A conversation with Gadi Algazi

Gadi Algazi
Gadi Algazi (© Eric Beauchemin)

By profession, Professor Algazi is a historian at Tel Aviv University. By calling, he is a humanist and a passionate human rights advocate. At the age of 12, when his friends would have been engrossed in comic books, he had already decided that he would not do his compulsory military service in the Occupied Territories – Palestinian land seized by Israel in the 1967 war. At the age of 18 he became the first Israeli to publicly refuse to comply with military orders to serve there. He continues to suffer the wrath of the establishment he has taken on: he has been court-martialed, and over the years, has served seven prison sentences.

In 2000, after the second Palestinian uprising began, Professor Algazi witnessed a crumbling of the anti-war and anti-occupation movement in Israel. In response, he and a small band of dedicated activists formed the grassroots movement Living Together. One of their tasks is to try to counter what he calls the “creeping silent transfer” – that is, the government’s attempt to expel the Palestinians without overt force. Villages simply become “unrecognised” by the government. They have full property rights, but no water, schooling, electricity and so forth. Eventually a village that is not recognised as existing, in fact ceases to exist. Professor Algazi discusses the implications of Israel’s security barrier. According to him, the Wall will not only encircle Palestinian communities, it will also separate them from their land, water resources and each other. Even if the government tries at some future stage to change its current policy, he says, some effects may be irreversible. He in no way condones the horrifying trend of suicide bombers, but he understands the despair that drives them to such acts. His final words may well turn out to be the calling of Cassandra: “desperate people don’t become nicer. If you rob people of a political future, what remains is very little.”

Producers: Eric Beauchemin & Dheera Sujan

Broadcast: August 10, 2004


Radio Netherlands presents “Vox Humana”. I’m Dheera Sujan. In this edition of the programme we present the highlights of a fascinating and insightful conversation with Gadi Algazi, professor of history at Tel Aviv University. Professor Algazi is also a tireless and eloquent advocate of peace in his country. He’s a man with a calling. At the age of 12, he had already decided that he would refuse the inevitable military service in the occupied territories that would eventually be expected of him. And at 18, when he became the first Israeli to publicly refuse to serve there, he was used as an example by the establishment. For years, every time he was called up for service and refused, he was imprisoned. Professor Algazi talked with Radio Netherlands’ Eric Beauchemin about the increasingly complex and tragic tapestry of his troubled land and why recent events led him to form the movement “Living Together”.

In November 2000, after the 2nd Palestinian uprising broke, several of us had the feeling that something very important was happening and that in Israel itself, no response on the part of the left was there, which went first of all that the Palestinian uprising signalled the end of what in Europe is called the peace process, but which in many ways meant the modernisation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. That had to end up in a disaster. But this disaster was not simply the uprising in its violence and the victims, but the fact that within Israel, the anti-war and the anti-occupation movement crumbled. People were disappointed by the Palestinians. Within Israel itself, the Israeli police killed 13 Palestinian demonstrators in the early days of the intifada. And again, Palestinian demonstrators found themselves alone facing the police. So our idea was to create a grass-roots movement of Jews and Arabs that does not exhaust its action in protest but tries to pose direct challenges to discrimination and domination within Israel and to the occupation in the occupied territories. So our idea is both to have a sense of what living together might mean beyond the walls and the barbed wire that encircle us here in the Middle East.

