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Crossing Which Borders?


Earlier this year the Israeli novelist A B Yehoshua wrote at length about Zionism, the Jewish nation- building ideology formulated by Theodor Herzl, explaining that at its core lay the concept of a border. Jewish identity in the diaspora, he observed, inherently lacked borders: “It wanders around the world, a traveller between hotels. A Jew can change countries and languages without losing his Jewishness.”

The Jewish state, on the other hand, required territorial limits, it needed to define the extent of the sanctuary it provides to Jews. “Borders are like doors in a house which claim everything inside as the responsibility of the master. That is what Zionism means: realising Jewish sovereignty within defined borders.”

Yehoshua’s certainty about Zionism’s ideological basis, however, stands in blind denial of the goals and policies of every Israeli government since the Six Day War of 1967. It also ignores the decades of support, enthusiastic or ambivalent, for staying in the occupied territories shown by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews.

Until the onslaught of Palestinian suicide attacks unleashed by the Intifada, none but a handful of radical leftwingers in Israel was seriously articulating ideas about withdrawing from the territories occupied in 1967. Even today, 26 months into a seemingly endless round of bloodletting, the voices demanding the complete evacuation of the settlements are few and far between, and then usually inspired only by the desire for a let-up in Israeli suffering.

In fact every government since Golda Meir’s has denied the existence of a border between Israel and the West Bank, the so-called Green Line. Today it is impossible to find a map of the region produced by Israel that shows the armistice line agreed by Israel and Jordan at the end of the war in 1949. The imaginative erasing of the line is reflected on the ground, where Israeli roads slip effortlessly across this theoretical division of land to connect Tel Aviv with the settlements of Immanuel, Ariel and Kedumim deep in the heart of Palestinian territory. Not only are there no signs reading “Welcome to the West Bank” acknowledging the driver’s passing between legal and illegal Israel, there are usually no checkpoints either, so absolute is Israeli control of swathes of land around the settlements.

But what of the “separation fence”? Will it not inevitably lead to the demarcation of Palestinian as distinct from Israeli territory? Is the left not right to view it as the first sign of Israel’s willingness to recognise a border? In reality it is no such thing, as even the briefest of visits to any of the points where it is being built will confirm. Despite the promises of the Israeli government work on the project is grindingly slow and piecemeal. And Sharon has made sure that the fence’s route departs from the course of the Green Line as far as is practical, given his “security” need to keep the Palestinians on the wrong side of it. Instead the fence will enable Israel to annex thousands of additional acres of Palestinian land.

Rather than seriously trying to seal off the West Bank, as has been done with the much smaller and less useful Gaza Strip, Israel is building the electrified fence almost exclusively in areas perceived as the most vulnerable to infiltration by Palestinian terrorists. Happily for Israel these areas include some of the most fertile Palestinian farming land, which is currently being bulldozed and confiscated by the military.

What the fence will achieve is not a reconfiguration of the Israeli political horizon (which would be impossible given the integration of the illegal settlements into Israel proper, particularly around Jerusalem) but a series of Palestinian enclaves emasculated in their fight for land against the ever-encroaching settlements. Palestinian “border” cities like Tulkarm and Qalqilya are being effectively ringed and besieged by the fence, imprisoning tens of thousands of inhabitants.

Even in the unlikely event that the fence should be completed and demarcate a potential border Israel has spent the past decade investing in two insurance policies to ensure such a vision can never be realised. The first is the Star Points Plan, a series of satellite communities conceived by Sharon in the early 1990s that have been sprinkled like super-strength detergent powder along the Green Line.

Sitting on or straddling the border at regular intervals, the communities are protected with barbed wire and watchtowers and look identical to settlements near Nablus or Hebron. Because they house some of the most powerful men in Israel, the chances of their being dismantled is virtually nil: one, Kokhav Yair, is home to both Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, and Shaul Mofaz, the current defence minister.

The second policy is a giant road, the Trans Israel Highway, or Route No 6, the first sections of which have recently been opened. The highway, the largest in Israel, is officially designed to speed up times between the country’s centre — Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — and the peripheries, the Galilee in the north and Negev in the south. But in practice the highway will snake along the Green Line turning the political border between Israel and the West Bank into a mess of road junctions, shopping malls and industrial zones. It will also bring the settlements in the West Bank back into the Israeli heartland at high-speed.

This is not to deny that Israel recognises a border in ways that suit it. After all, as well as the police and army, it has a “Border Police”, a paramilitary force to enforce the Green Line for Palestinians. Before the Intifada, tens of thousands of Palestinians entered and left Israel each day on work permits to work cheaply in construction and agriculture. Since the Intifada, the border has been sealed to them.

