Occupation, Terror and Understanding

This is very tragic period in the history of the region and on the personal level I feel that my world collapsed.

Almost all my life, I was deeply committed to the cause of peace in the Middle East. Already in the late sixties, as an undergraduate student, I joined a very small group at Tel Aviv University, called Siyah (Dialogue) which believed even at the height of the intractable conflict that it is possible to open a dialogue with Arab neighbors. This was the beginning of political activism which has continued through the years until today: through an active participation in the Secretariat of Peace Now movement in the late seventies and early eighties until today, as recently I took the role of coeditor of the Palestine Israel Journal with Ziad Abu Zyyad (a Minister at the Palestinian Authority), as the Palestinian partner, to spread the idea that the dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis is possible even in these difficult times.

In addition, I have devoted the last twenty years of my academic career to try to understand the roots and the dynamics of the psychological foundations of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

My world collapsed because at present not only I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel, I even do not see the tunnel. I think that the psychological basis for any possible positive relations collapsed and it will take years and years to reconstruct it. The events of the recent years caused to the evolvement of deep mistrust, hostility, hatred and fear among those Palestinians and Israelis, who believed that it is possible to carry a dialogue between the two nations, that it is possible to negotiate peaceful solution to the conflict and that both nations can live in peace in two states with good neighboring relations. I say years, because the collapse on the Palestinian side began earlier than on the Israeli side, already in the late nineties. I exclude from this evaluation all those Israelis and Palestinians who never believed in peace making and some even did all they could to stop it. As result of this collapsing process, I feel somewhat defeated. What was built through many years with great efforts and devotion was destroyed in a relatively very short period.

The present situation is very tragic because there is no basis for any direct negotiation, and both nations are condemned to further bloodshed and vicious cycles of violence. Only external intervention that will impose and supervise a cease fire, together with political advancement, can bring a new spirit to the region. But as I see the situation, the Israeli government objects fiercely to such developments and the US, which has the ability to carry such a mission, will not do it, because of various internal considerations and also because of the particular geopolitical views and politics that holds the present administration.

Unfortunately, neither Europe nor the UN has the power to assist the rival sides.

Extremists on both sides give the tone to the nature of the relations. On the one side, Palestinians are united with all its fractions behind the struggle against the occupation and behind the agreement to carry terror against Israel and on the other side, the great majority of the Israelis support the brutal actions carried by the Israeli army as government’s policy. About 30% of the Israeli public who supported the peace process changed their opinion in favor of distrust and harsh measures against the Palestinians. The peace camp in Israel continues to live as a small minority of about 20-30% of the Jewish population. But it does not have a potential leader that could unite it and lead to possible comeback. It is highly probable that the next Prime Minister of Israel will be one of the extremists of the Likud party.

I belong to all the Israelis that are appalled by the use of terror which turns life in Israel into a nightmare. It penetrated to every family. Not only hundreds of innocent lives were taken, but the fear dominates the Israeli life to an extent that it disturbs a normality and sanity. People are afraid to ride buses, to go to public places, worry about their dearest persons, and live in constant uncertainty and anxiety. We do not allow our 18 year daughter to spend her time, as youngster around the world do-She was asked not to go to discotheques, coffee houses or malls. She was asked not to take buses and we drive her to places that she needs to go. She just began her army service and it causes to continuous worry about her safety.

At the same time I belong to the minority of the Israelis who understand that Israeli government misuses the phenomenon of terror to its political- psychological campaign. It labels every act of the Palestinians as a terror act- including demonstrations of Palestinians against occupation, throwing stones against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, or arm attacks on Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories. It generalizes the label terrorist to almost every Palestinian, trying to delegitimize the whole nation and its leaders. Also, it tries to present the acts of terror as random, sporadic, irrational, as a cause and generally anti Jewish. At the same time it does not consider violent and brutal acts done by the army against civilians and innocent Palestinian population as a terror.

I realize that terror is a symptom and has deep causes. It is defined in very specific way to differentiate it from other types of violence. But the Israeli government refuses to look at its causes and jumps on the American war against terrorism, trying to present the situation in the Middle East as being similar to the situation of September 11 and the war in Afghanistan. In my opinion it is not similar and in fact very different in its context, causality, and history.

I personally am greatly disturbed with the policy carried by the government of Sharon. This government includes the most extreme nationalist- fundamentalist forces, which give the tone most of the time. I believe that Sharon is part of these forces and it is very sad that the Labor party is providing the cover to this government by its participation.

Settlers have great influence on the decisions taken by the government and pushed it to take the harsh and violent measures that eventually it took.

I believe that Sharon’s policy is partially responsible for the present situation. Israel holds all the political cards, while the Palestinians hold only one card – the card of Israeli security. Sharon blocked any political progress, outlined unreasonable conditions for any negotiation and political process, decided to carry assassinations in very delicate moments, when cease-fire was possible, and most of all decided on brutal policies against the Palestinians population. Eventually these policies and acts pushed more Palestinians to the extreme behaviors of terror that we witness today. At the same time, terror acts pushed many Israelis to support the harsh measures against the Palestinians.

A number of times Sharon revealed his political views and it is clear that he does not have anything to offer to the Palestinians. His personal history is a history of blood from Kibya, where he led an army unit to massacre 69 Jordanian villagers through Lebanon war to the present incursions into the Palestinian towns and villages, which cause to death and destruction and reinforce the hatred and animosity, building cadres of new suicide bombers.

