Jon Elmer, FromOccupiedPalestine.org: I would like to begin the discussion with the topic of September 11th, given the coming of the second anniversary. In The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis writes of September 11th: “There are few acts of comparable deliberate and indiscriminate wickedness in human history.” Can you comment on this assertion with a view from the Middle East?
Tanya Reinhart: Well, just with a general view, obviously this was an indiscriminate and wicked act, but I don’t think it is unprecedented. If you look at the type of things the US has been doing for years – the atrocities in Vietnam, or of the previous Iraq war where the Iraqi army, after being defeated, was bombarded by the US as its soldiers were withdrawing.
You could also look at the number of civilians that died in Iraq both from the bombardments and the starvation imposed on them for 10 years, which is clearly much more in scope [than the September 11 attacks]. So in terms of scope, there are really many acts comparable in history, many of which the US itself is responsible for.
What I think is new here is that it wasn’t done by an army. We are used to the fact that those killing civilians are military airplanes with sophisticated weapons – then it is a conceivable act. But when it is done not by an army, but by a group with no military means, by a group driven by despair and determination to fight, this is shocking.
It also exposed the vulnerability of the strongest power in the world – it turned out that having the most sophisticated military machine was not going to generate security. I think this is the biggest shock of the event for the US, and for other states.
Elmer: Israeli officials were quick to co-opt and align themselves with American grief and rage after 9/11 in order to justify escalating the war on the Palestinians. In fact, Netanyahu – the same man who thought that Tiananmen Square provided the perfect cover for the expulsion of Palestinians from Greater Israel back in 1989 – was infamously quoted in the New York Times on September 12, 2001 saying: “It’s very goodâ€¦ well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.” How significant was September 11 for the Israel/Palestine conflict, and specifically for the Palestinians?
Reinhart: Yes, it is true, Israel immediately seized the opportunity opened, from its perspective, by September 11th. The Israeli cabinet, Sharon and the ministers immediately labelled the Palestinian struggle as an instance of global terror, and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians as part of the war against terror.
The September 11 attack came a year after Israel launched its own attack on the Palestinians. At that time, military circles, Barak, and later Sharon – figures who were against the Oslo agreements from the start – were working on a grand scale to undo all the arrangements of Oslo, destroy the Palestinian society, and shrink it into smaller and smaller enclaves. They were ready, right from the start, to use the full scale of the military machine against the Palestinians. They got some support from the Clinton administration, but apparently not as much as they had hoped – there were some conflicting views in the US administration.
After September 11, Israel succeeded in depicting its project of destroying Palestinian society as part of the war against terror, and the Palestinians terrorists. The consequence, at least in the Israeli propaganda, has been that the same means the US uses in fighting its own terror, Israel can also use in fighting the Palestinians. For the Palestinians, this has had very grave consequences – Operation Defensive Shield [in April 2002, Israel's largest escalation since the 1982 war on Lebanon], in which Israel invaded all of the West Bank, and the Jenin horrors that came afterwards.
Ever since, Israel has used all of the US methods, including economic strangulation. Under the pretext of fighting terror, they are freezing all sorts of funds to the Palestinian society. Many of the Hamas funds go to support families that are affected by the siege, the blockades, the lack of work. The only funds that are still supporting the social infrastructure of the Territories are often these charity funds, and they are being frozen – all in the name of the war against terror.
Elmer: Gideon Levy wrote in Ha’aretz recently: “Every day of quiet in Israel is another day of crass disregard for what is going on in our backyard. If there is no terrorism there are no Palestinians.” (Gideon Levy, Ha’aretz, 7 September 2003) What is your feeling on that statement?
Reinhart: It is true that the Israelis view the Palestinians only through their effect on Israeli society. It is really amazing how life in Tel Aviv goes on normally when there is no terror. People go about their life, their work, their studies, their coffee shops, while just a few kilometres away, a whole society is dying.
What is happening in the Territories is a process of slow and steady genocide. People die from being shot and killed, many die from their wounds – the number of wounded is enormous, it is in the tens of thousands. Often, people can not get medical treatment, so someone with a heart attack will die at a road block because they can not get to the hospital. There is a serious shortage of food, so there is malnutrition of children. The Palestinian society is dying – daily – and there is hardly any awareness of this in Israeli society.
The established Israeli peace camp actually collapsed in the Oslo years. From their perspective, they were fully willing to accept that in the Oslo Accords Israel had in fact given the Palestinians back their land. There were a few technicalities to still go over in the coming years, but essentially the occupation was over.
No facts on the ground – like the fact that the number of settlers doubled since Oslo, that the confiscated Palestinian land increased in size, and that the one million Palestinians in Gaza were locked in a prison surrounded by massive electronic fences, with the Israeli army guarding the prison from outside – none of this was actually perceived by the Israeli peace camp.
