Thursday, January 26, 2006

Illusion of Democracy: The Palestinian Elections

Illusion of Democracy: The Palestinian Elections
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the San Francisco Chronicle, 22 January 2006)

With about 80 percent of eligible voters registered, and more than 700 candidates running in a hotly contested campaign for 132 seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council, the stage is set for what is being packaged as an impressive exercise in democracy when Palestinians in the occupied territories go to the polls on Wednesday.

There are, however, some problems with this rosy picture.

For one thing, candidates representing the Islamic Hamas movement seem positioned for a significant victory over their rivals in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah party. The United States and the European Union have threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas is granted a presence in the Palestinian Cabinet, which would be the natural result of it taking a significant share of the popular vote. And Israel says it will refuse to negotiate with a government that includes Hamas.

Hamas has gained electoral support not because so many Palestinians support its ideology and violence, but because they are fed up with spending a 39th year under Israeli military occupation, with a Fatah-dominated leadership that has failed to deliver on any of the promises of peace and prosperity that have been made since the 1993 Oslo accords.

Even at the height of the peace process, less than 18 percent of the West Bank was ever actually returned to Palestinian control -- and even that was divided into dozens of disconnected fragments of territory. That is not the fault of Fatah, but rather of the Israelis, who continue to refuse to dismantle their occupation and abide by treaty obligations and the principles of international law.

But as long as Fatah leaders like Abbas refuse to countenance any alternative to participation in a process that has led to nothing but further paralysis and misery for the Palestinian population, a vote for Hamas is in reality a vote against Fatah.

This is political cynicism born of despair.

When Palestinians are asked which of their leaders they most trust, twice as many choose "none of the above" as Abbas -- and he is the least distrusted leader. Polls show that fewer than 3 percent of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories actually back Hamas' objective of creating an Islamic state in historic Palestine. Three-quarters support either a one- or two-state peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel.

All the talk of elections is part of an attempt to impose a sense of normalcy on a highly abnormal situation: not just the endless occupation, but the unresolved future of the Palestinian people, two-thirds of whom are excluded from the electoral process because they do not live in the occupied territories but rather in refugee camps or in the diaspora, or as second-class citizens of the state of Israel. And none of this will be changed by the elections.

Leaving aside the question of what it means to hold a "national" election when the majority of the nation doesn't have the right to vote, even the process of holding elections while living under military occupation is highly problematic for those who are eligible to vote.

The Israeli army denies Palestinians in the occupied territories the right to free movement, so access to campaign rallies and even voting booths can hardly be taken for granted. Right now, for example, 800,000 Palestinians living in the northern West Bank are banned from traveling outside of their home districts, and a large strand of Route 60, the main West Bank artery, has been off limits to Palestinian traffic since August.

Campaigning candidates have to run not only the regular gauntlet of Israeli checkpoints, patrols and roadblocks, but also must navigate politically motivated interference of the kind that in last year's presidential elections guaranteed that only Abbas -- Israel's chosen candidate -- was allowed free movement. Other candidates were often detained and sometimes physically abused at Israeli checkpoints.

Israel recently gave permission for east Jerusalem Palestinians to vote, but it has banned Hamas candidates from campaigning there or having their names printed on ballots.

Of course, according to international law, east Jerusalem is considered occupied territory, so it's not really up to Israel to allow or prevent Palestinians there from participating in the political process.

In all, these can hardly be considered genuinely democratic elections, not because the Palestinians don't want them to be, but rather because of the larger circumstances, the indelible reality that it is impossible for a nation to hold genuine elections while one-third is living under military occupation and two-thirds are denied the right to vote.

This is not to say that there is no purpose in holding elections for a government that will find itself without a state to govern. The point of the elections is to maintain the illusion that there still is a political process that will eventually lead to Palestinian "statehood." The elections fit into a wider narrative of Palestinian statehood-without-a-state that has been pushed by the United States and Israel, with the Palestinian Authority's acquiescence -- since Oslo.

Not only do Wednesday's elections maintain this deception, they also reinforce the sense that they are part of a wider process of Palestinian "reform" and "democratization," which are keys to the future of the so-called peace process.

After all, the United States has decreed that all progress toward peace depends on the behavior of the Palestinians, rather than on the Israelis. Placing that burden on those who never chose to live under military occupation -- while exempting the occupiers -- is hardly likely to yield real results.

But it's not meant to. This is why Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's senior adviser Dov Weisglass describes the situation as "a bottle of formaldehyde." According to Weisglass, maintaining the illusion of a political process guarantees that there will be no resolution of the conflict "until the Palestinians turn into Finns." And that, of course, suits Israel just fine, because as long as the illusion is maintained, it doesn't have to do anything but hang on to the territories it took by force in 1967.

Witch Hunt at UCLA

Witch Hunt at UCLA
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 22 January 2006)

'UCLA STUDENTS: Do you have a professor who just can't stop talking about President Bush, about the war in Iraq, about the Republican Party, or any other ideological issue that has nothing to do with the class subject matter? It doesn't matter whether this is a past class, or your class from this coming winter quarter. If you help expose the professor, we'll pay you for your work."

This grotesque offer appeared last week on a new website taking aim at members of the UCLA faculty. The site, created by the Bruin Alumni Assn., a group founded by 2003 UCLA graduate Andrew Jones, offers differing bounties for class notes, handouts and illicit recordings of lectures ($100 for all three).

A glance at the profiles of the "targeted professors," however, reveals that they have been singled out, in most cases, not for what goes on in their courses, but for the positions they have taken outside the classroom — and outside the university.

I earned my own inaccurate and defamatory "profile," for example, not for what I have said in my classes on English poets such as Wordsworth and Blake — my academic specialty, which the website pointedly avoids mentioning — but rather for what I have written in newspapers about Middle Eastern politics.

My colleagues and I are being targeted for speaking out on the kinds of urgent social matters and universal principles that it has always — in every society and every age — been the task of intellectuals to address.

The website assumes that any professor who speaks out in a public forum must at the same time be indulging in ideological abuse of his or her students — proselytizing them, indoctrinating them. And it's actually not just any professor; it's only the supposedly "liberal" ones, since "conservative" faculty are not targeted on the website.

Naturally, a professor who speaks out in public expects to receive criticism in public. Criticism is one thing; a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations and utter falsehoods, dragging in one's family and stretching back to one's high school days, is something else entirely. This is no way to assess someone's classroom conduct.

Ultimately, of course, this has nothing to do with me or my colleagues, or our teaching. A method for assessing how professors treat their students is already built into how universities work. Every course at UCLA gives students the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their professors, and those evaluations are used in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions; abusive professors don't get very far in their careers.

So the point of the website is not really to produce genuine "evaluations" of classroom dynamics — a cause that would hardly be well-served by a tiny group of politically motivated zealots accountable to no one and trying to use the cash nexus to break the sacrosanct bond between teacher and student. The point, rather, is to silence voices that go against the zealots' right-wing orthodoxy, and to subject the classroom to outside political surveillance, not simply by vigilante groups like this one, but ultimately by the state itself.

Jones, who created the website, is a former leader of UCLA's campus Republican organization. He explicitly aligns himself with the "student academic freedom movement" begun by conservative activist David Horowitz (although Horowitz last week criticized Jones, whom he said he'd once fired for pressuring students to file false reports about their professors).

The two distinguishing features of the academic freedom movement are the total absence of any significant student involvement and its use of Orwellian language — in which slogans such as "academic freedom" actually mean their opposite.

One member of the website's advisory board is state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), who has introduced a bill creating a "student bill of rights" — written not by students but by their paternalistic "friends" who assume they aren't up to the task of thinking critically for themselves.

Morrow's bill, which failed to pass last year but will be reconsidered this year, would wreak havoc. It could impose unprecedented state monitoring of classrooms and compel professors to teach discredited materials. It asserts, for example, that "curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences shall respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas, and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints."

The intention is presumably to force "liberal" faculty to teach "conservative" materials, as though a university education functions according to the same degraded logic as the Bill O'Reilly show. But the bill could also force a professor teaching the Holocaust to teach the views of Holocaust deniers ("dissenting sources").

Such subtleties don't keep the conservative crusaders up at night. Irrespective of the damage their campaign inflicts, members of the hard right — who currently control all three branches of government and yet seem irrationally convinced of their own disempowerment — are seeking to impose their worldview on our university system through crude intimidation and "big government" intervention that reactionaries normally grumble about when it's taking care of the poor, the ill or the elderly.

Their success would almost certainly guarantee that what gets taught would be determined not according to scholarly criteria but according to political pressure. I'd hate to be mistaken for a "conservative," but the barbarians really are at the gates.

The Whitewashing of Ariel Sharon

The Whitewashing of Ariel Sharon
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 7 January 2006)

AS ARIEL SHARON'S career comes to an end, the whitewashing is already underway. Literally overnight he was being hailed as "a man of courage and peace" who had generated "hopes for a far-reaching accord" with an electoral campaign promising "to end conflict with the Palestinians."

But even if end-of-career assessments often stretch the truth, and even if far too many people fall for the old saw about the gruff old warrior miraculously turning into a man of peace, the reality is that miracles don't happen, and only rarely have words and realities been separated by such a yawning abyss.

From the beginning to the end of his career, Sharon was a man of ruthless and often gratuitous violence. The waypoints of his career are all drenched in blood, from the massacre he directed at the village of Qibya in 1953, in which his men destroyed whole houses with their occupants — men, women and children — still inside, to the ruinous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in which his army laid siege to Beirut, cut off water, electricity and food supplies and subjected the city's hapless residents to weeks of indiscriminate bombardment by land, sea and air.

As a purely gratuitous bonus, Sharon and his army later facilitated the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and in all about 20,000 people — almost all innocent civilians — were killed during his Lebanon adventure.

Sharon's approach to peacemaking in recent years wasn't very different from his approach to war. Extrajudicial assassinations, mass home demolitions, the construction of hideous barriers and walls, population transfers and illegal annexations — these were his stock in trade as "a man of courage and peace."

Some may take comfort in the myth that Sharon was transformed into a peacemaker, but in fact he never deviated from his own 1998 call to "run and grab as many hilltops" in the occupied territories as possible. His plan for peace with the Palestinians involved grabbing large portions of the West Bank, ultimately annexing them to Israel, and turning over the shattered, encircled, isolated, disconnected and barren fragments of territory left behind to what only a fool would call a Palestinian state.

SHARON'S "painful sacrifices" for peace may have involved Israel keeping less, rather than more, of the territory that it captured violently and has clung to illegally for four decades, but few seem to have noticed that it's not really a sacrifice to return something that wasn't yours to begin with.

His much-ballyhooed withdrawal from Gaza left 1.4 million Palestinians in what is essentially the world's largest prison, cut off from the rest of the world and as subject to Israeli power as before. It also terminated the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict by condemning Palestinians to whiling away their lives in a series of disconnected Bantustans, ghettos, reservations and strategic hamlets, entirely at the mercy of Israel.

That's not peace. As Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull would have recognized at a glance, it's an attempt to pacify an entire people by bludgeoning them into a subhuman irrelevance. Nothing short of actual genocide — for which Sharon's formula was merely a kind of substitute — would persuade the Palestinian people to quietly accept such an arrangement, or negate themselves in some other way. And no matter which Israeli politician now assumes Sharon's bloody mantle, such an approach to peace will always fail.

Closed Off, Walled in

Closed Off, Walled in
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the London Review of Books, 1 September 2005)

Palestinians celebrated as Israel began to withdraw its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip (and from a handful of small and isolated colonies in the northern West Bank). The withdrawal will, it’s true, offer some immediate relief after 38 years of military occupation. At the same time, however, it’s clear that it is designed to serve Israel’s interests, not those of the Palestinians. It will allow the Palestinians of Gaza greater freedom to move about internally, but it will do nothing to resolve their long-term problems; on the contrary, it will leave the territory just as isolated from the outside world – including the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which, with Gaza, were supposed to form the basis of a Palestinian state – and just as much subject to Israeli power.

The Gaza Strip is the unnatural product of the destruction of Palestine in 1948. Most of its inhabitants are descendants of people driven from their homes during the creation of Israel. Most of the Israeli settlers cleared from Gaza will move to the coastal plain south of Jaffa, which is where the refugees of Gaza came from in the first place. Not one Palestinian village there survived the destruction of 1948. The Jewish settlers lived their lives in Gaza in contempt and ignorance of the people at whose expense their fantasy of frontier settlement and biblical prophecy was being played out, and they will be blind to the fact that they will now be living amid the ruins of the homes of their former neighbours.

The Jewish settlers who lived illegally in Gaza will be handsomely compensated (an average family will receive around $350,000, as well as $500 or so as a monthly housing allowance for up to two years). In 1948 Jews took over the homes of some of the 750,000 Palestinians who were driven out of Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, but Palestinians won’t be able to take over the houses in the former settlements in Gaza. Many settlers have destroyed their own homes to stop Palestinians having them, though they will all in any case be reduced to rubble by the army. Palestinians won’t be allowed even to stand on the rubble until a month after the Israelis have rolled up their razor wire and taken their concrete blocks and prefab observation towers to the West Bank, from which they have no intention of withdrawing.

The current withdrawal will, however, end some of the disruptions of life for the Palestinians of Gaza (and for those in the area of Jenin, whose lives were held hostage to the whims of four tiny Jewish settlements in the West Bank that have also been dismantled). For the first time in years, they will be free from constant Israeli supervision and harassment: they will be able to go for an evening stroll; to swim in the sea or to fish (indeed, they will be able to use the beaches for bathing, rather than as secondary roads); or to visit friends without having to run the gauntlet of checkpoints and patrols.

The Jewish settlers of Gaza had access to five times as much water and 700 times more land per capita than the local Palestinians. By the end of the so-called peace process in 2000, 0.5 per cent of the territory’s population controlled about 40 per cent of its surface area. Israeli rule, and the Oslo Accords which cemented the occupation, broke the Gaza Strip into four discontinuous chunks separated by Israeli roads, military installations and settlements. A network of Israeli checkpoints, open at haphazard times, severely limited the movement of Palestinians. A student from Gaza City attending classes in nearby Rafah would have to start walking to school at 3 a.m. in order to have any hope of getting to class on time – and to leave by 4 p.m. to be home by midnight. Ambulances were routinely held up at checkpoints. Since 2000, more than eighty Palestinians have died because they were not allowed through. According to the UN Population Fund, 56 Palestinian babies were born at Israeli checkpoints between late 2000 and summer 2003. Almost half of them died, and 19 women died in childbirth at checkpoints.

Such scenes may now be avoided, but even under optimal circumstances – and it remains to be seen how comprehensive the withdrawal will actually be – there are vast obstacles facing the Palestinians. The most recent World Bank assessment of the Palestinian economy, for example, found that average incomes have declined by more than a third since 2000. Nearly half of all Palestinians live below the poverty line of two dollars a day (and the proportion in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank, at 75 per cent). Recent studies have documented alarming rates of malnutrition in the Occupied Territories, especially among children. ‘The precipitator of this economic crisis,’ according to the World Bank, ‘has been “closure” . . . Closures, including the Separation Barrier, prevent the free flow of Palestinian economic transactions; they raise the cost of doing business and disrupt the predictability needed for orderly economic life.’

