The first item I ever wrote about Palestinians was around 1973, when I was just starting a press column for the Village Voice. It concerned a story in the New York Times about a “retaliatory” raid by the Israeli air force, after a couple of Fatah guerrillas had fired on an IDF unit. I’m not sure whether there were any fatalities. The planes flew north and dumped high explosives on a refugee camp in Lebanon, killing a dozen or so.
I wrote a little commentary, noting the usual lack of moral disquiet in the Times story about this lethal retaliation inflicted on innocent refugees. Dan Wolf, the Voice‘s editor, called me in and suggested I might want to reconsider. I think, that first time, the item got dropped. But Dan’s unwonted act of censorship riled me, and I started writing a fair amount about the lot of the Palestinians.
Those were the days when Palestinians carried far less news value for editors than Furbish’s lousewort, and no politician ever said that this beleaguered plant didn’t actually exist as a species, which is what Golda Meir said of Palestinians.
Back then you had to dig a little harder to excavate what Israelis were actually doing to Palestinians. Lay out the facts about institutionalized racism, land confiscations, torture, and a hail of abuse would pour through the mailbox, as when I published a long interview in the Voice in 1980 with the late Israel Shahak, the intrepid professor from Hebrew University.
It’s slightly eerie now to look at what Shahak was saying back then and at the accuracy of his predictions: “The basic trends were established in ’74 and ’75, including settler organization, mystical ideology, and the great financial support of the United States to Israel…. Between summer ’74 and summer ’75 the key decisions were taken, and from that time it’s a straight line.” Among these decisions, said Shahak, was “to keep the occupied territories of Palestine,” a detailed development of much older designs consummated in 1967.
Gradually, through the 1980s, very often in the translations from the Hebrew-language press that Shahak used to send, the contours of the Israeli plan emerged, like the keel and ribs and timbers of an old ship: the road system that would bypass Palestinian towns and villages and link the Jewish settlements and military posts; the ever-expanding clusters of illegal settlements; control of the whole region’s water.
It wasn’t hard to get vivid descriptions of the increasingly intolerable conditions of life for Palestinians: the torture of prisoners, the barriers to the simplest trip, the harassment of farmers and schoolchildren, the house demolitions. Plenty of people came back from Israel and the territories with harrowing accounts, though few of the accounts made the journey into a major newspaper or onto national television.
And even in the testimonies that did get published here, there was never recognition of Israel’s long-term plan to wipe the record clean of all troublesome UN resolutions, crush Palestinians’ national aspirations, steal their land and water, cram them into ever-smaller enclaves, ultimately balkanize them with the wall, which was on the drawing boards many years ago. Indeed, to write about any sort of master plan was to incur further torrents of abuse for one’s supposedly “paranoid” fantasies about Israel’s bad faith, with much pious invocation of the “peace process.”
But successive Israeli governments did have a long-term plan. No matter who was in power, the roads got built, the water stolen, the olive and fruit trees cut down (a million), the houses knocked over (12,000), the settlements imposed (300), the shameless protestations of good faith issued to the US press (beyond computation).
As the new millennium shambled forward, surely it became impossible to believe any Israeli claim to be bargaining, or even to wish to bargain, in good faith. By now the “facts on the ground” in Israel were as sharply in focus as one of Dali’s Surrealist paintings.
In May of this year the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, came to Washington and addressed a joint session of Congress at which he declared: “I believed, and to this day still believe, in our people’s eternal and historic right to this entire land.” In other words, he doesn’t recognize the right of Palestinians to even the wretched cantons currently envisaged in his “realignment.” Why should Hamas believe a syllable of Olmert’s poppycock?
In Olmert’s “realignment” plan the “separation barrier,” now scheduled to be Israel’s permanent “demographic border,” annexes 10 percent of the West Bank, while melding into Israel vast settlements and hundreds of thousands of settlers. The Palestinians lose their best agricultural land and the water. Israel’s Greater Jerusalem finishes off any possible viability for a separate Palestinian state. This Palestinian mini-archipelago of cantons is shuttered to the east by Israel’s security border in the Jordan Valley.
The press here, marinated in timidity and ignorance, greets Olmert’s “realignment” schedule with tranquil respect. In the meantime a frightful historical tragedy is in its final stages. With the connivance of what is sometimes laughably referred to as the “world community”–notably the United States and the European Union–Israel is deliberately starving Palestinians into submission as the reward for having democratically elected the party of their choice. Whole communities are famished and sick, cut off by Israel from food and medicine. The World Bank predicts a poverty rate of more than 67 percent later this year. A UN report issued in Geneva on May 30 says that four out of ten Palestinians in the territories live under the official poverty line, of less than $2.10 a day. The ILO estimates the jobless rate to be 40.7 percent of the Palestinian labor force.
The end of the story? I’d say the basic strategy is what it was in 1948: population transfer, to be achieved by making life so awful for Palestinians that most of them will depart, leaving a few bankrupt ghettoes behind as memorials to all those foolish hopes of a sovereign Palestinian state.