This is a transcription of the talk given by Amira Hass, 7 April, 2015, at the St Kilda Town Hall, facilitated by the AJDS. The evening opened with Jordy Silverstein’s introduction and concluded with some questions from the audience.
This map of the West Bank, Settlements and the Separation Barrier was referred to during the talk.
My name is Jordy Silverstein, I am one of the members of the executive of the AJDS, who’s hosting tonight. I want to start by acknowledging that we’re on the land of the Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation, and to pay our respects to elders past and present. And we say that not just as lip service and not just because that’s the thing one says, but in order to take it seriously and think seriously about what that means to be walking on stolen land and to be living on stolen land, think about the ways that we perpetuate colonisation or ways in which we continue to use colonisation, how we benefit from it and what our responsibility is as people living on this land to really think about that in our everyday lives, not just on a particular moment when we hear an acknowledgement.
And also because we’re here of course to hear Amira Hass to learn more about Israel/Palestine, it’s important, I think, to think about connections between far off lands and the land on which we walk. We pay our respects.
We’re here to listen to Amira Hass, the incredibly inspiring journalist. Amira currently works for Ha’aretz. She lives in Ramallah, before Ramallah she lived in Gaza. She’s the author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza, her book, and recently her mother’s diary from Bergen-Belsen was republished by Haymarket with a preface and afterwards written by Amira. Unfortunately we don’t have the book here today but we encourage you to go out and seek them out and read them. So Amira will speak to us and then we’ll have some question time, so join me in welcoming Amira.
Thank you and good evening, thanks for coming. It’s Pesach for many people its sort of a holiday, and yet you come to hear things that are not happy… Allow me to sit down because I think better when I sit down.
At these very hours and days, the remaining 80,000 people of the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk in Syria, are going through hell, which is even worse than the hell they’ve been through in the last four years. The most natural thing for them would have been to go to the place to which they belong. All of them have relatives and friends and family and property and roots in the country between the Mediterranean and the Jordan valley. Mandatory Palestine, Israel, Occupied Territory, just name it as you wish. And yet they cannot get there. They could not, for years, when the ordeal in Syria started, many people fled and looked for a place to save themselves. It wasn’t even really raised as a possibility. I think that at one time Mahmoud Abbas raised it as a possibility but it was immediately dismissed.
At the same time, in this room, each one of you who is a Jew, and I think there are quite a few, can any moment, go to Israel, and become within a day a citizen of Israel, can enjoy physical movement within the country, in Israel and beyond the Green line, can choose to work and to live everywhere between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley, the Jordan River; each one of you can get social rights, and pass away these social rights and citizenship and everything to other relatives of his or hers.
This situation, that any Jew in the world, not only you, even those who have – and most of them do not have – any direct contact, any direct relation, to Israel, to the land of Israel, can come any moment and enjoy full rights, and at the same time Palestinians, who are there, who were born there, who have relatives there, do not have those rights. Actually every Jew in the world at any moment has more rights in Israel, than any Palestinian who lives there or does not live there; who was born there, or whose parents were born there. This situation, this reality, seems natural for many, for the great majority of Israeli Jews it seems natural and right, for many people in the world. Unquestionable. But this does not make this reality just.
There was a possibility, if there was a Palestinian state, a Palestinian state could have now decided to have Palestinian refugees from Syria save themselves from the ordeals, taken that there was the war that is taking place now and save them by having them in the West Bank or Gaza. This would have been the right thing for a Palestinian state to do, even a small Palestinian state. And logically, historically, this is not something that should seem to us impossible, because just 25 years ago the idea of a Palestinian state in the territories that Israel occupied in 1967, this idea of a Palestinian state there seemed very realizable, very near, very possible.
This is the main demand that the Palestinians had in the first Intifada. This was actually the mandate that the people of the first Palestinian uprising of 1987, the main thing they gave to the PLO; to go and work forward, push forward to a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state in the 1967 occupied territory. Even though it was only 23% of the original territory of Mandatory Palestine, 23% of the land, it seemed a fair solution. I don’t like the word ‘solution’ but it seemed a fair phase for the majority of Palestinians, and again, as I said, realizable. And actually in between 1991, when the Madrid talks started between the Palestinian delegation and Israel and other states in the region, with the partnership of Western states – these were the Madrid talks. So from the Madrid talks, and then also onto the Oslo talks, when Palestinians kept saying that this is the solution they envisioned, the solution to the ‘conflict’ – another word which I find difficult to use but for a shortcut I use it. The idea of a Palestinian state that the Palestinian leadership adopted and supported and wanted to promote, I see it not just as an idea, but as a present that the Palestinian leadership gave to Israel, and actually gave to the Jewish diaspora, not only to Israel. Because the idea of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel encapsulated in it a very nuanced historiography, or understanding of the nuanced historiography of our region.