EB: Why don’t you give me an example? Well one example within Israel is a camp we organised in a small Palestinian community in the triangle that is more or less half way between Tel Aviv and Haifa. We got 400 volunteers, Jews and Arabs, to turn a dirt road into an asphalt road and to build a playground for the children of the village, all through voluntary work of Arabs and Jews and raising funding from communities. Now that is almost social, almost humanitarian project. But this is an absolutely illegal project because the community in question is one of the so-called unrecognised Palestinian villages. About 150 communities within Israel are villages that are not recognised by the administration. That is, they have full property rights, but no water, electricity, schooling, anything and the state is actually waging a long war against them in the process of Judaising the territory. So this camp was not simply a protest, saying this village exists and it intends to stay. It was an attempt to reinforce it concretely from below to engage hundreds of people in actually building the road, using the bulldozer, the most pertinent symbol of colonisation here into a different symbol of constructive work together. And it also meant that hundreds of people were engaged in stopping the police in hindering us from building something that is quite essential: a road connecting this village to the outer world and a playground for the children. Perhaps our more significant campaign were two attempts in which we tried to stop what we call the creeping silent transfer, that is the attempt to expel Palestinians without guns, without buses, without trucks, simply by undermining the civil and economic infrastructure of communities, bringing them under enormous pressure by settlers and army and forcing people gradually to leave their homes and go away on their own accord. This, for us, is one of the most dangerous processes, that endangers the future both of Israelis and Palestinians, and in two cases, we actually intervened by sending trucks, by bringing hundreds of volunteers to the place, by sleeping there and actually trying to face the army and the settlers when they came, by connecting the villages to international networks of solidarity, and in these two cases – one in the south Hebron hills and another in Khilbert (sp?) Yanun, a small village not far from Nablus, we actually managed to stop the process and to alert public opinion to the process itself. When you encircle and you isolate communities, especially the rural communities, when they are cut off from essential services – medicine, education – when economically, Palestinian peasants and workers cannot reach their fields or the places where they work, when such villages are cut off from the urban centres, what happens is that the social texture is diluted and a village loses its power to stay on the ground. So what you find is not a process of a dramatic moment in which a village vanishes but of people beginning to send their sons and daughters to study elsewhere and not go back. Where those who can still have jobs to not return to a village, knowing that it might take you 6 or 7 hours to come back to a village from a city, if the real distance is let’s say 15 or 10 kilometres away. So they stay away. So a village is left with very few resources. It loses its lands. It loses its economic basis and part of its population. The last stage is that such a village can be abandoned. And when that process continues for 5 or 10 years, Sharon may win his war against the Palestinians in a different way, not through a single, dramatic blow but through an accumulation of local pressure.

You know, this conflict is a colonial one. And as a colonial conflict, it is about very simple things. It’s about land. It’s about water. It’s about orchards and trees and olive trees. It’s about space. Now these are things in which natural justice is very easy to realise if you are willing, and it is decided on the ground by bulldozers and bombs. Very often the perception of this conflict, especially in Europe, is marked by a preference to interpret texts, to think it in diplomatic terms, to look into the details of a big diplomatic gesture: what did Sharon mean in that third sentence? What did Arafat mean when he did that specific declaration? Now, I’m not underestimating texts. I’m a historian. I make my living by interpreting texts. I’m an intellectual, if you want. I exercise the interpretation with students. But I think it’s essential for people outside to understand that the reality we live here is not one of texts and symbols. It’s about land and water. It’s about the construction of the Wall. It’s about peasants reaching their land. It’s a very concrete one. If you look at the future map of the West Bank, as it is now emerging, or if you look at the Gaza Strip, you realise that the so-called disengagement plan in the Gaza Strip means nothing else than home rule for the Palestinians, encircled by Israeli barbed wire, full Israeli control of water, land and sea. And then, you know, Sharon may withdraw from the Gaza Strip and leave Palestinians to the misery that years of occupation have created. And this is more or less the future of the West Bank: creating very small bantustans, sometimes enclaves of 3 to 7 villages, some of them 50,000 people like in the area around Tulkaram, easily disconnected and controlled by Israeli checkpoints on every venue, full fragmentation of the Palestinian territory, which means a very specific sort of system of control in which the occupying force doesn’t have to look after the people it controls because it pretends that they have their autonomy or home rule. The main difference that I must emphasise when we compare this with South African situation is that the apartheid regime, as far as I understand it, was also based on black labour, whereas the Palestinians are even worse off. They have become economically superfluous for Israel.

Since 1993-1995, when the system of checkpoints and closure of the West Bank has been implemented, there were Palestinian migrant workers who used to work within Israel and of course live from it within the West Bank have been barred from entering Israel – reasons of security have been adduced – and have been replaced by migrant labourers from Ghana, from Romania, from Thailand, a process that we know well from Europe. It means that this is worse than a bantustan. They have been robbed of an autonomous economic basis. They cannot rely on access to the Israeli economy to finance themselves. So they are in the very peculiar modern condition that we know from the Third World of people who are not even worthy of being exploited.

