The Great Escape—The Palestinian Struggle Too—Comes To Nothing

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The great escape, the daring jailbreak of the six Palestinian prisoners—terrorists, freedom fighters, call them what you will—from the Gilboa Prison in Israel some three weeks ago generated shock and awe throughout the Holy Land, and created plenty of news around the world. For me, however, it hit close to home. Literally. I grew up in kibbutz Hephzibah, under Mount Gilboa, wherein biblical times King Saul and his son Jonathan fought the Philistines, and where David said his famous lament upon their death.

The now Gilboa Prison was then Shata Prison. A nondescript white building with a fence, a remnant from the British Mandate, not even ten minutes’ drive from my kibbutz. Driving or walking to the kibbutz, you had to turn right when you passed it, smack in the middle of all the kibbutzim and their agricultural fields. My cousin, who still lives in the kibbutz, reminded me that there were jailbreaks from there before. And of course all the pictures, such as the one above, reminded me so vividly of Mount Gilboa and the Jezreel Valley, the valley of my youth.

I won’t bother you with the names of the escapees and the details of their jailbreak. You probably read, heard, and watched plenty about it. Or you can find it on any online news site. But what seemed at first, to me at least, as a hot material for a screenplay and a film, even a Netflix TV series, came to nothing at the end. How can you write about this daring escape when in short two weeks the escapees were captured? And without a fight. Hungry and cold like street rats. Four of them in Israel proper—with the help, can you believe it, of Arab Israelis who called the police and army—and the last two in the West Bank city of Jenin, on the other side of Mount Gilboa, some 45 minutes’ drive from the prison.

What a letdown. What a story without a payout. A plot without a climax. I mean, when they successfully escaped, my imagination had run wild. A dark car was waiting for them in the fields. During the night they were whisked off to Jenin, and from there to other West Bank towns and villages, where they will lay low for a while, hidden and taking care of by Palestinian fighters and regular citizens. Maybe they’ll be able to cross to Jordan (BTY: all the above scenarios were speculated about in the Israeli papers). Maybe in months to come, or even years, they will stage a spectacular terrorist attack, a daring operation somewhere. And if caught—as the Israeli Army had indeed prepared for—it would be in a bloody fight. Death or victory!

Nada. It all came to nothing. Just like the Palestinian struggle as a whole. I mean how—bloody hell how?!—you go into such a daring jailbreak operation without any planning ahead of time as to what you’ll do once you are out? What’s the big deal of escaping if you don’t utilize it? What, for a few days running and hiding, hungry and wet; there were reports that they were seen searching for food in trash bins. What were they thinking? Were they, at all, thinking?

This brings me to the larger picture. But before that, this: Anyone who is used to reading my articles through the year, even the last one, is well aware of my sympathy for the Palestinian cause and struggle. My long-held belief in the two-state solution (declared dead here, though, some 8 years ago) is well known, and so is my realization that greater Israel, including the West Bank and the Palestinian-controlled areas, is now a one-state reality on the way to becoming an Apartheid state. And so, while the Palestinian people can feel good about all kinds of achievements since the Nakba of 48 and the war of 67, the two most important demands and wishes on their minds and in their hearts—the right of return and the creation of an independent state—are nowhere close to becoming a reality than they were when they had started their arms struggle.

In other words, if you don’t plan ahead of time—just as the jail-breakers didn’t—why go about pursuing your goals? Just to let off steam? Likewise, why go into two bloody Intifadas, killing scores of innocent bystanders, and suffering many casualties of your own, if you don’t have an ultimate goal at hand? If peace negotiations follow, as it happened in Camp David between Arafat and Barak, why not going in knowing what you are willing to give and compromise about? Just as the case was with Abbas and Netanyahu in the John Kerry’s led peace negotiations. For goodness sake, why go into all this madness of fighting, death, house demolitions, checkpoints and roadblocks, without planning how to achieve the ultimate goal?

Now please, don’t get me wrong here. There is plenty of blame to go around, especially to be leveled squarely against Israel, its leaders and people. As a matter of fact, this blog is mostly dedicated to their faults, misleading policies, and false goals throughout the years following the Six-Day war, which had brought us to the doorstep of an Apartheid Jewish state. Can you even fathom it? I know American Jews cannot, or prefer to look the other way, as they’ve done in the past when it came to Israel’s misdeeds. But today, here and now, it’s all about the Palestinian people. It’s high time for them—unfortunately, it might be too late already—to start planning, and believing, in an achievable outcome.

