I’ve realised that I need to refer to events before 1977 and continue from the last post to The Promised Land where Shavit ponders on Page 266 why peace between Palestinians and Israelis is still not possible, “What is needed to make peace between two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon. They will not give up their demand for what they see as justice. We shall not give up our life.” He thinks that neither side can recognise the other and make peace. This is despite of many world famous Israelis opposing occupation and trying to male peace Without that mutual recognition, for the most benign reasons he thinks their promise of peace was false.
I think military victories in 1948, 1956 (Suez) and the June 1967 Six Day War had given Israel a sense of overwhelming power relative to Egypt, Syria and Jordan. More importantly for Israelis East Jerusalem was captured which allowed them the first opportunity since 1948 to pray at the last remaining wall of the old temple which was and remains the most important religious site for all Jews. Other religious sites on the West Bank became accessible because of the occupation, the best known of which is in Hebron where the main Mosque is important to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War changed Israelis views about their military power. This was because for a time there was a threat of the Syrian Army invading Galilee in Northern Israel and the Egyptian Army extending their capture of the Suez Canal’s northern bank by extending themselves further into the Sinai peninsula. For a brief period defeat was a threat and there was a realisation that if their enemies were victorious that the continued existence of the country would be in doubt. With assistance in rearming by the USA Israel’s Army counter attacked on both fronts, extending further into Syria over the Golan heights and the Egyptian Army which invaded the Suez was cut off. The war ended without any agreement regarding a lasting peace. Shavit thinks that Israelis felt betrayed by their government in the 1973 War because the illusion of power which had been established was shown to be false and lost trust in the system which they thought had protected them.
Before the 1977 election there had been an increasing opposition to the State Socialism of the Labour party which focussed on the country’s development without considering the individual citizens needs. This led to the Labour Party losing their majority in the Knesset and a Likud Government led by Menahim Begin who became the Prime Minister. Shavit thinks that that the common planks that maintained Israeli unity started to fray, with the nations identity changing and fracturing from collective to hedonistic.
Shavit shows that the most significant change since 1977 has been settler incursion into the West bank and the establishment of settlement blocs. Before then after 1973 the settler movement established its own political party called Gush Emunim, with large popular support. They used the experience from Israel’s creation to plan expansion onto the West bank, on this occasion seeking to occupy the ancient biblical Jewish home in Judea and Samaria. They were thwarted for 1 1/2 years, with attempts to establish illegal settlements prevented by the Israeli army and any buildings demolished. However support for the movement grew in religious and non-religious Israelis, Gush Emunim was seen as leading zionism where other means had ended. Their leaders Pinchas Wallerstein and Yehuda Etzion started planning a move to Samaria to occupy a military base. On 20 April 1975 they led a convoy which took over Ein Yabrud base. When they were arrested another leader Yanan Porat put enormous pressure on the Defence Minister Shimon Peres and three of his hawkish aides. Later that night he instructed the Army not to assist the settlers but not to evacuate them. Settlement expansion increased and in 1977 Begin’s cabinet agreed to recognise the first settlement called Ofra. While in 1979 Israel handed back the Sinai to Egypt, peace there is contrasted by the West bank where settlements prevent any resolution with Palestinians there and in Gaza. In 28 years of office Wallerstein expanded settler numbers to 43000.
From Pages 223-224 I’ve paraphrased Shavit’s description of a confrontation he had with Pinchas Wallerstein about Ofra, the first illegal Israeli settlement. He told Wallerstein that despite of expansion on the West bank settlers remained a minority in Judea and Samaria, failing because the international community will never recognise settlements as legitimate and ordinary Israelis never embraced the settlements. He suggests they are at a dead end and their illegality taints Israel itself because in the 21st Century there’s no room for a colonialist entity the West is gradually turning its back on Israel. Shavit predicts a great war and thinks that Israel will be isolated, ostracised and divided-hardly able to protect itself. When Shavit spoke with him Yehuda Etzion described his plan which is for a new Jerusalem, a city without Mosques and Arabs, with a third Temple
Shavit asks whether the illegal settlements are a benign or malignant mutation of zionism. He suggests they are both because occupation used the same methods to establish illegal settlements and there is a link with the first 20th century Jewish settlers. He concludes that the historical and conceptual context is totally different, not a continuation but an aberration. Shavit thinks that Zionism was aware that it skated on thin ice, a mixture of a national liberation movement and a colonialist movement, it intended to save the lives of one people by the dispossession of another. He believes in its first 50 years zionism was aware of the contradiction and acted accordingly. It tried not to be associated with colonialism and to cause unnecessary hardship. Shavit thinks it ensured it was a democratic, progressive and enlightened movement, collaborating with similar world forces of progress. HIs view is that it came out of the 1948 war just and strong, with a Jewish democratic state with clear borders and a large Jewish majority, turning the conflict between an emigrant community and a native population into a conflict between sovereign states.
In March 1991 Shavit as a young journalist reported to a military base for his annual reserve duty which was to serve a jailor in a Gaze detention camp. He writes that he seriously considered refusing to serve, breaking the law. He decided to write about his experience and had an article called ‘On Gaza beach’ published in Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper and later in the New York Review of Books. Shavit writes about his experiences in the camp then how the soldiers spoke about their jailor roles. He writes on Page 230, “Yet an evil stench is in the air that even the Mediterranean breeze cannot carry away. Although unjust and unfounded, the haunting analogy is pervasive. Here it is not suggested by anti-Israeli propaganda but rather in the language the soldiers used as a matter of course. When A gets up to do guard duty in one of the interrogation wards he says, “I’m off to the Inquisition.” When R sees a line of prisoners approaching under the barrels of his friends M-16’s, he says with quiet intensity:” Look the Aktion has begun.” An even N, who harbours strong right wing views, grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp. M explains with a thin smile that he has accumulated so many days of reserve duty during the intifada that soon they will promote him to a senior Gestapo official.
Shavit describes the experience of being a jailor and accepts reluctantly that the analogy between his experience in Gaza and events in Nazi Germany was too strong. The most significant difference is that there were no crematoria there. He blames the Israeli Secret Service Shin Bet for the evils which took place in the camp. He describes how the agents handed names of close friends of youngsters they’d broken in the Interrogation ward to paratroopers who later drove to the darkened city to arrest those they believe endangered the Israeli state. Later on Shavit watches the paratroopers return with their young prisoners who grit their teeth, their eyes bulging from their sockets. In some cases they’ve already been beaten. Soldiers watch them undress, shivering in their underwear. As they tremble with fear even S who owns a plastic factory in the occupied territories said with unbelief, “How have we come to this? He asks, “How have we come to chasing such kids?”
Shavit questions whether the camp doctor is to blame for the analogy haunting him. While he doesn’t think he’s like Mengele, an infamous Auschwitz Doctor when he wakes him late at night to treat a detainee who was barefoot, bruised who’d just been bought in, looking as if he was having an epileptic fit-the doctor shouts at him. And although the detainee is barely seventeen and complains that he was just beaten on his back and stomach and over his heart and although there are indeed ugly red marks all over his body, the doctor shouted loudly at him, “ I wish you were dead.” Or maybe the screams are to blame for his inability to rid his mind of the comparison. Sharif can’t forget the horrific screams he heard after the end of his watch on the way to shower. He writes “Fifty yards from the showers people scream. They scream because someone wearing a uniform like him makes them scream. They scream because his Jewish state makes them scream. His beloved democratic Israel methodically, orderly and in an absolutely legal fashion makes them scream.”
Shavit thinks that the camps didn’t interrogate dangerous spies or terrorists and the operation isn’t counterespionage. What Israel did was crack down on a popular uprising, a forceful occupation of another nation. Shavit thinks the soldiers with him came from all levels in the Israeli state. He concludes what he experienced was without parallel in the West. This was and remains systematic brutality no democracy can endure. He accepts he was part of it and complied. He writes that he still can’t forget the screams. Shavit thinks those who carried out atrocities didn’t know what they were doing, they were simply following orders.
Shavit writes that most reservists were shocked when they first arrived and found people caged in pens inconceivable, hearing the screaming for the first time they are shaken. Yet only two out of sixty reservists refused to do guard duty in the Interrogation ward, only between four to five are really tormented. After a day or two the others adjust, with what they experience becoming routine. Yet even with this experience Shavit can’t believe that anyone involved with the camps is evil. “Government members who represent right wing electors aren’t evil, they don’t hit the boys themselves. The army chief isn’t evil, he carries out what a legitimate elected government requires him to do. The commander of the camp isn’t evil, he is doing the best he can under impossible circumstances. The interrogators aren’t evil, after all they are doing their job. And they are told it is impossible to govern the occupied territories unless they do all this. As for the jailors most of them aren’t evil, either. They only want to leave this all behind and go home.”
