November 2003

Lessons of history

27 November 2003

Two items of news broke simultaneously this month. The first concerned an apology by a member of the German Parliament, Martin Hohmann, for remarks in which he suggested that Jewish communities in Europe shared a historic “guilt” with the Germans and other nations for the events of the 20th century, a comment which predictably provoked denunciations of Hohmann for being anti-Semitic. The second report was of a survey of various publics in the European Union which showed that a convincing majority, 59 per cent, judged the actions of Israel to be the gravest threat to world peace, knocking more familiar bogeymen like North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran from the top slot.

A recent attack on a Knesset member underscores the country’s hostility towards calls for transparency in Israel’s weapons of mass destruction programme. At midday on Friday, 24 October, Issam Makhoul, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, and his wife Suad got into their two cars outside their home in the centre of Haifa. Issam Makhoul reversed his Knesset-supplied Ford out of the driveway as his wife started the engine of the family Honda to collect their twin children from school. Seconds later an explosion flooded Suad Makhoul’s car with flames. She leapt from the vehicle moments before the fire could engulf her.

Sally Azzam, 23, a student from the Arab city of Nazareth in northern Israel, tells me fondly of a recent holiday to neighboring Jordan. A highlight was being able to smoke a nargilleh, or water pipe, in cafés and restaurants, anonymous among the local women who do the same. Smoking for unmarried women, at least in the Jordanian capital Amman, is chic. But for Azzam it represents a small feminist victory for Jordanian women, one of the battles she fears is being lost back home. In Israel, a country in which Jewish women take for granted most Western freedoms, young Arab women are facing a resurgence of social and moral controls that even their mothers might have balked at. And in this, maybe there is a lesson for those who believe that the West can impose its values unthinkingly on other civilizations.

The roadside signpost bearing the information “Facility 1391” was removed months ago. Now there is nothing to identify the concrete fortress guarded by two watchtowers that sits atop a small wooded hill. But this summer the Israeli government, under pressure from the courts, admitted that Facility 1391 serves as a “secret prison,” what one local newspaper termed “Israel’s Guantanamo”.

Israeli academic Jeff Halper has coined the phrase “the matrix of control” to describe the system of settlements, outposts, bypass roads, confiscated land masquerading as national parks, military zones, checkpoints and now hundreds of kilometres of a “separation wall” that together effectively entrap the Palestinian population in ghettoes across the West Bank and Gaza. Halper’s point is to explain how Israel uses non-military tools — planning laws, architecture and geography — as well as military hardware to herd Palestinians into the spaces it allocates them: the “Bantustan” homelands familiar from apartheid South Africa.

Facility 1391, close to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, is not marked on maps, it has been erased from aerial photographs and recently its numbered signpost was removed. Censors have excised all mention of its location from the Israeli media, with the government saying that secrecy is essential to “prevent harm to the country’s security”.