An unsentimental peace
The bombing of Lebanon is new proof of Israel's disregard for Arab life, says Palestinian peace negotiator Ahmad Khalidi. But peace is still necessary.
Rarely have the fruits of peace tasted so bitter. Across the Arab-Israeli divide, the events that began with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin last November, through the Hamas bombings of February and March, culminating with Israel’s latest misadventure in Lebanon, have created a public revulsion against the “peace process.” To paraphrase Clausewitz’s much mangled dictum, to many Arabs and Israelis the peace process appears as no more than the extension of war by the very same means.
The Israeli general election of 29th May will be an indicator of how this revulsion will translate into politics. The re-election of Labour will be seen as a boost for peace. Conversely, the return of the Israeli right on the crest of anti-peace sentiment, combined with frustration at the failure of Shimon Peres’s Lebanon policy, will stall (if not derail) the peace process.
The timing, object and method of the Israeli assault on Lebanon seem to have been intimately bound up with electoral considerations. In order to vent Israeli anger at the Palestinian Hamas, Shimon Peres appears to have decided to force a military showdown with the Lebanese Hizbollah. The difference between the two are lost on an Israeli public thirsty for retaliation and a world opinion already predisposed in Israel’s favour by the “Iranian-backed Islamic terrorist” label affixed to both organisations.
Peres’s gamble may or may not pay off in internal Israeli terms. But the Lebanese misadventure has highlighted the tenuousness of Arab-Israeli relations at the grass roots. Even if Peres regains the trust of his public, the cost in terms of Israel’s image in the Arab world has been incalculable. If true peace is one between peoples, not just the formal outgrowth of state to state deliberations, then the result of the Israeli election is almost immaterial.
The long march towards an Arab-Israeli settlement has been accompanied by a gradual, if tentative, change in Arab perceptions of Israel. But the killings in Lebanon have called much of this into question. Underlying the delicate structure of peace there are profound feelings of mistrust, bitterness and even unmitigated hostility-on both sides. This unpleasant truth needs to be told if only to rescue it from the pieties of “peace-loving” politicians and the pretences of international diplomacy.
From the Arab perspective, bitterness is reinforced by world reaction. While Israeli victims of the Hamas bus bombings were honoured by an “anti-terror” world summit, the Lebanese victims at Qana did not even warrant the dignity of a non-binding UN general assembly condemnation. There is nothing new in Israel’s immunity to western-particularly US-criticism. This western stance has been underpinned by deep feelings of guilt towards a state born out of the barbarity of the Holocaust, buttressed by a perceived cultural affinity and fed by narrow electoral considerations. Faced with the apparently random “terror” of its enemies-past and present-Israel wins hands down.
But for an Arab audience, the Israeli claim to moral high ground is risible. The “terror” argument in particular cuts no ice. Whether it is a bus exploding in downtown Tel Aviv or a helicopter gunship attack on an ambulance (at least eight such “mistakes” took place during the latest fighting in Lebanon), the fact that one side wears a regular army uniform while the other does not is of little moral import. Nothing could have been more calculatedly “terrorising” than the expulsion of 400,000 Lebanese civilians from their homes during the fighting.
Despite substantial UN evidence of Israeli culpability, the Israeli government says the 102 civilians killed in a UN shelter in Qana were the sole responsibility of Hizbollah which “uses civilians as a shield.” The attack on an ambulance in which a family of six was wiped out (the youngest, a child of four, convulsing in her death throes live on television) was justified by the allegation that an “armed element” of Hizbollah was supposedly on board. The bombing at Nabatieh that wiped out a family of 11 was based on the allegation that Hizbollah “terrorists” took refuge in a block of flats prior to its being pulverised.
“Iranian-backed” Hizbollah, fighting to end 18 years of illegal Israeli occupation of Lebanese soil, has seemingly given Israel the right to act without restraint. But if Hizbollah operates from civilian areas, it is only because its ranks are drawn from volunteers who live and work in these villages. For the Israeli government to use the “shield” argument is akin to justifying attacking bus stops in Tel Aviv on the grounds that they are used by Israeli soldiers, or attacking Chelsea barracks on the grounds that Britain places military installations in civilian areas.
If there is to be a real Arab “conversion” to peace it cannot merely be a submission to Israeli guns. Yet for most Arabs the Qana massacre is part of a long-standing Israeli policy of military disregard for Arab civilian life. Since 1948, the state of Israel has wrought more devastation upon neighbouring civilian targets than any other country in the area-with the possible exception of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Qana, Nabatieh and other dreadful events in Lebanon do not stand alone. Outsiders may recall massive civilian casualties during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Israeli complicity in the massacre at Sabra and Shatila (“Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews” was Menachem Begin’s reaction). The following examples are a reminder of similar excesses that still resonate in Arab consciousness.