Shavit writes about the peace movement and his own enthusiasm as a White Ashkenazi Supporter of Peace’ (WASP). He thinks the main problem was that the movement had no ‘Arabs.’ By the time he was 30 years old he started listening to Palestinians that he realised that the promise of peace was unfounded, because it had no empirical basis. While it was benign the idea was trapped by the systematic denial of the brutal reality in which Israelis live, with their fate decided by their own deeds. HIs view is that both solutions from the right wing and peace movement were unrealistic, annexing the West bank or handing the area back won’t work. Shavit spoke with Yossi Beilin who was behind the Oslo peace negotiations who told him that if it had been up to him he’d have chosen a final status agreement immediately. Yitzhak Rabin who was prime minister then didn’t want that option in his opinion and he had to adjust to this aim. After the White House Ceremony when Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands with Bill Clinton present Beilin went to Tunisia where he started to negotiate a real peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas. Unforeseen events intervened to end the process, in February 1994 Baruch Goldstein committed the Hebron massacre and in November 1995 Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. Shavit believes that if Rabin hadn’t been assassinated “Peace would not have been assassinated…..Israel would have peace with Palestine, Syria and the Arab world.
Since 1977 Israeli society has fractured through different interest groups. There are now serious differences between religious and secular Israelis. In search of a modern ‘Land of Israel’ religious Jews have established themselves on the West Bank in areas which have biblical significance, dreaming of Judea and Samaria linked to a Palestinian free Jerusalem with its holy places. They have no interest in Israel within the pre-1967 borders, referring to the areas east of Jerusalem as the ‘secular lowlands.’ Secular Israelis are critical of religious Israelis because most of them don’t complete military service, many study and don’t work, their Yeshivas receiving generous payments and subsidies are paid to settlers on the West bank. Growing income inequality threatens unity as differences have emerged between wealthy Ashkenazi and poorer Sephardi Jews. Russian Jewish immigration to Israel after 1981 has created a new tension. Religious political parties have been a powerful influence on Israel through since its establishment. However new parties have emerged to challenge the status quo, with Aryeh Deri creating Shas, a new Sephardic religious party. In 1984 this oriental ultra-orthodox party gained 4 seats in the Knesset in its first election campaign. Shavit thinks the left liked him because he wanted peace, the right because he assisted settlers, representing them without alienating other communities, the first oriental Jew who’d broken into Israel’s inner circle of power.
Deri power started decreasing in June 1990 when he was accused of corruption by an Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot and criminal investigations which would lead to him being jailed started. While his traditional Sephardic support remained Shavit thinks he was a successful Minister of the Interior in the early 1990’s, leading the absorption of Russian immigrants and courageously supporting Rabin with the peace process. Conversely he shows that before he was imprisoned Deri established a separate arrangement for his supporters, a religious oriental world funded by the government it challenged and undermined, building a sectarian education and welfare system which replaced the decaying universal Israeli welfare state.
Despite of the criminal case against Deri Shavit thinks that he understood how the peace process had been ended by terrorism with fear gripping Israel which he used in the 1996 elections. Nationally the poor Sephardi movements icon was Benjamin Netanyahu, channelled through Shas which had 10 seats in the Knesset. Deri said after he was convicted for taking bribes that the Zionist vision had failed because they weren’t really Zionists because of their prejudice against Sephardic Jews, persecuting them for ethnic and religious reasons. Despite of these humiliations he thinks Shas and its supporters Would change the character of the Israeli state.
I think changes since then show Deri was right. I think My Promised Land is a shocking, disturbing and frightening description of how Israel is today. Fear motivates Israel’s policies against the Palestinians and those international movements the state believes opposes their policies. Interestingly I don’t think that Ari Shavit has been able to analyse what he’s written for any conclusions. This is because of what he’s discovered about Israel in writing the book is a fundamental challenge to someone who’s a zionist and I think believes in Israel as it was originally defined by Ben-Gurion as a ‘light to the nations’. This in my view shows that in order for there to be any prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine (including the Gaza) international intervention is needed to establish a framework then actively lead any negotiations take place. This is where I end my contemplation and move to direct involvement in achieving peace. While I consider this option for a final post I invite anyone who wants to respond.