Eight months into the intifada, Israel’s occupation appears as unyielding as the rocky hills of Palestine. Bolstered by arms and funds from the United States and supported by a rightward-leaning public, the Israeli political establishment stands utterly intransigent, opposed to any political compromise with the Palestinians. Chances of a settlement appear extremely remote.

Such intransigence fits a historical pattern. This is always the first reaction of an occupying regime to the outbreak of insurrection: The only problem, they are sure, is that they have not used enough force.

But the uprising continues, and fissures have begun to appear in Israeli society. If it is to succeed, it will have to do more than undermine the righteous conviction of most Israelis of the justice of their stance. It will have to impose political, economic and social costs that Israeli society is unwilling to bear. Sober pessimism may still be the most responsible basis for assessing the outcome, but it is worth looking at the points of stress and lines of fault that are now becoming apparent in Israel.

The Army

In the middle of Ramallah one bright June day, seven soldiers move down the street together on patrol, their faces scarcely disguising a nervous anger. They affect a jaunty swagger, chatting to each other, taking their time, ignoring the steely looks of Palestinians, pretending they are completely in charge.

Like the patrol in Ramallah, the Israeli army is trying to keep up an image of self-assurance. But in the ranks morale has slipped, and top commanders like the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, have publicly warned that the political leadership, not the army, is responsible for resolving this crisis. The army “cannot endure this situation forever,” Shomron said in March. “The matter has to be solved.”

Before the intifada, no more than a couple of thousand regular soldiers kept control over a million and a half Palestinians, along with several hundred border guards, hundreds more Palestinian policemen, and an extensive network of Palestinian collaborators and informers. But now all that has changed. About half the Palestinian policemen resigned in late March; some have returned, but this Palestinian force is virtually useless as an adjunct for controlling the population. The network of collaborators is in shambles. Today there are probably between 10,000 and 20,000 Israeli troops maintaining military rule over the West Bank and Gaza. Along with logistical units inside Israel, the uprising may now be tying up a fifth of the Israeli army.

This is why the army command doubled reserve duty from 30 to 62 days. Now most Jewish Israeli males aged 20 to 55 have to disrupt careers, businesses and personal lives twice a year, and they resent it. Their officers are not happy either. Critical training exercises have been postponed. Reserve units that ordinarily practice battlefield maneuvers are thrown into patrolling hostile camps, towns and villages. At the behest of the government, the high command has tried many techniques to suppress the uprising: house demolitions, deportations, breaking bones, mass arrests; tear gas, “live” ammunition, “rubber” bullets, stones and large marbles; nets dropped on crowds from helicopters. They have replaced their wooden truncheons with a fiberglass variety that will not shatter so easily on Palestinian bodies. But no tactic or innovation has restored Israeli authority.

Some 210 retired generals and colonels, including former army and air force commanders, formed the Council on Peace and Security to say in public what many of the active duty general staff had been saying in private — that from a military standpoint the territories were not worth holding. These military professionals support a political resolution for practical military reasons. In mid-June, the Defense Ministry asked for a 412 million shekel ($257 million) supplementary budget to pay for army operations in the territories. After the Finance Ministry failed to approve sufficient additional funding, Defense Minister Rabin announced in July that military procurement programs would have to be cut.

Morale is probably the key issue. This fourth most powerful military apparatus in the world cannot prevent young children throwing stones and burning tires. The army is caught up in a popular insurrection in which it rarely holds the initiative. Brutality may release the frustrations and anger of the troops, but it does not make for good discipline.

Early in the uprising, Amram Mitzna, the commander in the West Bank, bragged that he could count Israeli resisters on the fingers of one hand. Now the general and all his staff would not have fingers enough. Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit), the organization of military resisters that formed in the 1982 Lebanon war, sharpens the crisis within the IDF. Over 450 reservists signed an ad that Yesh Gvul published in Israeli newspapers on June 3, including many junior officers and non-coms, the heart of the army. They publicly committed themselves not to serve in the territories. Thirty refusing soldiers have already been jailed, including Capt. Meir Amor, former company commander of the elite Golani Brigade. Cpl. Adam Keller received a nine-month prison term (six months suspended) for painting slogans against serving in the territories on 117 tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks and pasting "Stop the Occupation" stickers around the base. (Cpl. Sagui Harpaz, by contrast, got a five-month suspended sentence as one of the soldiers filmed by CBS beating two Palestinians for 40 minutes.)

