Published on Sunday, May 13, 2001 in the Observer of London
'An Affront to Civilization'
Without International Pressure on Israel, the Shameful Humiliation of Palestinians Will Continue
by Ian Gilmour
I was on my way to Khan Yunis, a desperately poor Palestinian refugee town in the Gaza Strip, when we learned it was under heavy bombardment. Please, urged my Palestinian guides, could I postpone my visit to the next day? Although I thought it unlikely I would suffer the same fate as the four-month- old baby, blown to pieces that morning by the Israeli army, I agreed.
The next day, seeing houses that had, without any warning, been bulldozed in the middle of the night by the Israeli army and then talking to their former inhabitants, now huddled in tents, was a haunting experience.
And Khan Yunis is not untypical. A ruthless colonial war is being waged throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the territories occupied by Israel since 1967. I also happened to be in Beit Jalla the previous day, when the Israelis reoccupied and demolished a section of this Christian suburb of Bethlehem. The Israeli army of occupation has the overwhelming superiority of a nineteenth-century imperial power. 'We have got the Maxim Gun,' sang Hilaire Belloc, 'and they have not.' The modern equivalent of the Maxim gun for mowing down 'the natives' is the American-made Apache helicopter and a plethora of other hi-tech weaponry.
And since, as Yasser Arafat perhaps wistfully told me, the Palestinians 'don't have helicopter gunships, tanks or gunboats', General Mofaz, the Israeli commander, is able not only to destroy buildings and kill Palestinian fighters and unarmed civilians in any quantities he wants, but also to impose collective punishments and to make life intolerable for the entire population.
In addition, on the pretext of security, Mofaz is laying waste some of the best Palestinian soil. I saw acres and acres of uprooted olive and fruit trees, some of them in places where there could be no possible security excuse. Israelis used to boast that they had made the desert bloom; now they can boast they have turned previously blooming Palestinian land into a desert.
But why, it may be asked, are 'the natives' restive? And is it not their own fault, for were they not offered a very 'generous' deal at Camp David last autumn? To take the second question first, the claim that Mr Barak made a generous offer at Camp David has become the reigning orthodoxy. But it is a myth. The alleged generosity involved derisory terms on Jerusalem and would have kept most of Israel's major illegal settlements in place, turning the areas assigned to the Palestinians into a series of mini-Bantustans, and making the resulting Palestinian state unviable.
For instance, this 'state' would have been deprived of almost any water, as all the West Bank aquifers were to be annexed by Israel. Had Nelson Mandela accepted such an offer from apartheid South Africa, he would have been reviled as a traitor. And if Yasser Arafat had accepted the Camp David offer, he would have been similarly execrated.
Not only did the Palestinians, partly through their own negligence, suffer a public-relations disaster at Camp David, they helped to unify Israel behind a hardline policy by the way they talked, understandably but unwisely, about the right of return for the refugees whom Israel expelled in 1948. Their return would effectively mean the abolition of the state of Israel. Yet an Israeli admission that they were ill-treated and entitled to compensation is perfectly feasible and long overdue.
The answer to the first question is that the natives are restive because they are fed up with 34 years of brutal occupation. They want the right of self-determination and they now realise that they have been double-crossed. Israel's pre-1967 frontiers already give her 78 per cent of Palestinian territory, which seems quite a lot. The Oslo agreement was meant to establish an irreversible process whereby Israel exchanged the Palestinian land she had occupied since 1967 for peace. Instead, Israel has done the opposite. Because of what the former Israeli Minister, Shulamit Aloni, has called Israel's 'unrestrained greed', it has, since Oslo, doubled the number of illegal settlers.
Ariel Sharon continually denounces Palestinian 'terrorism' and 'violence', forgetting, no doubt, that his own record of terrorism and violence is, as the police used to say, as long as your arm. To take just its high points. In 1953, he and his subordinates bravely massacred 69 Jordanian villagers, including 46 women and children. In 1982, he engineered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and killed hundreds of civilians by his bombing of Beirut.
Finally, there were the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, for which an Israeli commission found Sharon 'remiss in his duties'. The Cabinet voted to remove him from his ministry by a vote of 16 to one (himself). Since then, Sharon has consistently favoured the violent option and always tried to block any progress towards peace.
Of course, there has been terrorism on the other side. All Palestinian violence within Israel proper is terrorism and the Hamas suicide bombings are atrocities. Furthermore, not only are they suicidal for the actual bombers, they are suicidal for the Palestinian cause. Very understandably, they unite Israelis against Palestinians. Many Israelis take a different attitude to Palestinian violence in the occupied territories. They have little love for the settlers, and they recognise that most (though not all) Palestinian violence in the territories is not 'terrorism' but justified resistance to armed occupation. All the same, a non-violent intifada would have been far better for the cause, but Barak's lethal reaction to unarmed demonstrators in its first three days made that impossible.
Israel's illegal settlements on the West Bank are bad enough, but the ones in the Gaza Strip are an affront to civilisation. The Israeli army and some 1,000 settlers occupy some 40 per cent of the Strip and take about the same percentage of the water, thus leaving only 60 per cent for no fewer than 1,100,000 Palestinians. I very much doubt if there is, even in the murkiest annals of nineteenth-century colonialism, a remotely comparable instance of imperial arrogance and contemptuous regard for the rights of subject people.
No wonder many decent Israelis want to end this intolerable situation. The former Minister, Haim Ramon, recently said that as soon as there is a ceasefire, Israel and all the settlers should leave the Strip. That is, indeed, the only respectable solution.
The settlements are the nub of the matter, as the US-appointed commission, chaired by George Mitchell, made clear last week. Without a complete halt to settlement expansion, there will be no end to the violence now, and without the removal of most of them there will be no peace in the future. As senior Israeli politicians privately admit, pressure from the US and Europe is the only way to stop Sharon creating unlimited havoc and doing irrevocable damage to whatever chances of peace still exist.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001