New Israeli scholarship has courageously established that Israeli forces committed massacres against civilians during the 1948-49 war. The perpetrators were not confined to the right wing irregulars of the Irgun and Stern gangs but included the Haganah and the Palmach.
In 1949-56, Israel waged a sustained campaign to clear border areas and prevent Palestinian civilians from returning to villages from which they had been evicted. A shoot to kill policy resulted in some 2,700-5,000 Arab civilian deaths.
Qibya, Jordan, October 1953: Israeli forces blew up 45 houses on top of their inhabitants, resulting in 69 deaths, mainly of women and children. The raid was led by Arik Sharon (later defence minister at the time of Sabra and Shatila, now number five on Likud’s electoral list). Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion hid the truth, claiming the attack was a “vigilante retaliation.”
Kfar Qassim, Israel, October 1956: Israeli guards opened fire on Israeli Arab workers returning from their fields, killing 47. Ben-Gurion called it a “dreadful atrocity.” The perpetrators were pardoned.
Abu Zaabal, Egypt, February 1970: 80 Egyptian workers were killed in an Israeli air raid on a factory. Israeli sources claimed “a technical error.”
Bahr al-Baqr, Egypt, April 1970: an Israeli air raid hit a school, killing 46 children. Israel said Egypt was responsible for locating the school near military installations.
Sinai, February 1973: Israeli aircraft shot down a Libyan airliner on its way back to Egypt after it strayed into the Israeli occupied Sinai desert, resulting in the loss of 106 civilian lives. Defence minister Moshe Dayan blamed the pilot.
Beirut, July 1981: Israel’s biggest ever air raid against PLO offices in the Fakhani civilian residential area of Beirut killed about 300 people.
Occupied Palestinian territories, 1987-95: Israeli human rights groups monitor at least 260 Palestinian children under 16 shot dead by Israeli troops during the intifada.
1995: accounts surface in Israel of mass executions of Egyptian and Palestinian prisoners of war in 1956 and 1967 and of the summary disposal of Hizbollah wounded in the ongoing war in south Lebanon.
The fact that such atrocities are researched by Israeli academics or reported in the Israeli press is testimony to the country’s freedom of expression and the readiness of some to stand up for the truth. But this seems to have little effect on Israel’s military policy. Writing of the 1949-56 period, Israeli historian Benny Morris says: “The shoot to kill orders involved state authorised killing of unarmed civilians… reflecting a pervasive attitude among Israelis that Arab life was cheap or alternatively that only Jewish life was sacred.”
It would be nice to think that things have changed since 1956. But actions like Qana reinforce the most negative reading of Israeli motives in the Arab mind. The Arabs still see themselves as victims, incapable of empathising with the pain of the oppressor (as in the wake of the Hamas bombs). In this vicious circle, the Arabs argue from impotence and frustration; the Israelis from a combination of fear and arrogance bred of superior firepower.
The point is not to deny Arab acts of wilful wrongdoing against Israeli civilians. Nor is it simply to lament the Arabs’ fate at Israel’s hands. Rather, it is to cut the cant, especially over “terrorism,” and show respect for the truth. Israel has a peculiarly aberrant history of “mistakes” where enemy civilians are concerned. The Arab side sees this as evidence of callous unconcern on the part of a supposedly civilised state. The notion that Arabs and Jews should simply let bygones be bygones and concentrate on the future is futile and disingenuous. Rather than pretend it does not exist, this history should be confronted, exorcised and accorded the respect it deserves.
Despite the weight of this historical baggage, there remains no alternative to peace. While Israel was engaged in “surgical attacks” in Lebanon, the PLO was quietly undoing a bit of its own history. The Palestine National Council, the Palestinian parliament in exile, met in Gaza city and passed a resolution annulling those articles of its na- tional charter which contravene Israel’s right to exist. Hailed by Peres as the “greatest ideological change in 100 years of conflict,” the Palestinians effectively did away with one of the vital props of the Israeli right, thus handing Peres an important electoral boon. In a reciprocal gesture, the Labour party dropped its longstanding opposition to an independent Palestinian state.
If he wins, Shimon Peres may yet see through the difficult negotiations on the final status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the political status of Palestinian territory (although not without rethinking some of his ideas). A Likud victory could foreshadow a return to the policy of extensive Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas and lead to serious difficulties with Syria over the Golan. However, the historical trend is towards a final, comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a trend that Likud may be unable to buck.
But in the end, any peace that emanates from this process should be recognised for what it is: a peace made by enemies stained with pain and bloodshed. This truism is only worth stressing to those who pretend otherwise.