By Max Hastings
A historian friend, himself a Jew and an uncommonly astute observer of the world, said to me a while back, “Consciously or unconsciously, Israel has decided that it prefers a state of permanent war to making the concessions to the Palestinians that would be indispensable to any chance of peace”.
Israel has become more inward-looking, less receptive to foreign opinion, than at any time in its history. Its economy is booming. Tel Aviv boasts a buzzy café culture.
Barack Obama, the only recent US president to try to persuade Jerusalem to moderate its policies, has been thwarted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends in the US Congress.
Few Israelis seem to show much concern for world discomfort about the bombardment of Gaza and their policies towards the Palestinians.
Yet even so, many other Jews are deeply dismayed.
Three years ago, a team of Israeli documentary-makers produced a brilliant film titled The Gatekeepers about the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. For this, they persuaded five former heads of the Shin Bet, the nation’s security service, to be interviewed on camera.
The outcome was fascinating, and devastating.
Each chief in turn described the ruthless policies he enforced to sustain Israeli dominance. Most agreed that repression had been counterproductive. Part of the explanation, they said, was that since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fanatic in 1995, no Jerusalem government has pursued a serious political strategy for peace.
The security forces have simply been left to impose varying degrees of repression, while Jewish settlers grab ever-larger areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In a remarkable moment of frankness, one former Shin Bet chief said, “Occupation has made us a cruel people”.
He began by describing how, as a boy of 9, he was taken by his parents on a drive across the West Bank in the wake of the nation’s stunning victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967.
After two decades in which Israelis had lived under siege from their neighbours, subject to spasmodic shelling in their homes and the fields of the kibbutzes in the lands beneath the Golan Heights, suddenly a whole new world was laid open to them.
Initially, Israel’s government had no policies for the Occupation, because it had never dreamt of achieving such conquests. Those in charge simply followed impulses.
The general in charge of former Jordanian east Jerusalem, for instance, ordered bulldozers to demolish 137 Arab homes, to clear a plaza in front of that sacred Jewish place, the Wailing Wall.
Israel’s justice minister told Teddy Kollek, mayor of West Jerusalem, “I don’t know what the legal status is. Do it quickly, and may the God of Israel be with you”. Some elderly Arabs refused to leave their homes and were crushed in the debris.
In those days I, as a passionate admirer of Israel, would have said: the Arabs caused this war. They gambled, and lost. Israel is entitled to secure its future. Since the Arab nations refuse peace on any borders, why should Israel’s soldiers not set these where they have conquered?
I still felt the same in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War when Israel reeled before a devastating Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack.
From amid the Israelis’ campfires, as a correspondent I wrote expressing my admiration for the nation, for what it had created from a near-wasteland.
“They are a very great people, who have come closer to destruction than blind Europe seems willing to recognise.”
The veteran journalist James Cameron, who had known Israel since its inception, wrote me to me after that piece was published, saying, “It is quite impossible to work in combat with the Israeli army without this response, if you have any sense of history and drama”.
But then he added reflectively, “I have sometimes wondered over the past few years whether this irresistible military mesmerism hasn’t clouded for us some of the political falsities”.
About 40 years on, I have become sure that Cameron was right. Too many of us allowed ourselves to become blinded by military success to the huge injustice done to the Palestinians.
Israelis, confident that they can defeat any Arab military threat, bolstered by almost unqualified US support, assume that they can persist indefinitely with the creeping annexation of the West Bank, and the subjection of Gaza.
Ugliness has mounted steadily since the early 1970s, when the Israeli Army merely demolished Palestinian orange groves to improve its fields of fire. Three Palestinians have been killed in reprisals for every Israeli killed by terrorism.
A few years ago, I revisited the West Bank and Gaza and, like most visitors, recoiled from their squalor, the prevailing culture of rage and despair.
It is true that the Palestinians, led by men skilled in guerrilla war but little else, speak a language of emotion and unreason.
But I have also watched the soldiers of the Israeli Army that I once loved disport themselves among the Palestinians like other arrogant occupiers through the ages, displaying at best casual rudeness, at worst murderous brutality.
Israel aspires to exploit its military dominance to create irreversible facts on the ground in the West Bank and Jerusalem, heedless of Palestinian rights.
Ahron Bregman, the Israeli whose history of the Occupation I mentioned, lives and works in London rather than in his homeland.
He ends his book by saying all successful imperialist powers have sought to persuade subject people to work with them, allowing them to gain some advantage despite being conquered.
Israel has never felt a need to offer this, says the author. Instead, it treats the Palestinians merely as tiresome blots on a landscape that many Israelis believe is rightfully Jewish anyway.
For those who loved what we thought Israel used to be, it is heartbreaking to see what it has become today. That the crisis is giving rise to some ugly displays of anti-semitism in parts of Europe is utterly contemptible.
But it is also contemptible that some apologists hurl charges of anti-semitism at all Israel’s critics – many of whom are admirers of so much that this great nation has achieved. Most of us merely attack Israeli excesses as we do those of Russia, Burma, China, Syria, the US or any other government that deploys disproportionate violence against those at its mercy.
Israel’s people deserve a less unworthy leader than Netanyahu, and a higher vision than that of reducing Gaza to rubble.
This can breed only a new generation of alienated, embittered Palestinian radicals, who will sustain their desperate struggle through decades to come.
Independent on line