Letter From Israel
by Ran HaCohen
So how did it go? The Mitchell Report recommended a cease-fire and freeze of all settlements activities. As spin, Sharon announced a "cease-fire" to push aside the issue of settlements. Then we had the Palestinian suicide bomb killing 21 young Israelis in Tel-Aviv, and it was Arafat’s turn to announce a cease-fire, which precluded the expected large-scale Israeli operation. When applied to Israel, the term "cease-fire" has a uniquely narrow sense – compatible, for example, with the use of shells containing dozens of small iron darts killing three Palestinian women (a "mistake"). However, as soon as Arafat used the term "cease-fire," he was put under American, Israeli, European, Egyptian and Jordanian pressure to commit the Palestinian Authority to an extraordinarily broad sense of the term, now formalised in the Tenet Cease-fire Plan. Experts unanimously agree that Arafat is unable to fulfill his Tenet commitments, especially the demand that the Palestinian Authority "move immediately to apprehend, question, and incarcerate terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza and will provide the security committee the names of those arrested as soon as they are apprehended," i.e. serve as Israel’s devoted cop. Expectedly, the Tenet document does not mention freezing settlements’ activity; moreover, in spite of Palestinian protest it does suggest enforcing "buffer zones around flash points," which may turn out as the next excuse to expand the settlements and deport neighbouring Palestinians.
The million dollar question about Arafat "unable" or rather "unwilling" to stop the violence? is unthinkable about Israel, since, unlike Arafat, it is in full control of its forces. Therefore, it is now evident that Israel has never been "willing" to respect its Tenet commitments. All national and international television networks covered the agreed-upon retreat of Israeli tanks, but media-critic Aviv Lavie of Haaretz (18.6) published the following revealing evidence, given by an Israeli reservist posted near Nablus: "On Thursday the armoured units in the Nablus area were changed. We arrived in the afternoon and around two, we moved our tanks into position. After we were organised, the unit we replaced pulled out. There were cameramen there. They photographed the tanks moving out of position, but didn't shoot us taking up our positions. It gave the impression that there was a withdrawal, while in fact nothing changed. At seven we heard on the radio news that the IDF had withdrawn tanks in the Nablus area and we all burst out laughing." Note that the Thursday mentioned was June 14, the first day of implementation of Tenet’s plan, and the pseudo-withdrawal should have been the "demonstrable on-the-ground redeployment [that] will be initiated within the first 48 hours." Israel thus breached the agreement from the outset.
Nachum Barnea, a senior and well-informed political journalist for Israel’s largest daily Yedioth Achronoth (June 15), concludes convincingly: "For Sharon, at least, it is not a cease-fire but the opposite: the [Tenet] declaration freed Israel from its previous commitment to a unilateral cease-fire. From now on, if there is a terrorist attack, the government will be free to react militarily, and to strike hard. The cease-fire actually prepares the ground for the renewal of fire."
So the ruling Israeli junta described in Part One of this article now seems even closer to War. As for the content of Israel’s war plans, I hope to say more about it in a future column. Without getting into details here, their objective is clear: crushing the Palestinians morally, physically and demographically in order to secure the future of the Israeli occupation and the settlements. We have mentioned earlier that the overwhelming majority of Israelis support freezing the settlements. A recent academic survey reported in Haaretz (June 10, missing in the English edition) reveals that even among the settlers’ population, 31% of the youth (aged 14-18) wish to leave the territories; 82% believe that settlements will be evacuated. Alongside the vociferous settlers who spur Sharon to go to war, there are other settlers who publicly demand financial help to leave their houses and return to Israel. Those who can, leave.
The Occupation thus looks more and more like a malignant obsession of the military-political junta, supported only by a small minority of the citizens. Furthermore, Israeli society is deeply divided – not only around the issue of Occupation. It is divided between Israeli Arabs and Jews; between orthodox and so-called secular Jews; and, last but not least, it is divided economically between the haves and the have-nots. The question is: in such a divided society, does the junta have an army behind it?
The Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies in Tel-Aviv University – a seemingly academic institute in which retired officers dress their ideology in scientific robes – has recently stated that the regional balance of power clearly favours Israel. This is true as far as the Israeli air force is concerned, but Israel’s intentions in the Occupied Territories require much more than a mighty air force. Slicing the territories into dozens of pockets, hunting the Palestinian leadership or a large-scale ethnic cleansing and mass deportation cannot be achieved from the air alone, nor by the professional but small Israeli death squads. It requires an army; and the army cracks.
The effects of the economic gaps are rather obvious. If you take a person who earns $15,000 a month (Israel's upper tenth) and another who earns $600 a month (lower tenth) and put their sons in the same tank, it won’t work. If one reservist comes to the base in a limousine while another has to give up a weekend’s leave because he cannot return on time by bus, you cannot run an army.
The Arab-Jewish tension within Israel may seem insignificant for the army: Israeli Arabs are not conscripted anyway. But it isn’t quite so: certain Arab minority groups – mostly Druze and Bedouin – play an important role in the army, where they are offered an economically viable way of life, once traditional occupations (agriculture, pasturing) are no longer possible (Israel confiscated most of the Arab-held lands). The Bedouins, at least, are fed up with fighting other Arabs in the name of Israel. "In the November 2000 draft, only 22 Bedouin joined the IDF, compared to 80 in 1999. The figures were no better in the March draft, and it seems the Al-Aqsa Intifada has all but halted the draft of Bedouin into the IDF," Haaretz reports.
The divisiveness of the orthodox/"secular" Jewish religious gap is much more significant. Ultra-orthodox Jews are, in a distorted way, the avant-garde that undermines the army’s claim on the nation. In its first years, Israel exempted ultra-orthodox yeshiva students from service. But 500 students in Ben-Gurion days have now become about 30,000 men. They are not pacifists and are often ultra-nationalist, but they do not serve.
The antagonism towards this sector is even more important than its exemption. Some upper-middle-class "secular" Israeli Jews portray the ultra-orthodox as "parasites," due to their higher birth rates ("making children to get social security") as well as their being exempt from service. The populist party Shinuy is the spearhead of this anti-orthodox campaign, which spices the universal hatred of the rich to the poor with localised anti-Semitic flavours, but also the left-liberal opposition party Meretz (under Yossi Sarid) is very efficient in instrumentalising anti-orthodox sentiments to deflect resistance to Occupation. The result is a growing awareness of the disproportionate division of the military burden among Israeli men in general. There are now several organised groups of reservists who loudly demand a fairer division of the burden as well as better conditions (financial and other) for reservists. Their public outcry culminated in mass demonstrations last April. It was cunningly silenced by the political system using common techniques (red tape, split resistance into warring factions, etc.), but the growing awareness of the unfair burden gives even more legitimacy to those who avoid military service, which is no longer considered a compulsory national rite.
Some soldiers openly refuse. Yesh Gvul – an Israeli peace group that supports soldiers who refuse assignments of a repressive or aggressive nature – says some 200 soldiers have refused to serve in the territories since the Intifada broke out. The army tries to keep public attention away from the embarrassing issue, so only 11 of them have served time in prison. "The refusal among today's generation of soldiers to serve in the territories is far more legitimate in local political discourse than it was in the past. The IDF seems to be avoiding confrontation with dozens of reserve soldiers who are going this route," writes Haaretz columnist Joseph Algazy. Other soldiers – supported for example by New Profile, "Movement for the Civilization of Israel" – use any pretext at hand to get out of military service. Haaretz Magazine has recently printed a report on soldiers who fake health problems (from headache to intentionally breaking one’s own leg): two thirds(!) of the reservists are released for reasons of health, in what is described as a "booming industry of exemptions and releases based on lies and overlook on all levels."
A report on the annual meeting of senior reserve officers with the Chief-of-Staff (Haaretz, June 11; again, missing in the English edition) says attendance to the meeting dropped 75% compared with last year. The officers who did come described the ever-growing difficulty of convincing reservists to go to the Occupied Territories. (The number of reserve days has risen from 17 a year in 1999 to about 40 this year.) "The entire reserve array in a state of explosion; it’s a fact that cannot be ignored," warned one lieutenant colonel, a parachutist.
The junta, however, seems to be doing just that: ignoring. There is no sign that it realises how strong the resistance to the military service is. "Do not believe the reports in the media; I visit reserve units every week, and the situation is better than reported," said Chief-of-Staff Moufaz just a few hours before the above-mentioned meeting. A follow-up on the reservists’ protest of last April (Haaretz, June 10; once again, not in the English edition) shows that only a single minor financial demand was met; all the others were either postponed indefinitely or rejected by the government. "The senior regular officers have internalised the message of the Chief-of-Staff: lip-service. ‘We appreciate your efforts so much’, ‘it must be difficult for your wives at home’. On the ground, very little has changed." And Deputy Minister of Defence Dalia Rabin-Pelossof (daughter of late PM and General Rabin: the dynasty rules) blindly claims that "the biggest problem is the attitude towards truants."
So Israel’s ruling junta is very likely to go to war – with the Palestinians or with some Arab states too – but it might go alone. Some reservists may refuse, but most of them will do anything, from physicians and psychiatrists to flights abroad, just to get away. Many of those who go will be ill-motivated and poorly trained. Just like in Lebanon, their lost lives, and the public protest that will follow, may finally show Israel the way out of the Occupied Territories.
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