"A country cannot claim to be a democracy and support such an extended military occupation without destroying itself from within." The diagnosis is irrefutable. Given the magnitude of the harm done to Israeli democracy by the colonization of the Occupied Territory, Idith Zertal is proposing a veritable therapy for Israel and its population.
The Israeli historian is the author - along with Akiva Eldar - of a powerful book on the history of this colonization, The Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007. (Published in 2004 in Israel, it was translated into English and published in 2007.) Given the rigorous methodology used and the vast scope of the sources, it has become a sort of bible on the subject. Idith Zertal has taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and, recently, at the University of Basel.
She was interviewed by Jean-Marie Pellaux for Le Courrier, a Swiss, French-language daily newspaper.
Le Courrier: Since 1967, the messianic fundamentalist settlers have been attempting to confiscate for their own use the "land of their ancestors." How is their project faring?
Idith Zertal: That is a question of perspective. On the one hand, it is a great success, beyond even any dream. Today, there are more than 500,000 colonists spread across the whole of the West Bank, counting those living near Jerusalem. There is often a tendency to forget the latter, yet they are colonists, living outside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. On the other hand, their project still does not have any real, inherent vitality. It depends entirely on the excessive generosity of the government. As soon as the government stops its policy of privilege for the colonists, this immense project of colonization will collapse. This cost does not even begin to take into account the appalling price that Israeli society is paying for this luxury, in violence, inequality, corruption, as well as on the international level. The county is more than ever isolated. Europe - and it is high time - is starting to mobilize serious opposition to the occupation.
The colonists continue to extend their project throughout the West Bank. Is it an endless quest?
Obviously, they would have like to see Israel extend from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, and beyond. But, unless I am mistaken, they are quite satisfied with the current situation, which involves, on the one hand, daily expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and their lands, which has become almost routine, and, on the other hand, a continuous expansion of the colonies.
How are Israeli political institutions affected by the occupation of the Palestinian Territory?
There has been a progressive weakening of these institutions simultaneously by deliberate action and by their vulnerability in the face of the messianic zealousness of the colonists, who burst upon the scene after 1967. And it is not only the extremist colonists, millennialist and violent, who bear responsibility for the occupation. The extension of the colonies would never have been possible without the massive support of successive Israeli governments and the close ties, emotional and material, built up between the colonists and the army.
According to surveys, the majority of Israeli society is now in favor of withdrawing from the Occupied Territory. Why has the government not taken this road?
That is a complex subject. The colonists have at their disposal political power far out of proportion to their numbers and today occupy many strategic posts within the administration. The foreign minister, the housing minister as well as the speaker of the parliament are colonists. One of their strategies is to implant themselves everywhere within the government administration. Their leaders form a very powerful elite. I'd say, even, that it is the most carefully thought out ideological movement as well as the most influential - and the most dangerous, too - in Israel since its founding.
But one must not forget, also, that for almost 40 years, the right has been governing Israel, except for the short interlude of the Rabin government. And this right has always been colonist and colonial, thus a robust ally of the colonists. Faced with this complex, the Israeli left has never been able to elaborate either a policy or a strategy that could be called convincing and effective.
So, the occupation barely figures at all on the political scene?
Yes, that's it. The left has lost the political battle. The colonists and the Israeli right make an unbeatable coalition, which the religious parties always support. In fact, there are thousands of Israelis militating every day against the occupation, who help the Palestinians in the Occupied Territory, but the question of the occupation is rarely discussed in public.
There are two courageous journalists from Ha'aretz [a major Israeli daily] who talk about it day and night, but even the good souls are tired of it. The publication of our book in Israel had no effect on the major persons concerned. Israeli policy-making is today a theater of the dead, playing out on an abysmally low level, gangrened by corruption, both material and intellectual. We do not discuss how we want to live together, what future we want . . . Not only the Palestinians, but also the Israelis, must be set free from this occupation. Therapy seems to be what's needed.
Regardless of how much of a withdrawal there may be, do you think it is possible?
That depends on what the colonists do, their resistance strategy. They are capable of anything to defend their cause. They know no limits. The heads of the intelligence services are quite blunt about it: Some of the colonists are ready to arrange the assassination of a new prime minister, just like what happened to Yitzak Rabin. In this regard, it is worth noting the poisonous role played some of the racist rabbis who do not hesitate to declare kosher all methods, even the worst, in the colonists' struggle.
What would happen if the colonies were to be evacuated?
To carry out a withdrawal, the entire Israeli military would have to be deployed. However, today, it is the second- and third-generation colonists who swell the ranks of the army. Among them are many officers. If there were an evacuation order, who would carry it out? That gives sound reasons for pessimism. With the arrival of Ariel Sharon in the government at the end of the 1970s, the administration adopted the strategy of preventing the creation of a viable Palestinian state and the existence of a democratic Palestinian society. Their objective seems to have been achieved.
"Organized theft" of Palestinian lands.
Today, more than half a million colonists are settled in the West Bank, and this in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, in other words, in contempt of international law. Idith Tertal and Akiva Eldar have devoted an entire chapter - perhaps the most eloquent - to the legal dimension of the colonization project. Its title, "Everything is Legal in the Land of Israel" speaks volumes.
It offers a lesson in how Israel and its highest legal instances have maneuvered to authorize and legitimate the occupation in order to endow the religious undertaking with a legal base. This chapter also explores how the confiscation of Palestinian lands is carried out, operations labeled "organized theft" by the authors, in order to settle colonists on Palestinian land. It also deals with the almost complete legal impunity that the colonists enjoy.
With the Torah in one hand and a gun in the other, the religious colonists reign as masters over the West Bank. They are rarely disturbed by the police or the army and come under a legal order different from that covering the Palestinians. Whereas a Palestinian who commits an offense will be brought before a Territory Tribunal (a military tribunal), the resident of a neighboring colony will be judged by an Israeli court. One of the consequences of this differentiated regime - among others - is that colonists sentenced to serve a prison term can be released after having served two-thirds of the term or even less, while the Palestinians must serve their full term.
It is noteworthy also that, most often and regardless of the seriousness of the offense, colonists are not indicted at all or are given negligible sentences.
Translated by Robert James Parsons of Le Courrier.