40 years of West Bank occupation are causing both Israel and Palestine to fragment.
The Biblical imperative that settlers use to justify claims to the West Bank; the rejection by Israel of the applicability of the Geneva Convention to that territory; the increasingly severe budgetary austerity measures Israelis must struggle with; the loss of faith by the electorate in politicians– all this is now exacting a price Israel can no longer afford to pay, financially, socially or morally. As for the Palestinians - they have long been financially and politically drained and have nothing more to give. And the moral bankruptcy is nowhere starker than in the West Bank city of Hebron.
This predominantly Palestinian city lies deep within the West Bank. Hebron is holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike as the burial place of the Patriarch Abraham. It has some 125,000 Palestinian Arabs who lived there in relative quiet until 1968 when religious right-winger Moshe Levinger sought permission from the Israeli authorities to stay. They gave him permission to stay one night only – yet it turned into a 4-year sit-in.
39 years later some 500 ‘yeshuvim’ or settlers, now squat illegally in buildings in Old Hebron. To protect them from supposed attack by Palestinian Arabs, some 5000 Israeli soldiers are now permanently stationed there. The settlers come and go as they please and can move freely without let or hindrance. However, Palestinian families in Old Hebron who live next to these illegal settlement squats may not use their own front doors to enter the street let alone drive down them. Settlers have in some cases welded these Palestinian front doors shut, and have sprayed most street doors and shuttered windows of the Palestinian dwellings with the Star of David and the word ‘nekama’ - revenge.
This harks back to an incident in 1929 when an Arab mob killed several Jews and forced the British to evacuate the rest of the small Jewish community from Hebron. Some Jewish extremist religious groups say this was partly atoned for, when in February 1994 the settler Barukh Goldstein entered the Hebron mosque and opened fire with his automatic weapon on the congregation, killing 29 at prayer and wounding scores more. Many hoped that after the Palestinian National Authority emerged from the Oslo peace talks, these extremist settlers would be ousted, but Likud’s 1996 election victory ensured they would remain. And so they have, now boosted by an unofficial ‘yesha study centre’ which hosts some 300 extra settlers as religious students every year.
The Old Hebron settlers routinely molest and assault those few local Palestinian families doggedly living under siege in their dwellings along Old Hebron’s Sharia Al-Shuhada Street. They do so in order to intimidate them into leaving Old Hebron, thus creating more opportunities for settlers to occupy vacated premises. The Israeli Defence Force Soldiers do not intervene as settler adults and children assault the Palestinian residents. This is because their orders are to protect settlers from attack, not to protect Palestinians from settler violence. Recently when, under Knesset pressure, the Army gave orders to forcibly evacuate the illegal settlements in Old Hebron, religious soldiers refused to obey the orders on advice from their Rabbis. All were suspended from duty and another IDF unit awaits the order to evacuate the settlers. Law and order is as rare a commodity in Hebron as water in the Negev Desert.
The Occupation by Israel of the West Bank was celebrated across Israel last June as ’40 Years of Unity’. But this Occupation not only fragments the lives of ordinary Palestinians; it exacts a moral toll on the enforcers, the implementers of the Knesset’s policy of Occupation, namely the IDF, their militia back-up the Israeli Border Police, and the civil Police. Solders and ex-soldiers of the IDF are now starting for the first time to acknowledge the moral toll it is taking on them as individuals. Many now admit to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD for short, caused by what these IDF soldiers had to do to implement the matrix of control as the instrument of occupation across the West Bank, but most notably in Hebron.
The moral contradictions, the vindictiveness of ‘security’ measures, the illogical methods and routines of military suppression of Palestinians, following orders by looking idly on as extremist settlers wreak havoc on the daily lives of the few Palestinian families – all of this comes to sharp focus in Hebron.
Many soldiers are aware of the corrosive effect of the Occupation not just on ordinary, non-terrorist Palestinian families, but also on themselves, and they are powerless to avert its effects. And until recently they have had no group to turn to in order to ‘de-compress’ – to talk out and offload the burden of what their security duties demanded of them, knowing that these duties had little to do with security, but rather, of repression and control. Recently though there has emerged a glimmer of hope for the fractional minority of those who have served in Old Hebron, in the creation of ‘Breaking The Silence’, a self help group set up by Michael Manekin, an ex-Lieutenant in the IDF’s Nachal Brigade. His tour of duty left him emotionally fragmented.