So the reaction at the beginning of the [October 2000] Palestinian uprising and its repression was that we Israelis gave the Palestinians everything. We peaceniks were against the occupation, we had agreed to end it, and the Palestinians were extremists who were not willing to accept our offers. Although this has changed somewhat by now, there are still many who view whatever we do in the Territories as self-defence: we have no choice, and, in war there are victims.
But it is important to mention that there are also many Israelis who do see what is happening, and there is a growing group of draft resisters who keep reporting on what they have seen during their reserve service in the Territories, and declare that they will never do this again. There are groups of young Israelis who are going to the Territories and are trying to fight the [separation] wall.
The Masha Camp, which is very much grassroots, is a joint project with, Palestinians, Israeli and Internationals from the International Solidarity Movement. Together with the villagers who are losing their land to the wall, they built a camp and they stayed for about three months. The camp was dismantled by the army recently, but they are in the process of rebuilding it. And so Palestinians are not transparent to all Israelis. There is some awareness, but it is not in the mainstream.
Elmer: I want to talk to you about the political uses of anti-Semitism. Tel Aviv University has published a report entitled Anti-Semitism Worldwide wherein it claims: “The barriers between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have been lifted and the two merged.” What are your thoughts on conflating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?
Reinhart: I haven’t seen the specific report, but the claim is of course very widespread. Usually the source of this claim that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism is Israeli propaganda, and its very well-oiled branches of the pro-Israel lobby across the world.
The supposition in this claim is that if you look at Israel’s behaviour, it is essentially alright: it is a country defending itself, and it is doing what is necessary to defend itself – there isn’t anything peculiar about it. Therefore there must be some hidden reason why people criticize Israel and object to Israel’s acts in the Territories, and what could that reason be if not anti-Semitism? The reason that it is picked on is because it can work – given that there was, and is, anti-Semitism, given the horrible history of the Jewish people, people do have fears of anti-Semitism.
But I don’t like the term anti-Zionism to define opposition to Israeli policies, because Zionism – the way it is perceived by most Israelis – is that Jews are entitled to a State of their own. It is the liberation and self-determination of the Jewish people motivated by the Holocaust and their fate in exile.
The trouble is not exactly with Zionism, but with the Israeli leadership and the way Zionism has been executed, based on ethnic cleansing from the very start. I believe it was possible to reach the same goal [of Jewish self-determination] with much less loss and sacrifice for the Palestinian people.
It is not part of having your own state that it must be based on striving to grab more and more of your neighbour’s land, or depriving minorities of their rights – this is the Israeli military system’s implementation of the idea of Zionism. So I believe what we should say is that we are against Israel – meaning Israel’s acts and the policy of its leadership, and against the Occupation, and leave the question of Zionism aside.
Elmer: In an article in the Guardian this past week (“Recruiting by al-Qaida ‘means bombs in the UK’”) a British police commissioner said that suicide bombings were “inevitable” in the UK. He sited the two Britons who carried out the May bombing in Tel Aviv as a “leap” that was “all about people prepared to give their lives in relation to their causes”. He asks: “Why are they created? What motivates them? The old way of doing things â€¦ just doesn’t work any more. They are totally dedicated to their cause. It is quite chilling.”
On the other hand, a front-page story in the Jerusalem Post on Sunday featured an Israeli Naval commando killed in Nablus. The story spoke of how “he was ready to die for the state of Israel.” His primary goal in life was to be a naval commando, he worked overtime to pay for the laser eye surgery he needed to qualify and “he didn’t sleep or eat well until he was accepted”. At his funeral his commander said of him “you defended us with your bodyâ€¦ [his was] A full life of a warrior of 23 years who finished his task in this world and did it with honour” (Jerusalem Post, 7 September 2003).
Is the commitment and willingness of a Palestinian martyr to die for his or her cause really a unique phenomenon from that of an Israeli soldier such as this naval commando?
Reinhart: The willingness to die for your community, for what you believe in, for your struggle, is really not new and it is really not different from people dying on the battlefield. So I don’t think it is necessarily the willingness to die that is under consideration.
I think that the difference between dying in battle and dying in a terror attack is that the latter is still a real act of despair – this is something you do when you are convinced that there is no other channel open to you. Battles have been organized throughout history to have rules, conventions, a determined end, means to decide the rights of prisoners… the battle of the despaired is not subject to any rules or conditions or protections.