EB: What are the implications then for these bantustans, I mean, for the Palestinians living in them? In terms of Sharon’s strategy, as I see it, it’s partly about first of all giving a very serious blow to the Palestinian national movement for 10, 15 years ahead. This is already a time-scale on which most politicians in the United States and Europe would not think, and he’s a farmer by origin. This is his last term in office. He’s thinking in the term of 10, 15 or 20 years ahead. Within this period, his attempt is to demoralise the Palestinians completely, to subject them to a very tight system of control. He will continue the settlement project at the same time. His basic intention has been and remained to see them fading away. That would be the most polite way to say it, either leaving on their own accord or going to Jordan or sending many of them abroad to study and work elsewhere and to see in the West Bank a sort of a series of not even of bantustans or reservations for the remaining Palestinians.

EB: So in the long term Sharon hopes that there will be no Palestinian problem any more. It will solve itself. Yes. I mean, Sharon basically believes in having a greater Israel for the Jews alone. He’s realistic enough in order not to say it nowadays. He’s realistic enough in order to know that he will have to have at least part of the Palestinians still living here. But if they are willing to leave under a regime of tight control of such dimensions, if they’re unable to have any sort of unfragmented contiguous territory, if they are relegated to their own villages and completely dependent on a system of passes and allowing them to move from one place to the other, this, I believe, can be a very effective and demeaning system of control and I think he really believes he can break the will of Palestinians to remain for freedom. This must fail. But we are all going to pay the price. Desperate people do not become nicer. And if you rob people of a political future, what remains is very little. At the moment Sharon’s basic means of doing politics is not declarations or plans, promising a bright future. He never did this. He never promised Israelis peace. What he does is destroy hope, destroy it on the ground through killing, through bombing, through constructing the Wall, through creating cycles of violence that reduce political future to nothing. And all the people are left with is the notion, the fear for personal security, the day after and the next day, the last blow and the next blow. So with this, a reduction of politics to a very short time-span, he gains ascent to his politics not actively because people believe in it but because they lose hope that there is an alternative. Once you rob people of a project of the future, this is largely responsible to processes of barbarisation. The fact that Israeli citizens accept crimes of war in such a way, knowing full well what it’s about, and surely on the Palestinian side, the sense of despair is everywhere. In every village I go to in the West Bank – and few Israelis go now to see and ask people what they think and what they feel in the West Bank – there is an enormous sense of despair, of powerlessness which lies behind that sort of abstract identification with a suicide bomber that takes his or her revenge by annihilating other people and themselves. It’s not an aberration of history. It has nothing to do with Islam, certainly not with our demonisation of Islam that I now found so prevalent in Europe. It’s the disintegration of a political society which is robbed of its hope of shaping the future collectively. And I find people seemingly resigned to it, not liking it, but saying, well, if we cannot live together, at least we die together.

EB: You said that Sharon is serving his last term as prime minister. Can’t some of the things that he is now implementing be reversed when he leaves? Well, some of them surely. But that project of the wall…I mean, when I said that this is a colonial conflict, I meant that the major facts are not texts and if you look at the past 35 years after the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan by Israel, there are 2 or 3 fundamental facts that are shaping our future, in theory reversible, but only reversible in a historian sense. In political terms, they are irreversible in the sense that they leave such deep scars, such deep marks on people’s lives that even if you reverse them, you put an enormous amount of social energy and resources and by this I mean two major facts for which Sharon is personally responsible. One is the construction of the settlements: 200,000 settlers in the West Bank controlling about 45% of the whole West Bank. And the second major fact is the building of the walls, the system of walls, barbed wires, concrete and enclaves that we usually call the apartheid wall, but this is a misleading term because it is a whole system that spans the whole occupied territories. Now the Wall can be demolished, but it is built in an agrarian context. It’s not the Berlin Wall, which means that within three years it can destroy the income and the way of life of village communities. 160 kilometres of the Wall have already been built, and according to estimates, 210,000 Palestinians are directly affected, losing their access to the lands, losing access to water, to water wells, losing the possibility to move about, destroying whole networks of the flow of people and of merchandise. Now, this can be reversed. But if you look at the landscape, if you look at what this Wall looks like, then it would take years and years to repair the damage that has been done. What people call the Wall is still imagined as one piece of concrete or fence separating Israel from the occupied territories. And one really has to look at the maps, and the maps are not usually discussed. Only the words get discussed, but not the topography of the geographical reality. What is called the Wall is actually a whole system – and I have the maps here – of fences, of barbed wire, ditches, surveillance systems, in some cases using concrete walls, very often just a barbed wire fence of some 5 metres ditches and all that surrounds it. And they are built all over the West Bank, not along the border, but surrounding villages and towns from all sides. It’s a system of control. It’s a system of expropriation that is sold or presented as a means to achieve personal security for Israelis. It has nothing to do with it. If you just look at where it is built, enough military experts in Israel from the military establishment have clearly said this is not about improving Israel’s security. Four former heads of the Israeli intelligence have spoken publicly – all four of them in a joint press conference – saying this Wall is a political project of subjecting the Palestinians, and it’s not about security for Israelis. They’re not my friends. They’re not of my opinion. It’s unheard of that they would take such a clear stance against the project. So what Sharon is doing is using the real fears that people have for their own security in order to further a political project that is directly continuing his project of building the settlements. If you take his plan of the settlements from 1978 and you take the present map of the Wall as it is emerging from the ground, you see that one is actually a direct continuation of the other, that wherever the settlements were built, the Wall is also there. And the settlements were built in such a way as to separate major Palestinian population centres from each other.