‘Breaking The Silence’ encourages ex-IDF soldiers to come forward and talk through their experiences, so they can recover from the Hebron-induced PTSD and try to regain a semblance of emotional stability. But Michael’s efforts, he feels, are like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a teaspoon. Most soldiers are corrupted beyond emotional repair and deliberately switch off their moral consciences as a coping mechanism. Michael thinks this approach is damaging, not just to the individual, but also to the IDF because it shuts down the serviceman’s willingness to remain anchored and tuned in to a normal humane moral code.
Michael uses his personal story to explain the psychological damage he believes has been caused to countless soldiers, senior NCOs and officers from a tour of duty in Old Hebron. “Whatever I used to call democracy here in Israel would simply vanish in Hebron. You give a young soldier so much power that the horrible things he does become the normal things after a time. But the source of all the evil in that city is the power of the settlers over us, the Magav (Israeli Border Guards) and the Police. I lost all sense of moral values and decency - I just lost all sense of all the limits I grew up with – what my family had taught me to believe in – all of this was destroyed in me by Hebron”
Michael and I had met at Café Hillel in the German Colony in West Jerusalem. As he paused for thought, he remarked how, in his words, ‘this whole sick power game was just taking and taking’. He nodded towards the counter some 20 feet away behind new glass panels. 3 years earlier his sister had lost her best friend the day before she was due to be married, killed on that spot near the cashier at the exit, by a suicide bomb attack on the Café.
Michael continued: - “In Hebron the fanatical Jews I was guarding didn’t behave with the same morality or values I was raised on. I reached a point in Hebron where I didn’t know who the enemy was any more – the fanatical Jew settlers who were going crazy, attacking the local Arabs, or the Arabs we were told would always attack, but never did. If the Jews are capable of writing on the Arab’s house doors ‘Arabs to the gas chambers’ and drawing a Star of David, which to me is like a swastika when they draw it like that, then somehow the term ‘Jew’ has changed for me.
Those who seek out his self-help group are mostly ex-IDF soldiers now struggling with a return to civilian life. Only a miniscule proportion of his clientele are those still serving in the IDF. Michael feels that the numbers represent the very top of the tip of a huge iceberg of repressed hurt and pain among serving and former IDF soldiers, most of whom regard dealing with their own PTSD as a sign of weakness. It is this category that Michael worries most about, yet cannot reach out to them unless they voluntarily seek him out for help. The emotional future of such damaged individuals is unpredictable. No formal State help is offered, because the Emperor, as Michael puts it, is fully clothed. So officially there is no problem.
There are others in Israeli society however, who benefit materially from the 40-year old Occupation of the West Bank and who suffer no such emotional damage as the Occupation has wrought on Michael and others in the IDF – the settlers. 45 kilometres to the north-east of Hebron lies the hilltop settlement of Alfe Manesh, east of Qalqilya, It has the look of a modern, affluent leafy suburb of any estate typical of the London stockbroker belt. I am met there by Don the US settler, replete with Stetson hat, check shirt and nickel-plated 9mm browning semi-automatic pistol. Don positions me beneath a boiling hot sun on a promontory that overlooks Qalqilya and the narrow coastal strip between his settlement and the coast, some 9 miles to the west, to deliver a clearly well-rehearsed and oft-given lecture on Israel’s legal title over what is officially called the ‘administered territories’.
Don sets out why not a single UN Resolution pertaining to the alleged illegality of the Israeli settlements, has legal force. This, he confidently explains, is because they are based on UN Charter chapter VI, and not chapter VII. “Laws matter if someone can enforce them” he explains – “and as no-one can enforce the law, the legality or otherwise of this settlement is irrelevant”.
And anyway, Don continues, Israel has legal claim to all lands west of the Jordan River based on the 1923 San Remo Convention. As the UN recognises all League of Nation mandates, Israel’s claim has legal force. Ipso facto, he declares, not one of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank is illegal. Not only that, Don continues, the Geneva Protocols on the illegality of seizure of territory and transfer of population by an occupying power, he claims, are completely inadmissible because Israel is not occupying the territory of another State. Don points out that prior to the 1967 War there was no previous sovereign so the West Bank are therefore more correctly titled ‘disputed’ territories but certainly not ‘occupied’.
Despite this assertion Don does concede that the issue of legal title over the West Bank is not simple. The status of the West Bank is complex, muddy and has never been completely determined. He adds “It does not matter if the settlements are legal or not right now, because all this will change once a final status agreement has been reached.” Why does he wear a sidearm? Seemingly oblivious to the irony of his reply, Don replied ‘It comes with the territory’.
