The Dome of the Rock in the al-Aqsa compound in the old city of Jerusalem. Photograph: Getty Images
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Yearning for the same land

There is nothing in the idea of Zionism that leads inexorably to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. And a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the worst of all worlds.

I write regularly on Israel and the Middle East, but there is one word apparently central to the topic I use only rarely: Zionism. That is because the word has become so misunderstood, so freighted with excess baggage, that it has become all but impossible to deploy it without extensive explanation and qualification. Most of the time, it is best avoided.

Part of the trouble is that a single variant – right-wing Zionism – has come to stand for the whole. Many otherwise well-informed people will reserve the word Zionist for, say, militant West Bank settlers, implying that Israel’s own anti-occupation or peace movements are non- Zionist or even anti-Zionist. That is a false assumption resting on a false premise, for most Zionists use the term to describe not the expansionist desire to control the entire biblical land of Israel, but the more modest claim that there should be a Jewish national home within historic Palestine. That’s all Zionism amounts to. As to the exact size and shape of that home, prescriptions vary from one Zionist to another.

Hence the observation by the Israeli novelist and long-time peacenik Amos Oz that the term Zionism makes most sense when preceded by a modifier, as in “secular Zionism”, “religious Zionism”, “left-wing Zionism” or “rightist Zionism”. Zionism is merely the family name: you need to know a person’s first name to know who they really are.

So, yes, there are hawkish Zionists, heirs of the revisionist tradition of Vladimir Jabotinsky, who are territorial maximalists, eager to fly the Israeli flag over all of the West Bank, which they would call Judaea and Samaria. But there are also left-leaning Zionists who believe the original movement’s goal was the liberation of people, not land; that the security, viability and even the ethical character of the Jewish state matter more than its size – and who are therefore not just willing but eager to see territory now occupied by Israel ceded to become sovereign Palestinian land. These people are no less Zionist than their right-wing opponents. Indeed, they can claim to be the true Zionists, in that the 45-yearlong occupation is jeopardising the founding Zionist goal of a Jewish, democratic state.

To distinguish between left and right Zionisms in this way has become unfashionable. More modish is the view, presented robustly on these pages by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, that any difference is and was cosmetic,that Israel’s founders were all equally ruthless towards the Palestinians they dispossessed, regardless of their nominal ideological stripe. Puncturing the myth of left Zionism is a favourite sport in anti-Zionist circles, particular pleasure attaching to the exposure of brutalities committed by the heroes of labour Zionism, with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, top of the list.

What should today’s left-leaning supporter of that basic Zionist proposition – that the Jews, like every other people, have a right to self-determination in the historic land of their birth – do in the face of such evidence? Should they recoil in horror and abandon the entire Zionist idea as morally tainted?

The first step is surely to face the historical record with honesty. It is no good to pretend, as Israel’s supporters did for several decades, thatthe violent dispossession of the 1947-49 perioddid not happen. It did and there needs to be a reckoning. Instead of seeking to ban all public recognition of the Naqba, as the Knesset did last year, Israel needs to look plainly at the circumstances of its birth and understand why Palestinians regard that event as a catastrophe.

That process has begun: what’s more, the work of revising the original Zionist narrative, excavating the truth of 1948 from the archives, was done by Israel’s own “new historians”. Of course it needs to go further. Several years ago the Israeli daily Haaretz aired a proposal for a national memorial day to mark the Arab dispossession, along with a project to name and commemorate each of the Arab villages that was left empty by its inhabitants, who had either fled or been expelled. The idea found few takers.

And yet to admit that bloody past need not lead inexorably to the negation of Israel’s right to exist, as some Israelis fear. Once again, it is Oz who explains it best. He argues that, besides the legal right bestowed by the UN’s 1947 resolution to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, Israel had a moral right – the right of the drowning man. Such a man is entitled to grab hold of a piece of driftwoodeven if another man is already holding it. The drowning man can even make the other man share it, by force, if necessary. His moral right ends, however, the moment he pushes the other man into the sea.

The Jewish people, scythed by the Holocaust and after centuries of persecution, were gasping for breath in 1948; their need for a home was as great as that of any people in history. They had the right to act, even though the cost for another people, the Palestinians, was immense. The turning point came, however, after 1967, when Israelis began to settle in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza. Now Israel was denying the Palestinians the possibility of a sovereign national home, pushing them off the driftwood that fate had ordained they share.