The best explanation for this growing wave of terrorism is that the present power system closes all other means of struggle that were open to people throughout history. There is no country in the Middle East that could defeat Israel – it has atomic and chemical weapons, it has the best air force in the area – so there is no room anymore for any conventional war with Israel. That is why for Israel, the biggest danger is terror. So the major thing in thinking about terror is thinking whether there are options left for struggle.
If we look at the Palestinian perspective, that is exactly the situation: there is not a thing the Palestinians could do that would satisfy Israel – Israel wants their land, and wants them essentially out of this land. The Palestinians lived quietly under the Israeli occupation during the Oslo years – there was hardly any terror. They accepted essentially the Israeli occupation with some form of self-rule. But that wasn’t good enough for the military wing of Israel, whose goal was getting more Palestinian land, and getting them out of even the little they still had.
This is not just an abstract struggle for their land – the Palestinians have impossible life conditions. In history, colonists and occupiers have at times learned to create conditions that enable people to still survive, and to have some reason to live. Israel hasn’t been doing that – there are really very few motivations for a young, unemployed person who cannot support his family to want to live.
That said, I still believe that not just terror (which is, obviously, profoundly morally wrong), but even armed struggle against the occupying army is the wrong choice, and should not be taken by Palestinian society. The only hope under these conditions, with all other options closed, is still the slow, painful and patient road of civil disobedience – the struggle of the whole of society.
Elmer: With the death of the Road Map, another peace proposal has fallen by the wayside. Is there really a legitimate “peace process”?
Reinhart: Well, legitimate is what the US decides. But legitimate or not, there is no peace process. There actually never has been. The ceremony of “renewing the peace process” happens periodically – the last time was in March of 2002 when the US envoy [Anthony Zinni] was sent to the area to talk about ceasefire. The ceremony ended with the Israeli Operation Defensive Shield and the horrors of Jenin. So I am afraid this latest round, the Road Map, is only the preparation for the next bloodshed.
If you look at the details of the Road Map, there were a few concrete steps that had to be taken by the Israeli side in the first round. For example, it said that Israel should withdraw immediately to the lines it held in September 2000 when the Palestinian uprising started. Israel made it completely clear that it was not accepting this – which did not stop anybody from presenting Israel as the side who accepted the cease-fire. Same with the dismantling of settlement outposts that was supposed to take place. So it was completely clear that Israel was not fulfilling any of its obligations. It said instead that it would ease conditions in the Occupied Territories, like lift roadblocks. Even that it didn’t do.
Throughout the whole period of the cease-fire, it was one-sided; Palestinians declared it and kept it, but Israel kept violating it. [In mid-August] there was a big escalation in Israel’s aggression and they resumed their assassination policy. It was completely obvious that with these intensive assassinations, there would be Palestinian revenge. Israel was doing everything it could to provoke terror.
Israel tried to assassinate [Sheik Ahmed] Yassin, the major spiritual leader of Hamas, who is viewed as such by many Muslims regardless of their organization. Such a direct provocation can only be interpreted as trying to explode the whole situation. But the Israeli understanding is that the perception of the world will again be that Israel tried to obtain peace, and the Palestinians refused to take it.
Elmer: To close, Professor Reinhart, how do we end the war of 1948?
Reinhart: The most obvious way is the one that somehow no one happens to think about: the only way to end an occupation is to get out of the Occupied Territories. In fact, this can be done immediately, within a month or two. The majority of Israeli settlers are concentrated in relatively small settlement blocks. The forty Israeli settlements that are scattered within the Palestinian Territories have very few residents. Despite controlling the land, Israel hasn’t actually managed to settle large areas of the West Bank. The majority of these settlers are willing – even begging – to get out and back into Israel, with compensation for what they invested.
If you ask Israelis, if you pose the idea of immediate unilateral withdraw in polls – and this is not often done – the answer you get is up to 60% support, so it is very easy to convince the Israelis to do this. The only problem is that the Israeli elite, the government and the army, are still motivated by greed of land. They want the Palestinian land, and so they have to invent ways of postponing the idea of withdrawal by either the Oslo model – endless negotiations – or by keeping Israeli fears alive, and provoking terror.
A simple solution like unilateral withdrawal is still possible, and after Israel gets out of most of the territories and the Palestinians get back most of their land, they will start to rebuild their society, democratize, settle and return refugees. Then there can be a long process of the two people discussing how they want to build the future, together, or side by side, in this one land with two people.
Tanya Reinhart is a professor of linguistics and media studies at Tel Aviv University and Utrecht in the Netherlands. She is the author of Israel-Palestine: How to end the war of 1948 (Seven Stories Press, 2002)
Jon Elmer is currently reporting from Israel-Palestine and is the editor of FromOccupiedPalestine.org.
Thanks to Valerie Zink for help in editing and transcription.