Peretz Kidron, a journalist and Yesh Gvul activist, argues that these 30 and the 450 who signed the ad are only the top of a pyramid. “We would have to multiply by ten this number to reach the number who have somehow evaded service through medical excuses and the like. Another factor often would show us how far the resistance movement has touched soldiers in terms of morale.” Evasion of military service has even affected the Orthodox Jewish community, where right-wing views dominate. Yeshiva enrollment has become something of a scandal, since yeshiva students are exempted from military service.

No Israeli likes to speak about another danger to the army’s troop strength: emigration and its counterpart, the decline of immigration. Israelis were shocked to learn that in May 1988, 90 percent of Jews leaving the Soviet Union chose not to come to Israel — up from the average of 70 percent. There is a running joke here that the IDF has two brigades in New York and one in Los Angeles. These Israelis are ready to jump on El Al and return to fight in case of war. But there are many other emigres who have no intention of returning to serve. When the government doubles the period of reserve duty and assign units to patrol Palestinian camps and villages, they run obvious risks of intensifying this emigration problem.

Many Israeli liberals worry that service in the occupation army will brutalize Jewish soldiers. Their cherished myth of the IDF’s “purity of arms” has no basis in historical reality, but it contributes to a basis for resistance. Yesh Gvul, invoking the Nuremberg precedents, handed out a “Service Paybook” designed to resemble a regulation army ID to soldiers at hitch-hike stations and bus stops. It reminds them that they risk punishment when they obey a “flagrantly illegal order.” A second “paybook” offers practical advice on the mechanics of refusing to serve.

Right-wing forces, of course, are well entrenched in the armed forces, with support from the political leadership. Early in the year, three regimental commanders reported on their experience on Israeli TV. They said they tell their troops that what is going on in the territories is “a real war on the major defense line of the state of Israel,” “a war for the survival of the state.” These are the political formulas of the right-wing parties, and many Israelis and Palestinians fear that the vocabulary of war may presage the sort of atrocities and population transfers that often accompany full-scale conflict. If the Likud wins the fall elections, Ariel Sharon may be the next minister of defense. What will the “pragmatist” generals do? A deep political crisis is not out of the question.

The Economy

“The dream of having all of Eretz Israel at a bargain price has been shattered,” wrote Jerusalem Post economics editor Shlomo Maoz in mid-June. According to Bank Hapoalim, the uprising will account for a drop of 2 percent in Israel’s national income this year, or about $600 million. The US Embassy in Tel Aviv estimates direct military and police costs at $120 million a month, and indirect costs at another $38 million. This comes out to almost $2 billion on an annual basis.

Israel’s economy was already in trouble. The government had slashed budgets in education, welfare, food and transport subsidies. Health workers and professionals have gone on strike several times as the health care system nears collapse. In early June, government workers staged a one-day general strike. Workers at the Bet Shemesh engine plant, laid off by the cancellation of the Lavi jet fighter program, protested at the finance ministry in Tel Aviv by smashing windows, breaking furniture and strewing garbage. One police official afterward called the demonstration “the Jewish intifada.”

In such a weak economy, the Palestinian uprising came as an unexpectedly heavy blow. Tax receipts from the territories have been halved. Economic sectors dependent on Palestinian labor have been especially hard hit. More than a hundred thousand Palestinians work in Israel. Beginning in December, tens of thousands did not show up at their jobs. Strike days called by the United Leadership were one reason. Another was the military curfews that often have kept workers from leaving their towns, villages or camps for days or weeks at a time.

First to feel the blow was agriculture, especially the winter citrus harvest. Tons of fruit rotted on the trees. Construction, with its labor force more than 60 percent Palestinian, has also suffered severely. The director general of Solel Boneh, Israel’s giant construction conglomerate, attributed the 20 to 25 percent drop in productivity in this sector to the absence of Palestinian workers. Textiles and food processing have been hurt both by strikes and the drop in sales to the Occupied Territories.

The intifada leadership has urged a boycott of Israeli goods. Even more important is the drop in Palestinian purchasing power because of the strikes, restrictions on money coming in from the outside, and other disruptions. Israeli exports to the territories, which have been running at over $1 billion a year, or 10 percent of total exports, dropped by 50 percent, Minister of Economy Gad Ya’aqobi reported in April. Israel’s industrial production dropped 3.5 percent in the first quarter of 1988, and the drop in sales to the West Bank and Gaza accounted for 70 percent of this decline, according to a report by the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

In overseas markets, especially in Europe, Israeli goods were already suffering because of overvaluation of the shekel. In early March, the European Parliament rejected three important trade and financial protocols with Israel, citing Israeli repression in the occupied territories. With Israeli trade to the Common Market totaling $3.2 billion in 1987, this could cost Israel as much as $30 million this year. Political boycotts have also begun to hit Israeli products in several northern European countries.

Tourism may be the worst hit sector. In May, the number of tourists entering Israel fell for the third straight month and stood 26,000 below the 1987 level. The overpriced shekel accounts for some of this drop, but the uprising seems to be the main cause. Shlomo Maoz of the Jerusalem Post estimates that losses in this sector could amount to $350 million, much of it in precious foreign exchange. Most striking is the fact that it is Jewish visitors — some 70 percent of Israel’s tourists — who are staying away. In May, Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, pleaded with American Jews “to show support for Israel not only in a monetary sense, but also by being involved and being there.” But Israel’s hoteliers still report low occupancy rates. Jerusalem’s new Hyatt Regency, built on confiscated Palestinian land, was only 45 percent full in June.

Experts now estimate that Israel’s trade balance for 1988 will be in deficit by $2 billion, double the sum for 1987. There are signs that the uprising has made it harder for Israeli state companies to raise money in international financial markets as the country’s “risk rating” has risen. The key question is whether the US government will pick up this bill. Washington has scheduled arms sales to Israel of $3.6 billion in FY 1989, which would require the present level of military aid to double. But even this would not offset a further drop in Israel’s standard of living. Will Israelis accept this cost as a feature of a new status quo?

Public Opinion and the Peace Movement

The intifada has unhinged much of Israeli political and intellectual life. We sensed a measure of collective depression, born of unease on the right and the left about what the uprising portends.

Still, reports in the US media have much too readily pronounced the irrelevance of Israel’s peace and anti-occupation movement. Part of this reflects the confusion of Peace Now with the peace movement. Peace Now has indeed been marginal, by all accounts, constrained by its close ties to Labor. But the ranks of Israeli opponents to the occupation consist of dozens of overlapping groups, some old, some new, who managed to bring between 8,000 and 10,000 protestors into the center of Tel Aviv on June 4. The organizers we talked with were quick to point out that this was the equivalent of more than half a million in the United States. More than a few of those who showed up, they said, were people who had grown impatient with Peace Now’s temporizing.

“Israel has not only lost control of the Palestinians,” says Hebrew University professor Emmanuel Farjoun. “It has lost the allegiance of its own intelligentsia.” Farjoun seems to overstate the case. Israeli responses to a celebrated poem by Mahmoud Darwish indicate that the government still has more than enough acolytes eager to rally behind familiar shibboleths and well-worn myths.

Still, writers and artists, psychologists and mental health professionals, social workers, doctors, journalists and others have formed groups, often joint Israeli-Palestinian committees, to protest the occupation. An international poetry festival scheduled for June as part of Israel’s fortieth anniversary celebrations was cancelled after Natan Zach, chairperson of the organizing committee, and another organizer resigned in April, charging that such a festival could be interpreted as “solidarity with a government which…blows up houses, exiles citizens without trial, uses gas against women and kills young boys and girls in what can only be called state terror.”

In late April, the cabinet took up the matter of lawyers in the State Prosecutor’s office who had refused to prosecute government cases supporting deportation orders against Palestinians; the lawyers argued that the orders are illegal. As a result, the government was forced to consider the unprecedented step of hiring private lawyers to do this work instead.

Polarization is the word most Israelis use to characterize the political impact of the uprising. Pollsters and journalists have interpreted this as a shift to the right. Polls do not adequately capture the public mood, though. People’s views are complex, confused, and in flux. In the streets of Jerusalem, for instance, we encountered supporters of the Likud who also favor negotiations towards an independent Palestinian state. Even some polls show that the Israeli public is ahead of the political establishment in their readiness to talk with the PLO.

In spite of these hopeful signs, the power of the right should not be underestimated. Dedi Zucker, who represents the Citizens Rights Movement in the Knesset and has been leading a lonely crusade there to halt the worst abuses of the occupation army, does not think the uprising marks the beginning of the end of the occupation. “The Israeli army can learn how to put it down very effectively,” he says, “though they can’t do that and do their real job of defending the country.” Human rights, says Zucker, is not a familiar or respected concept in Israeli society. Israeli Jews, for instance, do not view the question of Soviet Jewry as a human rights issue.

Some Israelis think that a semi-fascist ideology prevails among a large segment of Israel’s Jewish population. As Farjoun put it, “A good 40 percent of the Jewish population rejects the heritage of the French revolution,” with its notions of secularism, citizenship and civil rights. “‘We are Jews, we have nothing to learn from the world,’ they say. The whole notion of civic equality is foreign to them. They don’t mind two or three classes of citizens. If it’s not the same as America, who cares. And if we want to kick half of them out, we can kick half of them out.” This is not a division that corresponds with political affiliation. “A good third of the Likud accept the French Revolution,” says Farjoun. “And a good third of Labor do not.”

