5 JUNE 1982, Page 12

Israel: the death of liberalism

Christopher Hitchens

Shortly after the Camp David agreement on Palestinian 'autonomy', Prime Minister Menahem Begin made an extraor- dinary speech in the Knesset in which he said that Israel would allow 'autonomy for the people but not for the land'. Today, Professor Menahem Milson sits as head of the Israeli administration of the West Bank and speaks of his concern not for the land, but for the Palestinian people who must be rescued from the thraldom of the PLO. A few miles down the road is Bassam Shaka'a, forcibly deposed as mayor of Nablus and mutilated by a terrorist bomb into the bargain. He is more blunt. 'They want the land,' he says, 'but they don't want the people. That is our struggle and our daily life.'

It is now 15 years to the month since Israeli soldiers took the West Bank. At the time, the world decided that it was stunned by the military elan of Moshe Dayan and his citizen army. The world also elected to be impressed by the fighting spirit of the Jewish people, and the daring which had saved their small state and its inhabitants from being chivvied into the sea. In the subsequent decade and a half, which has seen the extension of permanent Israeli power to the Golan Heights and to South Lebanon, as well as its withdrawal from Sinai and its gradual spread over the West Bank and Gaza, the world has allowed itself a second thought. Israeli spokesmen claim that the new reputation of Israel as an ex- pansionist and colonising power is unfair. They attribute their bad press to political prejudice, to opportunist alliances between Europe and the Arab Gulf, and sometimes even to anti-semitic bigotry. But in fact their image has not been smeared all that badly. In dealing with the Palestinian in- habitants of the occupied territories (now at last acknowledged as a people in their own right) Israel has enjoyed one great and per- sistent advantage. It is 'an open society'. It is 'the only democracy in the Middle East'. The occupation may not be blameless, but it is more 'humane', more 'liberal' than any other comparable presence.

Sometimes these claims have exceeded the credulity of their hearers. Israel used to tell its many friends on the European Left that it was also the only socialist republic in the region; a boast that has been muted since Mr Begin won the election in 1977. Now, it is more often said officially that the West judges Israel by higher standards than it applies elsewhere. Through this ingenious logic, the whole expropriation of Palesti- nian land and life seems, in a way, to con- firm Israeli propaganda. Do the elections in the towns on the West Bank reveal majority support for the PLO? That just shows how democracy flourishes. Do the editors of the entire Palestinian press protest at crippling censorship? A free press in action: we give our enemies equal time. Do the villagers of Nablus go to court to contest the confisca- tion of their fields and orchards for Israeli settlement? Pluralism itself. Are there Jewish vigilante groups who terrorise Palestinian civilians? Every democratic country has its lunatic fringe. Do Israeli soldiers go on record about the brutality they witness? That just demonstrates the extent of tolerance and debate. Do the universities of Birzeit and Bethlehem pro- test that they are hampered and in- timidated? This illustrates the breadth of the education system.

On two visits to Israel in the past year, I've concentrated on these questions and their answers. The more one studies them, the more the questions seem real and the answers misleading or self-deceiving.

professor Menahem Milson used to hold the chair of Arabic Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also used to be adviser on Arab affairs to the Military Government of the West Bank. Now he is head of the 'Civilian Administra- tion of Judea and Samaria', which is ap- pointed by General Ariel Sharon and rather nicely embodies the ambiguities between Israeli liberalism and Israeli occupation. The professor sits, in casual civilian clothes, in a former Jordanian hospital guarded by uniformed soldiers on a small hill just out- side the Arab town of Ramallah. (The mayor of Ramallah is under town arrest in Jericho, and Israeli soldiers occupy his of- fice too.) In his short spell in the job, to 'If I'm dead how come I feel so awful?' Professor Milson has become more than a eelatasttorN50.1vuenine lt: household word on the West Bank. He u well known to dislike the foreign press, sn was delighted when he agreed to see me.