The Palestinians never forgot or never gave up their belonging to the whole country. Palestinians could not disconnect themselves form their roots, from places such as Haifa and Yaffa and Safed and elsewhere. When they agreed to a state in only 23% of the land, they acknowledged not only that they are weak to get more, but they acknowledged that there is an Israeli society, that has developed over the years, that this society is there to remain, that there is an Israeli culture, that you cannot get rid of the people who have come over the years, and that in order to think about the future and about the wellbeing of the coming generations, the permanent tension and permanent danger of military brutality and military brutalisation has to be stopped. This is why they offered and agreed to the two state solution. They gave acceptance also to Israeli Jewish society, and the understanding that permanent wars are dangerous not only to Palestinians but also to the Jewish minority in the region – we are a Jewish minority in the region.
This very compassionate understanding embodies also the understanding that Israel is not only a product of colonialism. Yes. As Australia is a product of colonialism, as is settler colonial states, so is Israel. But there is something in the historiography of the state of Israel, which makes things a bit more complicated. And this is, I think, what the Palestinian leadership of that time, in the 1990s, understood. One cannot talk about Israel only as a product of colonialism because without the history of German Nazism and European Nazism, it is very likely that Israel would not have been established. There would have been no need for the state to be established. Zionism as a movement could not have succeeded.
We cannot solve the ‘ifs’ of history, but we know that the Zionist movement that advocated the establishment of a national home for Jews in Palestine did not attract the majority of Jews in the diaspora. On the contrary, the majority of Jews in the diaspora preferred to remain in the diaspora. They saw the diaspora as the natural place for them. Only when the murderous forms of anti-Semitism took shape in Nazi Germany, did people start to – or actually afterwards, after the results were known – did Jews start to see the Zionist movement as a movement of their own.
Not only that. As you well know – I don’t have to tell you much about this – but even through the 1920s and 1930s most of the Jews who felt persecution and the escalation of persecution in Europe preferred to emigrate. They didn’t think of going to Palestine. But most of the countries in the world did not want to have the Jews, did not want to accept the Jews who were fleeting from Nazi persecution and other anti-Semitic persecutions.
Zionism without people, international support and money, could not have succeeded the way it did as a colonial movement. This double feature of Israel – as a colonialist entity, but also as the refuge for Jewish refugees, and a result of, or as a link in a historical sequence of European murderous and anti-pluralistic past – we live with it all the time. We live with this duplicity all the time. This is a permanent contradiction in our lives. And the Palestinian acceptance of the idea of a two state solution in the 1990s was in a way a recognition of this permanent contradiction. And it was their very compassionate way to tell the descendants of the colonists and the people in Israel that there is a common future which is possible. But the condition was to stop, to cut the colonialist characteristics of Israel, which means the taking of land, taking over of land, the discrimination against Palestinians and of course the settlement process in the Occupied Territories, those occupied in 1967.
This was the frame of mind of most of the Palestinians at the beginning of the 1990s and of many of the supporters of the Israeli peace movement. There was an understanding now that Madrid, and with Oslo, the road was leading to a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, including Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, with sovereignty inside the territories, Palestinian National sovereignty, control over the borders, and an agreed solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees, which is the most difficult of course. But there was an understanding that these things are possible. Personally I was not hopeful with the signing of Oslo, but the spirit, the mood, the energies that one could sense in the early 1990s, were that this is leading to a state, to Independence.
It’s not just about the state. One of the leaders of the first Intifada told me, it is not the state just because of the state; it’s the state because of the essence of being free to decide about destiny, to decide about our future, to decide for our children.
You know the great majority of Palestinians today, inside the Occupied Territories, never knew anything but Israeli occupation. They were yearning, 20 years ago, to see how it is to run their authority on their own. If, as Palestinians thought, the Oslo accords would have led in 1999 to a Palestinian state, this Palestinian state could have now had those Palestinian refugees in Syria, and save them the hell in which they live right now, in this very moment.
This did not happen. Now, actually, since the moment that Israel started the so called “peace talks” with the Palestinians, and officially declared that it wants to have peace with the Palestinians, it did everything possible to foil this two state solution. It did everything to foil the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in the territory designated to it by international resolutions and international understanding. It was not UN resolutions, but when Norway, Europe and others accompanied the process of the Oslo talks, that this was the general understanding, this is the next step, this is the logical step to follow.
