ROGER COHEN. The insanity along the Gaza fence

Apr 28, 2018

Israel has the right to defend its borders, but not use lethal force against unarmed protesters.

When snipers shoot to kill civilians approaching a wall, there are disturbing echoes for anyone who has lived in Berlin. I lived in Berlin. I have passed several times through the fence separating the first world of Israel from the rubble-strewn open-air prison of Gaza. It’s a violent transition in a place of unreason. As usual Israel overreaches, an eye for an eyelash, as the Oxford professor and former Israeli soldier Avi Shlaim once observed. Israel has the right to defend its borders, but not to use lethal force against mainly unarmed protesters in the way that has already left 35 Palestinians dead and nearly 1,000 injured.

Overreaction is inherent to the existential threat Israel claims, but that is ever less persuasive. Israeli military dominance over the Palestinians is overwhelming and Arab states have lost interest in the Palestinian cause. Hamas, Israel claims, is using women and children as human shields for violent demonstrators who want to penetrate the fence and kill Israelis. The script is familiar: international investigations will follow, inconclusive outcomes, redoubled hatred. Israel wins but loses. Israel haters, and Jew haters, have a field day. You know pornography when you see it. You know a disproportionate military response when you see it. It’s stomach turning. Gaza Redux: the violence is inevitable.

The Israeli-Palestinian status quo, so called, incubates bloodshed. It’s important to look beyond the Gaza fence, symbol, like all fences, of failure. This is what happens when diplomacy dies, when compromise evaporates, when cynicism triumphs. Even President Trump has lost interest in his “ultimate deal” and sees North Korea shimmering. Six former directors of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, sounded the alarm a few weeks ago. When those most responsible for Israeli security say Israel’s current course is self-defeating, it’s worth paying attention.

Here’s Tamir Pardo, Mossad chief from 2011 through 2015, speaking to the Israel daily Yedioth Ahronoth: “If the State of Israel doesn’t decide what it wants, in the end there will be a single state between the sea and the Jordan. That is the end of the Zionist vision.” To which Danny Yatom, director from 1996 to 1998, responds: “That’s a country that will deteriorate into either an apartheid state or a non-Jewish state. If we continue to rule the territories, I see that as an existential danger.

A state of that kind isn’t the state that I fought for. There are some people who will say that we’ve done everything and that there isn’t a partner, but that isn’t true. There is a partner. Like it or not, the Palestinians and the people who represent them are the partners we need to engage with.” This is the conviction for which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin died, assassinated by an Israeli agent of the Messianic fanaticism opposed to all territorial compromise that has steadily gained influence since 1967.

There is no partner if you’ve chosen God over several million people you’d rather not see. But if you look, there is. Palestinian belief in two-state compromise has also eroded over the past two decades. Increasingly, you may hear “occupation” used as a term to describe Israel’s very existence, rather than the West Bank and Gaza, both occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War (Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but maintains effective control through an air and sea blockade, among other measures).

The Friday Gaza marches are protests against the 11-year-old blockade of Gaza but also focused on reigniting international interest in Palestinian claims of a right of return to homes they were driven from in 1948. There’s no point mincing words: the right of return is flimsy code for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. It’s consistent with the absolutist use of “occupation” as defining Israel itself and with the view that the sea is a pretty good place for Jews to end up. It’s stomach turning.

Palestinians lost their homes after Arab armies declared war in 1948 on Israel, which had accepted United Nations Resolution 181 of 1947 calling for the establishment of two states of roughly equal size — one Jewish, one Arab — in British Mandate Palestine. The resolution was a compromise in which I still believe, not because it was pretty, but because it was and remains better than other options. Intransigent Palestinians like to say they take the long view. Well, 70 years is a while, and Palestinians have been losing. Half the territory is now less than a quarter in any imaginable deal.

I don’t see why that trend would be reversed absent creative, unified and pragmatic Palestinian leadership focused on a two-state future: laptops for kids rather than keys to lost olive groves. The dead have died for nothing. Israel, through overreach, has placed itself in a morally indefensible noose, policing the lives of others. Palestinian leaders have borne out Yeats’ lines: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” Shabtai Shavit, another Mossad director, from 1989 to 1996, said: “Why are we living here? To have our grandchildren continue to fight wars? What is this insanity in which territory, land, is more important than human life?”

This article first appeared in the New York Times on 21 April 2018

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