He speaks immaculate English and, frail' all reports, fastidious Arabic as well. He evidently enjoys political arguments and I'd been looking forward keenly to our chat. So it was a silent let-down when he turned out to be a buck-passer. I asked, several times and from different angles, if 11,,e agreed with Mr Begin that the West Ban'. had been given by God to the Jews. He finally replied: 'My political thinking Is decided by a political and strategic 0" proach rather than by Messianic aspira: tions'; and I had to be content with that I asked him about the growth of settlement; and the 'creation of facts' on occuPleu land. He said that these were not within his jurisdiction. The same jurisdictional ficulty inhibited him from discussing cell- sorship, the closing of Birzeit University i the use of detention and house arrest against elected officials and many other suggestive topics. Professor Milson has rf number of framed photographs of hirrisej,, with President Sadat. He falls back n."11 Camp David whenever he is pressed. Israel formally annex the West Bank? The 'peace process' is at too early a stage t° allow for speculation — it has five years t° run. If annexation does occur, will Israe,/ really make the Arabs into full citizens' Ditto. Professor Milson's chief point, the he tries to impress on all his visitors, is t! at the Palestinians and the PLO are tw separate questions. With the first, he hoP'-,w, i to make a deal. With the second, he Is war. He believes thaf there exists a real e°": stituency for moderation on the West Bain" and that it is prevented from finding its ,,x pression only by intimidation and briber?,,' In the next five years he hopes to prove it Id action. I ask him about Elias Freij, elec,..teej mayor of Bethlehem and a distinguiP ko conservative Palestinian businessman, vl'cie recently called for the PLO to recognise state of Israel. Milson claims that Freij la d went back on his word (though Freij ha s made the same call to me only two da before, while not for a second disowning his PLO allegiance). Milson, finally doesn't believe that the 1976 elections ° the West Bank were a true test of opir011i The Israeli officials who supervised than al the time have a different memory, but It. Professor Milson agreed, he would 0° presumably endorse the sacking of Bassani e Shaka'a as mayor of Nablus. Shaka'a, 11 says, is a PLO fanatic, who used patron*: and local favouritism to achieve his OP port.

rro get to the home of Professor Mils°°;si. 1 arch-rival, you also have to pass Israel' soldiers. They stand outside his house It/ci Nablus, taking your name, address a% passport number. Sometimes they turn Y°,a away, sometimes not. If not, Mr Shako greets you inside, standing more or less

sturdily on his artificial legs. The real ones were torn off when he turned on his car ig- nition a year or so ago, and if there had not been a hospital nearby he would now be dead. The assailants have not been found, and no collective punishments or curfews have been visited on suspected centres of Israeli settler subversion.

Bassam Shaka'a's immobile condition Might seem to make it otiose, but he is under alternate house arrest and town ar- rest. He is not allowed to leave the town at all, and on some days he is not permitted to leave the house. Leave must be sought in any case. On his walls there are no pictures of Sadat, who was generally loathed on the West Bank. Instead, there are awards and citations from many Third World and War- saw Pact sources. Mr Shaka'a is every bit as Militant as Professor Mason would have h_irn. So the conversation is less ambiguous. Mr Shaka'a believes in the PLO. He believes that he represents the people of his town. He believes that any distinction bet- ween the PLO and the Palestinian people is a distinction without a difference. I faced

with a challenge from Professor Nilson. Wasn't it true that his call for a

been of taxes by the townspeople had een a flop? He agreed readily that it had. To get the slightest permit, he says, you For prove that you have paid your taxes. For the moment, there are many people Who dare not deprive themselves of such necessities as driving licences and identity cards (Which all Arabs must carry). But Shaka'a de points to the large and violent demonstrations on 'Land Day' last March, in which even Israeli Arabs participated, as evidence for his view that the people are with the PLO in their hearts and that this will count in the long run. As - left Nablus, a new Israeli settlement Was busily sprouting. As is usual, it was ouilt on


a hill overlooking the town. It's an eresting specimen of its type, because at Ol,le stage the Israeli courts ordered it oismantled as illegal. But, while many observers nodded wisely about the strength of due process, the Eilon Moreh settlement Was moved by its former inhabitants to ,another site on the other side of the valley.

