The Israeli tank caught us in the open, as we walked down the steep hill that leads from Beit Jala towards Bethlehem. A few young gunmen sped past at top speed, gesturing wildly at us. We sprinted too, ducking into a narrow, twisting alley, where we sheltered behind a wall. The Israeli tank went past. We waited a few moments and crept out, following it discreetly from behind. Two tanks and an armoured personnel carrier sat parked on Virgin Mary Street, beneath a little church, their guns pointing down the hill.
The soldiers stood by their vehicles, studying an aerial map of the town, the houses marked with notes in Hebrew writing. They spread out along the narrow street in a fever of angry, nervous energy, hammering on doors with their rifle butts, screaming for the occupants to come out.
What do you do when a young man with a gun comes banging and shouting at your door? Do you open to a soldier when your town is under fire? Do you hide and hope he will go away?
Fatim Mukarker made the wrong choice. A Palestinian peace activist who had returned two days before from several months’ lecturing in Europe, she calculated that it would make the soldiers more angry if she did not let them in.
I met Fatim on her doorstep. She was in her dressing-gown, her face streaked with tears, hands shaking with fear. She showed me the door that the young soldiers had broken down when she could not tell them where her neighbour was. She took us to the bedroom of her ten-year-old daughter: an Israeli bullet, fired from outside as the soldiers left, had come through the window and smashed into her daughter’s wardrobe. The windscreen of her husband’s car had been smashed as a final gesture.
A few days later and I am in the Ramallah suburb of El-Bireh, a well-to-do neighbourhood of tidy little villas on the road to Bir Zeit University. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian vice-president, keeps a house here among the ministries, the office buildings and hotels, among the homes of the university professors, government functionaries and engineers.
When we arrive, it is under Israeli control, and half a dozen tanks and armoured personnel carriers are tearing up and down the street, intimidating the residents like teenaged joyriders. The tank crews shout at the few passers-by brave enough to venture forth, telling them to go back inside. Drivers are ordered out of their cars and the tank crews take their keys.
Omar, too nervous to give me his full name, lectures in political science at the University of Bethlehem. I stand at the entrance to his apartment and we watch the Israeli tanks. A Palestinian gunman fires a few shots. In response, the Israeli tanks and armoured cars move forward. A shell explodes on the main road near the Best Eastern Inn, and a second demolishes the corner of a building.
Omar sends his children inside. He frowns. “My daughter asked me if they would come into the house. I lied,” he tells me. “I said I would stop them. She asked if a stone could defeat a tank or a helicopter. I lied again and told her, yes. What am I supposed to do? Say your father cannot protect you? We are powerless.”
Since 17 October, when gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine shot down Israel’s racist tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, in an East Jerusalem hotel, the government of Ariel Sharon has been determined to demonstrate Israel’s raw power, occupying six cities and towns, and to accelerate its shoot-to-kill policy against suspected Palestinian extremists.
Sharon’s calculation is that if Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership are shown how easily they can be dominated by Israeli military force – how easily their structures, as the housing minister Natan Sharansky told me, could be dismantled – they will sue for a renewal of the peace process on Sharon’s very limited terms. It is the same policy – as Sharon should know – that failed spectacularly in Lebanon. It will fail again now.
The philosophy of power, as the Israeli writer Amos Elon points out in his excellent collection of essays A Blood-Dimmed Tide: dispatches from the Middle East, has dominated the intellectual and moral landscape of three generations of Israelis. It is, perhaps, hardly surprising. Zionism, in its original form, was about the group appropriation of power to protect Israel from a hostile surrounding world. The experience of the Arab-Israeli wars was to persuade Israelis that strength mattered above all – wasn’t the Holocaust a study in the perils of group weakness?
Israel is a nuclear state equipped with modern warplanes and helicopters, a sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus, and an army of spies and informers. In terms of percentage of population, Israel boasts one of the largest armed forces in the world. The state believes it must ratchet up the scale of the reprisals. For every stone or petrol bomb, the army replies with bullets. For every burst of gunfire, it replies with F-16s and helicopter missiles, tanks and heavy-calibre fire.
But there is little doubt that power has created a society that feels itself to be oddly impotent when confronted by acts of Palestinian terror, and whose military strength limits its development as a democracy. As Elon puts it, what Israel cannot recognise is that its strength has become a source of weakness, while the Palestinians’ weakness is a source of strength. The use of power, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a study in the law of diminishing returns. Each closure, each “targeted killing” of a Palestinian extremist, serves not to diminish the threat of suicide bombs and drive-by shootings, but to radicalise even further large sections of Palestinian society. The consequence of Israel’s use of power is simply to increase the threat.
Critically, the corollary of this fixation with power and security has been the creation of a nation whose youth is permanently armed. Eighteen-year-old boys are given guns and put on checkpoints, in bunkers, armoured vehicles and watchtowers. They are indoctrinated with the idea of ever-present threat, while being given the tools of overwhelming military superiority.
It is a dangerous combination. I remember talking to an Israeli military adviser at the beginning of the intifada. I took him to task about the use of live ammunition against stone-throwing children whose aim was not powerful enough to reach the Israeli soldiers they were trying to stone. “But stones can kill,” he told me defensively.
It was a comment I heard again and again. In retrospect, I realise that it is deeply revealing. What it means is not that a well-thrown stone can kill, but rather that it is acceptable to kill or maim half a dozen teenagers if there is even a slight chance that they could harm a single Israeli soldier. As a rule of military engagement, it is one that says that a Palestinian life is worth much less than that of an Israeli.
Israelis will tell you proudly how their state is the only real democracy in the region. They will point to their modern and highly functioning civic society, but it is a civic society like no other in the west: it is uniquely militarised and its mindset is uniquely stunted by it. The worst consequence of that mili- tarisation has been to convince successive generations that the Palestinian problem is a military, not political, one. While the original Zionism was about empowerment at a time of weakness, the revisionist Zionism that grew up after the stunning military success of the war of 1967 was – and is – nothing more than a doctrine designed for the aggressive use of naked power to justify the expansion of the Israeli state beyond its pre-1967 borders.
It is a doctrine justified at every turn by an obsessive appeal to Israel’s security. The more militarily powerful and technologically advanced Israel has become – and the more secure in its own region – the more the hawks will tell you that it is weak and under threat.
It is a doctrine that was articulated most clearly in the early 1990s by Binyamin Netanyahu, in his book A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the world. Written just before the signing of the Oslo peace accord, it remains a template for those who oppose it. In this oddly skewed vision of the world, it is the Arabs who usurped the land of Israel and not vice versa. The whole world, as the historian Avi Shlaim interprets Netanyahu’s vision, was perceived as hostile to the Israeli state, and anti-Semitism was at the root of this hostility. Most serious of all was the argument that, despite a general movement towards a rapprochement with Israel in surrounding Arab states, Israel and the Arab world would be in a permanent state of conflict, in a Manichean struggle between good and evil.
It is plain wrong. As Shimon Peres once put it: “It is a mistake to conduct policy like a tortoise that moves slowly and relies on the armour it carries on its back.”
Peter Beaumont writes for the Observer