Before the Oslo peace process started, it was possible for Palestinians to move between the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel. Israel used the Palestinians as a source of cheap labour and the Occupied Territories as a captive market. A quarter of a million Palestinians – between a third and a half of the workforce – used to support their families by working in Israel. Today, only 15,000 Palestinians are legally allowed to work in Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who were once able to work in the Gulf and send money home have had to move back (250,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait after the first Gulf War). Unemployment in the Occupied Territories is now around 30 per cent, and again, the situation in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank.

The future of Gaza – and the reality of Israel’s ‘disengagement’ – depends on what happens in the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. Apart from the two or three crossings that allow access to Israel for the relatively small number of permit-holding Palestinians, Rafah is the only link between the 1.4 million people of Gaza and the outside world. It has also been one of the focal points of Israel’s systematic programme of house demolition. Two thirds of the 2500 houses that the Israeli army has demolished in Gaza since 2000 – leaving 25,000 Palestinians homeless once again, and uncompensated once again – were in Rafah. Some of them were destroyed as collective punishment; many others in order to provide soldiers with clear sight lines or to make space for border patrols.

Until 2000, almost half a million people passed through the Rafah border post each year. That number has dropped by half as Israel has tightened its grip on Gaza. In 2004, the crossing was closed for one stretch of almost three weeks and another of more than a month. Men between the ages of 15 and 35 are routinely denied permission to cross; so, often, are women of the same age. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 480,278 Gazans, a third of the population, are aged between 15 and 35.

One of the key features of disengagement was to have been the handover of the Rafah border post to the Palestinian authorities, who would – according to the terms of an Israeli plan – have been supervised by international inspectors. However, Israel is now insisting on closing the Rafah terminal altogether and opening a new three-way crossing, under its control, where the borders of Israel, Egypt and Gaza meet. If the Egyptians don’t agree to this plan, Israel is threatening to seal off Gaza from the east and make the Karni and Erez crossings into Israel the only ways out. Such behaviour would make clear that Israel has not disengaged from Gaza after all, and should still be regarded as an occupying power there, as in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Gaza would then have to be recognised for what it is: an enormous open-air prison.

The suggestion that the withdrawal from Gaza is a sign of hope for the peace process – or even the beginning of the end of the occupation – is absurd. The Israelis have, for once, been brutally honest about this. ‘The understandings between the US president and me protect Israel’s most essential interests,’ Sharon said in December 2004: ‘first and foremost, not demanding a return to the ’67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.’ As the withdrawal from Gaza got underway, Israel’s minister of defence, Shaul Mofaz, announced bluntly that Israel intended to hold on to the core of the settlements in the West Bank – about half the territory. Withdrawal from Gaza will allow Israel to concentrate on fulfilling the Allon Plan of 1967, its original scheme for disposing of the West Bank by annexing most of the land and handing back the leftovers to Jordan or Palestinian self-rule. The Palestinians will now be dispersed between an isolated Gaza, bits and pieces of the West Bank and an isolated east Jerusalem. Oslo and Camp David repackaged this basic idea. Sharon is just less subtle than Rabin, Peres and Barak.

The strategic thinking underlying disengagement has been spelled out by one of Sharon’s advisers, Arnon Soffer of Haifa University. ‘When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,’ Soffer told an interviewer from the Jerusalem Post recently. ‘Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.’ Soffer has one worry. ‘The only thing that concerns me,’ he says, ‘is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.’ The ultimate purpose of all this is not merely separation, but what the Israelis call transfer, the completion of the ethnic cleansing project begun in 1948. ‘Unilateral separation doesn’t guarantee “peace”,’ Soffer says. ‘It guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews; it guarantees the kind of safety that will return tourists to the country; and it guarantees one other important thing. Between 1948 and 1967, the [border] fence was a fence, and 400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come into Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait, or London. I believe that there will be movement out of the area.’ ‘Voluntary transfer?’ the interviewer asked. ‘Yes,’ Soffer replied.

Israel’s so-called disengagement from the Palestinians – whatever its short-term benefits for the people of Gaza – is not designed to bring peace to anyone. It is designed to cement Israel’s grip on the core of the West Bank around an artificially expanded and systematically de-Arabised Jerusalem. Like the scrappy settlements abandoned near Jenin, Gaza is to be given up so that Israel can consolidate its hold over the much more valuable land and aquifers of the West Bank; Palestinians will be confined to walled-in ghettoes. Genuine peace – beginning with a genuine end to the occupation – is a distant prospect.

Israel Leaves, but Gaza is Hardly Free

Israel Leaves, but Gaza is Hardly Free
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 21 August 2005)

PALESTINIANS CELEBRATED as Israel redeployed its soldiers and settlers
from the Gaza Strip last week. The move offers some relief to the
people of Gaza after 38 years of brutal military occupation.

But, given its unilateral disconnection from any framework for a
genuine peace, the withdrawal does nothing to address Palestinian
aspirations. Palestinians will gain greater freedom of movement within
Gaza's borders, but it seems inevitable that the territory will remain
as isolated from the outside world (not to mention the West Bank and
Jerusalem) and as subject to Israeli domination as before.

Quite apart from the question of Palestinian self-determination —
which hinges on ties between Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem — the
withdrawal also will do nothing to alleviate the social and economic
crisis produced by the Israeli occupation.

A 2004 World Bank study revealed that, since the intensification of
the occupation in 2000, average Palestinian incomes have declined by
more than one-third. Nearly half of all Palestinians live below the
poverty line of $2 a day. The World Bank's assessment of the cause of
this dramatic deterioration in Palestinian living standards is
unequivocal. "The precipitator of this economic crisis has been
'closure,' a multifaceted system of restrictions on the movement of
Palestinian people and goods, which the government of Israel argues is
essential to protect Israelis in Israel and the settlements. Closures,
including the Separation Barrier, prevent the free flow of Palestinian
economic transactions; they raise the cost of doing business and
disrupt the predictability needed for orderly economic life."

Until the Israeli use of closure as a form of collective punishment
became routine in the 1990s, it was possible for Palestinians living
under Israeli occupation to move among the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem
and Israel. Israeli policy then was to use the Palestinians as a source
of cheap labor and the occupied territories as a captive market.
Between a third and a half of the Palestinian workforce supported their
families by working in Israel.

All this ended with the elaborate calculus of occupation devised at
Oslo between 1993 and 1995, which severely restricted Palestinian
movement. Today, only 15,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories
are allowed to work in Israel. Unemployment in the territories is
between 25% and 30%; some estimates place unemployment in Gaza at about

Obviously, for Palestinians to have a chance at creating and
sustaining an economy, Gaza must be able to connect freely with the
outside world. Israel, citing the usual security concerns, does not
want that to happen.

Gaza is a narrow strip, bounded by the sea, Egypt and Israel. Even
after the withdrawal, Israel wants to control land access to the
territory; and, by virtue of its military power, it also will control
approaches to Gaza by air and sea.

Now the only crack in the wall that Israel effectively forms around
Gaza is the crossing at Rafah, which straddles the border with Egypt.
Israel long ago asserted its control there by clearing away Palestinian
homes close to the border. Two-thirds of the 2,500 homes wantonly
demolished by the Israeli army in Gaza since 2000 (leaving about 25,000
Palestinians, many already refugees twice over, homeless once again)
were in Rafah. Most were destroyed to clear lines of sight and space
for patrols on either side of the dismal border terminal that allows
passage between Egypt and Gaza.

Because Rafah has no point of contact with Israel, Israeli forces are
supposed to leave it as part of the withdrawal. But Israel now says it
will redeploy its army away from the Egypt-Gaza border — later, not now
— only if it is satisfied with the way that Egypt secures its side of
the border. This is a major loophole in the disengagement plan.

Moreover, shortly before the Gaza withdrawal got underway, the Israeli
government announced that if it does withdraw from Rafah, it ultimately
wants the point of entry there closed so that it can instead open — and
control — a new three-way crossing, where the borders of Egypt, Israel
and Gaza meet. If Egypt doesn't agree to this plan, and instead decides
to maintain its own border crossing, Israel has threatened to suspend
agreements with Gaza that allow for goods to pass to and through Israel
without fees. That would throttle what remains of Gaza's economy and
further isolate the territory.

So long as Israel can control all access to Gaza, it cannot be said to
have truly disengaged. It will still be an occupying power there, as in
the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Which means that Gaza must be
recognized for what it is: the world's largest prison.

Brutality that Boomerangs

Brutality that Boomerangs
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 29 July 2005)

I am angered and sickened by the bombings here in London on July 7, but I am equally angered by the unthinking reactions in the United States and Britain to those disgusting attacks.

The usual self-congratulatory contrast between "our" civilization and "their" barbarism has set the stage for a cycle of moralistic inquiries into the motivations of suicide bombers and the supposed duty of "good" Muslims to restrain "bad" ones.

Few have noticed that suicide bombing is merely a tactic used by those who lack other means of delivering explosives. Fewer still seem to notice that what happened in London is what occurs every time a U.S. or British warplane unloads its bombs on an Iraqi village.

But, you may say, our forces don't deliberately target civilians. Perhaps not. But they have consistently shown themselves to be indifferent to the civilian casualties produced by their operations.

"Collateral damage" is the inevitable result of choosing to go to war. By making the choice to go to war in Iraq, we made the choice to kill tens of thousands of civilians.

It does not matter to bereaved parents whether their child was killed deliberately, as the result of a utilitarian calculation of "the greater good," or of the callous indifference of officials from a distant power.

American and British media have devoted hours to wondering what would drive a seemingly normal young Muslim to destroy himself and others. No one has paused to ask what would cause a seemingly normal young Christian or Jew to strap himself into a warplane and drop bombs on a village, knowing full well his bombs will inevitably kill civilians (and, of course, soldiers).

Because "our" way of killing is dressed up in smart uniforms and shiny weapons and cloaked in the language of grand causes, we place it on a different moral plane than "theirs."

I read an article about a Marine sniper who was given a medal at a California ceremony for having shot dead 32 Iraqis during the battle for Fallouja last year-- young men who were defending their city from an invading army. A nod to their deaths was made by the sniper and a chaplain, but these are the sentiments that struck me:

"He didn't kill 32 people," said a sergeant major. "He saved numerous lives.... That's how Marines look at it." And his mother said, "It's difficult. You send off your little boy and he comes back a man who has protected everyone." Clearly, "our" lives are all that matter and "their" lives literally don't count.

And are we really expected to believe that such brutal indifference to other people's lives has nothing to do with what happened in London three weeks ago?

"It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased," the Anglo American revolutionary Thomas Paine warned two centuries ago. As a result, he added, "a vast mass of humankind are degradedly thrown into the background of the human picture." His point was that if people are treated inhumanly, they will cease to act humanly.

Our governments dismiss out of hand any connection between the London bombings and the war in Iraq. Such attacks, they say, predate 2003. But Iraq was first invaded in 1991, not 2003. Then a decade of sanctions against that country killed a million Iraqis, including 500,000 children. Over the same period, unwavering support for Israel has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians and the total paralysis of an entire people. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered by U.S. and British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

At no point has peaceful protest, persuasion, demonstration, negotiation or remonstration made so much as a dent in the single-minded U.S. and British policy. If all legitimate forms of dissent go unheeded, illegitimate forms will be turned to instead. Some will resort to violence, which does not producethe desired result but may, by way of unthinking reaction, give vent to the inhumanity with which they have been treated for so long. Paine was right:

People who are treated brutally will finally turn into brutes.

This is not a war between "civilization" and "barbarism" but a war between one form of zealotry and another, one form of ignorance and another, one form of barbarism and another. More of the same, underwritten by ignorance, will not yield solutions.

The time has come to be human, and — motivated by sympathy, actuated by reason — to think and act as human beings, not unthinking brutes.

Neocons Lay Siege to the Ivory Towers

Neocons Lay Siege to the Ivory Towers
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 4 May 2005)

In the months ahead, the state Senate Committee on Education will consider a bill that pretends to strike a blow for intellectual honesty, truth and freedom, but in reality poses a profound threat to academic freedom in the United States.

Peddled under the benign name "An Academic Bill of Rights," SB 5 is in fact part of a wide assault on universities, professors and teaching across the country. Similar bills are pending in more than a dozen state legislatures and at the federal level, all calling for government intrusion into pedagogical matters, such as text assignments and course syllabuses, that neither legislators nor bureaucrats are competent to address.

The language of the California bill — which was blocked in committee last week but will be reconsidered later in the legislative session — is extraordinarily disingenuous, even Orwellian. Declaring that "free inquiry and free speech are indispensable" in "the pursuit of truth," it argues that "intellectual independence means the protection of students from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature." Professors should "not take unfair advantage of their position of power over a student by indoctrinating him or her with the teacher's own opinions before a student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question."

To protect students from what one might (mistakenly) suppose to be an epidemic of indoctrination, the bill mandates that students be graded on the basis of their "reasoned answers" rather than their political beliefs. Reading lists should "respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge." Speakers brought to campus should "promote intellectual pluralism," and faculty should eschew political, religious or "anti-religious" bias.

Notwithstanding its contorted syntax, the bill may sound reasonable. But, in fact, it has nothing to do with balance and everything to do with promoting a neoconservative agenda. For one thing, the proposed "safeguards" to "protect" students from faculty intimidation are already in place at all universities, which have procedures to encourage students' feedback and evaluate their grievances. Despite a lot of noise from the right about liberal bias on campus, there are simply no meaningful data to suggest that any of these procedures have failed.

The real purpose of the bill, then, is not to provide students with "rights" but to institute state monitoring of universities, to impose specific points of view on instructors — in many cases, points of view that have been intellectually discredited — and ultimately to silence dissenting voices by punishing universities that protect them.

"Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies their parents voted us in for?" asks the Republican sponsor of the Ohio version of the bill.

Backers of the Florida bill would like to empower students to sue professors with whom they disagree on the theory of evolution.

The campaign for academic "rights" actually originated with organizations and individuals committed to defending Israel from criticism, and whose interest in curtailing academic freedom dovetails with those of conservatives.

At the federal level, for example, a confluence of conservative and pro-Israeli forces helped push HR 3077 through the House of Representatives in 2003. That bill, which foundered in a Senate committee (but has been resurrected in the current Congress), called for government monitoring of international studies programs that receive federal funding. The bill was drafted in response to the claim that the federal government was funding programs that criticize American foreign policy. If passed, it would have created a board (including two members from "federal agencies that have national security responsibilities") to ensure that academic programs "better reflect the national needs related to homeland security." Its supporters included the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Israel Political Action Committee, the bulwark of Israel's Washington lobby.

The bill was also backed by pro-Israel agitators Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, who, via allies such as neoconservative firebrand David Horowitz, are among the proponents of the "bill of rights" legislation at the state level. All the proposed bills before state legislatures are variants of a text written by Horowitz and backed by Students for Academic Freedom, which maintains a website where students can complain about their instructors' supposed bias.

The problem with all this is that the university is meant to be an insular environment. Those within its walls are supposed to be protected from outside political pressures so that learning can take place.

