With media coverage so tightly focused on the diplomatic maneuvering surrounding President Bush’s Road Map peace initiative, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Israel continues to implement a devastating set of policies that are endangering the social and national existence of the Palestinian people. In fact, Israel’s grudging participation in the Road Map process is little more than an effort to buy time for these policies to achieve this outcome.
While this charge may sound like overheated political rhetoric, it is coming from no less a source than the eminent Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling in his important new book Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians (Verso, 2003).
Kimmerling, a self-described “Israeli patriot” deeply concerned about Israel’s future, coined the term politicide to describe the strategic goal of the package of policies Israel has implemented against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the past few years, especially since Ariel Sharon’s ascension as Israel’s Prime Minister in February 2001. He believes that politicide is a danger not only to the existence of the Palestinian people but also to the state of Israel.
By politicide he means a multi-leveled process of Israeli political, economic and military policies “that has, as its ultimate goal, the dissolution of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate social, political and economic entity.” It does so through the planned destruction of both the Palestinian public and private spheres of life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Its main policy components include the deliberate destruction of Palestinian national and civic institutions; the relentless siege of Palestinian cities and villages by barricades, checkpoints, and curfews; the physical destruction of civilian and economic infrastructure; mass arrests and assassinations of political leaders and activists; land confiscation; home demolitions; starvation and political isolation. This process may also but not necessarily entail their partial or complete ethnic cleansing from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
All of these policies are designed to lower Palestinian expectations, crush their capability for resistance, isolate and impoverish them and eventually cause their “voluntary” mass emigration from the land. It seeks to turn the Palestinians who remain into foreigners in their own land.
This emphasis on the brutal social and psychological aims of Israeli policies, in addition to the physical and destructive aspects, makes the concept of politicide an important addition to terms like “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” used by critics of Israel’s occupation. It includes these terms, certainly, but it points us to a deeper strategic rationality in which to make sense of the underlying goal of current Israeli policies.
Kimmerling argues that the politicide of the Palestinian people did not begin with Ariel Sharon’s election in 2001. Its roots can be found in strains of early Zionism and in the complex processes of Israeli domination strategies and Palestinian resistance that followed the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
However, Sharon’s election and re-election have led to the implementation of the specific set of policies that are making this brutal vision a reality. Sharon has surrounded himself with many, like Tourism Minister Benny Elon, who openly call for “voluntary transfer” of the Palestinian population to Jordan and Egypt. Sharon allies, like Efraim Eitam of the National Religious Party, calls all Arabs a “cancer,” and advocates transferring not only Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, but the 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel. Their presence gives Sharon cover to implement policies to effect this outcome at one step removed, without saying so directly.
Perhaps the most direct expression of the policy of politicide was made by the Israeli Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon in an August 2002 interview with Ha’aretz. He described the Palestinians as a “cancerous manifestation” and equated the military actions in the Occupied Territories with “chemotherapy,” suggesting that more radical “treatment” may be necessary. Ya’alon announced that “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”
In response to the controversy created by Ya’alon’s remarks, Sharon declared that he backed this “assessment of reality.”
And this assessment subsequently became a reality following Israel’s April 2002 invasion of Palestinian cities, prompted by several brutal Palestinian suicide bombings in March. All of the policy elements of politicide described by Kimmerling have been given dramatic expression by the Israeli army since that time.
In its efforts to destroy the Palestinian public sphere, the army has made a concerted effort to inflict maximum physical destruction on Palestinian national institutions, bringing organized civic life to a virtual standstill. As the LA Times reported on April 22, 2002, at the peak of Israel’s invasion:
“In ministry after ministry, computers, photocopiers and other electronic machines were heaped in piles, destroyed by explosions and fire. Important files were missing. Telephones were smashed. Pictures were ripped from the walls… partial estimates placed losses as high as $450 million.”
Israel’s assaults on the Gaza Strip during the past two years have largely targeted the Palestinian social and economic infrastructure. In November 2002, Israeli forces completely destroyed a three-story warehouse in Beit Lahiya, which had enough flour, cooking oil and rice to feed 38,000 people for a month.
Since January 26, 2003, Israel has launched no less than five major and unprecedented operations into the Gaza Strip that have largely targeted its economic facilities. For example a January 26 Israeli raid killed 14 Palestinians and wounded 65, destroyed 8 homes, 29 metal shops and 12 other factories, four commercial stores and tens of small shops who sell in the public market. In the first two months of 2003 alone, the Israeli military demolished more than 200 Palestinian homes, destroyed 125 industrial workshops, and razed more than 1,000 dunams of agricultural land in the Gaza Strip.
In its efforts to destroy the Palestinian private sphere of daily life, the army has imposed a state of a permanent siege of Palestinian population centers, largely unreported in the media. Nearly every road that connects a Palestinian town to a main thoroughfare is now either destroyed or blocked by huge gravel barriers so that Palestinians cannot drive out of their towns.
Palestinians must get out of their vehicle and walk over the barriers to catch a van or taxi on the other side. These barriers prevent students from attending school, sick or injured from reaching hospitals and goods from reaching markets. Once on the road, they must confront a series of nearly 200 Israeli army checkpoints, which require permits to cross. The checkpoints alone have led to nearly 100 preventable Palestinian deaths and destroyed the economy and infrastructure of many towns. Token Israeli withdrawals from Bethlehem and Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip have done nothing to ease this siege.
