On the Ground in Israel/Palestine
Editor’s Note: Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern recently visited Israel as part of a delegation sponsored by Interfaith Peace-Builders, a group that sends delegations to the Middle East to witness the Arab-Israeli conflict first hand.
I saw nothing that surprised me — but plenty that shocked me. Let me explain.
I had learned from books and newspapers about what happened in 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians were removed from their land in historic Palestine; about the results of the Israel-Arab war in 1967, which years later former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin publicly admitted was started by Israel; and about the confiscation and settlement by Israelis of Palestinian lands in the territories that Israel has now occupied for over 40 years.
But there is a huge difference from book learning and personal experience.
During the five years I was stationed in Munich, in the shadow of Dachau, I had not only book learning but personal experience with the results of the terrible Holocaust.
And there was the quote from Santayana at the very end of the tours I led through the Dachau concentration camp, "Those who do not remember history are condemned to relive it."
I grew up in New York City, where many of our closest neighbors were Jewish refugees from Germany in the ’30s. None of my acquaintances knew much about the Arabs of Palestine, and there was great jubilation when they were forced to make way for the establishment of the new state of Israel in 1948
An exhibit at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in West Jerusalem, elicited a sad reminder of how thousands of Jews fleeing from Hitler in the ’30s crowded onto ships to cross the Atlantic, only to find that they were not welcome in America and were turned back to face almost certain death in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of that outrage, in her "No Ordinary Time," had brought me to tears.
Small wonder, I said to myself, that the Israeli people mean it when they say Never Again! Small wonder that they are reluctant to trust anyone, including the United States, to help defend them in time of need. No surprise that Israel decided that only overwhelming force, including nuclear weapons, can ensure its existence.
What a Nation Tolerates?
At the entrance to the Israeli Holocaust museum hung a prominent quote from the writer Kurt Tucholsky: "A country is not just what it does — it is also what it tolerates."
And I remember thinking, "Yes, those Germans who tolerated it all; those Germans who knew better but did nothing to stop the Holocaust!"
As our tour progressed, however, and I witnessed the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories, I began to ask why it is that so few Israelis seem to care about the oppression of those living there, and how so many Americans can acquiesce in their tax dollars supporting the slow-burn holocaust in the occupied territories.
And driving through the West Bank I was reminded of President George W. Bush’s comment after flying over the Palestinian camps on a trip as governor of Texas.
"Looked real bad down there," he said with a frown. Then he said it was time to end America’s efforts in the region. "I don’t see much we can do over there at this point," he said at the first National Security Council meeting of his administration (Jan. 30, 2001).
No more honest broker role for the U.S. The message was clear to the Israelis: They were now free to resolve the dispute as they saw fit. And the result is as sad as it was predictable.
Indeed, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that a pullback by the U.S. would unleash Sharon and the Israeli army, but Bush shrugged that off saying, "Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things. (This first-hand account comes from then-Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill, who was there.)
Our delegation was sad witness to how the Israeli leaders decided to "clarify things."
Israeli bulldozers uprooting 300-year-old olive trees; hillsides denuded of trees to clear the land for gleaming alabaster Israeli settlements on every high hilltop; huge boulders or "checkpoints" on every through-road; Palestinian houses leveled to make way for a huge concrete wall — bigger and longer than what I had to contend with in divided Berlin during the Cold War.
We were on-the-ground witnesses to Israel’s long-term strategy to marginalize and, if possible, drive out the four million Palestinians in the occupied territories by destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian government, economy, and civil society.
And the supreme irony of it all. As though overwhelming force can bring true security, in this modern age when everyone with access to Google images and maps and a mortar or artillery piece can wreak havoc using what the Pentagon calls "asymmetrical warfare."
How myopic the policy; and how contrived the attempted justification.
One prominent Jewish settler offered a simple explanation: The Bible says God wants us to have the land, so we can worship God as God wants us to. He quoted Deuteronomy 15:4 — "Since the Lord your God will bless you abundantly in the land God will give you as your heritage, there shall be no poor among you."
We told the settler we thought the Bible made it clear that God was concerned first and foremost that we do Justice and that he was giving inordinate emphasis to the subordinate clause of the Dt 15:4, and that God’s overarching mandate was that there shall be no poor among you in the land given you.
The answer we got was that Justice is not first and foremost in God’s vision: rather it is the land...and the land was promised to the Jews.
It was helpful to hear this thinking first-hand and hear how firmly this tenet has taken hold among the settlers on land confiscated from the Palestinians.
One of our delegation reminded us of our government’s enabling role in all this, and of the words of a Holocaust survivor: "Thou shalt not be a victim; thou shat not be a perpetrator; above all, thou shalt not be a bystander."
As mentioned above, the experience was not really a surprise, but none of us were prepared to see translated into human flesh, field, and habitat, the oppressive policies about which we had heard.
We emerged with a new determination to do our part to see Justice for all the parties concerned. For a country is not just what it does — it is also what it tolerates.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer from 1962-64, and then a CIA analyst for 27 years. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
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