By Isobel Petersen:
On June 30th the bodies of three Israeli teenagers were found buried in a shallow grave near Hebron, in the southern part of the West Bank. On July 2nd a suspected revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager took place in Jerusalem. Since these murders, there has been a renewed escalation of fighting, resulting in hundreds of deaths, injuries and displacement, predominantly suffered by Palestinians. We are now witnessing what could arguably be called the ‘Third Intifada’.
Intifada is an Arabic word loosely meaning ‘to shake off’ and has been adopted by Palestineans to describe the two major historical uprisings against Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, from 1987-1993 and 2000-2005. In recent weeks the crisis has been transposed from the rubble of Gaza to the holy Old City of Jerusalem. Ten days ago five Israelis were killed in a vicious attack on worshippers in a synagogue in West Jerusalem. Yesterday Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet said that it had arrested 30 Hamas militants in the West Bank allegedly planning attacks on Jerusalem. Israeli’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has vowed to win a ‘battle for Jerusalem’.
Dr Ahron Bregman, an expert in the Israel-Palestine conflict, is better placed than most to talk about the current situation and its historical roots. His most recent publication, Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, charts the Israeli occupation since the 1967 war. The first of its kind, this book uses top-secret and never-before-published documents and recorded conversations to shed light on critical moments in the ongoing peace process. Dr Bregman has lived in the UK for 25 years since leaving Israel beause of his moral objection to the occupation. He teaches at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. I interviewed him in the wake of the attacks on the synagogue in Jerusalem:
Your book ‘Cursed Victory’ was released this year. What first set you onto the path and determination to publish the many previously unpublished documents and recorded conversations deatiled in your book?
There are so many books on Israel and the Arabs and I’ve looked for ways to attract potential readers to my book. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time researching new material. What I found – and then published in Cursed Victory – shocked me to the core. For instance, transcripts of telephone conversations between the president of the US and world leaders, secretly recorded by Israeli agents. But don’t be mistaken: for me, publishing top secret documents was only a tool to attract the readers to what I really wanted them to read, namely about the Israeli occupation, one of the cruelest occupations in modern history.
There has been criticism in the press that perhaps the book does not adequately address the past ten to fifteen years of the conflict, in which there has been increased violence, set-backs and diplomatic breakdown. Is this a fair criticism?
The perspective of time is important. Therefore, you need to stop early enough in the story so that you’ll have this perspective. The gap between the past and present provides a better view of past events. But for the American and German editions of the book, which will be published soon, I’ve added a new Foreword, bringing the story up to date.
Much of the book discusses former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan’s fierce policy of Israel as an ‘invisible’ presence. Today Israel argues that Gaza has the opportunity to develop independently because the state officially departed in 2005. But as we have seen this summer, Gaza is anything but free from Israeli interference. Can there be mutual trust between Israel and the Palestinians if Israel never truly leaves Gaza?
Israel withdrew in 2005, but the occupation of the Gaza Strip continues from the outside, as Israel exercises what the international law of occupation would call “effective control” over the territory. Israel controls the Gaza Strip from the air, sea and land. By now the people of Gaza are accustomed to the constant buzzing background noise of Israeli drones and helicopters overhead. Gaza’s fishermen are prevented by the Israeli navy from going deep into the sea to fish. And of course Israel can dictate – and it does – what the Gazans will have on their plates for breakfast through the army’s monitoring of the flow of food and other products into the Strip. As for real reconciliation between Gazans and Israelis – well, it will take many generations before the Gazans can forgive the Israelis for turning their lives into hell.
You have spoken openly about your time in the Israel military and your role as an artillery forward observer during the 1982 Lebanon war. This summer you have condemned unreservedly the so-called ‘Hannibal Protocol’. Could you please explain in a little more depth precisely what this military command means for both the Israeli military and Palestinians?
The ‘Hannibal Protocol’ is the Israel Defence Force (IDF) procedure aimed at preventing its soldiers from falling into enemy hands. It’s a product of Israel’s Lebanon wars – it was invented there in the 1980s – a procedure to be used in the first minutes and hours after a possible abduction of an Israeli soldier. It calls on the military to dramatically escalate attacks in the vicinity of any kidnapping – to destroy bridges, roads, houses, cars, everything in fact – to shoot in all possible directions in order to prevent the captors form disappearing with the abducted soldier.