The enforcement of a “border for Palestinians” has also been important in maintaining a physical separation between the two Palestinian populations under Israeli control. The more than three million Palestinians in the occupied territories and Jerusalem — without the vote and many legal rights — live on one side of the line; the one million Israeli Arabs — with the rights that accrue from Israeli citizenship — are on the other. The Green Line is an effective way to separate and isolate two populations that until 1948 shared a history and national identity. By perpetuating a theoretical barrier between them, each can be made weaker.

This may explain the behaviour of the Border Police and army when the two populations briefly found a coincidence of national interest at the start of the Intifada in October 2000. For the first time since Israel’s creation the wall between the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians was breached by a shared outpouring of anger at the deaths left in the wake of Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al-Sharif. The Border Police responded on both sides of the line, whether in Nazareth or Netzarim, with a similarly reckless shooting spree. In the Galilee 13 were killed in a matter of days. Suddenly Israeli citizens — Palestinian ones — were being treated with the brute force more commonly reserved for Palestinians

In fact the name of the Border Police is designed to be misleading in much the same way as the title of the infamous Green Patrol, the Negev police force whose main duties do not include environmental good works but the demolishing of Bedouin homes. The Border Police does not neutrally enforce the division of space between Palestinians and Israelis but harshly enforces one set of laws for Palestinians and another for Israelis, or at least Israeli Jews. The border marks not a separation of geographical space but a separation of legal rights.

In practice the Border Police are Wild West sheriffs protecting the settlers who colonise land at the frontiers of the state from attacks by restless natives. The settlements around Nablus and Hebron not only look no different from the Star Points settlements along the Green Line, they are also identical to the settlements scattered across the Arab- dominated Galilee and Negev. Many outsiders are surprised to learn that Israel itself refers to these communities inside Israel as settlements: that is how they are known on road signs across the Galilee and Negev.

For Zionists, settlement building is a state of mind: it is a compulsion to conquer and “redeem” Palestinian land, to cleanse it of the taint of its Arab past. Israeli governments spent most of the 1950s and 1960s committed to “Judaising the Galilee”, taking land from the remaining indigenous Palestinian population and handing it over to Jewish immigrants. Today 93 per cent of Israel is state controlled, and attempts by the country’s Arab population to build on the three per cent left to it, is almost always deemed illegal. The state’s declared goal is to restrict Arab citizens to the smallest possible amount of land.

The Judaisation project continues to this day, and has been given a new lease of life since the early 1990s with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Among the newest settlers in the Galilee are the leftwing middle classes seeking to escape the country’s congested urban centre and find a more peaceful lifestyle in the countryside. They have been encouraged to move into ethnically and socially exclusive hilltop settlements sited above Arab neighbourhoods. In Hebrew, they are known as mitzpim (lookouts) and are supposed to provide observation areas over the surrounding countryside — to guard against attempts by the local Arab population to reclaim its land by building on it or farming it — in exactly the same way that watchtowers sit proudly atop the hilltop settlements in the West Bank. Like the West Bank settlements, these small communities gobble up large quantities of surrounding Palestinian land.

Many of the inhabitants of the mitzpim would be appalled by the suggestion that they have been recruited by Israel’s army of settlers, that they are in the same mould as the religious fanatics of Itimar and Immanuel. But the state views them as geographically and strategically vital in exactly the same way: they strengthen the Jewish presence in Arab areas and offer reinforcement against an Arab population seen as posing a territorial and demographic threat to the Jewish state. This is why the government gives big subsidies and housing loans to new Jewish inhabitants of the Galilee and Negev, just as it does those in the West Bank and Gaza. “Judaising mentality” can be found in reports in any Israeli newspaper on most days. Its logic or sense is almost never questioned. In October, for example, the Jewish Agency announced a plan to bring 350,000 Jews to the Galilee and Negev by 2010 to ensure a “Zionist majority” in those areas. As part of the demographic reinvention of these localities, the government at the same time approved 14 new settlements in the Negev and Galilee. These are being established by the settlement division of the World Zionist Organisation, the first time the body has worked on settlements within Israel rather than in the occupied territories.

Housing Minister Natan Sharansky observed of the plan: “The building of new towns and strengthening our hold over the land are the answers to the terror we are facing.” Remember, he was not referring to the West Bank and Palestinians but to areas of Israel inhabited by Arab citizens.

Similarly misplaced military thinking underlies the decision taken in the summer to build in the central triangle area a “Nahal colony”, a military- style residential outpost that harks back to the prestate pioneering days of settling the land. The local council leader Dov Sandrov explained the logic behind the outpost as a way to “wedge a spike into the ground as quickly as possible”. He added that without the outpost: “The day is not far off when we will see Arab settlements expanding unhampered on both sides of the Green Line and forming a settlement barricade.”

Yehoshua’s assumptions about the connection between Zionism and borders is correct in one sense at least. The Zionism of the Israeli state clearly believes in borders for Arabs. As for Jews, it seems, the masters of the house know no bounds.

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