EB: Is it also designed to increase Israel’s land mass because the Wall is encroaching on Palestinian territory and incorporating this into Israel? The most simple implication of the construction of the Wall is the de facto annexation of parts of the occupied territories. On paper, it looks very minor: between 4 to 10%, but if look at the map – and this is a very small land – you realise that the land already annexed through the construction of the Wall is in many cases the most fertile land in the West Bank. The region between Jenin, Tulkaram and Ramallah produces around 40% of the agricultural produce of the West Bank and it has most of the water wells.

EB: Why aren’t there more protests in Israel against what is happening on the ground? There are several reasons. One that I have to stress is that most Israeli citizens, even nowadays, have no idea about where exactly the Wall is being built. They have a vague sense that it is being built more or less along the border separating the West Bank from Israel. They know that it’s now being constructed in Jerusalem, making whole Palestinian neighbourhoods into small ghettos. I cannot use a different expression. But if you ask how many times did the Israeli press or television publish the map of the Wall, then you will find that two times in the space of four or three years. So first there is a problem of information. The second of course is fear. Fear is a potent force in this story and Sharon has been shrewd enough to exploit people’s fears and promise them security. Now that this security is a death trap in the long run for both peoples is something you don’t really think about. If you live in the present, if you don’t think about the longer term future which is the current state of Israeli public opinion – people are prisoners of the present and feel as if there is no history anymore.

EB: You spoke about ghettos. It’s ironic that Israel should be doing this given what happened during the Second World War. Well of course. Or I would not so easily evoke the Holocaust or the Second World War. I think we sometimes do it too easily. But if you look at the longer term of Jewish life in Western and Eastern Europe in the early modern and the modern period, then of course the reproduction of the experience of the ghetto is one of the most not only ironical but also tragic aspects of this all, and I think the use of the term ghetto is quite justified in this case, if you look at the future for Palestinian communities. I mean, most of the people who came to Israel did not come out of Zionist convictions but as refugees either in post-Second World War Europe or in the whole upheaval of Middle Eastern societies in the decolonization period, that they came to be responsible for the creating of the Palestinian refugee problem and one of the hardest things for Israelis to come to terms with is to take the moral responsibility for creating the refugee problem, and to try and think openly, not about achieving justice. I don’t think justice can be achieved, but at least of recognizing the wrongs and finding partial solutions to the injustice that has been done.