Together with months of debilitating 24-hour curfews, where thousands of Palestinians are effectively locked in their homes, this abuse of civilian life has taken its toll on Palestinian society. The British humanitarian group Christian Aid has reported that poverty levels and unemployment are creating a humanitarian crisis, the levels of which Christian Aid has not seen in fifty years of work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Unemployment is around 55% and nearly 60% of Palestinian now live under the poverty line. In addition, over one in five Palestinian children now suffers from chronic or acute malnutrition. About one in five is anemic. This amounts to nearly 380,000 children who are chronically hungry, a serious violation of international law.
Further, attacks by settlers, settlement expansion, and border closures have also wrecked the agricultural basis of the Palestinian economy. The olive harvest, for instance, fell from 126,147 tons in 2000, to only 22,155 tons in 2002. According to Palestinians, one million olive trees have been uprooted by the occupation.
Psychological terror is a major component of this process of politicide. In its just released annual report, the widely respected Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) emphasized the increasing viciousness of Israeli army activities. The report harshly criticized Israeli troops for “malicious, cruel and sadistic behavior” against Palestinians over the past year. “Most of the abuses occur not as a result of operational necessity on the part of the army,” the report continues, “but from vindictiveness on the part of soldiers, who receive implicit approval to denigrate the dignity, life and liberty of innocent Palestinians.”
ACRI further claims that the roadblocks, set up shortly after the violence erupted in September 2000 to keep Palestinian attackers and bombers out of Israel, have become institutionalized centers of mistreatment of Palestinians, and many of them have no other purpose.
This ongoing destruction of Palestinian public and private spheres of life is now being accompanied by the overt ghettoization of the Palestinian people through Israel’s erection of the now controversial security barrier. Known by Palestinians as the “apartheid wall,” it is a combination of electrified fences and concrete walls that loops deep into Palestinian occupied territory, embracing clusters of illegal Israeli settlements while surrounding and separating entire Palestinian cities and villages from their farmland and wells.
The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem found that the barrier’s northern phase alone “will likely infringe the human rights of more than 210,000 Palestinians residing in sixty-seven villages, towns, and cities.” According to a recent World Bank study, the barrier will cut off some 95,000 Palestinians from the richest agricultural land in the Occupied Territories.
Israel is now erecting this barrier on both the western and eastern sides of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians isolated from the world and separated from their land base. In effect, the barrier outlines a permanent border, designed to annex the maximum number of Israeli settlements into Israel and create a chain of Palestinian Bantustans that resemble those that existed in South Africa before the end of apartheid. The well-informed Ha’aretz commentator Akiva Eldar has reported that Sharon has repeatedly mentioned his interest in South Africa’s Bantustan-system as a model for his own vision.
Sharon has advanced this strategy of politicide in part because he is pragmatic and aware that international opinion will not accept either large-scale ethnic cleansing or the transformation of Jordan into a Palestinian state at this time. He is a keen observer of the international scene and knows how to exploit the conditions that arise. He has also been confronted by the sheer determination of Palestinians to resist and their stubborn refusal to be vanquished from the land.
Even some Israelis concur with this assessment. The Israeli human rights activist Gadi Algazi told Ha’aretz that “Transfer isn’t necessarily a dramatic moment, with buses and trucks loaded with people,” but a “continuing strangulation under closures and sieges that prevent people from getting to work or school, receiving medical services, and from allowing the passage of water trucks and ambulances, which sends the Palestinians back to the age of the donkey and cart.”
The ability to carry out this program of politicide partially depends upon the United Sates, which is why Sharon has so assiduously cultivated his relationship with a sympathetic Bush administration and has sought to alter his image as a warmonger. It has been accompanied by Sharon’s qualified acceptance, after much stalling, of the American-led Road Map, and his surprising May 26 speech to his Likud party supporters in which he finally described Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an “occupation”.
As Kimmerling points out, “this strategy fits in with Sharon’s tactic of buying time to continue his policy of politicide against the Palestinians, a tactic that rests on the assumption that Palestinian irritation will lead to continued terrorist attacks and a correspondingly mighty Israeli response and so forth.”
So while the diplomatic wheels are spinning in Washington and Tel Aviv, the process of politicide grinds on.
While President Bush and his National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice have raised objections to Israel’s planned barrier and asked Sharon to make some concessions to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas, it is important not to believe that this will lead to anything of substance.
In the next few weeks or months we should expect Sharon to announce that he will release some more prisoners, remove some roadblocks and will consider withdrawing forces from some Palestinian towns. These will be token gestures.
No doubt CNN and Fox News will be there to broadcast in detail and hype these moves as “painful concessions” by Israel.
But the real story, the ongoing politicide against the Palestinian people and their continued resistance, under the cover of the roadmap diplomatic process, will not be televised.
Steve Niva teaches international politics and Middle East Studies at The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington. He is an associate of the Middle East Research and Information Project and has had articles recently published in Al-Ahram Weekly, The Jordan Times and Peace Review. He recently returned from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as part of a trip organized by Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.