Al-Ahram Weekly – 13 November 2003
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.
The pretext may be security but the goal is to stunt the growth of a popular Palestinian leadership and emasculate resistance to the occupation. Meanwhile Israel can continue its colonial theft of vital resources like land and water. Halper and others on the Israeli far left have begun to understand that, despite the recent “concessions” of Israel’s mainstream left in signing the Geneva Accord, there is now no hope of a two-state solution.
Israeli leaders are committed to a one-state solution, one in which it controls everything. The government is already starting to create a series of isolated Palestinian enclaves which it will duplicitously label a Palestinian state.
This will give the appearance of two states without its substance. The powerless Palestinian entity will be run by the inheritors of the Palestinian Authority, cronies taking their orders from West Jerusalem.
This dismal prospect has in fact been more than obvious for some time. The problem was that foreign observers and Israel’s own tiny group of independent-minded thinkers have been stubbornly focused on the land-for-peace formulas of Oslo and the Israeli-backed enforcement mechanism of the Palestinian Authority as salvation for the Palestinian people. The reality is dawning on them only very belatedly.
To understand why Israel was never pursuing a real Palestinian state, with sovereignty and autonomy, one needs only turn one’s eyes a little from Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin to look at what Israel has been doing with its original Palestinians — the unwelcome population it was left with after it terrorised 80 per cent of Palestinians from their land and into refugee camps across the Middle East.
The refugees are sometimes referred to as the forgotten Palestinians, but in fact the remnants of the Palestinian people who stayed on their lands in Jaffa, Nazareth, Sakhnin, Umm Al-Fahm, the Negev and elsewhere and became Israeli citizens have been at least as overlooked. Theirs is the forgotten story of Palestine.
The historic treatment of this minority — today numbering some one million people, or nearly 20 per cent of Israel’s population — sheds illuminating light on the Jewish state’s current intentions towards the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. What happened to Nazareth tells us much about Ramallah’s intended fate, and what happened to Sakhnin may hint at what Israel has in store for Jenin.
What connects all these places is that they are the shadow cast by a Palestinian homeland that predates Israel. They are the surviving evidence of the original war crime that gave birth to Israel: not the 1967 War that led to the occupation, and which is the lightning rod for world attention, but the war of 1948, which has largely been exorcised from our memories. As such Palestinians who continue to live on their land, whether in Jaffa or Bethlehem, Acre or Hebron, pose the same threat and must be neutered in much the same kinds of way.
This insight has been understood by all Israeli prime ministers, from the first, David Ben Gurion, to the most recent, Ariel Sharon. And none, not even the most beatified, Yitzhak Rabin, has been diverted from the following guiding vision: Israel’s primary goal must be the eradication of the national consciousness of the Palestinian people, through their division into separate identities (West Bankers, Gazans, refugees, East Jerusalemites and Israeli Arabs), and the endless partitioning of their territory into ever smaller geographical units.
Israel’s military leadership believes that combined these two policies can incapacitate Palestinian resistance, by diminishing the possibility of collective action and by shrinking the space, psychological and physical, in which Palestinians — all Palestinians — can manoeuvre against the occupation.
The international community’s growing acceptance of the Israeli position that only West Bankers and Gazans are Palestinian — in the sense that only they have the right to some sort of statehood — is signal enough of Israel’s success. The recent Geneva Accord, with its blindness to the issue of the right of return for the refugees, is just the latest peace plan effectively to treat all Palestinians living outside the occupied territories as non-Palestinians. Their fates have been disentwined from the Palestinian future.
This has been made possible by the West’s assumption that the huge war crime committed by Israel in 1948 against the Palestinians who are today one million of its citizens or against the refugees who now number nearly four million is no longer relevant. These two groups have been largely erased from Palestinian history.
The danger is that this insidious process has not yet stopped. Israel’s success in subverting the collective rights of the Palestinians of 1948 should not lead us to conclude that the rights of the Palestinians of 1967 (the West Bankers and Gazans) are therefore safer. Quite the opposite. What was done five decades ago can, and almost certainly will, be attempted again. It may be done, as in 1948, by wholesale ethnic cleansing. That would be the lesson of the refugees. But then again it may be done more subtly, employing the methods used against Israel’s Palestinian citizens. This is the more likely scenario.
In fact, the similarities between what Israel is doing now in the West Bank and Gaza and what it has inflicted on its Palestinian minority since the early years of the Jewish state are striking. Ignore the tanks and helicopter gunships — the short-term solutions to enforcing the occupation — and instead concentrate on Halper’s matrix of control, the long- term plan for destroying Palestinian identity. Israel’s Palestinian minority has faced almost exactly the same matrix of control as the Palestinians of the occupied territories — only for decades longer. Whereas the project of smashing national identity is well advanced in the case of the Palestinian citizens, in relative terms it has only just begun in the West Bank and Gaza.