During the conflict in Gaza this summer, when the IDF thought – wrongly, as it turned out – that one of its officers had been abducted by Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip, the “Hannibal Protocol” was activated with a devastating effects; don’t forget that the Gaza area is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. The army used everything at its disposal – tanks, artillery, aeroplanes, drones – and pounded vast areas in Rafah [the largest town in the south of the Gaza Strip, very close to the border with Egypt], causing enormous damage, killing and wounding scores of innocent Palestinians. The brutal “Hannibal Procedure” seems to me to break all rules of war. It should be thrown out of the window and never used again in Gaza or anywhere else. The Israelis who activated it should be sent to The Hague to face trial.
It is widely known that you left Israel in 1988 for moral reasons and your deep-set disagreement with the Israeli occupation. Earlier this year there were three tragic suicides of Israeli soldiers, all of whom had been part of the Givati Brigade. This Brigade has become infamous for its heavy bombardments and zealous religious justification. There is also a drop in numbers of those continuing in the armed forces after their national service. Reflecting on your six years in the forces and your decision to leave Israel for the UK, do you think there is an underestimated negative effect that being in the Israeli military is having on public cohesion about the occupation?
Serving in the Israeli army is not the problem. In fact, for Israel the IDF is the perfect melting pot to turn people who came to the state from four corners of the earth into one nation. Young people, many of whom can’t speak Hebrew because they came from Russia or Ethiopia, or wherever, join the army and after three years of military service they can swear in Hebrew! The problem, however, is the use of the soldiers to run the occupation. These young people, often aged no more than 18, do things that poison their souls and ruin the society of which they are a part. They break into Palestinian houses in the middle of the night and humiliate Palestinians, many of whom are probably the same age as their parents or grandparents.
This summer was the beginning of a series of public and shocking acts of violence enacted by Palestinians, Israelis and the Israeli military, which arguably has begun the ‘Third Intifada’. What are your predictions for the rest of the year and into 2015?
The third Palestinian Intifada is well underway. For now it is mainly in Jerusalem. But it could easily spread into other parts of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and even into Israel proper where a large non-Jewish community live. I believe this uprising will continue well into 2015.
Religious competition over Jerusalem is at the heart of the Arab – Israeli conflict, as we saw a few days ago. Should there have been more of a focus on reconciling Jewish and Islamic tensions in recent years rather than Hamas and security? Or are they separate and yet equally as divisive?
I’m afraid that the Arab-Israeli conflict is now turning into a Jewish-Muslim conflict. This is dangerous! Holy wars are bad news.
The Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be perpetually related to Western support or disapproval. In Cursed Victory you point the finger very strongly at consistent United States backing of Israel. Many conflict theorists point to international pressure in bringing about a transformation for states embroiled in conflict and those with a weak human rights record. Israel seems to have bucked this trend, surely the US cannot be the only reason for this?
The US is part of the problem. They are just too close to Israel. In Cursed Victory I publish a secret letter from American secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising him that the US will never show a peace proposal to the Arabs before first showing it to the Israelis. This is incredible. It effectively gives the Israelis a veto power over their peace proposals. And yes: only international pressure, particularly on Israel, as the strongest party, holding almost all the tangibles, could move the peace process forward. Pressure on Israel should also include boycotts on products and services coming from the occupied territories.
When you conclude in Cursed Victory that Israel has ‘hardened those under its power, making them more determined to put an end to the occupation, by violent means if necessary, and live a life of dignity and freedom’ does this imply that the only way to end the occupation is through violent means on the part of the Palestinians? Or can the diplomatic route work?
The Palestinians have no other option but to embark on a massive non-violent Intifada against the occupation. Otherwise, the Israelis will not move. The Israelis, believe me, only move when under pressure. The Palestinians can’t get their state on a silver platter; they’ll have to fight for it. But it must be a non-violent uprising. An uprising of flowers and of candles; not of suicide bombings.
Two central tenets of the Palestinean indepedence cause are the ‘right of return’ and the claim to sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, yet Israel will not entertain these ideas. As such, how can there ever be a peaceful two-state solution?
You’ve put your finger on the heart of the matter, on the two most complicated issues which the Israelis and Palestinians will have to tackle head on. I believe that technical solutions could be found to divide Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians. But what the Palestinians call “our right of return” to old Palestine; the Israelis refer to it as “your claims of return”, immediately illustrating the depth of the matter. It is much more complicated to sort out than the Jerusalem problem.
Note from the editors: This article was originally titled “Interview – Dr Ahron Bregman on Israel/Palestine: ‘One of the cruelest occupations in modern history'” After consideration, we have chosen to rename the article.
Dr Ahron Bregman’s book, Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, is published by Allen Lane (June, 2014).
Isobel studied International Relations at the University of Exeter and is currently reading for an MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. Her particular interest is post-conflict resolution with a specific focus on the Arab-Israeli crisis. Other distractions from her course are current affairs, aspirations of travel and writing.