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Letter From Israel
by JONATHAN SHAININ
[from the January 12, 2004 issue]
It's a humid Mediterranean morning in late October. We are crowded into a tiny Jaffa military courtroom to witness one day of argument in the lengthy court-martial of five young men who refuse to enlist in Israel's army so long as it is, in their words, "occupying the land of another people and committing immoral acts." No palace of justice, the shabby, windowless room seems to reflect the lack of attention the state would like to see paid to the proceedings within. The makeshift gallery of wooden benches is too small to accommodate the crowd of friends and supporters, which includes many proud parents and grandparents of the accused.
Three uniformed judges sit behind a raised bench at the head of the room, and beneath them, the refusers stand one at a time to face the relentless questioning of Captain Yaron Kostelitz, who embodies every cliché of prosecutorial zeal. He mocks the accused with their own statements--"So you think the war is not really necessary, do you? So you know better than all the generals, and all the decision-makers, on the basis of the enormous experience and knowledge you gathered in your nineteen years of life?"--but their responses remain composed and direct.
"I am refusing," Adam Maor, 20, says calmly, "because people are tortured and killed. I refuse to take part in crimes against the lives of Palestinians." After Maor recalls witnessing Arab villagers attacked by settlers, Kostelitz, becoming impatient, pounces: "Well, did you call the police?" The gallery erupts with derisive laughter, and the whole scene grows more circuslike by the minute. After an endless stream of questions--"If you were in power, would you evacuate the settlements? And what if soldiers refused to carry out this order?"--the audience grows restless. "Why do you keep asking these same hypothetical questions?" one woman yells at the prosecutor in frustration. "This is not reality!" She is promptly ejected by two young military policemen, peers of the boys on trial. "What is this, Russia?" she blurts out as they take her away.
The government has long preferred to sweep incidents of refusal under the rug rather than bring attention to the phenomenon, which they insist is a marginal one, by prosecuting offenders. Most older reservists who refuse call-ups are simply allowed to avoid service; those who are unlucky or make a public show of refusal are jailed briefly and then released. In the past three years alone, more than 1,000 Israelis have refused to serve, but these five--along with a young pacifist, Yoni Ben-Artzi, who was tried separately--are the first to be court-martialed in more than twenty years. It is not their evasion of duty that is at issue so much as their political activities; all were involved in authoring a public letter of refusal that has now been signed by about 350 conscripts, and the state clearly sees a developing tide of public resistance.
In spite of such efforts to quell it, a certain spirit of dissent is in the air, and it has been wafting through some unfamiliar quarters. When twenty-seven pilots announced their own refusal to carry out attacks on civilian areas at the end of September, the first such protest to come from the elite ranks of the Air Force, they were vilified in the press by military and political leaders and threatened with punishment by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. But before long, the hawkish Ya'alon was echoing their rhetoric, declaring that the repressive measures in the territories "only generate hatred that will explode in our face." By the time the Jaffa court found the five young refusers guilty in mid-December, four former directors of the Shin Bet, Israel's feared security service, had gathered to denounce the government, and Ehud Olmert, the right-wing deputy prime minister, had proposed a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the territories. And now thirteen more reservists, ultra-elite fighters from the famed Sayeret Matkal--reverently known as "The Unit" in Israel--have seconded the pilots' refusal.
QUOT-Israel behaves like a society in a coma, completely opaque and closed," the philosopher Adi Ophir told me a few days after Ya'alon's remarks made front-page news. "But there are cracks in that opacity, symptoms that something momentous is happening. I haven't seen anything like this in a long time." Novelist David Grossman, who participated in the writing of the Geneva Accord, said he sees a similar awakening. "People have begun to try to break free from the paralysis in which we were trapped for the past three years, years when we were so frozen in our fears, in our suspicion and hatred, that there was no new thinking."
It was simply past time to speak out, Avraham Burg told me in October. "People had stopped asking questions," he said, "and stopped giving answers." Burg, a Labor Knesset Member who served as Speaker from 1999 to 2003, wrote a surprisingly vehement condemnation of Israeli actions in a widely translated September op-ed, which set the tonefor much of what followed. "Israel," Burg wrote, "having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism." With four children currently serving in the army, Burg suggested to me he had particular cause to raise his voice: "For the past thirty-five years," he said, "we have pursued a stupid policy, which sacrifices our children on the altar of settlements, and nobody was saying a thing."
Though serious doubts remain about the highly touted Geneva agreement, it has undermined Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's oft-repeated excuses for delay. "For three years," Burg, another architect of Geneva, says, "the government was happy to have no partner. The burden of responsibility was lifted off their shoulders. But we came and said, 'There is a partner and a partnership.'" The strategies of the Sharon government, which has devoted itself assiduously for three years to pacifying the electorate rather than resolving the conflict, seem to have run aground.