In 1991 and 1992, when the talks started, the West Bank and Gaza looked like a Palestinian territory with spots of Israeli enclaves in them, of Israeli Settlements. There were around 90,000 settlers in Gaza and the West Bank, and around 150,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. In general it looked like the best Palestinian space. And space also in the sense that one has freedom of movement in this space. And the Israeli enclaves, the Israeli islands of Settlements obviously have to be removed in order to enable the Palestinian state to be established. This was the situation in 1991-92.
Now parallel to the talks, and very gradually, and very openly, without hiding, Israel did everything possible to increase the number of settlement in the West Bank, in Gaza as well, and in East Jerusalem. People were encouraged to move there, and more so after 1993, after the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords. It not only encouraged Israelis to move to the Settlements. It built roads, bypass roads from Israel proper to the Settlements that of course secured the line of Israeli settlers, but also perpetuated the possibility of keeping those Settlements. Which means that during the five years that were supposed to be an interim period between the signing of the Oslo accords and the establishment of the Palestinian state, Israel built the infrastructure for a reality that impedes the possibility of having a state. Israel built the infrastructure of perpetuating an interim situation of no state, no Israeli full annexation, some kind of an in-between reality, where you can always enlarge the number of Israelis who live there, because they are secure, because they can drive from Israel to the Settlements without seeing one Palestinian. Because they can enlarge their Settlements, their little islands, thanks to a series of Israeli military laws that make the Palestinian land into state land, which means Jewish land, and many other such tricks.
According to Oslo, Gaza and the West Bank are one territorial unit, or one geographical unit. This is one of the few clauses in the Oslo accords that we could say is positive for the Palestinians. So both sides signed on this stipulation that Gaza and the West Bank are one territorial unit. In spite of that, from the very start of the 1990s, Israel made it clear that it disconnects Gaza from the West Bank. Now we tend to believe that this disconnection of Gaza and actually the closure and the seizure of Gaza started in 2007 after Hamas took over. Now, this is a myth. Because in reality, this disconnecting of Gaza from the West Bank, from the West Bank society started in the early 1990s. Now it’s a long story, and this was done actually by the introduction of a system very similar to the past system in South Africa during the apartheid. This is the regime of restrictions of physical movement. It’s only in 1991 that Israel started to demand that Palestinians, or rather, force Palestinians to have special travel permits in order to move from one part of the country to another.
During 20 years between the early 1970s until 1991, actually all Palestinians within the Occupied Territories had the freedom of movement, enjoyed the freedom of movement. In those 20 years in a strange way, under Israel direct occupation, the Palestinians exercised for the first time since 1948 what it is to return to be one people in the same borders, under the same regime, with differences of course because they are Israeli citizens, but still they exercise what it is to be a people in the same borders. It’s the first time that Palestinians could live as a people, which has family ties from the North to the South; could establish new family ties, come to know the Israeli society, go to study wherever you wanted. Gazans in the West Bank. There were West Bankers who went to study in Gaza, go to the beach, go to Tiberias, establish economic connections, etc.
For twenty years, this was a very empowering period for the Palestinian people, and I believe it is very much at the root of the first Intifada, this empowerment and some sort of optimism that people felt; the first Intifada came very much from this experience of being a people in your country, without internal borders. What happened in 1991 for many reasons and many pretexts, Israel actually decided to stop this unity, and this natural connectedness between Palestinians in different parts of the country. If until 1991 all the Palestinians in the country enjoyed freedom of movement, except some exceptions, mostly for political reasons, but a few exceptions, it has been the reverse since 1991, and until today.
Israel decided, and slowly, slowly and gradually, all Gazans were not allowed to leave Gaza. Gaza is a huge prison. And it didn’t start in 2007. Gaza is a huge prison where 99.99% of the population cannot leave. And it’s not only the question of leaving Gaza. It has implications for the economy of Gaza. It means they cannot study in the West Bank, they cannot marry in the West Bank. I know of spouses that are separated or cannot live together, the husband is obliged to go and live in Gaza because his wife is not allowed to go to the West Bank. I know people who separated because they cannot live together. I know people who have not seen their parents for eight years or ten years because people from Gaza are not allowed out, and people from the West Bank are not allowed to go to Gaza.
It’s not trivial. This freedom of movement is not a trivial thing. This freedom of movement means people have no control over their lives, no ability to be spontaneous because you cannot decide to just go and see friends, or to go and buy something elsewhere, or to see your family, and I think that spontaneity is a human right just like any other human right. You cannot plan, because if you depend on a permit which is not given then you cannot plan anything. It affects people’s opportunities of work, opportunities to study, and opportunities to develop.
So Palestinians in Gaza for the past 20 years have been under this regime of gradual and steady decrease and narrowing of their horizons to the effect that they are actually existing only. Not living but existing. And this is more than a third of the Palestinian population in Gaza. And this is without the wars and without the incursions and without the death toll in Gaza and before Hamas came to power. On the contrary, if you ask me, if there is a reason for Hamas to become so strong in Gaza, it is exactly because of this situation.
So here we have Gaza disconnected from the West Bank, and this is in contradiction to the Oslo accords, and to the general understanding in the world that Gaza and the West Bank are to comprise one territory and to be the basis of the Palestinian state. You have accelerated settlement policy in Jerusalem, carving of Palestinian neighbourhoods, dividing them by the presence of Israeli Jewish Settlements inside, in the midst. You have Hebron, which is one of the most tragic examples of how Israel did not mean to dismantle the explosives that the Settlements are. Because in 1994, when a Jewish doctor, an immigrant from the United States, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 Muslims praying in the most holy day of Ramadan, [in Hebron].
What happened then is Israel punished the Palestinians. It put a curfew on Hebron. It actually emptied Hebron of its Palestinian residents. It did not dismantle the Jewish Settlements, and in that time after the shock of this massacre, if Rabin had decided to dismantle both the Kiryat Arba settlement and the Settlements in Hebron, in the city of Hebron, most of the Israelis would have supported it. He could have done that. He didn’t do it. The presence of Jews, of violent, racist Jews inside Hebron is one of the major elements which prevent any advance into a state in the region.
And more and more over these last 20 years, we came to the reality that we see here. The great part, the brown part of the West Bank is what’s called Area 6, 61-62% Israeli control. It was supposed to be under Israeli control for five years and gradually be transferred to Palestinian control, even before the establishment of the state, but with many tricks Israel kept it, and today the general idea of the Israelis is that this is Israeli land, or at best this is “territory in dispute”. It is not occupied land, but it is territory in dispute. And in between you see the Palestinian islands. So here we see the inference of what was 25 years ago. 25 years ago we had the Palestinian space with Israeli islands, and today the reality is of the Israeli space, and this is connected to Israel in a way that people who come and do not know the place think that this is Israel and Palestinian enclaves, Palestinian islands.
It is even worse than how it looks here, because between those islands you have Israeli military positions and Israeli military camps and Settlements. At any moment, any Palestinian who goes can be shot by an Israeli soldier or an Israeli camp. Actually because of all the Settlements, and bypass roads and Israeli road blocks, and temporary check points, there is a sense of growing distance between each Palestinian part.
So what happened over these 20 years is that the Palestinians live in a space which shrank, but the distance from each other grew. And the time that it takes to go from one place to another doubled and tripled, because there is no direct way. So the space shrank, the space where people live shrank, and the distance grew, and actually the distance not only grew but it became unreachable. For the great majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem does not exist. Jerusalem, which is the capital, religious capital, was an economic capital, was a cultural capital, a political capital, does not exist. When I leave my house in Ramallah, for me it is a 25 minute – half an hour drive. For my neighbours, Jerusalem does not exist.
This is what I call the bantustanisation of the West Bank, or you can also call it Gazaification, because actually what happened is that Israel took the idea of Gaza as a separate enclave, and copied it to the West Bank. You have smaller Gaza Strips in the West Bank which potentially at any moment can be separated and disconnected from each other.
Now it wouldn’t be so bad if when we cross the green line we see a very similar process that actually has been happening over 70 years in Israel proper. Because when you look at Palestinian villages and cities and neighbourhoods in Israel proper, at the places where Palestinians live, you sense that it is the same political geography, the same process of shrinking, of taking all the space that these communities used to have, taking it and grabbing it for Jews, and letting them live in dense communities, in dense neighbourhoods, in dense villages. This is very similar. Also what is very similar is that wherever there are Palestinian communities in more open space, Israel does everything possible not to recognise those communities as legal.
It is true in the West Bank with many of the Bedouin communities and semi-nomadic communities. There are about – I counted once – there about 200 such communities, 230 small communities in what you see as the brown space of the West Bank, and at least half of them are in danger of being forcibly evacuated.
Now I don’t have to tell you that it is very similar to atrocities taking place, or could take place in Western Australia right now. A very similar situation, and it’s very similar to what Israel is doing in the Negev, Israel proper in the southern part of Israel, where Bedouin communities, Bedouin tribes who’ve been living there for years and have a very similar system of travelling between different stations as do the indigenous people here in Australia. Israel forced them into very dense, urban communities, and wants to continue to do that to the others.
So the bantustanisation that we see here is not just unique to the West Bank, but it is the same thing that has been happening in Israel proper, which Israel has been doing to the Palestinian population inside Israel over the last 70 years.
And when I ask myself what is the reason for this very unjust and violent political geography, I would say that this is the Israeli compromise. It is the compromise between a very basic inherent urge and philosophy of transfer, the will to get rid of all Palestinians and expel them out of the country, from the sea to the river, and the understanding that right now this is politically impossible. Israel acknowledges that it cannot get rid of the Palestinians in the way it did in 1948. Palestinians are different, the world around us is different. It cannot expel them as it did in 1948. So the compromise is to condense them, to compress them in those densely populated areas with infrastructure that is insufficient, with budgets that are insufficient, and with laws that discriminate against them in civilian matters.
As you see, it is not easy for me to say all this, it is my state. Very often I say that Israel is my diaspora, not my homeland but my diaspora. I very much feel a diasporic Jew or an East European Jew, but I was born in Israel, I was not born in Australia, I was not born in New York. My parents left the country, left Romania & Yugoslavia as refugees, not as Zionists. And I was born there, I was not born elsewhere because that’s where they went to. But still I was born there and I’m connected to the place. And the privileges that I have as a Jew in this country, in this state, are very bitter. And this is the reality in which we live, many of the very small Left wing that is in Israel, Jewish Left wing. We enjoy privileges that are very bitter for us, because privilege is bitter when you acknowledge it.
Giving up privilege will not change the reality. The thing is, as you know, if you are active here, the thing is what you do with the privilege in order to fight the regime of privilege. The thing is, that when you acknowledge it, even when you oppose it, even when you keep mentioning that you live on stolen land, or that you live on the land where others used to live and were very brutally kicked out and deprived of this land, unwillingly you collaborate with this system of privileges, even when you make such declarations. The thing is, what do you do with the privileges.
The question is, how do you manage to shrink the contours of this collaboration. To reduce the collaboration as much as possible. There are such groups in Israel that I am proud of, there are not many, but they are very creative, such groups that use their privileges as Jews in order to fight the regime of privileges. To fight against the Israeli methods of keeping Palestinians away from any political and social presence in Israel and methods of [the bantustanization of the West Bank] and shutting Gaza away in 1967 occupied borders.
[…] but in short I will repeat it, we are not threatened. We are privileged. We act against the regime of privileges but we do not risk ourselves. Israel is a democracy for Jews and we do not risk ourselves. And in a way this puts a much heavier responsibility and culpability on all those people who do understand that this reality of extreme inequality is unjust and unsustainable, and yet do nothing against it. It puts a very heavy responsibility on them. Unlike the Soviet Union, unlike Apartheid South Africa, where people who were dissident really risked their lives, we do not risk our lives. We do not risk our liberty. We do no risk our jobs. We remain very privileged and it is very easy to be a dissident in Israel.
That’s why even more so, it is such a grave thing that the great majority of Israelis enjoy their privileges and support Netanyahu, and support his regime, either directly or indirectly. It is not sustainable, but I cannot prophesise and say when this will collapse. I do think that in order for the two peoples – the Jewish people in Israel, and the Palestinians who live in Palestine and in Israel – to be saved from brutalisation, there is a great role for the Jews in diaspora. The Jews in diaspora have to play a greater role in order to prevent a disaster in that part of the world.
Questions from the audience
Q1. Why? What’s there motive? What’s happened since the 1990s? What’s the grand plan? Because to any sensible person a state of peace is better than what’s going on now. They can’t continue this indefinitely, and that’s what has me flabbergasted.
Q2. I’d just like you to say a few words about US-Israeli elections, especially in the light of the Obama Administration’s reappraisal of its relations with Israel since the Netanyahu victory last month.
Apparently America is reappraising its relations with Israel, its voting behaviour and international bodies. I’d like your views on that.
Q3. I’d just like to know maybe a slightly less political thing, but everyone says Palestinians, Palestinians. Who are they and are they like the Jews in Israel who are like a hundred types of Jews, a hundred types of affiliations, some secular, some radical, really mixed bag. Who are the Palestinians? Are they all the same?
So why Israel did not actually accept the very generous present of the Palestinians in the early 1990s. And you’re right to ask, because it was such a great opportunity for Israel to accept. We usually say that Palestinians never lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity, and here I can say that it’s Israel who lost an opportunity.
I guess, you know, it is things that I analyse from facts on the ground, from what Israel has been doing and not from declarations and not from secret documents, which I do not have. But the reality of two states, the reality of a Palestinian state next to Israel, which would have undone the “gains” of the 1967 war, would have paved the road to another reality. There is nothing final in history. You know, people now are engaged in a very heated argument about one state or two states and the one-staters are seen as the opposite of the two-staters. But this is for me… it is very strange, because there is nothing final. There are always phases in history. And the two state solution in such conditions, where it’s a gain-gain situation, could have eroded the logic of the nation state. Because the Israeli state, even the Israeli state in 1967 borders, is a bi-national state, because there are Palestinians. The removal of the threat of security would have deprived Israel of its pretext to discriminate against Palestinians in Israel. So it would have meant an erosion of the privileges of Jews.
Our privileges as Jews are very much connected to the permanent threat, the security threat. So the more we are threatened, the more we are connected to the United States, the more we develop our military power, the more we develop our military expertise, and the more we keep our privileges as Jews.
Now, the two state solution would have obliged for example to change the discriminatory distribution of wealth in Israel proper. Palestinians are discriminated against. It would have obliged Israel to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians to their lands, which is now the land they lost in 1948, in the same way that Australia, if it recognises the right of the Indigenous people here, big companies would have problems with their mining profits, etc.
A fair two state solution would have obliged Israel to acknowledge the principle of equal distribution of water. This is another very long lecture that I could have had here, because Israel imposes a quota on the water of Palestinians. And we in Israel got used to use water as if we live in Switzerland. And this is very much chained to the fact that so much water that we use, 80% of the water that the aquifers in the West Bank yield, Israel takes for itself.
And Gaza is a catastrophe because Israel does not allow them to connect. Palestinians in Gaza have to suffice with the water that the aquifer yields in Gaza. So if in 1948, before the influx of refugees there were around 200,000 residents in Gaza, they consumed around 10,000 cubic metres of water very year, and this was around a fifth of the yearly quantity of the aquifer, now you have 1,800,000 people that use the same aquifer and the same quantity (50,000m2). So the water is undrinkable in Gaza. Actually, what Palestinians use is mostly sea water, some sewerage mixed with some clear water. Israel refuses to connect Gaza to the rest of the country, because of this policy of separation. Because if there was a Palestinian state, this should have been addressed, the right of Palestinians to have quality in distribution of water.
With the withering away of the Israeli welfare state, Israel actually created an alternative welfare state in the Occupied Territories. In the Settlements, Israelis are offered benefits, a chance to upgrade their economic situation, a chance they don’t have in Israel proper because it stopped being a welfare state. For many Israeli Jews, this is their chance to upgrade their socio-economic situation. That’s why you see so many people, for example, of development towns, what you call Mizrahi Jews, who are very discriminated against in Israel, and still they were against the withdrawal from Gaza, the dismantling of the Settlements, because even if they didn’t move to the Settlements, the idea that you have something that can fix your situation is very soothing.
You are right that in the end it is irrational; that this rejection of the very generous offer of the Palestinians is irrational, because, unlike the Australians and the Americans, the White Americans and the White Canadians, we are not a majority in the region. Israel, very often I feel, likes to liken itself to the other colonial settler states and rightly to say that we, unlike America and Australia and others, we, and happily so, we did not exterminate. This is one thing that is not similar. The Palestinians were not decimated. And this is to be happy about. But Israel forgets, when it likens itself to other states and boasts about this difference, it forgets that we are a minority in the region, and we need to prove that we are not there as crusaders, that we are not there as permanent crusaders, that we are not there as enemies of the rest.
But the calculations are always very short termed, and probably, you know, when you look over the past 20 years you can say, this has worked, this policy, this Israeli policy of rejection of Palestinian rights in their land, has proven successful. In 1948 we were not accepted by the Arab states and by the Palestinians. The idea of a state for the Jews, was not accepted. Gradually there were all sorts of agreements, de facto peace with the neighbouring regions, then there were peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and with the Palestinians. The peace process with the Palestinians made Israel more acceptable in the region than ever. And it works, because when the Palestinians signed on the Oslo Accords, they actually also accepted the Settlements.
So Israel thinks that this graduality can continue forever. I think this is exactly where they are wrong, of course. But so far, they believe that military might, which has also been developed to a very large extent during the last 20 years, we are now one of the main exporters of military and security knowledge in the world. More than we were before Oslo. So we have this occupied territory as a permanent laboratory for our military and security.