Although there is no shortage of water to irrigate the plants and the lush greens, Don offers me none to drink. I thank him for his lecture and depart. I refrain from pointing out that whilst UN Resolutions might lack a vehicle to enforce them under either Chapter, the international community nevertheless regard such Resolutions as being legally valid under international law. As to the lack of a previous owner of the West Bank, Don has a point. For when Britain reneged on the post WW1 promises made to the Arab league through Colonel Lawrence and invented new States based on partition to suit Imperial whims rather than on religious or cultural lines, she failed to specify who was to have title over that part of the Palestine Mandate territory outwith the new Jewish homeland. Decades later the Israelis argued that as even Jordan did not annex the territory during the tears 1948 to 1967, it was up for grabs.
5 miles east of Don’s settlement are the Palestinian villages of Hajjah and Imateen. The 3,000 villagers of Imateen have access to mains water – but the Israelis ignore all requests to connect the village to the mains supply. Mekorot, the Israeli water company, are obliged under the Oslo Agreements to supply drinking water to the village because it is an Area ‘C’ village, that is, under full Israeli municipal and military control. So far Mekorot have not responded to 7 years of letters from the village council asking to be connected to the water supply. So the villagers have to siphon off water into bottles and other portable containers from a standpipe a mile away for which they have no Israeli permit to install.
A French NGO installed electricity pylons, insulator units and cabling in the village streets to make it ready to receive a municipal electricity supply from the Israeli National Electricity Company, but again, all written requests have so far been ignored. This Israeli municipal and moral indifference to the plight of these villagers denied the kind of utilities provision we take for granted, is now exacting a health price amongst Palestinian children.
At a council meeting in the adjacent village of Hajjah, the Village Elder, Bassam Abu Bilal, explains that their old sewage system has ruptured, causing the drinking water to become polluted. 10% of the village’s 250 children have amoebic dysentery as a result. The authorities have been made aware, but nothing is done to repair the sewage pipes. There is edgy reluctance to go into further details s to why they have not asked for international help. Bassam explains outside in hushed tones that not all of the West Bank is controlled by Fatah at municipal level. Hamas, he tells me, has made it known that anyone accepting the conditions of occupation by asking for outside help would be seen as traitors, breaking the honour code of ‘sumoud’ or steadfastness. So the village children continue to suffer.
Elsewhere on the West Bank, steadfastness transmutes into active armed resistance, notably in the northern West Bank town of Jenin. Getting there from the tiny village of Hajjah should take about 50 minutes: - Jenin is only 35 kilometres to the north east via Nablus. But owing to the many road blocks, both temporary and permanent, with wearily repeated document checks at each one, the journey takes well over 2 hours.
At a nondescript location deep in the Hawashin district of Jenin, I am taken to a dwelling for tea, and introduced to ‘Jamal’ the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades leader. He is a tall, dark young man, earnest and quietly-spoken. When he begins to explain his motives, it becomes rapidly obvious why he is committed to this deeply disturbing life course he has embarked upon. His tones are hushed yet are as hard as tank armour.
Through an interpreter Jamal explains that the ‘jaysh’ (Israeli soldiers) demolished the family home after an Israeli sniper shot dead his mother who was standing inside the family home. His brother had fallen in battle fighting the IDF and was thus a ‘shaheed’ - a martyr. His remaining three brothers are all in Israeli jails and his father died in an Israeli jail. The genial politeness of his demeanour adds an edge to his hatred of the Occupation and of Zionism, which he feels destroyed his family. Jamal clearly believes he has no other route to follow – peace with Israel, he argues, will not bring his mother back.
Jamal puts it to me that the world is fighting Al-Qaeda or Seif al-Islam; moderate Muslims condemn these groups because they abuse the name of Islam. Yet why, he asks, does the world not similarly punish the Zionist movement for manipulating Judaism? I ask Jamal why could he not use his considerable charisma and leadership to find other ways of fighting for his cause than directing them to ‘martyrdom’? He replies that if someone keeps pushing you into a corner, taking everything away from you and demanding more of you, then all you have left to give is your life. “Once you feel this deep burning of oppression, nothing can stop you -you lose the meaning of life”.
Yet he himself seems to want to carry on living, even if only to send others to their deaths with the suicide explosive waistcoat bombs he makes for them. Is Jamal as indifferent to the deaths of his would-be ‘shaheed’ as he is to the Israeli deaths his methods cause? I put this to Amal, the female interpreter, afterwards. She admits, on the way back to Nablus, to feeling confused. She feels that if Jamal has such power and control over facilitating such suicide bomb attacks, then why could he not redirect this same power to more positive deeds. Because fighting the enemy means fighting for your life, fighting for your survival. I have no answer for her. I can only wonder how Jamal can sell his future ‘martyrs’ a dream of a just afterlife whilst failing utterly to give them hope in their current lives.
