Sunday, February 4, 2007

When is a Terrorist a soldier?

When he's Israeli, of course, writes Azmi Bishara

Ariel Sharon condemned the Jewish terrorist attack against a bus in Shfaram last Thursday in the harshest terms. His vehemence, however, was not inspired by any compassion for the Arab victims but by the opportunity to turn this event to his advantage. Not only could he use the incident against extremist Jewish settlers but also to rally Israeli Arabs to his side in what has become the only game in town: either you're with Sharon or with the extremist settlers who are fuming at him for having abandoned them. In the Sharon scheme of things there is no room for a third option, based on an Arab or Palestinian position or the principles contained in international resolutions. There is Sharon and there are the settlers, and Arabs in Israel have to choose between them, just as the Labour Party did when it opted to become the Likud leader's reservist army.

If Eden Tzuberi's shooting spree snapped people back from any flight into political apathy they were contemplating it does not mean there are only two positions to choose from. Indeed, any true condemnation of this act must take into account the policies Sharon pursues and his promotion, in the name of some mystical theological ordinance, of massive settlement construction in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere. The settlers in Hebron, we should remember, are no less fanatic than those of Tapuah, the settlement the terrorist had chosen as his place of residence.

Sharon is the godfather of the Jewish settler drive. He encouraged them, supported them and used them -- and his support for them -- in all his political battles. Sharon also believes that force is the only way to deal with the Arabs, which is why he does not subscribe to a just -- or for that matter unjust -- negotiated solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He prefers the unilateral imposition of borders and entrenchment behind an iron wall of military deterrence.

It is out of these preferences that his unilateral disengagement plan grew. Sharon has remained the settlers' role model for the use of violence against Arab civilians from his early days with Unit 101 to the recent Intifada. His government produced a bill, ratified by the Knesset, barring Arab civilians -- the accidental victims of the violence perpetrated by the Israeli occupation forces -- from appealing to the courts for compensation. Sharon's Israel treats Arabs either as a people under occupation when it is convenient, or as citizens of another country should they try to sue for compensation.

Israel under Sharon has sustained and intensified its violence as an occupation power without having to meet its obligations to the civilians under occupation. Under Sharon the Israeli government has refused Arabs from the occupied territories the right of residence in Israel under the family reunification provisions of Israeli law. In doing so, in deliberately discriminating against Arab citizens of Israel even in matters pertaining to choice of spouse and place of residence, he has removed the last barriers to the open discussion of Arabs in Israel as a demographic peril.

The terrorist act perpetrated by Eden Tzuberi in the northern Israeli town of Shfaram was a suicide operation. He knew he would never get out alive, that is unless he had been driven to such lunacy by his racism that he thought the Arabs would clear the way for him to flee after hearing the shots that killed and wounded so many of them. Tzuberi had a model to draw on, Barukh Goldstein, who also knew he would not return alive after opening fire on worshipers in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Barukh the brave, Jewish extremists called him, and a monument was built to commemorate him in the Karyat Arba kibbutz near Hebron. This unprecedented harvest of people kneeling in prayer did not prompt the Israeli authorities to remove the settlers from Hebron. Instead they divided the mosque into two, along with the entire town, rendering the lives of the city's Arab inhabitants, subject to the constant harassment of the settlers who took over the city centre, an interminable nightmare. Why shouldn't the settler zealots celebrate Barukh Goldstein and his great accomplishment?

To observe that the monstrous racism born in the settlements must inevitably extend its cancerous tentacles into Israel, as is borne out by the assassination of Rabin, one of the heroes of Israeli military prowess in 1948 and 1967, and by the Shfaram bus massacre of 4 August, is to engage in a form of socio-political analysis founded upon concrete evidence. The conspiracy theories come from another quarter, the senior political commentators in the Israeli press. They do not think that the Israeli soldier was implementing an Arab plot or that he was in the pay of Shin Beth, Israel's internal security service. Like me they think Tzuberi was a rabid racist. But they also think that Shin Beth's negligence in apprehending a man reported AWOL more than two months ago may have been deliberate. This was a "professional decision", they say, intended to ensnare the settlers and the extreme right.

