagement to Apartheid

Returning to the political situation, I asked Jeff Halper to summarize the picture following Sharon’s much-praised unilateral “Gaza Disengagement” (this discussion took place, of course, before the surprise election of Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born trade union leader and peace advocate, to lead the nearly moribund Israeli Labor Party and the announcement of early Israeli elections)

“What’s funny is that Sharon is very up-front. He says, we are leaving Gaza (actually they aren’t really leaving, they’re besieging it like cage) because it’s a flashpoint between Palestinians and the army and settlers. Once we eliminate that, the whole situation becomes quiescent. In the West Bank the armed resistance is broken, the Wall is going up. The idea is that once everything is quiet and falls off the front pages of the international press and there’s no pressure to deal with it.”

What Happens Then?

“‘Then we park,’ is the term Israelis use — like you’re in a parking lot where you’re not blocking traffic, so you sit there as long as you want, with the Palestinians locked out. They can knock on the window if they have something to suggest. It’s exactly the strategy outlined by Sharon’s lieutenant Dov Weisglass in his interview with Ha’aretz Magazine (October 8, 2004), where he said this:

“‘The disengagement plan…is the bottle of formaldehyde within which you place the president’s formula [Bush’s “road map”] so that it will be preserved for a very lengthy period. The disengagement…supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians…The withdrawal in Samaria [northern West Bank] is a token one. We agreed to it only so that it wouldn’t be said that we concluded our obligation in Gaza.”

“Here’s what this means. The Bush administration agreed in April 2004 to the Israeli annexation of settlement blocs, called ‘Israel’s major population centers,’ and this was ratified by huge U.S. congressional votes — 95-3 in the Senate. So essentially from the Israeli point of view, what Sharon did was to turn the status of the Occupation from a temporary military situation as defined by international law, into a permanent political fact.

“Now, he says, it’s irreversible and we’ll negotiate the little islands left to the Palestinians. They can call that a Palestinian state, in fact Sharon needs them to do that. So Israel takes 85-90% of the whole country [i.e. Israel’s pre-1967 borders plus part of the West Bank], even though right now, the Jewish population is actually a minority. From the Israeli point of view, it’s over.”

Within six to nine months, Halper suggested (again, this is prior to the new political developments inside Israel), Sharon will offer Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) “another so-called generous offer: I’ll give you 75% of the West Bank and the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, plus Gaza.

“Sharon can easily give away that 75% without giving up the settlement blocs, or the whole matrix of control (settler roads, choke points that separate Palestinian cities, etc.). Then if Abu Mazen says no, which he really has to do because it’s a Bantustan, Sharon will say we can proceed unilaterally. If Abu Mazen says yes, then he becomes the quisling leader Israel’s always been looking for.”

End of the Two-State Solution?

I asked Halper where this leaves the struggle for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“We are talking about apartheid — not as an analogy any more, but in the literal sense. It hasn’t been formalized yet, but once you have a Palestinian bantustan it becomes a fact. All along, the Israeli and global peace movement have been trying to avoid apartheid. We advocated a two-state solution, I’ve written about a regional confederation, some people are saying one state — but the thrust of what we’ve all been doing these years was finding a solution to avoid apartheid.

“Why has even the radical Israeli left been clinging to the two-state goal? Well, we don’t have an alternative to offer in practical terms. This isn’t an academic exercize, it’s the lives of the Palestinians at stake. We aren’t Palestinians — and right today, the national leadership of the Palestinians is talking about a two-state solution. Even if I may think that possibility is gone, I can’t go out and advocate a solution that disregards their struggle.

“That’s what I called the ‘paralysis over Palestine’ in an article I wrote for the Journal of Palestine Studies, where I criticized the Palestinian Authority. It’s hard to see how the Palestinians can wriggle out of this. The only way out in my view is to mobilize the international civil society — the only ally they have.

There has been a sea change in world public opinion, but as long as the Palestinian leadership goes it alone they will lose. That’s the big strategic mistake.”

Trying to conceive what an anti-apartheid struggle in the Palestinian context might look like, I outlined what I see as some enormous obstacles. For one thing, Israel’s Jewish population (over five million) is close to half the total, vastly more than the 20% white population that ruled apartheid South Africa.

For another, South African apartheid depended upon (and was created to control) Black labor, not motivated to expel it — whereas an apartheid Zionist state seeking to maintain a Jewish majority has a positive incentive toward “population transfer.”

Finally, I pointed out, the struggle in South Africa, from the post-1948 consolidation of apartheid under the National Party until its defeat in the early 1990s, took close to 45 years. Would a comparable struggle in Palestine/Israel take at least that long?
“Maybe so,” Halper responds, “but perhaps we can count the 38 years already spent struggling against the Occupation.”

ATC 120, January-February 2006