But the lesson of the recent upheavals at Columbia University — where an individual professor became the object of a concerted campaign of intimidation because of his criticisms of Israel — is that pressure groups targeting an individual professor for his public views are willing to inflict collateral damage on an entire university. What the new legislation offers such groups is the opportunity to inflict damage preemptively on our entire educational system.

Despite its narrow defeat in the California Senate Education Committee last week, SB 5's supporters clearly will not disappear quietly. If this and similar bills pass, who gets hired and what gets taught could be decided not according to academic and intellectual criteria but by pressure groups, many of whose members are failed academics driven by crassly political motivations. Society would pay the price.

Living with the Wall

Living with the Wall
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the London Review of Books, 3 March 2005)

It was on the way up to Qalandya, on the edge of metropolitan Jerusalem, that I got my first glimpse of the separation barrier. In the neighbourhood of al-Ram, large sections of the wall that Israel began building in 2003 have recently been erected, although gaps still exist towards the northern edge of the district.

As the construction of the wall north of Jerusalem enters its final phase, it has become clear that the 50,000 Palestinians in and near al-Ram will be entirely surrounded, cut off from each other and the outside world. Nearby, the wall will also isolate 70,000 Palestinians in and around Bir Nabala – people who already live between sections of wall in al-Ram to the east and al-Jib to the west, and have the Beit Hanina checkpoint to the south of them and the notorious Qalandya checkpoint to the north.

At one point, to stay on the west side of the wall, we had to drive along a pockmarked strip of road directly beneath it. Other Palestinians, most of them on foot, were picking their way among the potholes, trying to avoid being spattered with mud or hit by passing vehicles.

At the Qalandya checkpoint, there was a massive traffic jam of taxis, cars, buses, minivans and trucks. Some were trying to find a place to park; others to get out of the parking spaces they had been wedged into. Hundreds of people were milling about: women, children, men carrying boxes and suitcases, farmers carrying crates, merchants carrying loads of material, all hoping to find cars or buses or trucks to their final destinations – or, more likely than not, just to the next checkpoint, where they would have to go through the whole thing again. ‘Nablus! Nablus! Nablus!’ some drivers were calling out, offering rides there. ‘Beit Lahem, Beit Lahem,’ over here, for rides to Bethlehem; ‘al-Quds, al-Quds,’ over there, for Jerusalem. Somewhere in the sea of cars and people I found Hani, the driver who had arranged to take me on the next stage of my journey.

As Hani and I set off for Qalqilya, I worried whether the green West Bank licence plates on his car would cause us problems. Jerusalem residents have yellow Israeli plates, and so fare better at roadblocks and avoid routine army searches altogether. ‘These days, it’s not so bad,’ Hani assured me. ‘A few months ago things were terrible; we couldn’t move around at all, but the army’s recently relaxed its grip. That’s what they do: they throttle you so hard that you’re about to die, then they relax so it only hurts: there are still checkpoints and roadblocks, searches and harassment, but because you can kind of get around, it doesn’t feel so bad.’ He told me the road we were on was normally classified as a ‘restricted road’. Until a few months back, we wouldn’t have been allowed on it with West Bank plates. ‘But as long as the “loosening” lasts,’ he explained, ‘we can use this road. Provided we have the appropriate permits and our papers are in order.’

The operating principles of the Oslo Accords have greatly facilitated the Israeli stranglehold on Palestinian life. Oslo split the Palestinians in the West Bank into what the agreement defined as Areas A, B and C. Area A consists of the major Palestinian cities, like Nablus and Ramallah, which reverted to nominal Palestinian control under the agreement – but it amounts to only 18 per cent of the West Bank. Area C, under full Israeli control, amounts to more than 60 per cent, and Area B, which is under Palestinian administration but Israeli security control, to another 22 per cent. All the bits and pieces of Areas A and B are cut off from one another, islands completely surrounded by Area C. Oslo gave Israel a free hand over Area C until final status talks – which were never arrived at – could be successfully concluded. It was partly as a result of this that the Israeli building of colonies and roads continued feverishly throughout the so-called negotiations. In 1995 alone, Israel added 100 kilometres of new roads to the West Bank: 20 per cent of all Israeli road-building in that year. And the more Israel consolidated its hold on Area C, the more the Palestinians were forced to find ways around the roads from which they were excluded – the Israelis call them ‘sterile’ roads. Hani would periodically point out the dusty tracks on the hillsides which Palestinians have to use to get from village to village, since many Palestinian towns aren’t adequately linked to main roads (again, this is neither oversight nor coincidence). There are two semi-independent road networks in this tiny territory: the elaborate, well-paved, well-signed, well-marked and well-lit Israeli one, and the broken, potholed, discontinuous, repeatedly interrupted and regularly blockaded Palestinian one. In order to complete the separation of the Israeli and Palestinian road systems in the West Bank, Israel is planning a system of bridges and tunnels that will link the fragmented Palestinian areas while allowing Israeli traffic to cut through the West Bank on ‘sterile’ roads. The army likes this idea because it will in the future be possible to stop communication between the Palestinian areas simply by opening and closing a few of these bridges and tunnels. The whole thing is designed to look as if it makes life easier for the Palestinians, while actually facilitating the occupation for the Israelis.

In January 2004, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there were 59 permanent Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, ten partial checkpoints, 479 earth mounds, 75 trenches, 100 roadblocks and 40 road gates, all designed to disrupt or halt the circulation of Palestinian traffic. All Palestinians need permits to travel around the West Bank (which was not the case before Oslo). Getting a permit requires a lengthy administrative procedure, and tens of thousands of requests from Palestinians who for one reason or another are deemed ‘security risks’ are flatly denied. The vast majority of permits issued are for pedestrians or passengers on public transport. Of more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank, only 3000 have permits to drive their own vehicles. Hani’s car belonged to the organisation he worked for. In any case, even Palestinians with permits have to contend with the grid of Israeli checkpoints, and their random opening and closing.

On the way to Qalqilya, we passed Palestinian towns and villages whose access roads had been blocked by the army with piles of earth or boulders. At each one there were parked cars and vans, or people waiting. The Jewish colonies we’d seen were very different. Invariably set on the highest hilltops, with grid layouts, chalet houses, woods and gardens, they presented a radical visual contrast to the parched communities beneath them. The settlements had wide, well-lit and beautifully paved access roads.

Qalqilya has a population of about 60,000 and is itself a major agricultural town, surrounded by fields, orchards, greenhouses and olive groves. Like other large Palestinian towns, it used to serve as a commercial and administrative centre for the towns and villages around it, whose combined population is another forty or fifty thousand. Because Qalqilya also lies beside the so-called Green Line that is supposed to separate the West Bank from Israel – a nominal border which is being made almost meaningless by the construction of the separation barrier, 90 per cent of which runs east of the Green Line, deep into the West Bank – it used to be possible for Palestinians from neighbouring towns inside Israel to go to the market there or meet friends and relatives. Israel’s separation barrier has destroyed a complex of historic, commercial, agricultural, social, cultural and familial relationships. Despite the talk of this being a ‘security fence’, it is obvious that the real aim of the barrier is to absorb as much land, and as few Palestinians, as possible, to acquire pockets of territory that can easily be connected – and are already de facto annexed – to Israel. Nowhere is this clearer than in the well-watered and fertile agricultural region around Qalqilya. North of the city, the barrier absorbs about 6000 acres of rich farmland. Qalqilya is now the westernmost tip of a territorial peninsula created by the barrier.

Qalqilya, and Tulkarem to the north, as well as another twenty or so towns and villages in the same area, now find themselves separated from their agricultural land by the network of walls, electric fences and ditches that make up the separation barrier. What’s worse, another six or seven Palestinian towns are wedged between the separation barrier and the Green Line. These cases are all in the immediate vicinity of Qalqilya, but the same sort of thing is happening all along the barrier.