And this brings me to the question about the United States. Yes, I do hope that they are reappraising, but we still have to see it happening, to see the result on the ground. Will America vote differently in the U.N. regarding all sorts of resolutions on Palestine and Palestinians and Palestinian state? Will they withdraw their objection to the Palestinian steps in the ICC, the International Criminal Court? Will they stop the very generous security support to Israel? The problem is it’s not just the support, because we are talking about military alliance, or security alliance, or strategic alliance between Israel and the United States.
Personally, I cannot even imagine how deep this military strategic alliance is. We just know, we get all kinds of hints here and there, that the military cooperation, the invention of weapons, the working on new weapons all the time, ones more and more sophisticated, makes Israel much more than a client of United States, but a partner. That’s why I’m very cautious. I’m not sure at all that this reappraisal is as deep as we would like to hear. I don’t have the proof, but concerning the Bantustans, for example, that I was talking about, the United States for the past 20 years has become the greatest donor to the Palestinian authority. It looks surprising. But when you go and analyse the content of their support, a great part of it goes towards infrastructure in roads; but roads that enable the existence of the Bantustans. Roads that actually improve the internal connections between the Bantustans, in the areas which the Israelis do not control directly, which means the areas of Palestinian control, the A and B areas, these enclaves.
So the logic, the American donations strengthen the logic of the Bantustans. They do give money for, in Gaza for example, they do not pressure on Israel to connect the Gazans to the water grid inside the country. They encourage the Palestinians to develop desalination projects, desalination plants. I want to see them doing like other states, doing projects in area C, where Israel controls and demands to authorise and give permit to any project. I’m waiting for them to do something against what Israel is doing. This will be the real test if the reappraisal is serious or not.
Now, who are the Palestinians?
When I moved to Gaza in 1993, and then people started asking me why you moved to Gaza? So over the years I started to get fed up of all these questions, so I had three readymade answers. One of them, that I can repeat till today when asked why I moved to Ramallah, is that I’m a typical Jew so I like to live in the diaspora, or that I’m a typical Jew and I like to be a minority. Another answer that I gave about Gaza is that, after all I’m an East European Jew, even though I was born in Israel. My normal framework or normal space that I can imagine is a shtetl, and I found a shtetl in Gaza. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody gossips about everybody and in times of trouble everybody helps everybody. So this is Gaza.
Of course it’s not only that. 70% of the population in Gaza are refugees. People who lived in villages and cities in historic Palestine and came as refugees. And actually it brought together people from different regions and from different villages to live one next to the other. So Gaza encapsulates Palestine in a very small area, 365 square kilometres. A very small area. 365 square kilometres. You Australians can appreciate how small it is. Almost two million people.
Can I generalise about it? No I cannot. On the contrary, the more I know about Palestinians the less I can generalise. You cannot describe everyone, the four million; I don’t know the four million. Very often I feel they have a very similar sense of humour, like we do. It is the sense of humour of the persecuted, sense of humour of the oppressed, sense of humour of the poor, sense of humour of refugees, I don’t know but it’s very similar. At least to the Jew that we have in our imagination.
Yes, there are more and more that are religious, and I think that religion has become, is actually saving them, religion, belief in God, belief in the prophecies of the Quran is helping them to resist the hardships. Because, this is another very bitter and painful realisation for me after having lived with them for 20 years. It is not only that every Palestinian has been harmed by us, by Israel, losing life, land, house, homeland, job, property. Every Palestinian inside Israel, inside the occupied territory, is threatened and may lose, or may experience a disaster, a new disaster in his or her life, any day, any moment, either by Israeli military decree, or by Israeli Knesset law. Everything is legal, everything is done by Israeli jurists, who studied in the best law faculties in the world. Everything is kosher, and everything can turn people’s lives upside-down. Families cannot see each other, people cannot marry, people lose jobs, people lose land, and this is not only in the 1967 occupied territory.
So with religion, and with God, with the promises in the Quran that God is punishing those who do so much harm, that God will eventually punish them, I feel it strengthens them, or it enables people to continue. Because I am every often amazed at how they continue. You know, people talk about the suicide attacks, which were horrible, and people talk about the hatred. Yes, that’s true. But I tell you the truth that I am very often saying, that what’s surprising is that there are not more suicide attacks, and not more hatred. And its actually when you come to talk to Palestinians more and more you can be surprised at how they are able not to hate, and how easy it is to arouse in them compassion and understanding and friendliness. Indeed, when I say that we lost the opportunity, or when we rejected the present, I mean every word of it, because I’ve lived with these Palestinians for 20 years, and I was surprised at how ready they were for some sort of arrangement, settlement, that is not justice, not fully just, understanding that you cannot have total justice, but it looks forward to the future.
