One of the most progressive Jewish principles of old is now being put to the test: “In those days they shall say no more, ‘The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.” (Jeremia, 31.)
A suicide bomber kills himself. Should his orphan children be punished for that?
The Israeli army of occupation says: Yes, indeed! Furthermore, anyone who helps the children is a criminal, an accomplice, a supporter of terrorism. If the potential suicide bomber knows that his family will starve after his death, he might shrink from committing the deed. But if he knows that somebody will take care of his family, his readiness to become a martyr will be strengthened.
That is to say: “The fathers have eaten a sour grape and the children’s teeth shall be set on edge. Every one shall die for his fathers iniquity, the teeth of his whole family shall be set on edge.”
In recent times, this logic has frequently been acted upon. When Stalin’s secret police arrested a man as an “imperialist spy”, his family was dispersed, his wife sent to the Gulag and the children to the party’s orphanage. The Nazis created the term “Sippenhaft”, meaning that the whole family is responsible for the acts of any of its members. Until now, such methods were associated with totalitarian regimes.
Even if this method were effective, if starving the wives and children of suicide bombers deter others, we must still say: No. We cannot allow our state to behave like this, just as we do not take hostages and shoot them or wrap the corpses of suicide bombers in pigs’ skins, as has been suggested by some (to prevent them from entering paradise). In the final analysis, that is not wise, either. The prophets of Israel were no fools.
And to the matter at hand: This week the leaders of the Islamic Movement in Israel (“Northern Branch”) were arrested. The huge propaganda apparatus of the army and Security Service, which controls all our media, accused them of “helping Palestinian terrorism”.
Two days later, the mountain gave birth to a mouse (as the Hebrew saying goes). The main accusation against the Islamists was that they are supporting the family members of suicide bombers and other “martyrs”. The police officer in charge declared that, beyond that, there is no evidence of support of terrorism. All in all, the only offences allegedly discovered were of an economic nature, such as money laundering. “Economic offenses”, and for that such a gigantic operation!
The arrests were conducted like a military operation against a dangerous enemy. In the middle of the night, a convoy of 800 police rolled into the township of Um-al-Fakhem, accompanied by a company of reporters and photographers. Policemen in bulletproof vests surrounded the homes of the “suspects”, all of them respected public figures. Snipers were at the ready, as the policemen burst in and dragged the leaders out of their beds.
The climax of the operation was the arrest of the head of the movement, Sheikh Ra’ed Salah. His father was dying in hospital, the Sheikh was lying next to him to give him support in his last hours. The policemen woke him up and took him out in his underclothes to the waiting photographers, as we saw on TV. If they wanted to humiliate him, they failed. The dignified bearing of the Sheikh put the policemen to shame. His father died a few hours later, alone.
I must disclose here that I am not entirely objective where Sheikh Ra’ed is concerned. Ten years ago, in the winter of 1993, when Yitzhaq Rabin expelled 415 Islamic activists and left them in a deserted field on the Lebanese border, we set up protest tents opposite the Prime Minister’s office. With us in the tent was Sheikh Ra’ed. For 45 days and nights in the fierce cold of snow-covered Jerusalem, we lived together the Sheikh and his followers, I and my spouse Rachel and a changing number of guests, Jews and Arabs. We spent hundreds of hours talking about everything under the sun, and the Sheikh taught us a lot about the Kor’an and Islam, especially its tolerant face.
I admit that the Sheikh, who was 34 years old at the time, charmed us. Unlike the stereotype of a religious extremist, he was full of humor. He is a wise person. In daily life he was pleasant, courteous and modest. I was impressed by his leadership style: early in the morning he got up and started to clean the area around the tents. His men were quick to join him. No orders, no requests.
This does not mean, of course, that I accepted his ideas. I reject any religious regime. I support the total separation of religion from politics, between church (or mosque or synagogue) and state. Religious fanaticism is completely alien to me. That did not prevent me from liking Ra’ed Salah. End of personal note.
The solidarity of the Arab citizens of Israel with their kin in the Palestinian territories in their struggle against the occupation seems to me quite natural. I understand their feelings and their desire to tender humanitarian aid. All the more so as Gush Shalom, the movement to which I belong, collects money and sends food to the beleaguered Palestinian villages and refugee camps, as an act of solidarity. This can also be construed as “aid to terrorists” after all, if the army wants to starve the population into surrender, who are we to alleviate their hunger?
Clearly, all these are pretexts. One does not send 800 policemen just to prevent children from getting bread or to arrest people laundering money. If so, what was the real aim?
The Sharon government is now engaged in an all-out struggle to destroy the Palestinian people as a national entity. The re-conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the enlargement of the settlements at a frantic pace, the building of the “separation walls” that will cut off about half of area of the West Bank, the daily assassinations and other killings, the starving of the population, the wholesale demolition of homes and the building of bypass roads all these are meant to beat the Palestinian people into submission and to break their will to resist.
Sharon is now opening a second front. The million and a quarter Palestinians who are Israeli citizens were not directly involved up till now. A lot of declarations of support for their compatriots beyond the Green Line, some humanitarian actions, here and there some individuals who actively helped bombers. All in all, very little, under the circumstances.
Sharon is going to change that. The attack on the Islamic Movement is the beginning of a concentrated onslaught that will drag the “Israeli Arabs” into the bloody fight. Breaking the back of this population is aimed at driving the Palestinians deeper into despair. It is, of course, convenient to start with the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, because it is the most distant from the Jewish public. It does not participate in the Knesset elections. It is easy to create suspicion and to attack it. But let there no doubt: if this operation succeeds, all the other sections of the Arab population, from Azmi Bishara to Hadash, will follow. The recent attempt to get them out of the Knesset was just the beginning. After that, it may be the turn of the Jewish peace forces which support the establishment of a viable Palestinian state in all the occupied territories.
Let there be no illusions: Sharon’s final goal is turning the whole country, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, into an exclusively Jewish state. In this vision there is no place for Arabs, whether in the occupied territories or in Israel proper. Whoever opposes this vision is an enemy (if an Arab) or a traitor (if a Jew).
Therefore, paradoxically, the struggle over Sheikh Ra’ed, the religious extremist, is also a battle for the future of Israel as a democratic, secular and liberal state.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal.