In an article written in early 1985, Ze’ev Schiff described the Palestinian and Jewish populations of Israel and the Occupied Territories as “marching…toward a civil war.” [1] Since then, events have only confirmed the accuracy of Schiff’s observation. The escalation of violence and tension in the Occupied Territories has been particularly sharp in the last few months, since the withdrawal in the spring of most Israeli troops from Lebanon. Palestinian efforts to infiltrate guerrillas into Israel have been repeatedly headed off by the IDF. Likewise, most attempts at random violence by the PLO, such as bombs at bus stops, have been thwarted. What has alarmed Israelis has been the string of attacks by individual Palestinians on individual Israelis, military and civilian, which have killed more than a dozen Jews over the past year and seriously wounded that many more. Because most of these attacks have not been organized by the PLO, virtually none of the perpetrators have been apprehended, a fact which has caused even greater consternation among Israeli rightists. Few Israelis share Schiff’s sense of Israeli responsibility for this state of affairs: “One must remember that we are engaged in a war with a people which has been pushed into a corner…. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Palestinians take up arms or resort to various forms of sabotage. Any people in this situation would do the same, including the Jews.” [2]

The dramatic escalation of violence over the past year is well illustrated by a chain of events which began in late July. Two Jewish schoolteachers from the town of Afula were murdered in a forest by three teenagers from the West Bank village of Arabuna. (The extent to which Israel is obsessed with anti-Arab sentiment can be gauged by the absence of media attention to the fact that two religious Jews, one a married man, were apparently having an illicit sexual liaison. In any “normal” country, the media would have had a field day with this aspect of the story.) After the funeral, Afula residents went on a rampage against West Bankers and Palestinian citizens of Israel alike. Supporters of Rabbi Kahane streamed in to organize the riots, shouting “Kahane, king of Israel.” The mobs beat up innocent individuals on the street and vandalized stores employing Palestinians. They cursed and assaulted Israeli journalists covering the scene. Some Sephardic Jews were attacked as well. Police arrested over 30 Jews on riot and assault charges. After the riot, Palestinians trying to visit relatives convalescing from their injuries in Afula Hospital were abused, beaten and shunted away from Jewish patients.

A few days later, a civilian employee of the military administration in Nablus, Albert Bukhris, was shot and killed in the center of Nablus. Newspaper photos of the Afula riots showed Bukhris playing a leading role; he was reportedly out on bail at the time he was killed. The military slapped a four-day curfew on Nablus and shortly afterwards shut down al-Najah University for two months. There were further attacks on Palestinians following Bukhris’ funeral.

Early in August, three families of Jewish settlers from Kiryat Arba occupied an apartment in the casbah of Hebron, claiming that they had bought it from a Palestinian. The government could not decide whether or not to permit the settlers to stay, with the Labor Party and its supporters arguing that Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab Hebron would cause unnecessary friction and create security problems (for Jews; Palestinian security is not high in the government’s order of priorities). Tension in the city grew, and a Jew was stabbed in the central market on August 10. On August 13, the Israeli army removed the apartment occupiers in order to forestall further outbreaks of violence. In response, six right-wing Knesset members from the Tehiya and Morasha parties reoccupied the apartment. They remained there for nearly a week, until the government determined that their parliamentary immunity did not protect them from eviction.

In the meantime, Ariel Sharon and others denounced the government for pursuing “policies reminiscent of the [British] White Paper” of 1939, which restricted Jewish settlement to certain parts of Mandate Palestine. It is a good indication of the perverse discourse of Israeli politics that the media and government officials conducted a serious debate over this proposition rather than dismiss its proponents as lunatics.

Shortly after this incident, on August 24, Andre Alush, a Jew, was murdered in the West Bank town of Tulkarm, many of whose residents work in and around Tel Aviv. A week later, one Palestinian armed with a knife attacked two Israeli soldiers who were guarding the contested apartment in Hebron. One soldier was killed and the other wounded. Many Israelis were unnerved by the experience of one Arab successfully assaulting two armed Israeli soldiers and escaping unapprehended. (There have been numerous such attempts over the years of occupation, but they have almost always failed.) The attack on soldiers of the occupying army was a significant departure from the more common pattern of assaults on civilians, but it was nonetheless regarded as an “act of terror” in the Israeli lexicon.

A few days later, a delegation from the Tulkarm Chamber of Commerce went to see the mayor of Netanya, Alush’s home town, to offer condolences. The mayor refused to meet the delegation and left the Tulkarm notables standing in the street. The military governor, understanding the gravity of this insult, tried to persuade the mayor to receive them. The mayor persisted in his refusal, arguing that the attack on the two soldiers in Hebron made it “inappropriate” to receive a Palestinian delegation. Several weeks later, the mayor finally did receive a second delegation from Tulkarm.

Land Fraud

Last August, the Citizens’ Rights Movement (CRM), the most consistently liberal Zionist party, published a documented and comprehensive account of fraudulent and coercive practices in the purchasing of West Bank land by Israeli individuals and corporations. According to figures compiled by Meron Benvenisti, Israel now controls 41 percent of all the land in the West Bank. The CRM charged that government officials, officers in the military government, civil administration, police, lawyers and influential political figures have been involved in irregularly acquiring a significant portion of this land. Many of the incidents revealed by the CRM have been public knowledge for some time. For example, a 1983 report found that 50,000 of the 70,000 dunams purchased by the state of Israel which were examined by the State Comptroller were acquired “irregularly.” However, the CRM expose is the most comprehensive compilation of this story.

The “irregular” methods used cover a broad range of practices. They include forging signatures on deeds and powers of attorney, allowing construction companies to build without legal permits, violating court injunctions prohibiting construction, showing up to conclude land deals with a high-ranking official of the military government in tow, and using corporate subsidiaries registered in the West Bank as “foreign corporations” to launder money paid to Arab agents and collaborators.

The Bank of Israel, the ministry of agriculture and the military administration are among the institutions implicated in this scandal. Individuals prominently mentioned include Likud figures such as the former deputy minister of agriculture, Michael Dekel, and MK Roni Milo, officials of the Israel Lands Administration and prominent real estate agents and developers. Mapam MK Yair Taban has charged that one Palestinian collaborator contributed $70,000 dollars to the Likud’s campaign fund. Several senior army officials reportedly purchased West Bank lands while still on active duty. Moshe Zar, a real estate speculator who was convicted in the Jewish terrorist underground, has apparently also been involved in fraudulent land transfers.

Israeli response to these revelations has been mixed. Many liberal Zionists were outraged. Palestinians and Israeli radicals, on the other hand, found none of the revelations surprising or new. Some prominent political figures issued statements “explaining” that, while such practices were regrettable, it was necessary to be sly in dealing with the Arabs. They reminded the public that such practices had also been used during the mandate period. Israel Television’s board of directors decided to remove Rafik Halaby from his post as assistant editor of the evening news because of his treatment of the story. Halaby’s salient offense was reportedly to permit the display of a graphic entitled “land robbery” behind the reporter who read the story.

“Punish the PLO”

Ariel Sharon and others have accused the PLO offices in Jordan of directing the attacks against Israeli Jews and urged the government to attack Amman. More sober heads in the government admit that King Hussein does not permit PLO military actions across the border. They acknowledge that at least half of the recent attacks have been carried out by individuals without any organizational links, or by small groups spontaneously formed. This makes it very difficult to gather intelligence on their activity. Consequently, most of the assailants have not been caught.

Many Israelis who do not subscribe to the “made in Amman” theory attribute the increase in attacks on Jews to the release of 1,150 Palestinians convicted of committing acts of terror against Jews in exchange for three Israeli prisoners on May 20 of this year. This is supposed to have communicated the message that “terror pays.” About 600 of those released were permitted to reside in the West Bank, where they have been greeted locally as heroes. Some of them are among those deported or detained since the military government began a campaign of expulsion and administrative detention in late August — an expression of the new “iron fist” policy.

At the end of August, the Israeli occupying army took the significant step of replacing reservists with first-line combat units recently withdrawn from southern Lebanon. Jerusalem Post military correspondent Hirsh Goodman described the situation in the West Bank and Gaza as “something horribly reminiscent of Lebanon.” [3] The soldiers, with their red berets, contributed to a siege attitude which pervaded the area. Patrols were stepped up; soldiers constantly stopped Palestinians of all ages to check their identity cards and harass them. Not only were military security operations increased; the “iron fist” also included purposeful humiliation to remind the Palestinians who was in charge. In Ramallah, paratroopers organized bizarre renditions of “Simon Says” with lines of detained Palestinians. In Jenin and Hebron, men were forced to sing, dance or bark; some were forced to drop their trousers in the street, ostensibly to reveal concealed weapons. One account of two youths forced to kiss the behind of a donkey was soon on everyone’s lips.

At the same time, the Peres government reinstated a set of repressive policies which had fallen into disuse in the Likud era, but which the right was demanding anew — administrative detention (without charges), deportation and demolition of houses. Although the “iron fist” was publicly tied to the upsurge of violence, the carefully selected targets of these measures were activists from the student and trade union movements. This reflects the agenda of Shimon Peres, which differs somewhat from that of the right wing. Peres is keenly interested in drawing King Hussein into negotiations, without the PLO. A major obstacle to this, or to any unilateral Labor Party “autonomy” plan, is the firm attachment of the Palestinians of the occupied territories to national self-determination and to the PLO. The largely legal political organizing that supports and articulates this commitment is the real worry of the Israeli government. The women’s, student, workers’ and cultural groups represent the organized support for Palestinian self-determination, despite divisions among the various tendencies. It is this organized, local “PLO infrastructure” which the Israeli government must neutralize if Peres is to realize his scenario.

Since the implementation of the “iron fist,” at least 21 persons have been deported and more than 80 detained. In a more lethal expression of the new policy, at least five Palestinians, including two children, have been shot dead and at least ten others wounded by army patrols in the Occupied Territories. Most of the victims were under the age of 21. Occupation authorities also closed the Jerusalem newspaper al-Darb and the al-Manar Press Office, which are considered to be close to the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The “iron fist” has been accompanied by an increase in incidents of Palestinians stoning and fire-bombing Israeli vehicles, vigilante reprisals by Jewish settlers and imposition of collective punishment by the Israeli army, in addition to harsher measures directed at individuals accused of resisting the occupation. There has been much public discussion in Israel about “the increase in terrorist activity.” But no one in the Israeli government has been willing to admit the obvious: Occupation breeds resistance. Some of the forms of this resistance are ill-conceived individual acts of terror, but the Palestinian attacks on Israelis are fundamentally acts of resistance. Moreover, most have been initiated locally with no external direction or support. This trend, if it develops further, may make it much more difficult for Israel to continue the occupation in the manner to which it has become accustomed.

The refusal of the mayor of Netanya to receive a contrite delegation of “moderate” West Bankers is a symptom of the dramatic escalation of anti-Arab racism. In Israel and abroad this is often reduced to Meir Kahane’s election to the Knesset and the added publicity, financial resources and freedom of action this has given him. But Kahane’s favorite contention, that “I only say what many of you are thinking,” is absolutely correct. Eighteen years of military occupation and 37 years of discrimination and national oppression directed against Palestinian citizens of Israel have created fertile soil for Meir Kahane’s ideas.

Mob Violence

Palestinian attacks against Israel have often been followed by massive retaliation, such as bombing raids on refugee camps. Now, any Palestinian attack on Israelis may prompt mob violence against any and all Palestinians who happen to be in the way. However, many of the recent expressions of anti-Arab racism and violence are not even tenuously linked to incidents of violence by Palestinians. The atmosphere has become so supercharged that no provocation is required. Consider the following sample of incidents from the last few months:

  • In July, the coalition agreement of the municipality of Kiryat Arba included a provision to dismiss immediately all Arab employees of the municipality. In the same month, an explosive charge was discovered on a soccer field near the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa.
  • Also in July, Israel Television reported that the new Bank Leumi Branch in Beersheva had established a separate window outside the walls of the Bank for bedouin to receive their National Insurance allowances. (This practice was ended after the television broadcast.)
  • Among the editors of the television news, there are some liberals who are frequently under attack for airing segments critical of this prevailing opinion and policy. The job of Rafik Halaby, a Druze citizen of Israel, was threatened after he edited a story about fraudulent and illegal acts by Jews to swindle West Bankers out of their lands, a practice more commonly referred to in Israel as “redemption of the land.” [4] Israeli settlers in front of the Beit Romano colony in the heart of Hebron.
  • In August, in response to a new curriculum addition designed to promote education against racism, the director of national-religious education in the Ministry of Education announced that schools under his supervision would not permit Jewish and Arab students to meet together as had been planned. He was concerned that such meetings might lead to mixed marriages and Jewish assimilation. The order was subsequently modified, although no public official found fault with the director’s concern about mixed marriages, or noted the absurdity of his fears about Jewish assimilation in Israel. Haaretz reported on October 14 that a majority of parents of children in national-religious schools continue to oppose even limited educational meetings between Jews and Arabs becuase social contacts would inevitably follow.
  • Later in August, Kfar Saba municipality discussed the possibility of closing the public swimming pool to Arabs.
  • On the last two days of August, some 20 Jewish thugs attacked Palestinian doctors and nurses without provocation in their living quarters at Beersheva’s Soroka Hospital and vandalized their apartments. Several other incidents of unprovoked assault on Arabs by Jews were casually reported in the weeks following the Afula riots.

Some Israelis are extremely concerned and upset about this current atmosphere. These “beautiful souls,” as they are derisively called by many in the “national camp,” regard themselves as committed Zionists but cannot accept what Israel has become. Prominent intellectuals have begun to describe the current situation in Israel in terms which many Zionists would regard as anti-Semitic if used elsewhere. For example, Emmanuel Sivan, Israel’s leading authority on modern Algeria, commented that, “Perhaps we have not yet become like Sodom or Gomorrah; but we are coming increasingly to resemble French Algeria.” [5]

Ze’ev Schiff wrote recently that current trends “will make life unbearable in this country for both peoples.” [6] Since 1967, Palestinians have left the Occupied Territories in large numbers due to conditions they considered unbearable. What is new is that now one commonly hears well-educated Jewish intellectuals, professionals and even kibbutz members speak about leaving Israel if Ariel Sharon becomes prime minister — a prospect which seems no longer to be strictly in the realm of imagination.

Most progressive-minded Israelis feel frustrated and powerless to halt this spiral of racism and violence. The political movement which was active in opposing the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon is in a period of relative decline and is organizationally splintered. Nonetheless, several significant anti-racist demonstrations were held recently. In mid-August, hundreds of mostly high school-aged students pelted Meir Kahane with eggs and prevented him from speaking in the Labor Party stronghold of Givatayim near Tel Aviv. A few days later, Kahane was shouted down at a rally in the normally hospitable territory of central Jerusalem. On August 31, several thousand people demonstrated in Umm al-Fahm to commemorate the anniversary of Kahane’s being denied entrance to the city. A week later, thousands attended an anti-racist demonstration in Afula organized by Mapam. In October, Kahane was prevented from speaking in Carmiel and Ramat Gan, and his appearance in Beersheba drew a large counter-demonstration.

But these notable expressions of resistance highlight the overwhelming tendency in the opposite direction. Last spring, the respected Van Leer Institute conducted a poll of high school student opinion, which revealed that 42.1 percent of the students supported Meir Kahane and his opinions. Van Leer officials were so dismayed that they tried to repress the findings. Yediot Aharonot broke the story and conducted its own survey, which corroborated the results of the Van Leer poll. [7] Kahane’s popularity has increased in all sectors of the Israeli public. A regular voter preference poll conducted in late August indicated that Kach would receive 11 seats if Knesset elections had been held then. [8] In all probability, Kahane would not receive this much support in actual elections. But it is clear that Kahanism is no marginal phenomenon. Every Israeli party from Labor to Tehiya has been influenced by the emergence of this mass base for nakedly racist anti-Arab sentiment and violence, and has adjusted its pronouncements and policies accordingly. The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, the Progressive List for Peace, the Citizens Rights Movement and, to a certain extent, Mapam and Shinui have stood against the prevailing current, together with the small and divided forces of the extra-parliamentary left. But all of these forces together represent no more than 15 percent of the Israeli public. To their numbers may be added the liberal elements of the Labor Party who equivocate and vacillate as much as they actively oppose anti-Arab racism and militarism. This may not be enough to block the upsurge of the fascist movement in Israel.

Editor’s Note: The author was in Israel during July, August and early September. Ted Swedenburg also contributed to this article.



[1] Middle East Journal (Spring 1985), p. 244.
[2] Haaretz, July 28, 1985.
[3] Jerusalem Post International, October 5, 1985.
[4] For details, see Israeleft 268-269, September 15, 1985.
[5] Haaretz, June 4, 1985.
[6] Haaretz, September 5, 1985.
[7] Yediot Aharonot, June 28, 1985.
[8] Ma’ariv, August 27, 1985.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Marching Toward Civil War," Middle East Report 136/137 (October-December 1985).

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