Similarly, hostility to Palestinians does not rigidly correspond with the divide between European and Oriental Jews. “If tomorrow Shamir said Israel should talk to the PLO, all this so-called right-wing public would go along,” says an American resident in one of Jerusalem’s lower-class Oriental quarters. Moti, a young social worker of Moroccan origin, took us on a tour of one of Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods. Two weeks earlier, he had just finished a month’s reserve duty in Hebron. Despite his opposition to the occupation, he said, he did not want to “desert” the other ten men, also from the slums, who had served together in this unit for 11 years. This was the first time in those 11 years they had been sent to the territories, Moti said. He feels they were profoundly affected by the experience, encountering Palestinians for the first time on their turf and witnessing the arrogant chauvinism of the Jewish settlers there.

The June 4 demonstration in Tel Aviv, which went barely noticed here, seems to have genuinely tapped into a growing conviction on the part of many Israelis that they must be finished with the occupation. Israeli Arabs participated in great numbers. Oriental Jews were not so numerous but were quite visible in the demonstration program. “Unlike Peace Now demonstrations,” said one activist, “where speakers are all Ashkenazi men and they actually sing ‘HaTikva’ [Israel’s national anthem] at the end, this included Women in Black, Red Line, East for Peace, The Twenty-First Year, Sons of the Village.”

The name “Red Line” refers to the border between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, and plays on the political-military use of “red line” to designate a line that must not be crossed. The group’s first demonstration consisted of simultaneous marches between major cities, gathering together in Jerusalem. “A year ago it would’ve been unthinkable for ten people to march through Jerusalem shouting ‘Two states for two people,’” one participant told us. “Here were 2,000. That’s the sort of thing we did in Birzeit or Nazareth, but not in the heart of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It represents a core pulling people leftward.”

The Twenty-First Year began in October 1987, just before the uprising started. Hanan Hever, one of the co-founders, teaches literature at Hebrew University. The group’s purpose, as he sees it, is to combat “the culture of occupation.” Members sign a manifesto, agreeing to fulfill one or more commitments: to boycott goods produced in the settlements, or celebrations and trips which condone the occupation; to refuse to collaborate in exploiting Palestinian labor. The group is publishing educational materials because, says Hever, “we discovered that many teachers and pupils have no idea where Israel’s pre-1967 border is. The atlas provided by the Ministry of Education has no demarcation of the territories.” They leafleted the Hebrew Book Fair, citing racist children’s books. The last item on the manifesto is a commitment to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Adi Ofir, the other co-founder, was recently sentenced to prison for refusing to serve; he and Hever helped draft the Yesh Gvul public statement.

By itself this peace movement is not large or powerful enough to force a peace settlement. But along with other points of stress it is creating pressures on Israeli society. Mapam, Labor’s left electoral partner for 20 years, recently broke this alliance and adopted a platform that allowed, albeit reluctantly, for negotiations with the PLO. Mapam’s influence is restricted to the kibbutz movement, and may be among the least important of Israel’s many political parties. But what is happening now in Israel is an accumulation of small signs and signals.

Even the Likud, in the person of former central committee member Moshe Amirav, has been caught conferring with Palestinians the regime brands as PLO “operatives.” June saw persistent reports in the Israeli press, denied by the prime minister but affirmed by the PLO, of further negotiations between the two sworn enemies. Haaretz reported in May that “moderate settlers from Gush Etzion” are talking about negotiations with the PLO. “There are still too many interests involved, and the authority exercised by the old leadership is too strong for things to break out into the open,” writes Dan Margalit, who nevertheless sees these stirrings as “symptoms of the confusion besetting the settlement movement.”

At one level, the uprising has reinforced and hardened Israeli views on both sides of the occupation issue. But at another level it has changed ways of thinking at all points of the political compass, by defining the Palestinian question with extreme clarity for the first time. “From 1949 until now, no Israeli election ever had the Palestine issue at its core,” one Palestinian, an Israeli citizen from the Galilee told us. “Wars with Arab states, Orientals versus Ashkenazim, social issues — all these things were debated in the campaigns. Now, for the first time they are going into an election to decide about us. This means only that the right question has been raised. It doesn’t mean the election will provide the right answer.”

How to cite this article:

James Paul "Points of Stress," Middle East Report 154 (September/October 1988).

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