The one conclusion that can be drawn with certainty about the momentous events that began this past spring with the peaceful overthrow of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is that Middle East society and governance are undergoing fundamental and unpredictable changes that are certain to affect Israel’s relations with the Arab world.
Mubarak’s ousting deprived Israel of a neighboring leader who could be relied on to maintain stability in the region, and unleashed Egyptians’ long simmering anger at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Relations between the two countries were profoundly changed on Sept. 10, when thousands of Egyptians besieged the Israeli Embassy in Cairo as police stood by, and forced Israel to airlift its ambassador back to Israel.
Israel lost another critical ally in early September when Turkey broke off diplomatic relations as a result of an Israeli attack on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara two years ago as it was carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israeli commandos descended on the ship in mid-ocean and killed nine passengers.
Israel’s refusal to apologize for what a U.N. review panel called an "excessive and unreasonable" use of force prompted Turkey to expel the Israeli ambassador to Ankara and suspend all military agreements. Turkey now plans to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Whatever the outcome of the current turmoil, the tacit acceptance of Israel by traditional Arab rulers may now be a thing of the past. A common theme of anti-government protests throughout the region has been a demand for dignity, freedom and justice. If the emerging regimes are truly representative of the movements that brought them to power, their policies are certain to reflect long held feelings of resentment at Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
It was undoubtedly an awareness of Israel’s increasing isolation that persuaded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in late August to depart from Israel’s longstanding policy of responding to any provocation with overwhelming force. The opportunity for such a response came on Aug. 17 when an armed group crossed the Egyptian border near Eilat and killed eight Israelis. Israeli soldiers who returned fire killed three Egyptian officers, a response that angered Egyptians and helped spark the attack on Israel’s embassy.
"Israel has to realize that the days in which our sons are killed without an appropriate and strong reaction are forever gone," said Arab League head Amr Moussa. He undoubtedly recalled Israel’s repeated incursions into Gaza before 1967, including the February 1955 attack that killed 39 Egyptians and cut short a tentative peace overture by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
This time, however, Israel immediately apologized to the Egyptians and blamed Hamas and other Palestinian militants for the attack. The Israeli military escalated its air strikes on Gaza, and militants retaliated by firing dozens of rockets into Israel, wounding an Israeli baby and killing one adult. Despite two cease-fires, Israel continued its raids, but the feared repeat of Operation Cast Lead that devastated Gaza two years ago did not take place.
Nevertheless, at the end of two weeks at least 25 Palestinians had been killed and scores badly wounded by the Israeli raids. A health clinic, sewer facilities, electric generators and city office buildings were badly damaged. Meanwhile, there was growing doubt that Gazans had been responsible for the attack on Eilat. Hamas and other militant groups denied any involvement, and even though several of the Eilat attackers were killed, there were no signs of funerals or of grieving families in Gaza.
Regardless of who was responsible, Israeli leaders were once again able to divert attention from domestic problems to the issue of security and the need for national unity. Before the attack at Eilat, as many as 300,000 Israelis were gathering weekly in Tel Aviv and other cities demanding lower prices, affordable housing, and a more equitable division of income (see p. 46). Immediately following the attack the crowds dwindled to a few thousand.
At the height of the demonstrations, as people chanted cries for "social justice," Israeli author Amos Oz wrote in Haaretz: "The heart of this protest is the affront and outrage over the government’s indifference to the people’s suffering, the double standard against the working population and the destruction of social solidarity." The protestors’ call for "social justice," however, applied only to Israelis, not to the three million Palestinians under occupation.
The one group devoted to social justice for all was Tent 48, which brought together Israelis and Palestinians whose aim, as one member put it, was "shared sovereignty in a state of all its citizens." Their hope was that the protestors would realize that a disproportionate share of government spending was going to the military and to maintaining an unjust occupation, rather than to providing for the needs of ordinary Israelis.
The occupation is also central to another issue that has come to preoccupy the Netanyahu government. It is the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements that has left Palestinians with no alternative but to seek U.N. membership as an independent state, a decision they held to despite intensive efforts by the Obama administration to dissuade them. "We don’t want to delegitimize Israel. We want to legitimize ourselves," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas maintained. To Israeli leaders, the Palestinians’ decision to achieve their freedom through diplomatic means rather than violence was cause for alarm.