However, the deepest roots of this sudden outbreak of straight talk lay elsewhere, in what Israelis quaintly call the "demographic problem." Nothing is more feared than being overwhelmed by the antagonistic population among whom they have so aggressively intermingled their own people for the past few decades. As Burg confided to me, "I am not afraid of weapons and terrorism. I am afraid of the day that all of them will put their weapons down and say, 'one man, one vote.'"
Veteran political commentator Akiva Eldar suggests that "the demographic threat has always been too theoretical, while the terror threat is all too tangible and personal." But this may no longer be the case. The newspapers are full of concerned editorials fretting over the prospect of a single state encompassing Israelis and Palestinians, alongside reports like the recent alarmist claim by Haifa professor Arnon Sofer that "there is already a non-Jewish majority" between the Jordan and the sea.
As Jeff Halper, an anthropologist and activist who is an expert on the built environment of the West Bank, explains, "for decades, settling the territories was an ongoing campaign, and the consequences were always going to be years down the line." While the government continues to give tacit support to new illegal outposts and authorize new housing starts on existing settlements, these are mere ornaments upon the massive enterprise; the major blocs are complete, the extensive road network is finished and the separation wall is on its way to completion. "Now it's done," Halper laughs, "and the right is coming face to face with the results."
Conventional wisdom holds that the developing "demographic threat" and the emergence of Geneva will force Sharon to act, but nothing dictates what kind of action he will take. When Olmert floated his "unilateral separation" trial balloon, the settler right turned on him with fury and the left was elated. But a closer look suggests little more than a clever attempt to co-opt the renascent momentum for peace for an extension of the war with the Palestinians by other means. In his much-hyped speech on the matter in mid-December, Sharon presented little more than a clever term--"disengagement"--for what his generals call redeployment. The plan is to move the Green Line eastward, rapidly complete the wall, tighten control over East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, and then, as Aluf Benn wrote in Ha'aretz, to "close the territories in the West Bank and throw away the key," with no concern for the welfare of the Palestinians who remain behind the wall, or the viability and contiguity of the state they're trapped in. Such proposals are clearly no better than the dreadful status quo, but the cards are all in the hands of Sharon, who still faces no real opposition in the Knesset.
In other words, it is, as always, not yet time to get our hopes up. "People have started to realize, much too late, the end of the path onwhich we've been led," Grossman says. "But there are two questions: How long will it be before the majority grasps this fact, and how many more lives will be lost before then?"
The intellectual ferment in Israel has not escaped notice on the other side of the Green Line, but for the time being, there is rather less cause for hope there. In fact, the flood of breathless publicity that followed the Geneva announcement seems likely to repeat a critical failing of the Oslo era, in which excitement about international diplomacy obscures the deterioration of local conditions. "It's true that the discourse has changed," says Neve Gordon, an activist who has done extensive humanitarian work in the West Bank. "But on the ground, it's getting worse and worse."
In few places is this deterioration more stark than Qalqilya, the West Bank's fourth-largest city. Sitting atop a massive aquifer, plentiful acres of fertile land make it the "breadbasket of Palestine." But this stroke of geographical providence has been met lately with one more unkind. Qalqilya, which has the bad fortune to sit at the very western edge of the West Bank, has been encircled by Israel's security wall, which has confined the city to a narrow peninsula of land in an effort to keep settlements to the north and south "in" and Qalqilya "out."
Now penned in on all four sides, Qalqilya is accessible only via a single guarded checkpoint nearly a mile to its east. Khaled Shanti, the head of the local branch of the Palestinian Farmers Union, took me on a tour of what little agricultural land remains inside the enclosure. As you head out from the built-up city center, the land unravels into a maze of narrow dirt roads that thread between the plots. You can drive right up to the large barbed-wire embankments, the outer limit of the 100-meter-wide "fence," and what you find there are square parcels of farmland slashed into slender triangles by the barrier. You can see the other side, tantalizingly close, where abandoned greenhouses sit among dried-out citrus groves turned yellow from neglect. Israeli trucks glide past on a nearby highway.
A tall, soft-spoken man in his 60s, Shanti's face radiates sorrow as we walk alongside the concertina wire, and he reels off the damage in numbers: 525 acres of farmland taken by the footprint of the wall, 930 acres stranded on the other side (which, despite its claims to the contrary, the army prevents farmers from tending). All told, 85 percent of Qalqilya's cultivated land has been lost, affecting more than 550 farmers. At least 4,000 residents have already given up and left the city for good, and further flight seems inevitable, since the wall is not going to crumble anytime soon. "But what can we do?" Shanti sighs, and I realize slowly and sadly this is not a rhetorical question. "Do you have any ideas? We have tried everything, and we do not know what to do now."