The Occupation and the rocket attacks form a rapacious creditor constantly drawing on an emotional bank account already hugely overdrawn. But even if the Israeli authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the moral price of Occupation, what they cannot ignore is probably the one factor that may cause the Occupation to end – the cost to the Israeli economy.
Superficially things look good – low inflation and unemployment, strong imports and exports, and rising share prices. How, on the face of it, can the Israeli economy be flourishing, yet with no prospect for a durable peace in the offing? Part of the answer is that the economy is rather like an ill woman wearing rouge to look healthy on the outside. The inside picture is chronically different.
Israeli exports are, in the main, ‘black’ goods – diamonds, pesticides and arms know-how (war seems to be a tradable commodity for the Israeli armaments industry). 70% of imports are vitally-needed raw materials. Poverty has been rising since the 1970s to an all-time high of 35.2% of children now living under the poverty line. In socio-economic terms Israel is rated is the 63rd most unequal society in the world – lower even than Mexico. Yoni Weinbaum, an economist living in West Jerusalem, explained that unemployment had risen from 3.5% in 1976, to a peak of nearly 11% in 2003, the latest year for which data is publicly available. Full-time jobs are increasingly hard to come by, and many people have to content themselves with part-time jobs, thus struggling to make ends meet.
Yoni produces official statistics showing that since Israel was created in 1948, it has had a trade deficit every year. He argues that the only factor keeping the Israeli economy afloat is international (mostly US) aid. And that aid is shrinking year on year, partly due to planned reductions in US cash aid to Israel, and partly due to the weaker US dollar.
And the financial cost of running the Occupation is rising year on year. Settler aid ensures that the State pays for 50% of the cost of a house, tax aid reduces taxes for settlers, and vast amounts are channelled into the settlement expansion building programme – and all Ministries have to contribute. The cost of subsidising the settler lifestyle runs at about $3 billion per annum – yet the military cost of maintaining the Occupation Forces is closer to $9 billion a year. This equates to 14% of the yearly State budget. Emigration is rising, immigration dropping and the rate of the Israeli population growth is 2% a year. But the settler population is growing at 8% a year, which implies that the Knesset will have to authorise the construction of more settlements, subsidise more mortgages and provide more financial incentives to those still considering ‘aliya’ or emigration to Israel.
To help make ends meet to pay for the Occupation the State has been selling off public sector assets such as El Al, El Al shipping, the oil refineries and other utilities. But the cupboard of sellable State-owned assets is almost bare and the overdraft caused by the costs of Occupation will continue to rise, as the growth of the settler population outstrips that of the population west of the Green Line.
The conditions the Occupation imposes even on the favoured settlers however, now saps even their fervour to stay put in the settlements. Almost all West Bank settlements are quite literally ring-fenced with barbed wire, guard boxes and floodlights. Accounts emerge of those enticed to distant and isolated settlements by tax breaks and cheap mortgages now wanting to get out because of the effect of living in a luxury open prison. They find no buyers because few are keen to leave Israel proper to move to a settlement.
The 2007 Israeli budget is one so stringent in cuts it would make Gordon Brown’s budget a positive cornucopia by comparison. Privatisation of Government-owned companies is to be speeded up, thus depriving the Israeli population of cheap, Government-subsidised services such as city bus transport. Minimum wage increases are to be delayed; welfare benefits (income support, senior citizen and child benefit) will be frozen. And what rankles most, is that unemployment benefit is to be withheld from anyone under the age of 28. And as long as resource continues to be pumped into maintaining the growing settler population and in subjugating the Palestinians, the economy will worsen. The Occupation is slowly bleeding Israel dry and would have done years ago were it not for loyal US cash injects.
But it is not only the economy that is approaching slow but inexorable meltdown. The corrosive power of the Occupation has now been sowing increasing discord in the Army, with Haredi soldiers refusing to obey orders on the instructions of their Rabbis, to evacuate settlers from illegal settlements in Old Hebron. Elsewhere in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Officers and senior NCOs have lied to cover tracks of their own vigilante actions against innocent Palestinians. Punishment, in the rare cases such actions come to military courts, is weak. In one case, an IDF Officer identified as ‘Captain R’ was seen to have shot dead a Palestinian school girl using almost all the ammunition in automatic weapon. He was accused of using unnecessary force but the decision of the Court was to promote him to the rank of Major and order a payment to him of financial compensation.