"This is a scandal," wrote Alex Fishman in Yediot Aharonot of 5 August. "For months they've been warning us about a terrorist attack... The attack in Shfaram was an isolated act but Eden Nathan Zada (Tzuberi) is a phenomenon. There are dozens, indeed, hundreds like him, and in times of incitement, the time of the disengagement, killers like him ripen. Most of them won't go out and kill Arabs for being Arabs. But every Zada has his own fuse and no one knows when it will ignite... Shin Beth knew that the man was mixing with the Kahana people, but the army never got a report about that. Where was Shin Beth? A crazed man who spent the first four months of his military service either AWOL or in military prison, who studied in a Yashiva, a religious school, in Tapuah, and who was in contact with Kahana's men was wandering around the settlements in Gush Katif with an army issued gun. Why was there no pursuit or any serious attempt to look for him? Why were the police not notified or brought into the picture... What part did Shin Beth play in this story? Did Shin Beth have hidden professional motives for not apprehending the man?"

Amos Harel in Haaretz raised similar questions. He also noted the reactions of the Israeli ultra right on the Internet, which he described as varying between sorrow over the Israeli soldier's death and charges of Shin Beth provocation. Of course, the allegations by the right against Shin Beth would be motivated by entirely different considerations than those that arouse our suspicions and those of the Israeli commentators.

There are four reasons why Arabs in Israel should be alarmed by this terrorist act against them -- and I say them because the murderer was not selective in his targets, opening fire indiscriminately against the passengers in the bus as soon as it arrived to its destination because they were Arab.

The first reason is that Arab towns and villages inside Israel have entered the target list of Jewish terrorists, which means that to their minds, too, these towns and their inhabitants are part and parcel of the Palestinian people. Many inhabitants of these towns and cities, like normal people everywhere, feel that politics has nothing to do with them and that political involvement brings nothing but trouble. They just want to get on with their lives. But suddenly the monster of terrorism reared its head from a settlement that was next to faraway Nablus, but turned out to be tragically close to Galilee and, I would venture, to Lebanon and Syria as well.

The second reason resides in how hard Israeli society found it to take this incident seriously. It took hours for the Israeli media to announce that the shooting was by an Israeli and that it was deliberate. Before that it was passed off as a "brawl in a bus" and, in one instance, an "Arab sectarian dispute". Such terms, alone, give the Arabs some useful clues as to the wishful thinking of their adversaries. But even after all the gory details came to light about the perpetrator and his rampage Haaretz 's banner headline the following day: was "Soldier kills four". It is not as if the words terrorist or attack could not be squeezed in. A newspaper of the stature of Haaretz does not choose its headlines lightly. They are the result of considerable deliberation.

The attack took place at a time of widespread Israeli sympathy for the settlers who are being told to leave their settlements in Gaza. At the time of the terrorist operation thousands of Israeli soldiers and policemen were busy keeping sympathisers out of Gaza in advance of the withdrawal. Israeli security forces have little compunction in opening fire on Arab demonstrators or driving a police jeep or two at full speed, guns ablaze with live ammunition, into demonstrators to disperse them. But in the event of a Jewish demonstration Israeli police assign two policemen to every demonstrator so that they can lift them away bodily without even having to use tear gas. Who needs tear gas anyway when the policemen's eyes are already streaming over the fate of the settlers?

If this is the reaction of settlers and a significant segment of Israeli society to the withdrawal from settlements that no one could seriously have a hope of surviving in Gaza, what will happen when it comes to Israeli "concessions" in the West Bank? Israel is not about to subject itself to violent social upheavals every year or two. If only for this reason the disengagement from Gaza is a one-off. Sharon's remarks in Paris with regard to the disengagement and the settler protests offered a stark indication of his intentions: "These days the world is getting to know what we mean when we say painful concessions."

There are a hundred reasons to believe that the Israeli army is thoroughly infiltrated by ultra right gangs, racists and crazies of every hue. Not that the Israeli army would be a guardian angel without them. It, and the policies it implements, lie at the heart of the problem. They are the instrument of the occupation and repression and the embodiment of a militarist culture that falsifies reports when the victims are Arabs. The army is the terrorist in the territories occupied in 1967. But when Jewish terrorism starts operating on the other side of the Green Line the existence of extremist gangs inside the army changes the rules of the game entirely. Israel is one of the few, if not the only, countries in the world in which off-duty soldiers roam the streets, board busses, sit in restaurants and cafés and step into shops and pharmacies sporting their guns as though this were their everyday dress. How is anyone to know whether or not this soldier or that will get it into his mind to open fire? That is something that should concern not only the Arab citizens of Israel.