Dec 1, 2003
In the middle of November, four former heads of Israel's security service, Shin Bet, issued a joint statement condemning the Sharon government for its tough military policies toward the Palestinians. One of them, Ami Ayalon, declared, "Many Israelis thought we could defeat the Palestinians by military means, and this would solve our problems. But this hasn't worked. Our economy is deteriorating and we have to change directions."
This follows similar criticisms expressed by the chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon in October. He said then that the comprehensive travel restrictions and curfews imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli government "increase hatred for Israel and strengthen the terror organizations." He added that "there is no hope, no expectations for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, nor in Bethlehem and Jericho."
It's certainly unusual that top officials in the Israeli state publicly break ranks and voice such criticism of the government policy. And it's also certain that these officials are not alone in seeing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hardline policy against the ongoing Palestinian uprising as counterproductive.
These five Israeli officials are not criticizing Sharon because of concern for the hardships faced by the Palestinian population. They are worried that Sharon's heavy-handed tactics are backfiring.
Since Sharon became prime minister in 2001, the Israeli army has routinely been assassinating Palestinian political leaders and activists, bombarding civilian areas, besieging Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps, arresting thousands of residents, demolishing houses and shutting down its borders to Palestinian areas, depriving tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from jobs across the border in Israel. Sharon's government is now constructing a two-billion-dollar fence through the West Bank to shut off the entire Palestinian population there.
All these repressive measures, however, have not stopped the uprising. In fact, they have only provoked further reactions from the Palestinian population. So now official Israeli voices are heard in favor of working with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority to try to control this revolt. Yaalon himself made this clear, saying: "In our tactical interests, we are operating contrary to our strategic interests."
If the Israeli government eases its policy toward Arafat and asks for his cooperation, it will certainly not be doing it for the first time. A decade ago, Israel concluded the U.S.-sponsored Oslo Agreement with Arafat's PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Arafat was allowed to go back to the occupied territories as head of a newly-formed Palestinian Authority. This was an admission on Israel's part that its mighty army, one of the world's best-trained and best-equipped, had not been able to stop the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, which had started in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 1987. A Palestinian police force, under the command of Arafat, was supposed to help with that task.
But police measures alone – whether Israeli or Palestinian – did not stop the Intifada. This uprising has taken deep roots in the population. The stone-throwing teenagers, who have come to symbolize it, have seen their parents' and grandparents' generations spend their entire lives in refugee camps, without land, without jobs – without a hope for the future. They seem determined to carry this fight to the end, and they have awakened that kind of fighting spirit in their parents' generation also.
On top of that, Israel never respected the Oslo agreements. It not only continued direct military repression in the areas now supposedly under Palestinian control, it also has continued to expand the Jewish settlements, cutting deeply into those areas. The frustration of the Palestinian population with Israel and its junior partner, the Palestinian Authority, exploded three years ago into a new upsurge of the uprising, now dubbed the Second Intifada. Since then this uprising and Israel's all-out repression against it have resulted in the deaths of 900 Israelis and over 2500 Palestinians.
In the face of this spiraling violence, there are signs that the Israeli people are getting tired of living in a constant state of war, not only in the occupied territories but in Israel itself. In September, 27 fighter pilots signed a letter calling airstrikes on Palestinian population centers "illegal and immoral" and saying that they would no longer participate in such operations. Some parents of slain Israeli soldiers have also condemned the army's operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Then, on the first of November, 100,000 people showed up at a rally commemorating the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin eight years ago. The event was advertised as a peace rally, and there were large banners at the rally calling on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Even if limited, these signs of dissent within the Israeli population are much more significant than any public disagreement within the ruling elite about how to most effectively suppress the Palestinian revolt. The workers and poor in Israel, who make up the rank and file of the Israeli army, can break with the policy of their government which has increasingly sunk Israel and the occupied territories into a vicious cycle of bloodshed. They can start taking steps toward building a peaceful future with the Palestinian workers and poor, within a new political framework which will recognize the right of all workers and poor in the region to a decent future regardless of race or ethnicity.