Rattling the Cage: Just say 'security'

The restrictions on the Palestinian population are not all vitally necessary.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
Neither I nor anybody else knows how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem - the dual, interlocking problems of Palestinian terror and Israeli occupation. It seems the three approaches Israel has tried - military force, negotiations and unilateral withdrawal - have all failed. It seems the best we can do, until some miracle appears, is try to "manage the conflict." And managing the conflict, as far as I'm concerned, means trying to find some balance between Israel's need for security from Palestinian terror and, on the other hand, the three-million-plus Palestinian civilians' need for freedom from Israeli military rule. The problem, however, is that each comes at the expense of the other. The more freedom we give Palestinian civilians, the easier it is for Palestinian terrorists to slip through. Yet the harder we make it for terrorists to slip through, the more we turn the entire West Bank - and, to a lesser extent, Gaza - into an Israeli prison. I don't know what the right balance between our security and their freedom is; no doubt it shifts from day to day, if not hour to hour. But I do know, at least, what the right balance is not. It is not the right balance to give 100% weight to Israeli security and zero weight to Palestinian freedom. YET I BELIEVE most Israelis think it is. Most Israelis, as far as I can tell, are against any easing of hardships for the Palestinians if this involves any possible, even just theoretical, risk to their own security. Which means Israelis are closed to the idea of loosening the occupation. And this, in essence, has been the policy of the Israeli government. Whatever hardship imposed on the Palestinians was absolutely necessary, the government declared, for the sake of Israeli security. Our leaders didn't say, and didn't have to say, how much security we were getting in return for how much Palestinian hardship. They just had to say the word "security," and Israelis nodded their heads, because Israel's need for security is absolute, and against it, the Palestinians' need for freedom carries no weight at all. This week it became clear that such a consideration, or lack of consideration, is what may lie behind a given Israeli policy in the West Bank or Gaza that the government trumpets as being "vital to Israeli security." Until this week, the government claimed it was holding back the transfer of the Palestinian Authority's tax and customs money - a policy in effect since Hamas won the elections in March - because some of that money could fall into Hamas's hands and be used against Israel. Until this week, the government claimed it couldn't take down any of the military roadblocks that paralyze Palestinian life in the West Bank because this would allow terrorists to roam freely and attack Israelis. Until this week, the government claimed it couldn't free up the flow of Palestinian goods going in and out of Gaza because, again, this would let terrorists slip through. So what happens this week? Prime Minister Olmert, under pressure from the Americans to help Mahmoud Abbas in his fight against Hamas, suddenly changes his mind and decides that all these restrictions can be scrapped at no risk, or at worst "minimal" risk, to Israeli security. He promises Abbas $100 million in tax and customs money (out of the $500m. Israel is holding back) so Abbas can pay salaries to tens of thousands of PA employees. He promises to lift 49 of the 500 or so military roadblocks in the West Bank so Palestinians can travel between villages and cities. He promises to open up the crossing points between Gaza and Israel so trucks can get their merchandise through. Many right-wing Israelis believe Olmert is exposing all of Israel to another round of intifada and suicide bombings, purely out of shameful political self-interest. I think this is ridiculous. If these "concessions" to the Palestinians were actually risky, Olmert wouldn't make them, because he has no personal or political interest whatsoever in taking decisions that could get Israelis murdered. NO, WHAT this week's easing of conditions for the Palestinians shows is that the previous, harsher conditions in the West Bank and Gaza were never vital to Israel's security in the first place. They caused tremendous suffering to Palestinian civilians while providing only a modicum of additional protection, if any, against Palestinian terrorists. In his announcement of the new policy, Olmert sort of gave the game away. "My hope is that by [the upcoming holiday of] Id al-Adha, the Palestinian population will feel a considerable improvement in its fabric of life. This is not say that we are slacking off in our war against terrorism; we will continue to fight terrorism with the same determination." So if lifting these terrible economic and travel restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza is going to make life better for Palestinian civilians without hurting Israel's ability to fight Palestinian terrorists, as Olmert says, why were these restrictions ever put into effect? The reason, I would say, is partly for the purpose of collective punishment, partly out of indifference, and partly for the sake of security - on the rationale that if there's any chance at all that a dollar of the $500m. in withheld PA money could find its way to Hamas, or that some terrorist might gain a half-step because a roadblock has been cleared or a checkpoint opened, then forget it: The restrictions on the Palestinian population remain in force. They are vital to Israel's security. Not so, as we learned this week. I'd like to think that the next time Israel's leaders justify any and every clause of the occupation with the magic word "security," Israelis won't be so fast to nod their heads. Yet who am I kidding?