The Arrogance of Occupation

This past month has been marked by a dramatic change in the U.S. and European attitudes toward the Israeli occupation. The U.S. first, and subsequently the EU, have adopted the Israeli view that the core of the problem is Yasir Arafat. Bombing Arafat’s helicopters, confining him to the besieged city of Ramalla, and the recent occupation of parts of the city, have nothing to do with Israeli security or “the struggle against terror.” The Israeli Government targeted Arafat, and succeeded in convincing first the Israeli public and now the international community that this policy is legitimate.

Present Israeli action against Arafat was preceded by the construction of an arrogant and paternalist discourse on the “character of Arafat.” We, Israelis, are at liberty to dismiss one leader and appoint another in his place. This arrogance, in relation to Arafat, highlights the underlying dimension of the failed Oslo peace process and the Camp David Summit. The discourse labeling Arafat as the essence of the Palestinian problem did not achieve predominance by virtue of the campaign waged by the settlers’ leaders in the occupied territories and the extreme right. Rather, it is the discourse of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, developed after the Camp David Summit aiming to hide their resounding failure. The over-simplified reduction of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the character of Arafat, and hence the self-evident, magic-wand solution of “removing the obstacle,” was constructed by the leaders of the “Left,” following their need to explain away the fiasco of their term of office.

The arrogant discourse is reflected in the urge to enthrone in Arafat’s place an alternative, more “obliging” leader, and in the paternalistic argument that “we know what is better for the Palestinians.” In effect, each wing of Israel’s political spectrum opts for a leader who would best serve its respective purposes. The “moderates” in the Government prefer a moderate, dressed in a business suit who would consent to deal in a rational, Western manner, and the “extremists” fancy a Hamas type who could legitimize an open and sanguinous war against “the Palestinian evil.” The two camps share the same discourse that the burden for resolving the crisis is on Arafat’s shoulders, while simultaneously avoiding Israel’s own responsibility. In fact the government is fighting Arafat and his forces, preventing him and the Palestinian authorities from succeeding in any possible effective struggle against extremist Islam, because Palestinian extremism and terror facilitates hiding the core problem of occupation.

Arrogance and paternalism is the underlying effect of occupation, which is not peculiar to the Israeli situation. European settlers who occupied regions inhabited by non-Europeans have developed similar discourses. The local inhabitants were classified as inferior and primitive, and deserving no individual rights, certainly no collective right to their homeland. Such has been the state of affairs in Israel/Palestine since the onset of the colonization, and the Oslo peace accords introduced no fundamental change. The land belongs to us, Israelis, we are its masters, and the Palestinians must accept whatever we are benevolent enough to offer them. The indignation of the “Left” toward the Palestinians following Camp David is over their ingratitude and their refusal to accept Barak’s “generous” offer. The support of the U.S. for the Israeli attitude caused despair among the Palestinians.

The Oslo accords were shaped according to the hegemonic arrogance of occupation. Having been initially “granted” Jericho and Gaza, Arafat was placed “on probation.” If he passed the test, he would be awarded additional territory; if not, the process would be halted, as Rabin proclaimed (Netanyahu was more direct, as in the slogan he coined: “If they provide results, they’ll get more, if they don’t, they won’t!”). Resumption of the Oslo process depended upon Arafat’s “good conduct,” his grades to be determined by Israel. Arafat was expected to deliver what the Israeli army had failed to procure: security for the Israelis. However, he wasn’t entitled to protect the security or independence of his people. Hence Arafat’s authority was not derived from the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights, rather from Israel’s consent to his presence; hence it is also feasible to expel him.

What did Israel undertake in return? Merely to vacate the larger Palestinian towns (and some land in their vicinity, as Israel found fit) thus allowing Arafat to appoint governors and policemen, but not enabling territorial contiguity or sovereignty. Israel did not take upon itself relinquishment of military control, the creation of a Palestinian state, the granting of economic independence, withdrawal to 1967 borders, and certainly not the resolution of volatile issues such as Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugees. Israel did not even halt or slow down its colonization drive in the occupied territories. The entire agreement rested upon Israeli goodwill. Thus, the second indispensable pre-condition for the success of the Oslo accords was Rabin’s retention of power. Rabin’s assassination and Arafat’s failure to provide for Israel’s security rendered the Oslo accords doomed.

Ariel Sharon is completing now the historical project that he started in 1982 with the occupation of Lebanon. He is working with the same logic based on military power used to destroy the legitimate representation of the Palestinian people. In the case of Lebanon, he was stopped by the international community, which prevented him from entering the besieged Beirut. However, he succeeded in enthroning Bashir Jumayel as president of Lebanon. As will be recalled, Jumayel was assassinated within days after his appointment, while the Israeli army was drawn into the 18-year occupation and fight against Lebanese militias that ended in Israel’s forcible removal from Lebanon.

The Palestinians learned well the lessons of Lebanon, and are weary of the Oslo accords that they regard as an alibi for continued occupation. Arafat did not instigate the Intifada, although he may endeavor to lead it so as to retain his status as the leader of the people for whom he is accountable. Unless we, the Israelis, cast off our arrogant mode of thinking, and our position as an occupying power, the present cycle of bloodshed can only intensify, with Arafat and even more so, in his absence. Europe, that has witnessed the arrogance of colonialism as a dominant power, should not return now to adopt similar attitudes even when their source is the Jewish State. International intervention to stop Sharon is urgently needed for the sake of the Palestinians and the Israelis as well.