In a second case, a group of Israeli doctors were forced to take the Army to the High Court to order the High Command to open the Eretz Crossing to tend to civilian wounded marooned there during the Hamas take-over of Gaza. Even when High Court orders are delivered, the Army has ignored them. In Old Hebron for example, it has taken six years for the Army to implement a High Court ruling to allow Palestinians to walk their own street of Sharia al-Shahada. Eventually, in January 2007 the Army were forced to comply. For just 3 days only, disbelieving Palestinians began to emerge from the back doors of their homes. But settler violence against them obliged the Army to backtrack, and this same street is again empty of local inhabitants apart from the settlers.
The director of the Jerusalem-based Rabbis for Human Rights, Rabbi Arik Aschermann, is in despair at this moral meltdown across almost all sectors of Israeli society. “For me the real Zionism today is creating an Israel which is not only physically strong, but morally strong and that reaches our highest Jewish values. And yet I look around me and cry out at what is happening to Israeli society - I look at the suppression of the Palestinian people – the home demolitions, the settler violence and I ask myself "Is this what Zionism has come to? Is this what we created the State of Israel for? To be demolishing the home of this or that person whom we never gave a fair chance to build legally?”
He recounts how a settler said to him “Palestinians we can understand – but you: - you’re a traitor! Perhaps God sent you to us so we could repair your soul!” Yet for me, I feel that the spiritual pain is greater than the physical pain. If I’ve been hit, beaten or attacked with a club or a stone, the physical pain is nothing compared to the spiritual pain – that Israel has come to this!”
Rabbi Aschermann explains that this moral turmoil was foreseen in the Bible. “There’s a ‘midrash’ – a form of Jewish commentary on the Bible and the story in Genesis, where Haggar and Ishmael are banished into the desert and they’re dying of thirst. According to the Torah, God prepares a well and saves them, and Ishmael goes on to be the father of the Arab people. According to the midrash, before God prepared the well, the Angels go to God and say “Are you mad? What are you doing? Don’t you know all the troubles the children of Israel are going to cause the Jewish people throughout history? Why not just let them die right here?” God apparently declines to take their advice and the rest is repeated history.
Rabbi Ascherman laments that this is not what Zionism is about. And it is certainly not what Judaism is about. For him, the real Zionism today is creating an Israel which is not only physically strong, but morally strong and that reaches the highest Jewish values. He continues “So if we are really genuinely concerned about Palestinian hatred of Israelis, stereotypes of Israelis, propaganda being taught in Palestinian schools about Israelis, then rather than the curse of darkness let’s light a candle. What are we doing as Israelis to empower those Palestinian parents that want their child to have a better experience? That’s why the issue really is one of self-interest because we all know that there is no military solution. The Right, as well as the Left, realise that. We either live together or die together. And most of us who are sane would rather live together.”
The cost of the Occupation has an ever growing ledger of casualties on both sides of the racial divide. It has taken the lives of many Israelis and Palestinians of all ages, owing either to military action or suicide bombings. And just as with those IDF soldiers damaged emotionally by their tour of duty in the moral desert of Old Hebron, the Occupation exacts a price from families. Avraham Schomroni is an elderly grandfather who lost his Air Force son in the 1970s. Jamal al Khoudary is a Palestinian who lost his sister to an Israeli air-to-surface missile attack. Together they united in a joint Israeli-Palestinian group of bereaved families called ‘The Parents Circle’. Similar in intent to Michael Manekin’s ‘Breaking the Silence’ group, the ‘Parents Circle’ has been formed as a self-help group who have lost loved ones to the violence caused by the Occupation and the resistance to it. It is now some 350 families strong, from each side of the Wall. And membership of the ‘Parents Circle’ is sadly growing.
In his modest Tel Aviv apartment. Avraham Schomroni explains how their group talk to school and university students, and how they petition their respective Governments for another way forward than constant violence and blood-letting and more bereavement. Avraham said “You can’t overcome darkness with more darkness - we need a candle of hope” . Jamal agrees, saying “As long as people are willing to talk, no one needs to be buried”.
Meanwhile in Old Hebron the violence of the settlers towards the cowed and frightened Palestinian minority, maintains the downward moral spiral. But if both Israeli and Palestinian societies are to stand any chance of recovering enough to cope with the peace their people deserve, then let the Gordian knot of Hebron be untied first, so that peace can start there rather than be buried there along with Abraham. The Patriarch’s many millions of children deserve better.
Peter Small is a former UK Government Middle East analyst now a freelance writer who has been following the Israel/Palestine conflict since 1986.