In October 2003, soon after the erection of the barrier began, the army declared the land between the barrier in the east and the Green Line in the west a ‘closed military area’. The declaration states explicitly that no one can enter the closed area other than Israeli citizens and anyone to whom Israel’s Basic Law of Return applies (that is, anyone of Jewish extraction from anywhere in the world). ‘No one’, in other words, means those Palestinians whose land has been – or is about to be – taken from them. The inhabitants of the villages in the ‘closed area’ have to apply for a ‘permanent resident permit’ from the army. As its name suggests, this is something like a US Green Card, except that in this case the person applying for the permit wants only to be allowed to stay where he has lived all his life. The permits can be withdrawn or cancelled at any time, which means in effect that the people in this area are subject to summary expulsion from their land and homes whenever it suits the state of Israel. In the area around Qalqilya, several thousand Palestinians have permanent resident permits. When the barrier is completed, however, around 100,000 Palestinians will find that they need them. And tens of thousands of others will find themselves cut off from work, schools and healthcare (a third of the West Bank’s villages will have problems in getting access to healthcare once the wall is completed – 26 clinics have already been cut off, and that number will rise to 71 once the wall is finished).

Those Palestinians who live outside the closed area, separated from their farmland and orchards inside it, aren’t much better off. Palestinian farmers from Qalqilya, Jayyus and the surrounding villages who want to cultivate their land on the other side of the barrier must obtain permits from the occupation forces. Israeli military regulations specify up to a dozen different types of permit that Palestinian farmers need to apply for in order to reach and cultivate their land. Of course, in order to get these permits, a complex series of bureaucratic and administrative hurdles needs to be cleared. If there are errors in the original registration of the land, or if the original owner has died or moved overseas, or if there are any questions about inheritance or the reallocation of land among or between families, or any questions about bills of sale or titles – that is, if there are any of the legal problems associated not merely with land ownership in general but, in particular, with ownership of land whose legal documentation has passed through countless municipal offices under four different administrations (the Ottoman Empire, Britain, Jordan, Israel) – then the application for a permit will be suspended.

Much of the land in the West Bank has, in any case, never been formally registered by any of these governing bureaucracies, and is instead held informally, or, rather, in accordance with premodern, customary laws of land ownership and usage (including collective usage, such as grazing). To deal with this problem, the Israelis have dusted off the 1858 Ottoman Land Law and, applying their own highly selective interpretation of it, have declared much of the Palestinian-held land in the West Bank ‘state property’, or classified it, using the Ottoman terminology, as ‘miri land’, the ownership of which is tied to its productive use. According to Israel’s interpretation, miri land that is not actively cultivated for a certain period of time (even if its cultivation is being forcibly prevented) reverts to public ownership – which, as far as the Israelis are concerned, means they can do what they want with it. The only snag is that the Ottoman Empire expired with the Treaty of Sèvres, and so never signed up to the UN Charter or the Geneva Convention – both of which have stipulations regarding occupied territory – and Israel did. In any event, while the various legal issues are contested, much of the land will lie unused, and the clock will start ticking: this is the way the Israelis have used the miri land laws in the past to expropriate Palestinian territory.

So far, about a quarter of the applications for permits to gain access to land in the closed area have been rejected by the occupation authorities. Even those who receive permits do not necessarily manage to get to their land, since this also entails passing through a number of gates that the Israelis have built into the separation barrier, in reluctant response to protests. In the ‘seam area’ between Qalqilya and Tulkarem, for example, there are 12 gates, four of which have never been opened to Palestinian farmers, while a further three have been designated for purposes other than agriculture, and are also off limits to farmers. That leaves five gates. The gates closest to the northern edge of Qalqilya are among the ones that have never been opened or are not to be used by farmers, so any farmer living in Qalqilya whose land lies a little way to the north must leave the city along the road to the east (which is now open, but may be closed again at a moment’s notice), and, running the gauntlet of checkpoints and roadblocks, make his roundabout way to the east and then the north before reaching his land.

Or, rather, before reaching the gate closest to his land. During the months after the permit system came into effect, farmers had to wait for long periods before getting through. At the beginning of the 2003 olive harvest, the gates did not open at all for weeks as a collective punishment for a bombing in the city of Haifa.

Following a number of appeals and petitions to Israel’s high court, most of the gates – or rather, most of the five gates available to farmers – now operate on a more or less fixed schedule, opening three times a day, for half an hour at a time. Even so, plenty of problems remain for Palestinian farmers. They often cannot take their tractors and farm machinery through the gates; at peak times, such as harvest, it’s hard for them to bring through extra labour because the new hands might not have the right permits, and a day or a week or a month going through the nightmare of obtaining permits is a day or a week or a month away from the fields. And assuming that by a concatenation of miracles all goes well for a Palestinian farmer, he must still get his crop to market, which involves finding an open gate, getting his produce through that gate, half an hour at a time, negotiating roadblocks, obtaining transportation permits, waiting at the checkpoints that can hold up perishable produce for hours or days, and organising serial, or ‘back-to-back’, transport to get the goods from checkpoint to checkpoint without actually driving through each one (often prohibited). According to the most recent World Bank assessment of the Palestinian economy, ‘the “back-to-back” system for the transit of non-humanitarian goods’ – which requires unloading and loading the produce at each checkpoint – ‘became routine in 2003.’ But a day or a week or a month of closure or curfew would spell disaster.

Along the western edge of Qalqilya, the separation barrier takes the form of a 24-foot concrete wall. Along the northern side and the southern side, the road that used to take farmers to their fields is now interrupted by the usual mound of earth and concrete cubes, a metal gate, rolls of razor wire about three feet deep, a ten-foot wire grate topped by more razor wire, fifty yards of roadway, more razor wire, an electric fence, more razor wire, another fifty yards of roadway and then, on the other side, more of the same. All this is protected by an immense fortified tower, with the Israeli flag hanging from it. I was told, as I surveyed the Israelis’ efforts here, that I was standing in what had once been an orchard, but the trees had been cut down to maintain a clear line of sight from the tower.

It isn’t just that so much damage has been done to a relatively small area – although a swathe of permanent devastation 200 metres wide by eight kilometres long in a town the size of Qalqilya is already more than a poor community can sustain – but that the expropriation clock is now ticking on the Palestinian land here that isn’t being watered or tended because it can’t be.

The resumption of negotiations between the new Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government has generated a sense of optimism that one hesitates to dismiss out of hand. Yet previous rounds of negotiation, beginning with Oslo, served only to consolidate Israel’s grip on the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, while making life even more difficult for the Palestinians. In the same way, the lull that followed the death of Arafat in November was seen by many as a time of hope, but it was then that the people of Jayyus, near Qalqilya, learned that more of their land would be expropriated in order to make possible the expansion of the Israeli colony of Zufim, in the ‘seam area’ between the Green Line and the barrier. Their olive groves were bulldozed in December. Blind optimism that overlooks these ‘facts on the ground’ is no better than despair.

A Handshake without Meaning

A Handshake without Meaning
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 11 February 2005)

We all saw the photograph: a handshake between Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon. We heard the happy interviews: Palestinians and Israelis, contemplating peace. But the optimism generated by new Palestinian leadership, the talk of Israeli army redeployments, the summit and even the truce amounts to little more than false hope.

In fact, except for the growing toll of shattered Palestinian communities, bulldozed Palestinian homes, obliterated Palestinian olive groves, expropriated Palestinian land and snuffed out Palestinian (and Israeli) lives, the situation today bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the summer of 1994. That was when Israel began redeploying its army during a similar thaw in relations with the Palestinians, the first implementation of the Oslo "peace" process.