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The Occupation Myth and Conundrum

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Following the Six-Day War of 1967 my army unit—Sayeret Tzanhanim, the elite reconnaissance unit of the Paratroopers Brigade—patrolled the streets of East Jerusalem and the neighboring villages for a couple of months. Later that year, and throughout 1968—in March of that year we led the ‘Battle of Karameh’*on the hills overlooking the Jordan River—we spent most of our time guarding Jericho and the Jordan River border and valley, what was known then as Eretz Hamirdafim: The “area of pursuit,” referring to the nightly pursuit of terrorists who crossed the Jordan River. In fact, my lieutenant rank was exposed by my commander (Matan Vilnai), in an old Jordanian army base.

Why am I telling you all this? Because at the time our small unit and the Israeli Army as a whole were occupation forces par excellence. There were no settlements yet, and as young soldiers, hardly twenty, we didn’t even know that there was a “Palestinian Entity,’ or “Palestinian People.’ Only after my compulsory army service had ended in 1969 that I began to read and learn of the Palestinian People and their history and legitimate national aspirations and rights. Concurrently, settlement activity had begun in earnest then, step by step. When I returned to Israel in 1977, following my studies in London, I refused to serve in the occupied territories, in particular the West Bank.

Luckily for me, the army solved my personal revolt quietly and intelligently, and reassigned me to a reserve unit guarding the Jordan River in Israel proper, pre-1967 war, and not far from the kibbutz where I was born. It’s hard even for me to believe that since my Shichror—literally ‘liberation,’ in Hebrew—from compulsory service in 1969 I never set foot in the West Bank. Like others in the peace camp (I signed the letter to then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, along with some 350 IDF reserved officers, calling for an immediate peace with Egypt and thus giving birth to the ‘Peace Now’ movement), I considered it occupied territory, and the settlement activity illegal according to international law.**

Since then, like so many others, I’ve used the term ‘occupation’ often to describe Israeli policy, both de facto on the ground and in the political arena, in regard to Israel’s control over the West Bank; i.e. the ‘occupied territories.’ Only lately I concluded that the term ‘occupation,’ while easy on the tongue and on paper, is at best wrong, and at worst misleading. You see, the settlement endeavor began in earnest in 1970. Slow at first, faster later, not only by the settlers themselves but supported and financed by every Israeli government since the war of 1967.

That’s not occupation, is it? That’s colonialism. Or liberation, if you’re a messianic Jewish settler. Back in 67-9, yes, we were an occupying force. We patrolled the West Bank’s streets, dirt roads, and villages, we guarded the border. There were no settlements back then. But once a settlement is built, people move in and live there, raise their children and work the land, the endeavor becomes colonialism. You’re settling the land you conquered in war, after all, in order to stay there permanently. The definitions of occupation and colonialism are varied in different dictionaries, but in essence, as defined by Thought Co: “Colonialism is an act of political and economic domination involving the control of a country and its people by settlers from a foreign power.” ***

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The short end of it is that occupation is temporary, colonialism is permanent. Now whether you call it liberation or colonialism, or both, depends on your point of view. But either way, you have to give the people living there equal rights under the law. Make them citizens of your country. If you don’t do that, you discriminate against them. They become second-class citizens. The state becomes an Apartheid state. With different rules, different schools, different roads, different political systems, and mainly: this state-of-affairs and the unending situation is enforced by the army that controls the land and its people.

It is, in part, the reason I declared the two-state solution dead in 2012, in speech and here on this blog. Dead, or comatose at best. As long as we were indeed an occupying force, in the first years after the 1967 war, such a solution was still possible. But Israel refused to take this road, and chose instead the road of colonialism (again, I understand, if not accept, that some refer to it as ‘liberation’). There is no going back now. The sooner both sides understand that the better. An acceptable solution might be found then and established.

* Regarding the Battle of Karameh, see my article in this blog, ‘The Battle That Never Ended,’ from March 2018: (Published also online in Moment Magazine.)

** Regarding illegal settlement activity and international law see Haaretz article by Yotam Berger from July 2016: “Secret 1970 Document Confirms First West Bank Settlements Built on a Lie.” “In minutes of meeting in then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s office, top Israeli officials discussed how to violate international law in building the settlement of Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron.”

*** “Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers. As with all forms of colonialism, it is based on exogenous domination, typically organized or supported by an imperial authority. Settler colonialism is enacted by a variety of means ranging from violent depopulation of the previous inhabitants to more subtle, legal means.” Wikipedia

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