The process started for the Palestinian minority with the colonisation of swaths of their land, particularly farmland, by Jewish immigrants/settlers backed by local martial law. This was how the Jewish state was born: for its first 18 years, until 1966, Palestinians in Israel — in contrast to Jewish citizens — lived under a military government that made it all but impossible for them to leave the narrow confines of their village. Visits to family or to seek work could only be arranged by applying for a permit from the military governor. Often extreme pressure was put on applicants to assist the military authorities before permission was given. This was the genesis of the collaborator system that Israel quickly established among its Palestinian population and has nurtured ever since.
The Palestinian minority — penned up inside its villages — could do little to prevent the army rezoning its farmland as closed military areas. When Jewish immigrants arrived needing land, then, and only then, it could be freed for development. Thus were born the hundreds of kibbutz and moshav farm collectives, the blueprint for today’s settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and later the development towns of Nazareth Ilit and Karmiel — mirrored today in the West Bank by Maale Adumim and Ariel.
Finally, in the 1980s Israel persuaded its white middle classes to join the project, establishing a series of small luxury mitzpim (lookout) settlements in the Galilee and in the Central Triangle, close to the border with the West Bank. They have attracted everyone from bankers and generals to crystal healers and acupuncturists. This last phase has yet to be begun in the West Bank and Gaza but you can be sure Sharon and others are at this moment planning a way to do it. If the leftwing middle classes can be recruited to the cause, a Bantustan Palestinian state will be assured.
To achieve this, the military government that operated inside Israel for two decades needed to be replicated in the occupied territories. And it has been. In these more media savvy days, it has been given the more user-friendly title of the Civil Administration. The Administration, run by Israeli army generals, issues travel and work permits, imposes curfews and can shut down Palestinian schools and universities at whim. It assists in the confiscation of land so that it can be reallocated for security needs, including its assignment to Jewish settlers. It too helps run an extensive network of collaborators — often former prisoners — who, through inducements or fear, make organising resistance to the occupation an almost futile business.
So what is the best-case scenario for the Palestinians of the occupied territories should Israel ever decide it can afford to give them some kind of Bantustan-style state? Again, the clues are to be found in the treatment of the Palestinian minority.
Although the military government ended inside Israel many decades ago, its legacy continues. In principle Palestinian citizens enjoy equal rights with their Jewish neighbours. But in reality any semblance of a Palestinian — or even Arab — civil society emerging inside Israel is ruthlessly suppressed.
National minority rights are not recognised by the courts and political activity is severely circumscribed. The tone was set by the military government. Arabic newspapers were banned and anyone who organised politically was arrested. The one Arab nationalist party established during that period, Al-Ard, was shut down by the courts and its leaders jailed. This persecution continued into the 1970s and 1980s. The ranks of the tiny Sons of the Village movement — which espouses a genuine one state solution, offering equality to Jews and Palestinians — is stuffed with middle- aged men who can show the scars from their time in Kishon, Nafha or Shata Prisons, after interrogation by the Shin Bet security services.
Education of the minority is also rigidly controlled by Israel. Teachers asked by pupils to teach them about Palestinian history, about the loss of land and the destruction of the Palestinians as a people, must refuse.
Those who do not are forced out of the profession. The cafés of Nazareth, for example, are full of ex-teachers, people the Ministry of Education decided were “too political” to be entrusted with young minds.
In the sphere of civic protest, a basic right in a democracy, Palestinian citizens have also been taught a series of harsh lessons. Those who take to the streets (even streets in their own villages) learn that peaceful protest is no more tolerated than the stone-throwing of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
In 1976 six citizens were shot dead in Sakhnin when they protested against wholesale theft of their lands by the state, in an episode that is today commemorated in the wider Middle East as Land Day. In 1998 when the inhabitants of Umm Al- Fahm set up a protest tent after a huge swath of farm land at Al-Roha was rezoned as a military area the security forces invaded the town, putting 300 local people in hospital. A school was ransacked by police and tear gas fired into classrooms, injuring many pupils.
Most notoriously of all, when Palestinian citizens demonstrated in support of their Palestinian kin at the start of the Intifada, 13 of their number were shot dead by the police. Rubber bullets and live ammunition fired by anti-terror sniper squads were a first line of defence.
Today, most Palestinian citizens know that their presence in the Jewish state is barely tolerated. Accusations of terror plots by the minority fly about daily in the Hebrew media. Those with any sense keep their heads, and voices, lowered. Hanging over them is the constant threat of expulsion, or “transfer” as its proponents disingenuously refer to it.