But once the years of optimism and negotiation that followed that redeployment ran their course, Palestinians, enduring their third decade under Israeli military occupation, faced more — not fewer — obstacles to their everyday lives. Their freedom of movement and access to their own towns and cities, including Jerusalem, were severely limited. The population of Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza had essentially doubled. And Palestinians had gained a kind of control of only about 18% of the West Bank.

Had the so-called peace process of the 1990s been genuine, Israel would have withdrawn its army and its settlers from the territories it captured by force in 1967. Period. This is the bare minimum required by international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions that Israel has flouted for decades.

No such withdrawal was implemented. And, in hindsight, it ought to be clear that the most significant result of the Oslo negotiations was the consolidation of Israel's stranglehold on the land it conquered in 1967, little of which it has demonstrated any real interest in ever actually relinquishing.

Sharon's proposal to dismantle settlements in Gaza has received far more attention than the gains he hopes this seemingly magnanimous sacrifice will buy him in the infinitely more valuable West Bank: the permanent maintenance of large Israeli settlement blocs there; no withdrawal to the 1967 border; the ongoing spread of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, whose boundaries are expanded by fiat and settlement; and the total rejection of the historic rights of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the violent birth of the state of Israel in 1948.

Having opened negotiations with an eager-to-please but unimaginative Palestinian leader, Sharon is simply proceeding with his original, unilateral "separation" plan. Despite talk of security, the plan's clear aim is to permanently absorb into Israel as much land — and as few Palestinians — as possible, by appropriating large chunks of occupied territory and calling the indigestible fragments left behind a Palestinian state.

One of the architects of the plan, geographer Arnon Soffer, told the Jerusalem Post that separation "doesn't guarantee 'peace' — it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews." He added that "it guarantees one other important thing." Between 1948 and 1967, he said, "400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come to Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait or London. I believe there will be movement out of the area."

Israel's actions reveal that separation — rather than peace — remains its intention. Ignoring the condemnation of the International Court of Justice, it has pressed forward with the construction of an elaborate concrete, wire and steel separation barrier — not along the 1967 border but intruding into the West Bank, in some places encircling Palestinian communities, in others cutting them off from each other, or turning Palestinians living on their ancestral lands into residents of closed military areas from which they can be summarily expelled.

Last summer, Sharon's government began quietly using Israel's notorious 1950 Absentee Property Law to confiscate land within "Greater Jerusalem" that belonged to Palestinians deemed "absent" because their homes were now on the other side of the barrier. Following an outcry, this process was suspended — but other mechanisms for land confiscation remain. In the town of Jayyous, near Kalkilya, Palestinians could only watch in December as Israeli bulldozers began uprooting trees on land newly expropriated from them and given to the expanding Israeli settlement of Zufim. The residents of Jayyous are also on the wrong side of the barrier that Israel has built between them and their land.

Actions like these — rather than photo ops and idle chatter about the prospects for peace — provide the measure according to which Israel's intentions must be judged. Israel is only too willing to reset a broken clock so it reads 1994 and to resume these tortuous negotiations with any Palestinian fool enough to participate on Sharon's terms, while it keeps its eye on the real clock, the one that reads 2005, and restlessly creates ever new facts on the ground — extending the barrier, expanding settlements, expropriating more land.

An Iron Wall of Colonization

An Iron Wall of Colonization
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in Counterpunch, 26 January 2005)

The recent election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new President of the Palestinian Authority has renewed speculation that 2005 will bring genuine peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Insofar as it depends on Israel's own intentions, however, such hope is entirely misplaced.

Israel has made it clear that the first thing it expects of the new Palestinian leader is for him to bring the Palestinian population under control: a mission that, in order to demonstrate his good behavior, he has already zealously taken up by deploying his security forces in order to protect Israel from attack by Palestinians (rather than the other way around). If he is successful in that mission, Abbas will likely be invited to agree to a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle whose terms will be essentially dictated by Israel. Such an arrangement would allow Palestinians a severely limited form of self-rule in those (disconnected) parts of the territories occupied in 1967 that Israel no longer intends to keep for itself.

The rest of the West Bank would be dominated by Israeli colonies, bypass roads, and military outposts. Even in the unlikely event that the colonies there would actually be dismantled, Gaza would become—even more than it is now—essentially a gigantic open-air prison, as would large areas in the West Bank, which would be encircled and completely cut off by the various layers of Israel's separation barrier, much as the city of Qalqilya (population 60,000) already is today. The process of Judaizing Jerusalem would continue, and the city itself would be encircled by an iron wall of Jewish colonization extending toward the Dead Sea.

There is nothing new here. Most of the plans proposed since Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967 have been variations on a theme originally devised by Yigal Allon, then Israel's Deputy Prime Minister. Allon called for Israel to colonize strategically important parts of the West Bank (and east Jerusalem), to maintain control over natural resources, borders and airspace, and to grant a kind of autonomy to densely populated Palestinian areas where colonization would prove difficult. In fact, despite all the talk about a "peace process," Israel's basic position (which has been gradually translated into realities on the ground for almost forty years now) has not budged an inch since 1967.

The Oslo agreements of the 1990s reiterated the principle behind Allon's plan by dividing the occupied territories into Area A (nominal Palestinian control, which at its maximum extent amounted to 18 percent of the West Bank), Area B (Palestinian administration, but Israeli security control, about 22 percent of the West Bank) and Area C (total continued Israeli control, about 60 percent of the West Bank, and more or less the same proportion of Gaza). So did Israel's proposal at Camp David in 2000, which offered Palestinians "sovereignty" over disjointed territories to be dominated by a reinforced network of Israeli colonies and roads--that is, sovereignty in name only, while Israel continued to control not only most of the territory itself, but also the borders, the airspace and the invaluable water resources. Yasser Arafat was only dismissed as an obstacle to peace when he proved incapable of selling these terms to the Palestinian people. Now Abbas is supposed to continue where Arafat left off.

If, however, the so-called disengagement proposal advanced by Ariel Sharon last year is the most forceful reiteration of the original Allon Plan, that is so because for the first time the Israeli scheme now has US support. Reversing decades of US policy—and dismissing key principles of international law in the process—President Bush last April validated Israel's territorial ambitions. "The understandings between the US President and me protect Israel's most essential interests," Sharon gloated in a speech he made in December 2004. "First and foremost, not demanding a return to the '67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel."

But if Israel's present policy amounts to a reiteration of an old formula, what's driving it forward is a form of racism that has been dressed up as merely a kind of demographic paranoia. This racism is, and has always been, at the heart of what Israel stands for as a state, and what Zionism has always represented as a political movement: the idea that an empty land could be found in which an exclusively Jewish state might be established: a land without a people for a people without a land. The problem with this idea is that Zionists were unable to find a suitably empty land. So they took someone else's land instead. And ever since taking over Palestine and arranging the expulsion of much of its native population in 1948, Israelis have been acting paradoxically--on the one hand, acting as though they really do inhabit a Jewish state, and, on the other hand, panicking about the fact that their state really is not Jewish, that it never has been, and that it is set to become even less Jewish in the years to come.

In fact, the land Israel rules today includes almost equal populations of Jews and Palestinians. Under Israeli rule, however, only Jews enjoy complete rights of citizenship, as well as the ability to circulate in freedom, and, in principle, to live (almost) wherever they like. Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the occupied territories, on the other hand, face extreme difficulties in moving around even in their own territories, and the vast majority of them are barred from entering Israel and even Jerusalem, and are routinely and systematically deprived of their most fundamental human and political rights. Palestinian citizens of Israel proper enjoy certain privileges denied to their compatriots in the occupied territories, but their rights fall far short of those enjoyed by Jewish citizens of the state (for example, in matters of marriage, naturalization, and land use, among others).

Such naked injustice is difficult to defend; when it is noticed, it makes for bad public relations with the rest of the world. It also gives the lie to Israel's claim of being a Jewish state, which it certainly is not (even leaving aside the occupied territories, Palestinian Arabs constitute a fifth of the population living within Israel's pre-1967 boundaries).

Mainstream Zionists have never been able to tolerate the possibility of having a significant Palestinian Arab presence inside the borders of what was supposed (by them) to be their Jewish state. Recent work by Israeli historians has revealed the extent to which, long before the UN's 1947 Partition Plan, Zionists were eagerly preparing for what they called the "transfer" of the indigenous Palestinian population from as much as possible of its native land, an ambition which the outbreak of war in 1947-48 allowed them to accomplish. Benny Morris, one of the Israeli historians who has done much to reveal the realities of what happened in 1948, is unabashed about both the necessity and the desirability of what he frankly admits was a form of ethnic cleansing. "There are circumstances that justify ethnic cleansing," Morris has claimed since he wrote his famous book on the Palestinian refugee "problem."

Just as "the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians," he argues in an interview with Ha'aretz, in 1948 "a Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were being fired on."

The only problem Morris has with what happened in 1948 is that Israel did not go far enough. Even though Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, "understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered." Perhaps, Morris adds, "if he was already engaged in expulsion, he should have done a complete job." For "if the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself."

The existential "threat" that seems to be posed by this "volatile demographic reserve" (that is, a group of people merely trying as best they can to go about their daily lives under the most trying circumstances) is what is driving current Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Israel has chosen to respond to this "threat" through what it calls a policy of "separation," or, in other words, by removing as many Palestinians as possible from the land officially under Israeli control. Granting nominal sovereignty to areas with dense Palestinian populations—while absorbing as much other territory as possible into Israel itself—is the easiest way to do this.

With precisely this in mind, the original logic of Yigal Allon has thus been reformulated and repackaged for our own times by Haifa University geographer Arnon Soffer, a prime intellectual force behind Sharon's policy. Soffer states bluntly that his aim is not peace but power. Separation, he points out, "doesn't guaranteee 'peace'--it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews," he argues. "And it guarantees one other important thing. Between 1948 and 1967, the fence was a fence, and 400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come to Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait, or London. I believe there will be movement out of the area."

The mechanisms prompting such movement are obvious. "When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it's going to be a human catastrophe," Soffer predicts. "Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border is going to be awful. It's going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive , we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day." All this killing, Soffer adds, will force Palestinians to realize that "we're here and they're there."

The declared aim of Sharon's plan is thus to maintain the fantasy of Israel's Jewishness—regardless, of course, of the cost to Palestinians. If Abbas refuses these terms, Israel has made it clear that it will proceed without him. And as long as it enjoys unconditional American support, there is little standing in its way.

But, even according to its own logic, Sharon's plan is flawed. A quarter of the schoolchildren of Israel (excluding the occupied territories) are today Palestinian. Even if Israel rids itself of unwanted Palestinian territories, it still must contend with the fact that within decades its own population will include a Palestinian majority. Separation today, unilateral or otherwise, will be of little use then. If in an age of global multicultural connectedness (and continued Palestinian resistance) it turns out to be difficult for Israel to transform its current apartheid policy from a weapon used against a minority to one used against an eventual majority (which is by no means certain, of course), Israel will at last face two remaining choices.

It must either persist with its violent fantasy of Jewishness and continue the ethnic cleansing initiated in 1947-48 by expelling all the remaining Palestinians living within its borders, or at least enough of them to artificially maintain—according to the same obscene demographic calculus that keeps people like Soffer and Sharon up at night—some kind of Jewish edge, for however long it takes until the process has to be repeated again. Or Israel must abandon fantasy for reality and see what chances might be left to come to a genuine and just peace with a people that it will by then have brutalized for decades on end. Assuming, of course, that that people—the Palestinians—are still interested in peace. But by then it might already be too late.

Will the Two-State Solution Survive?

In the Wake of Arafat, Will the Two-State Solution Survive?
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 21 November 2004)

Since the death of Yasser Arafat there has been a lot of talk about restarting the Oslo peace process. But in fact, Oslo — which was premised on the ethnic separation of Jews and Arabs into two states — ended up embodying the conflict rather than solving it. What is needed now is not more separation but a step toward the cooperative integration of Israelis and Palestinians in one common state.

Paradoxically, it is Israel's strategy of separation that has finally terminated any possibility of a two-state solution.

Gaza, after 30 years of Israeli rule, is now the world's largest prison. No one can enter or leave it without Israeli permission, and that will not change even if Israel dismantles its settlements there as promised. The separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank is more of the same. When it is finished, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will be trapped in dozens of separate enclaves, each surrounded by concrete slabs three times the height of the Berlin Wall, with all points of access under Israeli control.

Indeed, West Bank residents are already incarcerated. Even without the completed wall, whole communities are trapped in "closed areas" in the West Bank to which only persons of Jewish origin (and visiting tourists) have unrestricted access. A matrix of Israeli checkpoints breaks the rest of the West Bank into disconnected fragments punctuated by Jewish settlements tied to each other and to Israel by what the army calls a sterile road network — sterile because it has been cleansed of Palestinians.

To accomplish all this, vast swaths of farmland, orchards and ancient olive groves — the very basis of an independent Palestinian existence — have been destroyed. The $2-billion wall, which violates international law by running far beyond Israel's 1967 border, will encroach on almost half the farmland in the impoverished territory, and two-thirds of its water. If these are to be the borders of the new Palestinian "state" the Israelis would like to see — and who can doubt that they are? — then a two-state solution cannot possibly work.

But the objections to a two-state solution are not merely pragmatic. Dividing historic Palestine — from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean — into two states would leave the Arab Palestinian population of Israel (a fifth of the total and growing, most of them unlikely to leave) in political limbo in their ancestral homeland. For Israel is no more Jewish than the U.S. is white or Protestant. Palestinian residents of Israel have been granted restricted citizenship (with limited access to land, for example), but they hardly enjoy equal access to democratic privileges in a state whose claim to Jewishness is fundamental to its identity.

When Israel was founded in 1948 in what had been Palestine, nearly all the indigenous population was non-Jewish, and half of them were forced from their homes to make room for Jewish immigrants and colonists pouring in from Europe. Some Palestinians ended up in the West Bank and Gaza — the 20% of Palestine not captured by Israel in 1948 — only to fall under Israeli rule once again in 1967. Others remain in refugee camps or the diaspora.

The Oslo negotiations neglected to address such problems and instead extended Israeli control over the occupied territories. Israeli settlement on (and expropriations of) the very land under negotiation continued briskly, and the settler population doubled by the year 2000. At Camp David, the peace process offered nominal Palestinian sovereignty over territory still to be dominated by Israeli settlements, roads and army outposts: a discontinuous "statelet" without control over its own airspace, borders and natural resources, lacking an independent currency or financial system and any of the other attributes of genuine sovereignty.

The question now is not how long Israel's anachronistic system of ethnic separation — its regime of walls and ghettos — can endure in our global, multicultural world, but rather how desirable it is to think in terms of ethnic separation in the first place. Among developed countries, only in Israel is ethnicity deemed an acceptable foundation for politics. And while Israel's American supporters are quick to denounce religious or racial intolerance in the U.S., they continue to turn a blind eye to such practices there.

There is an alternative. Israel and the occupied territories already constitute a single geopolitical entity, even if it's not labeled that way. Palestinians such as Azmi Bishara and Edward Said (when he was alive) have joined with Israelis including Ilan Pappé and Meron Benvenisti to call for a peace founded on that reality, rather than false compromises and ethnic separation. That state would join two peoples whom history has thrust together into one democratic, secular and self-governing community of truly equal citizens.