EB: Why is it that the international community isn’t able to exert any pressure on the government regarding some of the steps that it’s taking at the moment? America’s role at the moment in the Middle East is not the role of the good judge or the teacher of democracy. It’s about domination. It’s about oil. It’s about controlling Arab regimes, and it has never been one of implementing justice in the Middle East. And, on the other hand, Israel’s citizens instead of building a future in the Middle East as part of a larger movement of seeing an independent and democratic Middle East, are perceived all around the Middle East as an embodiment of the American interests. This may look like promising security in the short term, but it’s no less dangerous in the future than anything that happens vis-à-vis the Palestinians. But I think we should say something about Islam. It’s a tragedy that enlightened people in Europe would accept Islam as the main enemy. This, I think, is a modern form of racism. It is built on ignorance. One knows simply too little about Islamic history. One does not see differences but one huge block of Islam, not understood within the Judeo-Christian tradition. And it also shows that the historical experience of coming to terms with anti-Semitism is not enough in order to recognise other forms of racism. To put it very easily: people who would say, who would be very careful not to express themselves in very anti-Semitic terms about the Jews would say things about Islam or about Islamic believers or communities that are simply horrible and elsewhere. This I found very tragic. The third question is of anti-Semitism. I do not underestimate the role of anti-Semitic sentiment and tradition in European history. This does not mean that all forms of critique against Israel’s colonial war have to be equated with anti-Semitism. And I think that the Israeli governments make a very cynical use of anti-Semitism, both in order to shield themselves from critique and by endangering the future of Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere by making them the ambassadors of an Israeli politics that is indefensible. The moment this link is created – although it speaks about the danger of anti-Semitism – it creates and reproduces anti-Semitic sentiment and it endangers the future of Jewish citizens of different democracies of the world by reducing them to being members of a trans-local tribe and local representative of a government that is engaged in crimes of war. I can see nothing more dangerous to the future of Jews than Sharon’s policy.

EB: Is there more than foreign countries should be doing to help Israel and the Palestinians solve this conflict? Well one thing that could…should have been done is of course pressure and looking for ways, not only of politely disagreeing, but saying we do not accept it. Very often the diplomatic pressure was based on the simple notion that you have two parties and they have to make decisions and negotiate. These are not two parties to a diplomatic conflict. One of them is the occupying force; the other has been reduced almost to no political power. By asking both Israelis and Palestinians to make concessions – when Israelis have the upper hand politically, economically and militarily – means that Palestinians from a position of weakness have to give up the rest, and they have very little to offer by way of a normal negotiation.

EB: You’ve spoken several times about crimes of war. What types of crimes are you specifically referring to? Well, there is a whole list of them, but the whole project of the settlement, of expropriation and of creating settlement is in clear violation of international conventions. It changes irreversibly the landscape, the demography, the economy of the occupied territory. Then the business of ruling Palestinians means that Israel has accepted the use of what it terms targeted killings. Targeted killings are simply acts of terror in which the state executes people without trial and very often, in the process, it’s also responsible for killing everyone around: children, friends, family, their homes. The numbers speak for themselves. This is an official policy. This is a state that almost officially now takes responsibility for acts of state terrorism. These are crimes of war. There come specific crimes of war, for example, even during Israel’s invasion into Lebanon in 1982, ambulances were free to move, as far as I know, whereas in the West Bank nowadays, Palestinian ambulances during military operation but sometimes in between have been prevented from moving, from supplying essential help to Palestinians. And the whole system of checkpoints is in itself, I think, verges on the criminal in the sense that you take 18, 19-year-old soldiers. The checkpoints are not located between Israel and the West Bank but on the outskirts of major Palestinian settlements and towns. You take those 18, 19-year-olds who do not speak Arabic, who have no idea what it means to have a family, who have no idea how Palestinians live because they do not enter the towns. They’re just controlling movement between one village and the next, and you give them the enormous power to decide over people’s fate. I saw that. I have been there myself. I saw you have old people coming and walking, trying to explain what they are doing, and soldiers may decide whether they are going to let them pass or not. Pregnant women, in more than one case – I think we have at least 12 good, well-documented cases – pregnant women were prevented from reaching the nursery and have given birth to babies on the checkpoints. Some of them died. Old people or the sick come with a bunch of papers and medical documents that the soldiers cannot read and cannot assess. So what this type of occupation, this specific type of control means is that you create an enormous social suffering without even realising what you are doing, and when both parties have actually no communication with each other. These soldiers understand some of…parts of what they are doing. Some of them go back, and they tell what they have witnessed or what they have done. And in Israeli society we’d have to…one of the questions is what are we going to do with this memory of inflicted pain? Now, these are clearly crimes of war.

Professor Gadi Algazi in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. I’m Dheera Sujan and you’ve been listening to Vox Humana on Radio Netherlands.