Now the tragedy is that I feel there is a different attitude. There are more youngsters that are so embittered because Israeli policies of the post 20 years that they actually go back to the discourse of the 1950s and the 1960s, the discourse that says that Israel should not be, and that Jews should go back to where they came from. Now I don’t say it’s a majority, but you hear such voices, you hear such voices that every Israeli, even Left wing Israelis, even those who are against the Occupation, are illegal settlers in the country. It’s because the young generations did not have a chance to know the Israeli society. What they know is the settlers and soldiers. So for them this is an unsustainable society. A crazy, artificial, un-logical, irrational society that will decompose by itself. Because they don’t know the Israeli society that does exist, and can be very, even charming, let me say.
You know, I think that this generation, when I talked about the generation, or the years between 1970 and 1991, when the Palestinians had the freedom of movement and discovered Israeli society, they discovered even a society that you can like.
I’ll give you an example. I’m jumping from one period to another, but at the beginning of the second Intifada, still at the stage where it would have been more popular and nor military stage, there was one of the demonstrations, at the time when there were all sorts of suicide attacks and Palestinian armed people used arms, Arafat tried to stop it because it started to go out of hand. There was one of those demonstrations in Ramallah towards one of the Israeli military positions. And I marched by accident near Marwan Barghouti, who was the leader of Fatah and now is in jail, and he was wanted but still he was brave enough to march in this demonstration, and there was another person, I will not mention names, he is dead now, he was a senior advisor of Arafat’s, and he wrote a series of articles at that time saying that Arafat actually started the armed Intifada, gave the orders to start the armed Intifada, and that now it has to stop, this armed Intifada. Now, this was very good for the Israeli intelligence because that’s what they claimed all the time, that the armed Intifada started because of Arafat’s direct orders. And for me it was… everybody who saw, knew that this was not the case, but this was clear because Arafat wanted to stop this armed Intifada so he had to claim that he started it in order to stop it.
So I teased him a bit, this senior advisor who wrote this article, I said, oh the Israeli intelligence is pleased with you. And he said “but the truth has to be said,” like this, and we spoke in Arabic, and then Marwan Barghouti tells me in Hebrew, “Ah, don’t believe him he is a liar” in Hebrew. Now the guy doesn’t know Hebrew because he came from Tunis, so he was upset with us, he understood that Marwan said something about him and Marwan continues and tells me “Ah, those Tunisians, they don’t understand Hebrew, they are Goyim.”
Another example. In these 20 years so many Gazans used to work in Israel. Many of them were exploited terribly by Israeli employers, but there are many who had established very warm, friendly contacts with their Israeli employers. To such an extent that during Israeli wars on Gaza, those former employers, who hadn’t seen they’re ex-workers for many years, not only did they call to ask how they were doing, but they sent them money to support them after the war and destruction.
I meant to enter Gaza after the first war, in 2009, and this is one of the things that really – I did not plan it, it’s one of the things that you come across in such a surprising way. I went from one destroyed house – in the first days I went to see people mostly in farms in the villages in Gaza that were flattened by Israeli bulldozers. And many of those farmers used to work in [Israeli businesses]. Not only did they start talking Hebrew to me when they understood I was an Israeli, but many of them told me how their ex-employers called them, asked about their situation and sent them money, or found ways to send them money.
So first I thought that maybe they want to please me because I am an Israeli, but then I started to hear the same thing form other foreign journalists, that they’d heard the same thing from Palestinians. And just this week I heard from a young Gazan that I met here in Melbourne, he participated in the same Marxism conference that I participated in, and we were chatting and he said, “You know Palestinians have these good relations with their ex-employers.” And he told me about his uncle that he heard during the war talking in Hebrew, he was very, “be careful, why do you talk in Hebrew on the phone?” And he said, that’s my ex-employer and he wants to send me money.
This is a reality that is vanishing now, because the young generation does not know such Israelis. This was the question about the Palestinians. I cannot generalise, just as we cannot generalise about any other people.
Once I was asked, a few months before the second Intifada, I was asked by some Palestinians who met me for the first time in another demonstration against the expansion of settlements, which now, of course, are much more expanded, in the West Bank. They were surprised to hear that I live in Ramallah and they asked me, “So what do you think about us Palestinians?” And I said, you know, I think that you have a big problem, you have one big problem. What is it? That you are too patient.
Now, I must say that at that time I was not aware that actually what I was saying could have been interpreted as an insult to religion, because this is virtue, being patience is a religious virtue. But very luckily they were not offended. Only they called me afterwards, when the Intifada started they called me and told me “You see?!”
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