When the Smoke Clears in Gaza
Sooner or later, hopefully sooner, the all-too-familiar scenes of violence in the Gaza Strip—the sight, on Sunday, of children’s bodies being pulled from a flattened house; the rocket launches—will temporarily stop. As after every round that preceded this, a ceasefire will eventually be reached. The question is what we will have learned.
Since the bombing began, both sides have asked how this ends. If the answer is something other than with a repetition in a few more years—a perpetual state of war—Israelis must wrestle with the question of their own identity. No, that question is not the clichéd one: Does Israel have a right to exist? Rather, the more imperative question is: Is the way in which Israel exists—as an occupier, a colonizer, and ultimately, as an apartheid state—right? Is there another solution, involving a single, democratic state?
For decades, the ideas put forward by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall” have shaped the way that many Israelis have approached their relationship with the Palestinians. Jabotinsky, the ideological forefather of Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing Likud party, believed that it was naïve to think that the native Arabs would ever accept what he identified as “Zionist colonization.” Thus, he concluded, the only way that the Zionist project could succeed was through the use of force—“an iron wall which the native population cannot break through.”
What has transpired in Gaza over the past several days, and what has transpired in Palestine over the last century, has proven Jabotinsky and his modern day protégés both right and wrong. They are right to believe that the native Palestinian Arabs will not give up their right to the land or to full equality; they are not simply going to go away. But they are wrong to believe that this challenge can be solved by force.
Over the course of a twenty-three-day campaign four years ago, Israel embarked on operation “Cast Lead” to end projectile fire from Gaza. Then, fourteen hundred Palestinians were killed and thousands more were wounded, most of them civilians. Gaza was devastated, and Hamas was temporarily weakened, as its leadership was aggressively targeted for assassination. (Thirteen Israelis died, too.) Yet the resistance was not broken; this time, projectiles reached Tel Aviv.
What is most disturbing is the way that the Israeli leadership has taken to seeing this not as a failure, but as a lifestyle. In Israel, they talk of “mowing the lawn” in Gaza, a callous idiom used to refer to the periodic bombardment of a besieged territory in the hopes of reducing the capacity of militant groups every few years. Each time they “mow,” however, they sow seeds of hatred for the next generation. How successful, morally or militarily, is a war whose repetition is planned? At best, the idea of “mowing the lawn” exposes a profound absence of long-term strategic thinking.
Israel’s leaders knew prior to authorizing the assassination on Wednesday of Ahmed Al-Jabari, the leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement’s armed wing, that a military operation would not achieve its objectives. Despite this, bombs continue to pummel Gaza as I write. In 2006, Dan Halutz, who was then the Israeli Military Chief of Staff, said that they would “turn Lebanon’s clock back twenty years.” That operation against Hezbollah was widely considered to be a disaster. And yet on Sunday, twenty years didn’t seem to be enough for Eli Yishai, Israel’s Interior Minister, who said that Israel should “send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” Not to be outdone, the son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza…. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing.” Lest one be confused about the scale of devastation he recommended, he cited Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples.
Acknowledging that the Iron Wall strategy only yields perpetual war is problematic for Zionism. The ideology claimed to be about ensuring the safety of world Jewry through a Jewish state. The paradox—and tragedy—is that the terms on which a Jewish majoritarian state was created, in a territory overwhelmingly populated by native Arabs, resulted in coexistence that could not be peaceful.
Moving forward, what is needed is a fundamental change in the way Israelis view their relations with Palestinian Arabs. Yes, Palestinians have a role and will continue to fight for their rights in hopes of achieving a just and peaceful outcome. But at this stage it is Israel—and only Israel—that controls the ever changing realities on the ground. It would be easy for Israeli leaders to postpone facing this reality, but it would also be cowardly. The onus is on them.
The two-state solution that has long been the focus of would-be peacemakers has been fatally undermined by the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories. The tripling in the number of Israeli colonists in the West Bank and the entrenchment of the settlement enterprise under the Oslo “peace process,” which began in the nineties, merely had the effect of processing the proposed Palestinian state into pieces. And so a shift toward a new paradigm must take place, one that is based on equality for all the people in the land from the river to the sea. Today, we are left with the options of occupation forever—meaning continued conflict within an apartheid state—or a representative and democratic single state.
Jabotinsky and his modern-day disciples might say yes to apartheid—dismissing the values of equality and democracy—in the name of maintaining Israel’s identity as a Jewish state above all. But his century-old thinking is as morally debased as it is antiquated. In the twenty-first century—and that is the century we are living in, despite Halutz and Yishai’s attempts at time-travel—Jabotinsky’s values are unacceptable. The road might be long, and it will certainly be difficult, but only two things are certain at this point: the trajectory toward a one-state outcome becomes clearer by the minute and the use of force will not help Israelis get there safely.
This article originally appeared on The New Yorker.
is Executive Director of the Palestine Center.
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