Why Israel does the things it does


Israel has a strong economy, enviable healthcare system and liberal social policy. Yet this ever-anxious state is quite willing to take extreme security measures, such as this week’s lethal commando raid –  even if others hate them for it, writes DENIS STAUNTON, Foreign Editor in Tel Aviv

AS DUSK CLOSED in on a Thursday evening, just days before Israel’s attack on ships carrying aid to Gaza, Tel Aviv’s popular Gordon Beach emptied out and fell almost silent. The only sounds were of waves breaking on the shore and the gentle pock, pock of a few stray ball games. The crowds had gone home to prepare for the weekend, but they’d be out again in a few hours, strolling along the broad, tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard and crowding into the city’s smart bars and restaurants.

If the people of Tel Aviv looked cheerful as they took in the balmy summer evening, they had much to smile about. Israel has weathered the global economic crisis more comfortably than any other country, and the economy is expected to grow by almost 4 per cent this year, powered by the highest density of high-tech start-ups in the world. Interest rates are low and house prices are rising, but the Bank of Israel has stepped in to prevent overheating, discouraging mortgages of more than 60 per cent of a home’s value. Israel’s healthcare system is the envy of the world, with full-service clinics in every neighbourhood and world-class research hospitals, all free of charge.

The country’s acceptance last month into the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development boosted national confidence, and the threat of a terrorist attack has receded so far for most Israelis that when the government staged a national security drill last week half of the population ignored it.

If, however, the suicide bombings that brought fear into the streets of Israel’s cities during the first half of the last decade are an increasingly distant memory, a new anxiety is haunting Israelis.

“Many people are very concerned that Israel is becoming a kind of pariah in Europe. Many Israelis have despaired of Europe,” says Alexander Yakobson, who teaches history at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

That anxiety can only have intensified this week as Israel’s attack on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid, which left nine activists dead, provoked outrage around the world. The attack may have done irreparable damage to relations with Turkey, long Israel’s closest military and diplomatic ally in the Muslim world, whose citizens accounted for most of the dead.

Even in the US, where support for Israel is overwhelming in both parties and within the administration, the naval commando raid has prompted second thoughts about the policy of blockading Gaza. For many Europeans the bloodbath at sea simply reinforced a view of Israel as a rogue state willing to take any measure, however disproportionate or legally dubious, in the name of security.

In numerous conversations with Israelis last week, even before this week’s commando raid, almost everyone complained that Europeans apply harsher standards to Israel than to any other country. Why, they asked, do Irish campaigners call for a boycott of Israeli goods but remain content to trade with Arab dictatorships and with China, which has an execrable human rights record?

The 86-year-old president, Shimon Peres, told me Irish critics should consider that, surrounded by hostile neighbours and threatened with annihilation by a regime in Iran determined to develop nuclear weapons, Israel has a smaller margin for error than other countries.

“Ireland is a wonderful country. I don’t know what is your permission to make mistakes. We don’t have permission to make one mistake. If we should lose once, we should be annihilated,” he said.

“Wars are not a pleasant thing and I am not an advocate of wars. I do not want to justify wars. I want to justify only the right to defend our lives. Nato and Europe attacked Kosovo, you killed 600 innocent people, you destroyed the Chinese embassy.

“I never saw that everybody suggested an investigation. There were events in Chechnya, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Nobody ever dared to suggest an investigation. Why was Israel picked out?”

During the early 1990s Peres started the secret talks with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The accords provided for the creation of a Palestinian Authority and envisaged a gradual transfer of control from Israel of Gaza and most of the West Bank, with issues such as borders, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees to be agreed within a few years.

Weary of violence, and impatient with the Jewish settlers who built on Palestinian land, most Israelis backed the Oslo process, and hundreds of thousands took part in peace rallies. As he was leaving one such rally Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords, was shot dead by Yigal Amir, a right-wing radical, on November 4th, 1995.

Next to the formal memorial at the spot where Rabin died is a section of wall covered in graffiti. The messages, now protected by glass, are calls for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians.

Many Israelis stayed with the peace movement after Rabin’s death, but Arafat’s rejection of a peace deal brokered by Bill Clinton in 2000 and the violence that accompanied the Second Intifada later that year hardened attitudes in Israel. Alexander Yakobson, a former member of the left-wing Meretz party who has become more hawkish in recent years, was further disillusioned by the failure of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005 to bring peace.

“Land for peace must mean if you give up land, you must not end up with less peace,” he says. “There is no country in the world where people will accept that.” The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has cast doubt on the Holocaust and called for Israel “to vanish from the pages of time”, has heightened Israelis’ sense of being under threat.

Yakobson acknowledges that many Israelis have become insensitive to the injustice and humiliation suffered by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, comparing Israeli attitudes to those seen in the US after 9/11. “Conflict coarsens people,” he says. “Guantánamo didn’t just fall from the sky. It came from people being frightened.”

Behind the police station in Sderot, a town of about 20,000 people in southern Israel, less than a mile from Gaza, stands the Qassam gallery. Laid out on racks like vintage wines are dozens of twisted, rusting pieces of metal, some of the thousands of Qassam rockets that have rained down on the town from Gaza since Israel left the Strip five years ago.

Mostly improvised out of sewerage pipes filled with fertiliser and sugar, each crude missile has a marking to identify the group that fired it – red and green for Hamas, yellow for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and red for Islamic Jihad. The bus shelters around Sderot are made of reinforced concrete, doubling as bomb shelters when the siren sounds, offering a 15-second warning of a rocket attack.

Like many of her neighbours, Shula Sasson has built a bomb shelter at home, a tiny reinforced closet where she and her family have spent whole nights as the rockets fell. A pile of thin mattresses stands by the window of her tile-floored livingroom, where her husband lies sleeping on the sofa in the middle of the afternoon. Wearing a sleeveless floral- patterned housecoat, fidgeting nervously, Sasson recalls that, when her son was eight years old, he saw a rocket rip his best friend’s left foot off.

“Since then he’s been completely traumatised. He hasn’t been able to sleep by himself,” she says. “To forgive is very hard. My children have been very damaged.”

Sasson says she regrets the loss of civilian lives, particularly children, during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 that left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead. She insists, however, that Israel was right to attack. “We shouldn’t have wasted time since the first rocket. Israel shouldn’t have waited eight years to go in,” she says. “The world calls us Nazis because of what happened with civilians being killed but they don’t know what we’ve gone through.”

FEW ISRAELIS KNOW what the Palestinians go through every day, under siege in Gaza and imprisoned within a system of enclaves on the West Bank. The Israeli settlements are gone from Gaza, but they have expanded rapidly on the West Bank and now house between 350,000 and 500,000 people.

Earlier this year I visited Jeflik, a Palestinian village in the Jordan Valley, part of the West Bank that is under direct Israeli administration, where local farmers have watched the settlers grab more of their land each year. The settlers enjoy a separate infrastructure supplying water and electricity, and many roads are off-limits for Palestinians.

Medico International, a German NGO, was helping the villagers to build a modest kindergarten and to create a playground from waste materials such as old tyres and cans. Throughout the West Bank, Palestinians spend hours each day queuing at checkpoints on their way to and from work and entire villages are walled in, with a single gate opened by Israeli soldiers for 15 minutes, three times a day.

Few Israelis visit the West Bank and fewer still enter Gaza but even within Israel, the mainstream Jewish community knows little about the Arab-Israelis who make up a fifth of the population. “You can watch TV from the morning until the evening and not know that there are Arabs living in this country,” says Amal Elsana Alh’Jooj, an Arab Bedouin who works as a community organiser with Arab and Jewish Israelis in the Negev desert.

Schools in Israel are segregated on the basis of language, with Jews educated through Hebrew and Arabs through Arabic. Alh’Jooj and her colleagues in the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development have teamed up with the city of Be’er Sheva to support one of the few schools in Israel where Arab and Jewish children learn together. The walls of the classroom are lined with Hebrew and Arabic letters, along with the Jewish Star of David, the Muslim crescent and the Christian cross. Each class has two teachers – one speaking Arabic and the other Hebrew – and the children are evenly divided between Arabs and Jews, all of them slipping easily between the two languages.

“You can’t tell which are which, can you?” a teacher whispered to me. “Neither can they.”

The institute works with Palestinian partners to bring communities on both sides of the conflict together to work on common projects, often focusing on social and economic development. “We have to build a base of interaction between people on this side of the fence and that side of the fence, on this side of the conflict and on that side of the conflict. That’s what builds mutual trust, that’s what builds mutual confidence, that’s what builds mutual understanding, that’s what creates new realities that would not have existed if you hadn’t worked together,” says Yehuda Paz, the group’s New York-born founding chairman.

“If the so-called peace brings no change in people’s lives, brings no change in the reality of their existence, brings no change in the hope they have for their children, then the peace rings very shallow. And when it rings shallow, the roots of hatred are very strong indeed and hatred flourishes.”

Despite the current impasse in the peace process, with few in the region holding out hope for the indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians brokered by the US envoy George Mitchell, Paz is resolutely optimistic about the future. He believes Israelis could be persuaded to embrace a peace strategy that could achieve reconciliation not only with the Palestinians, but with neighbouring Arab countries.

“One has to be able to project an alternative vision of what life in this part of the world could be like. Not a situation in which survival depends only on physical strength and military strength, but to envision a situation in which Israel could be a part of a whole different kind of framework for the Middle Eastern region,” he says. “The other thing, of course, is to point out . . . that until you settle the basic issue of peace in the Middle East, all the apparent achievement rests on fragile foundations.

“As effective as it is and as impressive as it is when you get the kudos for your financial system and your Bank of Israel, unless you build the foundation of peace in the Middle East and establish a situation in which we in Israel become an accepted part of the Middle East, in which there is a just solution and the Palestinian people have a just solution, and there is a two-state solution, until you do that, then all the glitter is built on sand.”