time, the zealots hope every

Peak in ope to command Judea and Samaria with these un- s)

ly fortified emplacements. Who is right about intimidation? It is cer-

t ,4Irkly true that several 'collaborators' and moderates' have been shot dead, and that the PLO and the Jordanian authorities have a standing death sentence on all those who cooperate or fraternise with the occupier. Jn the other hand, it is next to impossible ,oi r et ticise kalitY Arab friend or acquaintance to PLO in private or in con- fidence. They will freely denounce the King xi, Jordan, the President of Syria or the Ing of Saudi Arabia. But if you offer even remonstrance about the PLO they SIT become as stubbornly loyal as if you hip slighted a relative. 'This is our leader- , 413,, our future government. We defend it i8,a!rist the world.' Such unanimity, when it nigh treason to raise the Palestinian flag,

is impressive. You can easily meet Palesti- nians who coexist or even cooperate with the occupation. You cannot find anybody who actually supports it. If there was a real moderate alternative, the last 15 years of trying would have discovered it.

crest the Israeli claims about 'liberal occu- pation' and you find an oxymoron at the heart of the term. Until 1976 or so, there was something in the idea. But for the last seven years, a determined effort has been made to repress Palestinian aspira- tions and institutions. The old policy (which was often tough enough) was that a certain latitude would breed a taste for compromise. This notion has now been an- nounced to be not just faulty but dangerous. Take it case by case and you find the following:

Settlements. Under the Labour govern- ment, settlement served two main purposes. The first, as the merest picture-postcard of the ancient city will show, was to encircle Jerusalem. The second was to create a line of settlements along the Jordan Rift. At least in these cases the shopworn idea of 'national security' could be pressed into ser- vice. But even then more ambitious plans were being formulated and rehearsed. Under Mr Begin's Likud regime, these have been implemented at speed. The West Bank has been officially renamed Judea and Samaria, and the state broadcasting system is obliged to refer to it as such. It is made

clear, without any of the hypocrisy which marked Labour's policy, that the Camp David agreement was a straight swap — the Sinai for the West Bank. 'Greater Israel' is being born. Under the stewardship of General Sharon, Minister of Agriculture and Settlements (and now Minister of Defence), new settlements have been designed to be shoe-horned in between cen- tres of Arab population. The total effect, as any map will make clear, is to break up the previous character of the West Bank in a manner which will soon be irreversible, and to traverse it with strategic highways linking the settlement blocks with one another. Of- ficial figures for the number of settlers sometimes seem too small for this grandiose scheme — until you remember that the large area, comprising 'Greater Jerusalem' since the recent Israeli annexation of the en- tire city, is no longer counted as part of the West Bank. General Sharon also unob- trusively changed the rules for Israeli reser- vist soldiers, making it possible for a settler to serve where he is living rather than in his town of origin. This conveniently makes each settlement population, overnight in case of need, a self-contained reserve unit in the armed forces of the state.

Two very serious points arise from this. First, it is no longer possible to speak about settler extremists being a 'fringe'. On one day, Rabbi Kahane and his party (who openly demand the expulsion of all Arabs from all of Palestine) may be political freaks and nuts in Israel itself. But on the next, they are armed settlers and soldiers in the uniform of Eretz Israel. This distinguishes them from the fascists of non- Messianic states. Their Arab neighbours, at any rate, have no difficulty in perceiving this fact. Second, the Israeli claim to be running a more 'humane' occupation is challenged. Palestine has been occupied, often cruelly, by Turks, British and Hashemite Jordanians. But these past con- querors were mostly content to raise taxes, bully the population and give themselves airs. Israel's imperative is different. It must, by force or by strategy, evict and displace the native population. It must also arm and train a force of colonists and seed them on new or newly-vacant territory. This demographic and territorial assault, which has taken almost 30 per cent of the West Bank into Israeli hands already (if you count state land as part of the annexation), is different in kind from its predecessors and uniquely offensive to the Arabs — who have worked the land for generations and could at least outlive their previous tran- sient masters.