Some like to argue that the post-1967 occupation was the inevitable consequence of 1948, that the latter logically entailed the former. If that were true, then opponents of the current occupation would have to renounce their belief in the Zionist enterprise, reluctantly conceding that it was morally doomed from the start. Yet there is no such logical entailment. The initial decision to allow extreme religious nationalists to settle in the West Bank and Gaza was not the ineluctable consequence of Zionism – as the Israeli right argued then and now. It was not necessary, but utterly contingent, a political choice made by the then-ruling Labour Party that was fatefully, calamitously wrong. (Ben Gurion insisted that, stirring though it was to see those freshly conquered lands, Israel would have to give them back.)

History might have taken a different turn, on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. As late as 1988, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation made its epochal shift, recognising Israel and foreseeing a future Palestine alongside it, there was no irresistible logic stopping Israel from grasping that opportunity, ending the occupation and the settlement project and constructing a two-state reality. The same is true of Oslo in 1993 and Camp David in 2000. Each time, human choices on both sides were to blame – along with the cruel fate that cut Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon down at just the point when they understood, and were apparently ready to act on, the case for partition.

There is no denying that it has been hard for progressives to stomach the reality of Israeli policy over decades and that it has pushed the two-state solution ever further out of reach, the dense latticework of settlement making eventual disentanglement a daunting task. Yet it’s a foolish logic which says that because something is this way, it could never have been any other way. If two states now appears a vanishing prospect, that is because of bad decisions that could have been otherwise – not because of something immutable in the Zionist idea.

Which brings us to those said to be abandoning the two-state goal. Perhaps the best-known volte-face came from the late Tony Judt, who floated in a 2003 essay, “Israel: the Alternative”, the notion of a single, binational state encompassing the terrain that is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Yet Judt’s apparent conversion was powered less by the theoretical flaws of Zionism than by an exasperated despair with the political situation. It was more pragmatic than ideological, a reaction to the collective failure to pursue a two-state solution.

In fact, the very manner of Judt’s intervention was pragmatic. He and I met shortly after his essay had appeared in the New York Review of Books. We were from similar backgrounds, both raised in London, from self-described socialist-Zionist youth movements, and I had a lot of questions. One centred on the mood of deep, occasionally ugly antagonism towards Israel and Zionism that had then developed in Britain and Europe, in the heat of the second intifada. Given that climate, I asked if he would have published his article in the London Review of Books. To my surprise, he said he would not. He did not want to join a stampede already trampling on the Zionist idea; it was the complacency of the American debate he sought to shake. He aimed to reveal the baleful destination towards which Israel and Zionism were heading, believing that fear of the one-state prospect might shock US Jews in particular into action. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but I did not leave that encounter believing that Judt had abandoned entirely the attachments of his youth.

The funny thing is, much Palestinian advocacy of a single state strikes me the same way – as a cry of despair, or else a threat: “See what we’ll start demanding if we don’t get our own state?” The Palestinian thinkers to whom I’ve spoken on this subject exhibit little enthusiasm for the one-state idea except as a tactic to force Israel to pursue two states in earnest.

That makes sense, because the one-state solution is nothing of the sort. It is the lose-lose scenario, in which two peoples who have long yearned for self-determination are both denied. It gives no one, neither Palestinians nor Jews, what they want, namely the chance to be master of their destiny. It suggests that two nations that could not negotiate a divorce should get married instead. It demands that two peoples that have fought bloodily for nearly a century should now live in harmony. It asks of Jews and Arabs the very thing that proved impossible for Czechs and Slovaks – to share a single state. If those mild-mannered central Europeans couldn’t manage it, why do we think Jews and Palestinians would fare better?

The very last people who should want it are those who claim to be pro-Palestinian. Surely it is obvious who will be the weaker partner in this binational equation: economically and by every other measure, Israeli Jews will be the stronger party. Little wonder that the voices agitating loudest for one state these days are on the aggressive Israeli right. Its only appeal is its untried novelty. It is a diversion from the hard, grinding pursuit of the only outcome that can bring a measure of justice – incomplete, to be sure – to these two peoples, fated to seek their dreams in the same land. It is true that the two-state solution, like Zionism itself, has not worked out the way the dreamers hoped. But the fault lies in the execution, not the idea.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain