Jerusalem-Ariel Sharon appears determined to wreak havoc on the Palestinian Authority. Events in December suggest that the Israeli prime minister’s strategy may be to unseat Yasser Arafat in the hope of precipitating an inner Palestinian conflict, perhaps even a civil war. Israel, so the twisted logic goes, can then help set up a puppet government while changing the West Bank’s territorial demarcation-the Lebanon debacle revisited.
“For Israel, September 11 was a Hanukkah Miracle,” Israeli political and security officials recently told the newspaper Ha’aretz. Thousands of American fatalities are considered a godsend-in this cynical world-simply because their deaths helped shift international pressure from Israel onto the Palestinians, while allowing the Israeli government to pursue its regional objectives unobstructed. And indeed, in the past months, the United States has unfalteringly supported all of Israel’s actions.
A series of deadly suicide attacks inside Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad helped Sharon receive a green light to carry out his plans. Returning on December 9, he convened a cabinet meeting at which the Palestinian Authority was designated an entity supporting terrorism. F-16 jets began bombing Arafat’s offices in Gaza and destroying the two helicopters he uses for transportation even before the meeting concluded. Other Palestinian Authority structures were attacked in Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah, including key state institutions. Not even a murmur of protest was heard from the Bush administration.
On the contrary, on the following day Arafat was handed a list of the “33 Most Wanted” leading militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He was asked by both Israel and U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to arrest them immediately and to shut down all Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices. As arrests were underway, a failed Israeli attempt to assassinate Islamic Jihad activist Mohammed Ayoub Sidr in Hebron killed two Palestinian children. Arafat’s protests that Sidr was not on the “wanted” list and that Israel cannot expect him to effectively crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad while it continues its assassinations were conveniently ignored.
The bloodshed continued. On December 10, a Palestinian attack on a bus left 10 Israelis dead and many more wounded. The Israeli cabinet convened again, this time stating that the Palestinian Authority was solely responsible for the attack and that Arafat had become an “irrelevant figure.” On December 13, Sharon directed the military to mount an all-out assault on the Palestinian Authority. Altogether, in the first two weeks of December, 52 Palestinians and 34 Israelis were killed, 16 of them minors.
As the cycle of violence continues, what remains of the Israeli political left has been trying to mount some kind of viable opposition. Weekly protests in front of the prime minister’s house, scores of soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories, and hundreds of people breaking the military siege by transferring basic foodstuffs to Palestinian villages-these are just a few of the activities taking place on a regular basis. They have not, however, managed to challenge the hegemonic spirit of war.
Israel’s gravest danger today is not the Palestinian Authority, or even Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but the one it faces from within. During the past year, peace activists have been “invited” to meetings with the secret service, where they are “warned” about their activities. The secret service routinely intercepts the e-mails of peace groups, and often obstructs solidarity meetings or protests in the West Bank by declaring whole regions “closed military zones.” For months, the Gaza Strip has been totally closed off to Israelis from the peace camp-including members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset-and only Jewish settlers, journalists and soldiers can now enter the region. The security forces’ ongoing attempts to frighten activists have surely affected the left, but their attack on civil liberties is only one manifestation of much broader social processes taking place within Israel.
Israeli intellectuals who criticize the government are often attacked, not only by the establishment inside Israel, but by its international proxies. Middle East Quarterly recently published an article titled “Israel’s Academic Extremists.” Written by “a watchdog team of researchers keeping an eye on Israel’s universities”-the actual author is not mentioned-the article goes after 20 Israeli professors (including this one) using lies and half-truths to defame and blacklist them.
Worse is the blatant racism and hatred of the “other” that pervades every aspect of Israeli political discourse these days. Jewish cabinet ministers repeatedly refer to the Arab Knesset members as a fifth column of Arafat’s agents and collaborators. In the past year, there has been a concerted effort to delegitimize them; six out of the 10 Arab Knesset members from opposition parties have undergone police investigations for “anti-Israeli” statements made during political speeches, while the immunity of one has already been stripped.
Simultaneously, Israel’s public radio and television have prevented Arab leaders from voicing their grievances by ceasing to interview them and, in this way, have intensified the alienation felt by their constituency, which comprises a fifth of Israel’s citizenry.
Adopting the nationalistic refrain, the Israeli media, which were once known for their critical edge, now silence all opposition, broadcasting almost solely those views conforming to the official line. TV crews pass by as if the peace groups-standing at peace rallies in front of government offices, chanting anti-war slogans-were thin air. By rendering the peace camp invisible to the public at large, the Israeli media helps make it powerless.
But the peace camp also bears some responsibility, since it has not adapted its strategies to the new situation. The time has come to modify its methods of protest, shifting its strategy from mere opposition to nonviolent resistance. Only widespread civil disobedience can bring an end to the dreadful cycle of violence and destruction. It is up to the left to do everything possible so that years from now people won’t ask (as we wonder about other times and places) how it was that a whole population didn’t realize what was happening.
Neve Gordon’s essay “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” co-authored with George Lopez, recently appeared in the book Ethics and International Affairs (Rowman and Littlefield). He teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.