This seeming paradox had its source in early Israeli policy. In 1955 Defense Minister Gen. Moshe Dayan urged that a U.S. offer of a security pact with Israel be turned down, saying that such a pact would "handcuff us" by preventing Israel from carrying out reprisal raids against Egypt and Jordan. Reprisal raids, he told Israeli officials, "make it possible for us to maintain a high level of tension among our population and in the army. Without these actions we would have ceased to be a combative people and without the discipline of a combative people we are lost."
Israel’s repeated cease-fire violations and provocations of renewed violence over the decades indicate that Dayan’s words have become ingrained as doctrine. When Abbas announced his intention to go to the U.N. last spring, Israeli leaders immediately began warning that endorsement of Palestinian statehood by the General Assembly would cause an outbreak of violence by Palestinians.
Accordingly, the Israeli army began readying Operation Summer Seeds, designed to combat "mass disorder." Palestinians who are now seeing their crops destroyed, their olive trees uprooted or stolen, and their livestock killed by settlers will now be subject to even greater danger. The army is drawing boundary lines around every West Bank settlement and training settler security teams in "emergency response" operations. Palestinians who come too close to the as-yet-undesignated lines can be tear gassed or even shot.
The paramilitary teams are already armed with M-16 rifles and attack dogs. Like the Israeli border guards who shot 75-year-old Selma Al Sawarka on Aug. 10 as she tended her goats 600 meters from Gaza’s border with Israel, the settler vigilantes now have a license to pick off Palestinians at will. Any retaliation by the Palestinians is sure to bring on a powerful Israeli response.
In fact, Palestinian leaders calling for mass demonstrations in favor of U.N. recognition have strongly renounced the use of violence. The weekly protests in the West Bank against the occupation have long taken the form of nonviolent resistance, even as the Israeli army has intensified its use of tear gas, concussion grenades, and bullets in an effort to deter them. Hundreds of the participants have been arrested. "We do not do Gandhi," an Israeli official said.
Along with arousing a sense of impending crisis at home, the Israel government has made every effort to reduce the number of pro-Palestinian votes in the General Assembly. The Israelis paid for visits this summer by 18 Washington-based ambassadors from Albania, Barbados, Belize, Grenada and several other tiny nations that are members of the General Assembly. They were followed by more than 80 members of Congress–”a fifth of the House membership and half of the incoming Republican freshman class–”who were guests of the American Israel Education Foundation, a "charity" affiliated with AIPAC, Israel’s powerful Washington lobby.
The congressional visitors left behind them at home crushing problems of unemployment and the threat of worsening depression in order to show their support for Israel. "With the upcoming vote in the U.N., which is a very destabilizing event, it is important for us to be there and show what is at stake," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who has received $217,730 in pro-Israel PAC contributions. Freshman Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) declared, "It is my responsibility to be an able advocate on pro-Israel issues." He did not explain why it is the responsibility of an American lawmaker to be an advocate for a foreign country.
The U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, Daniel Rubinstein, warned in late August that if the Palestinian Authority seeks to upgrade its position at the U.N. General Assembly, "The U.S. will take punitive measures against it, including a cut in U.S. aid." Yet according toHaaretz, the Palestinian draft resolution to be submitted to the U.N. is almost identical to a proposal made by President Barack Obama several months ago that final borders be based on the borders as of June 4, 1967, and determined in negotiations with Israel. The administration’s apparent turnabout suggests that the American Israel Education Foundation got its money’s worth.
Not so the American people, however, whose security depends on a rational and even-handed Middle East policy rather than slavish devotion to Israel. Americans would have benefited far more had their congressional representatives observed at first hand some of the realities of Palestinian life under occupation. They did not see, for instance, a family sitting in the ruins of their home after it was demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Nor did they visit an emergency room in Gaza in which doctors were treating children with terrible burns, or with bodies filled with shrapnel, as a result of Israel’s most recent missile strikes.
The legislators might be better informed if they had witnessed the ordeal of 12-year-old Islam Tamimi, who was awakened at 2 a.m. by Israeli soldiers, dragged from his home blindfolded and handcuffed, and taken to an interrogation center. There, as Catrina Stewart of the London Independent reported on Aug. 27, he was grilled hour after hour while he begged to be allowed to sleep. Finally, delirious from exhaustion, the youngster offered to say anything the Israelis wanted him to say, including giving the names of men in his village. He then signed a confession in Hebrew, a language he does not understand.
According to the Independent, at least 7,000 Palestinian children like Islam have been detained since 2000, almost all of them subjected to physical abuse while in custody. Some of those children are likely to grow up asking why America was willing to bomb Libya in order to help Libyans achieve their freedom, but threatened to punish the Palestinians for trying peacefully to achieve theirs.