The Free Press. The Israeli press generally enjoys an amazing freedom to criticise the government and uses it unsparingly. The Arab press enjoys no such privilege. I had dinner in Ramallah with the editors of the three major Palestinian newspapers, Al Shaab, Al Fajr and Altalliyah. All three men were under house or town arrest. All of them said that their papers were habitually censored twice, first by the con- ventional civilian censorship and then by the local military authorities (I later con- firmed this to be true). All of them said, with a special irony, that many items were only censored in the Arabic language but appeared freely in the Hebrew press. All of them testified that in order to have a licence to publish you had to be legally resident in Jerusalem and therefore be considered (since the annexation of the city) an Israeli citizen. The editors pointed out that on other occasions their papers were simply denied distribution rights in the West Bank or Gaza. I asked if this, bad as it was, wasn't preferable to the hazards of editor- ship in Syria or Iraq. Said one of them: 'It's all very well to be able to criticise Assad or Hussein from here. But how would you feel if you could write freely about any country but your own? And we aren't allowed to print blank spaces where the censor has cut, so we're always using rubbishy items about Charles and Di or the Oscars.'

Next day in Jerusalem, two Israeli jour- nalists confirmed these allegations. Rafik Halaby is still the correspondent of Israeli broadcasting in 'the territories'. But he is being moved to another job, or possibly fired altogether, because his years of ex- perienced reporting have made him unwelcome to Begin's new board of gover- nors. He spoke about the 'de facto annexa- tion' of the West Bank, and contrasted his own relative freedom with the censorship and restriction of the Arab press. Danny Rubinstein, the West Bank correspondent

of Davar, said that all the Arab editors were friends of his (as they had been at pains to point out) but that if they or their jour- nalists had a scoop they had to give the news to him if they wanted to see it in print. In Hebrew, such revelations were allowed. 'When I go to the occupied territories, he said, 'I feel like a foreign correspondent.' (Rafik Halaby, by the by, is a Druze: a member of what used to be the most loyal minority in Israel. Recently, the Druze on the Golan Heights have declared a general strike against the sudden Israel annexation of the area and the forcible extension of Israeli citizenship to them. Haim Cohen, a former Israeli Supreme Court judge, told a press briefing in Jerusalem on 16 April that the Israeli treatment of the Druze was a scandal. 'Is this Israeli law they are impos- ing?' he inquired. 'It is the law of bar- barians.' Another blow for open govern- ment — but scant comfort to the Druze.) Universities. The Israelis like to give the im- pression that they have sponsored higher education on an ungrateful West Bank. In fact, graduate unemployment is one of the area's most urgent problems, providing part of the impetus for the emigration which Palestinians dread. Bethlehem University was in fact founded by the Vatican after the occupation, and Birzeit and Al Najah universities have always been privately and independently run. (Before 1967, it was open to Arab students to attend the university in Amman.) Thomas Scanlon, the slightly smug Roman Catholic priest who is vice-chancellor of Bethlehem University, told me that relations with the Israeli authorities are 'unpleasant'. He described and documented numerous cases of interference and unwanted attention. Al Najah University had been closed by the ar- my on the day of my appointment there. Birzeit had just been reopened when I arriv- ed. Administrations on all three campuses complained of texts in Arabic being hard to get. George Antonius' classic, The Arab Awakening, is, for instance available in English but 'restricted' in translation. Dr Gabi Baranaki at Birzeit University corn- plained that his students had their studies interrupted by closure for months because some of their number had clashed with the army. Yet, as he pointed out, the most fanatical leaders of the movement against the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai came from the Hebrew University, and, despite bitter scenes with the Israeli army, that in- stitution had not been made answerable for its alumni. Collective punishment is selee" tive in its way.

Democracy. The Camp David accords PO- vided for political autonomy on the West Bank. But, in the last few months, the mayors of every major Arab town have been dismissed and replaced by Israeli army officers. Their actual powers were slender enough as it was. Does autonomy mean that even banal municipal decisions cann°', be taken by the populace?

Economic Advancement. The PalestiniinIs have always been more developed than OW immediate Arab neighbours. But under the present dispensation they are denied most permits to work, to build or to opera,' business, unless they cooperate with the authorities. This applies to permission .1tir travel, building and the like (Al tlalP,, university was ordered to cease working .0" a new extension a few days before my visit); It also applies to the vital issue of scat water resources for agriculture. In the 10" notorious case of El Auja, the inhabitants of the village petitioned in vain to be allow- ed to dig a new well during a drought. A,s s result their farms and plots were parched -- yet I saw huge new pumps and pipes hear ing water to the. neighbouring Israeli Set tlements, one of which had a brimming swimming pool. Finally, despite the claan,, that Eretz Israel is one and indivisible, the are trade and tarriff barriers within it. Palestinian may not freely sell produce In_ Israel proper, whereas an Israeli has di' right to market and promote goods on the, West Bank without commercial or leg alf hindrance. That alone makes the charge of classic colonialism hard to beat.

Security Policy. In early May, a group of Israeli reserve officers held a public Press conference. One of them, Yuval said as follows: 'We are gradually losing our humanitY. The local population are becoming °b- jects in our eyes: at best mere objects, and at worst something to be degraded' He was not the first or the last veteran t° make this kind of charge. Collective punishment (the inevitable adjunct of a col- onial policy) is the most painful and visible sign, to Israeli dissidents, that the occuPaai tion is corroding the character of the „ Jewish state. I have seen houses blown and families dispossessed in Gaza and 1111 Bethlehem, and in both cases the son of the house had merely been accused of stoning or in one case of throwing a Molotov cocktail. The impression one got was that the family was not being treated in this viraY

in order to impress its younger generation The use of live ammunition against crowds, now increasingly common, is another way in which the authorities make the same Point. Unfortunately, as Danny Rubinstein Put it to me, very few Israelis visit the West Bank except in uniform.

Behind all this unpleasant reality there looms another even more unpalatable pro- sPect. It is the great unmentionable of Israeli politics, but like all unmentionables it does get mentioned now and again. In 1976 an official, Mr Yisrael Koenig, raised a storm with a leaked secret report on the alarming growth of the Arab population in the Galilee. He was gently slapped down, as much for the leak as for his conclusions. But today respected voices in authority can be heard calling for a thorough purge of the West Bank: a third exodus of the Arab Palestinians. In a sense, this had to happen. If Israel carries out its declared policy of an- nexation, it will saddle itself with a huge and resentful Arab population, and it is Ian:11Y anxious to bestow citizenship upon ',amt. Indeed, some spokesmen of the Peace Now group advocate withdrawal Precisely because they don't want. Israel's Jewish character to be diluted in this way. Others are more blunt, including senior soldiers and academics and even members of the Knesset. They say the Arabs must go. Even under the existing pressure several thousand Palestinians leave every year. In the event of a wider conflict, rightist settlers and some extreme army officers would form a willing Black and Tan movement to turn this trickle into a flood. Amnon Rubinstein, liberal academic and Knesset Member, recently reviewed a survey of Israeli attitudes to Arabs in the newspaper lia'aretz. He wrote, ruefully:

'In many high schools, students say with brutal candour that one must "simply get rid of them". Who? "The Arabs." All of them? "Yes, all of them." Even the Israeli Arabs? "Yes, them too." We are not here talking of the margins of society or irrelevant phenomena. We are talking here of a popular spirit of hedonistic chauvinism, of alienation from all the values of Jewish Zionist tradition. And this evil spirit is rising

1.,.,bere are still many Israelis like Amnon Kubinstein. But the harvest of the 15 years Of occupation has generally been a dismal 00e. And it will not do to say that public criticism of it and Palestinian repudiation allit, proves that it is really 'liberal' after , and allows even its enemies to take ad- vantage of it. In plain fact, it is the religious and racial crackpots of Begin's movement no have 'taken advantage' of Israeli ,uelllocracy in order to undermine it. It is they who have polluted the education of children, who have warped the press and 'purged the airwaves, who have politicised the army and the police and covertly Mobilised the settlers. If they treat Jewish People and institutions in that way, what

chance or what choice do the Palestinians nave?