For as long as there are terrorists in Palestine, Israel can treat Palestinians as terrorists. And this, sadly, works absolutely to their advantage.
Five years ago, I was in a dusty little village in Palestine when I realised Israel’s dirty little secret: in order to survive, in its present form, Israel needs to have bad guys on the other side. Forget “partners for peace”. Extremist groups like Hamas are the yin to the Israeli government’s yang, the countervailing force which justifies their constant aggression and disregard for human rights and international law.
It was a minor example that I witnessed, but symbolic. The village, Bil’in, was cut off from its olive groves when the massive Separation Barrier was built, an imposing physical divide with Israel on one side and Bantustan on the other. (Palestine, I mean Palestine – slip of the keyboard.) Every couple of weeks, the villagers protested the loss without compensation of their main livelihood. They were joined in this protest by pro-Palestinian demonstrators from all over the world. By the time I got there, the Bil’in protests had become something of a showpiece. Political theatre of the most absurd.
Camera and notebook in hand, I joined the ragged band of 80 or so demonstrators as they marched towards the barrier, which at this section was composed of two sets of barbed wire and an electric fence. Ranged against us on the other side were a handful of bored-looking Israeli soldiers. As the chants got louder, the order came via loudhailer to disperse; the soldiers, I imagine, wanted to go home. The protestors weren’t ready for that yet, and stayed put.
Then the teargas started. Grenades of it were lobbed into the middle of the crowd by the soldiers, while others further away shot canisters at us; they sounded like mortar rounds as they screamed through the air. I ran away as fast as my scared legs would take me, which wasn’t fast enough. I got lungs full of the stuff, which burns its way painfully down your throat. I thought I’d swallowed a grater. Others were in more trouble. One unfortunate was hit in the head by a canister, and had to be rushed to hospital.
For me, the real shock was not the effect of the teargas, but that it was used at all. This was a peaceful protest, and had always been a peaceful protest for the dozens of weeks before this (each week, the response was similar or worse). There was no way any of us could have breached the barrier itself. We posed no threat to the soldiers. If they had just ignored us, we would have shouted ourselves hoarse – in the middle of an empty valley, remember, where there was no one else to hear us – and then gone home.
Instead, we were scared, angry and in pain. Even my impartial journalistic guard dropped: I did not appreciate being teargassed, and I could not understand the rationale for it.
So I started to research. Proper research, not just Google and the half-formed opinions of my friends in the pub. Eventually I got a master’s thesis out of it. I wanted to understand why the Israeli soldiers reacted in the way they did. I wanted to know if this was an isolated example of a heavy-handed response. And I wanted to know what the Israeli government thought it could gain from this.
I never found an answer that I could be 100% certain of. This is political science, not mathematics; there is always another way of looking at things, a different interpretation. But what I found was enough to convince me that Bil’in was no exception. Disproportionate force and Israel go hand in heavy, heavy hand, be it the violent response to all types of demonstrations, the assassination of young student leaders, or the imposition of a severe, restrictive blockade on one entire chunk of Palestine’s non-contiguous territory, Gaza.
As for the reason, that was even more interesting. For me, the only theory that fit the facts was that Israel deliberately provoked the Palestinian opposition in order to radicalise it; in order to make it more angry, to make its hatred of Israel even more vitriolic. This might seem counter-intuitive: surely Israel wants a moderate Palestinian opposition? An opposition that won’t terrorise Israelis? A partner for peace?
Sadly, it’s not quite so simple. The reality is that a moderate, considered Palestinian opposition is the single greatest existential threat to the Israeli state as it is currently constructed. Why? Because then Israel would have to negotiate seriously. Israel would have to make concessions. Israel would have to start respecting international law, and getting in line behind the United Nations Security Council resolutions which it currently ignores. This would involve some huge sacrifices for Israel, including much of the settlement activity which has decimated the West Bank over the last few years, turning what was one single territory into a spiderweb of Israeli areas and road spreading over what should be Palestinian land. It might involve recognising Palestine’s right to full statehood, which would allow Palestine to legitimately acquire weaponry; potentially a greater challenge to Israel than any terrorist group can ever be. It would also likely topple the current political establishment, which has always justified its hawkish behaviour as a response to the Palestinian threat.
However, as long as there is a radical element to Palestinian opposition – a Hamas, with all their crazy threats of destroying Israel – then Israel has every right to self-defence, or at least a decent argument in favour of it. Israel’s frequent and blatant violations of international law and human rights are justified under the rubric of the war on terror, as a necessary protection against the possible annihilation of the Jewish people (here looms the spectre of the Holocaust). As long as there are terrorists in Palestine, then Israel can treat Palestinians as terrorists – and get away with it.
It is no coincidence, in this reading, that the latest offensive in Gaza is taking place just as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas – who certainly falls into the moderate camp – is preparing another bid for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. The offensive draws all international attention to the more radical elements of Palestinian opposition, and guarantees more ‘terrorist’ activity in the form of Hamas rockets fired at Israel. It will also, without question, help to radicalise another generation of Palestinians; already talk in the West Bank is of launching a Third Intifada.
Israel complains frequently that there is no partner for peace on the other side. They might be right, but they can’t really complain: until they end this deliberate campaign of radicalising Palestinian opposition, they’ve only got themselves to blame. I suspect, however, that Israel’s leadership already knows all this. DM
Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.