This is the same line of logic to break the will of the Palestinian people and to impose on them an agreement. It is sad to see how Israelis forget his past and support his policy. The same man was a vicious opposition to Rabin, trying to delegitimize Rabins’ peace policies and Rabin himself. Rabin was murdered and he leads the Israeli people.

What a paradoxical reality.

But, as it is possible to understand intellectually the causes of terror, so it is possible to understand the support of the Israeli public of Sharon’s policies. We, the Israelis are chronically insecure people after the Holocaust and perceive every violent act against us as endangering our basic existence. The recent wave of terror was so severe and symbolic that about 70% of us are ready to accept almost every act of violence to stop this bloodbath. People in such moments loose their human perspective and turn into fearful and vengeful warriors.

Arafat is far from being Mandela. He could lead alternative polices that would save Palestinian suffering. It is hard to know whether he leads the terror or follows the acts with support, not being able, at the present conditions, to lead with alternative policies. Terror has been always the weapon of the weak and past terrorists were later accepted as respected leaders in the world, including two Israeli Prime Ministers. But this is an appalling way of struggle, even when the struggle is justified and the world should deplore its use as a weapon. The world is changing and the use of terror should be condemned.

Still, Arafat is the national leader of the Palestinians and there is need to negotiate with him. The grave fact is that Palestinians are under occupation. This is a brutal occupation which makes the life of the Palestinian unbearable, full of humiliation, and hardship. The settlements continue. Just in the last year 38 new settlements were established and last week, during the Powell visit in Israel, announced building a new Jewish neighborhood in Eastern Jerusalem.

Intellectually, I know that people die to defend their land and so do almost all the nations on this earth: Most of the nations struggled violently for their independence including USA, Hungary, Venezuela, Kenya, Algiers, etc and all the nations are proud for this struggle while during the struggle they were presented as terroristic and aggressive by the opponent. I also know that in many cases the violent struggle was unavoidable as no nation relinquishes voluntarily the grip of power, territory, authority or resources. Jews in Palestine also had to fight the British and had violent underground and used ways of terror.

Israelis refuse to understand this reality. Few write about it and most of the media focuses on the Israeli victimhood ignoring the suffering of the Palestinians. Israelis ignore the needs and goals of the Palestinians and do not take their perspective. I think that the turning point was in 1967 when the great majority of the Israelis were convinced that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were liberated and are parts of the Greater Israel. This view imprinted the whole approach to the Arab-Israel conflict and since then the Israelis believe that they give land and not return. Israel began to settle the occupied territories and today there are about 140 settlements with 230,000 thousands of settlers, not counting the annexation of Jerusalem. Think that in Gaza Strip (with million Palestinians) about 6000 Jewish settlers have 20% of the land and control 30% of the water. This is outraging! Israelis refuse to understand these facts as well as the fact that Palestinians believe that they compromise for the 22% of their land by agreeing to have their state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the lines of the 1967 borders.

Here lies one of the relevant fallacies propagated by many Israelis and Americans-In Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Barak “gave the Palestinians everything”. Indeed the offers were more generous than any previous offers (about 91% of the occupied territory and part of Eastern Jerusalem) but fell far short of the minimum that Palestinians needed. Also, the violence that began in September 2000 was a very tragic process. Most of the Israelis believe that the second Intifada was well prepared by the Palestinians as a way to achieve political goals. It is possible. But few Israelis remember that the provocative visit of Sharon began the cycles of violence and that during the first day after his visit 7 Palestinians were killed and dozens were wounded and during the first month about 230 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed. Many of these Palestinians were children and adolescents. Israeli army was so well prepared for the Intifada that it exercised a massive violent reprisal that was at least one factor that led to the continuing bloodshed.

This is part of the problem–the ignorance, the distortion, the bias. Palestinians and Israelis are indoctrinated and have limited access to information. Sharon called the media to be patriotic and the Israeli military censor said that it is patriotic to lie or present biased information. As a result, the Israeli radio and TV news and also some major newspapers present basically uncritically the view of the army and the government.

It is hard to hold these views as most of the social environment has a different perception. Still you have to know that there are hundreds thousands of Israelis who oppose the present policies, continue to believe that Israel must stop the occupation and that the Palestinian state in its 1967 line has to be established. It is sad that although the contours of the permanent solution were already drawn in Taba in February 2001, we will have to suffer much before it will be implemented.

I try not loose my sanity in these difficult days and try to look at the situation sober as a human being. I believe that it extremely important as one that loves Israel to keep the sober eye, because this is the only way that eventually will be needed in order to resume the hopeful feelings that may lead to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. I personally focus mainly on the Israeli misdeeds, as there are so many Israelis ready to describe and analyze all the mistakes, mal-intentions, misdeeds and atrocities done by the Palestinians, ignoring and overlooking our own contributions to the bloodsheds and the continuation of the conflict.

My sharing came longer than I planned. It is important for me that you will know that in spite of the present rallying under the banner of war, there are many Israelis, though a minority, who think differently than the present government, do not accept blind patriotism, do not allow their fears to overcome their reasons. And many among them are even ashamed of what the present government is doing. The war of Lebanon began when also 70% of the Israelis supported it and ended partially in 1984 with mere 30% of its support. Although I do not see the tunnel, I still keep the hope that more and more people will join forces to struggle for peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that will bring peace, security and prosperity to both nations. We so badly need them.

Daniel Bar-Tal is a social psychologist, whose research focuses on altruism, helping and peace education. He teaches at the University of Tel-Aviv.