Even the political leadership is being warned in no uncertain terms to toe the line. Two Palestinian politicians — the secular nationalist Azmi Bishara and the Islamic Movement leader Sheikh Raed Salah — who alone have dared to speak out in recent times are both being hounded by the security services through the courts.
Bishara has been put on trial twice for speaking his mind about resistance to the occupation and would have been banned from running in January’s general election had it not been for the intervention of the Supreme Court. The court, as ever, knows when to protect Israel’s reputation as a democracy.
Salah, who has a much lower profile in the West, is suffering a worse fate: he is in jail, awaiting trial. For the previous 18 months he was banned from leaving the country, his party’s newspaper shut down and his Islamic charities closed. Since Sharon’s election the Shin Bet have taped every phone call Salah and his officials made and intercepted every e-mail. Rumour says there are more than 200,000 recordings awaiting translation from Arabic to Hebrew. Now Salah and four other party leaders are to stand trial on charges that even the Israeli police admit are largely based on accusations of money laundering. Even these claims rely on a very flexible interpretation of Israeli law.
The purpose of this persecution has to been to neuter all manifestations of Palestinian consciousness among the minority — to transform it into a docile and anonymous grouping the state likes to call the “Israeli Arabs”.
In many ways this process has worked. Despite claims by Israeli academics, commentators and the government that the minority has become radicalised and “more Palestinian”, this is a gross distortion of the truth in the service of a rightwing Israeli discourse. The right wants to present the Palestinian minority as disloyal, as a fifth column, because it helps to redirect the enormous hostilities between Israeli Jews (the religious and secular, the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, for example) towards a solitary, and external, target: the country’s Arabs.
It’s Us or Them. Usefully, it also softens up Jewish public opinion for possible tough decisions down the road, such as the expulsion of Palestinian citizens. In fact, the minority has had its Palestinian identity largely emptied of meaning. If there is a sense of Palestinian belonging it is in many ways a reaction to the long-standing refusal by Israel to entrust its Palestinian citizens with an Israeli identity. When entry to the nation depends on membership of an exclusive ethnic- religious group (the Jews) and service in an army whose goal is the destruction of one’s people, the option of choosing to be “an Israeli” becomes voided.
The overnight rush by the minority to embrace an Israeli identity in the heady and misleading Oslo years (the readiness to display the Israeli flag, the sudden support for Israeli Jewish football and basketball teams) was signal enough of how hollow Palestinian identity had become for many in the minority.
The enfeeblement of Palestinian consciousness among Israel’s Arab minority was always the plan by Israel’s leadership. By weakening its sense of belonging to a wider collective, by isolating it from its people, the Palestinian minority lost its ability to organise against and resist the cynical ambitions of the oppositional, and dominant, Jewish collective.
The result was Israel’s successful theft of land for Jewish settlement. In the Galilee, for example, the Misgav council of Jewish settlements now controls 18 times as much land as the neighbouring Arab town of Sakhnin, even though it has little more than half the population: i.e. every Jew is allocated nearly 36 times as much land. Most of that land was originally confiscated from the people of Sakhnin.
In Israel’s 55 years not one new Arab town or village has been established (apart for a handful of deprived townships to force the Bedouin to leave their farmlands) even though the numbers of the Palestinian minority have grown eightfold. Palestinian citizens live in the most crowded communities in Israel. Today, the Israeli state owns 93 per cent of the land, and its Palestinian citizens just 3 per cent. Even that small figure is diminishing by the day as Israel chooses to locate its new roads, firing ranges and national parks on the last bits of land still owned by the Palestinian minority.
These ghettoes will sound increasingly familiar to Palestinians in the occupied territories who are also being fenced in by military zones, conservation areas and the ubiquitous bypass roads purportedly needed so that settlers have faster drive times to their illegal settlements. They will also recognise the insurmountable hurdles faced by the Palestinian minority in seeking building permits. The resulting glut of illegal building by Palestinian citizens, is dealt with by the authorities — as it is in the occupied territories — by house demolitions. In the Negev Bedouin farmers are being terrorised from their historic lands and into planned towns that are the most deprived areas of Israel. In the words of the government, they are being “concentrated”, driven from their “scattered communities”.
The Palestinians have many advantages over the Palestinian citizens of Israel. At least this time the world is watching — if rarely comprehending — as Israel steals Palestinian land. The settlements are understood by most to be illegal and the Palestinians have a raft of United Nations resolutions on their side. But the attention span of the West is short, and its best intentions far from assured.