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Israel's Terrorists

By Ian Gilmour

The Nation, April 21, 1997


The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years.
By Norman G. Finkelstein.
Minnesota. 157 pp. Paper $18.95.

Letters From Tel Mond Prison.
By Era Rapaport.
Free Press. 280 pp. $23.



Standing last November on a hilltop in one of the largest Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Israel's Prime Minister declared the land he saw before him to be "empty," an assertion so blatantly false that even such apologists for Likud as A.M. Rosenthal and William Safire might hesitate to accept it. Benjamin Netanyahu was of course seeking to excuse yet another expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, a development as likely as any other to wreck what remains of the "peace process." The books under review here are concerned with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its attendant Israeli terrorism. One of the authors, indeed, is a terrorist. Both are American-born. Era Rapaport lives in Israel and has become a citizen. Norman Finkelstein, whose parents were survivors of the Warsaw ghetto -- his mother then survived Maidanek and his father Auschwitz -- has lived in the area and studied it deeply but lives in the United States. How much better it would have been for Israel and the Middle East had Finkelstein settled in Israel and Rapaport stayed in Brooklyn.

Finkelstein quotes the remark of the great Israeli civil liberties lawyer Lea Tsemel to a U.S. audience: "You should know that, after munitions, your second-biggest export to Israel is Jewish nuts." Rapaport is one of those nuts. His book largely consists of letters he wrote in prison; they have small literary merit, but they provide a convincing self-portrait of a terrorist. A friend of his named Aaron wrote to ask: "Era, what did Israel do to you?... Are Arabs not people? What about them? My Judaism teaches, 'Love thy neighbor'... Who are you to throw those people off their land?" Rapaport concedes these are "hard questions." But instead of answering them, he lamely asserts that the land is "ours and that we [have] no right to give away any part of it."

Norman Finkelstein is anything but a nut. He is a hardheaded, down-to-earth, industrious scholar. His first book, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (1995), is a collection of brilliant essays on Zionist theory and practice, dealing with such subjects as the 1948 and 1967 wars. His mother once said, "What crime did the Palestinians commit except to be born in Palestine?" Since those wars they have committed many crimes, with the result that most Israelis and their supporters overseas have come to believe that the bulk of the violence and aggression in the conflict has come from the Arab side. Mrs. Finkelstein's son demonstrates that this is the opposite of the truth. His second book, similarly learned and eloquent, gives vivid and unforgettable descriptions of the intifada, part of which he witnessed, and the Israeli reaction to it.

Finkelstein, in contrast to Rapaport, found it "hard to comprehend how any sane Jew could think that the West Bank was part of Israel. That so many Jews did...revealed only that they had suffered a terrific rupture with reality." Certainly "reality" makes only fleeting appearances in Rapaport's book. A leading Irish columnist suggested last year that "the children's ward" was the right place for the I.R.A., since infantilism was one of their salient features. "They inhabit," he continued, "a moral world in which only their feelings count." It is the same with Rapaport. His life is one long tantrum. Law is irrelevant because he knows best and he is infallibly right. He is therefore not subject to the normal human restraints; hence he and Israel can be as violent as they want.

Israel, Rapaport concedes, made a mistake in Lebanon in 1982. Yet that mistake was not, as many people would think, to mount an unjustified invasion and kill some 20,000 Arabs, nearly all civilians. Finkelstein produces damning evidence to show that before the Israeli invasion there had been an effective cease-fire with the P.L.O. for more than a year and that the invasion was a cynical aggression to fend off the P.L.O.'s peace offensive. No, the mistake in Rapaport's view was not to have destroyed the P.L.O. in Beirut. "What do you expect me to do," he plaintively asks Aaron. "Put down my gun and let the Arabs slaughter me?"

Rapaport's fantasy world is at its most unpleasant in his description of his crime. Almost the only accurate fact in his account is that on May 20, 1980, six Jewish settlers in Hebron were murdered by Palestinians in a grenade attack. Rapaport and other members of the radical settler organization Gush Emunim believed both that the attack had been caused by the government's weakness and that the government had not taken strong enough measures after it. In fact, the Israeli Prime Minister at that time was not exactly a pacifist or an Arab lover; he was the ex-terrorist Menachem Begin. And his government, as Geoffrey Aronson wrote, had for some time been pursuing "a naked policy of harassment" whose main features were collective punishments, curfews, arrests, beatings and intimidation of the Palestinians. That was not enough to satisfy the zealots of Gush Emunim; so Rapaport and his group decided to attack three of the Palestinian mayors.

Rapaport's victim was the mayor of Nablus, Bassam Shaka. Rapaport claims that Shaka was a "PLO leader and murderer" who had begun "a consistent campaign of recorded terrorist activities against the Jews." He does not, however, record any such activities -- because they never took place. Shaka was neither a terrorist nor a murderer; he was not even in the P.L.O. But he was a nationalist. Every Palestinian was. Even right-wing Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon once admitted there was "no one in Judea and Samaria who wants Israeli rule." Inevitably, Shaka made strong objections to Israel's policy, denouncing the government's decision to legalize private land purchases by Israelis in the West Bank as "an ugly crime, a robbery of the lands of Palestinians, and a step contradicting international law and the Geneva Convention."

Rapaport further attempts to mitigate his offense by claiming that he never intended to kill Shaka, only to maim him. He did "only" blow Shaka's legs off, and another mayor lost a foot. But the difference between a device designed to kill a man and one merely to blow his legs off is so small that the contemporary view was that the attacks were attempted assassinations; Begin described them as "acts...among the most dastardly kind." Rapaport regarded that comment as "typical of him. Because of him...we were forced to act." If he had been "a strong and straight person," all would apparently have been well. Rapaport, who regards Sinai as part of Eretz Israel, is so gruesome a fanatic that he regrets not having destroyed the Dome of the Rock, one of the world's great buildings and one of the Muslims' most holy places.

Part of Rapaport's reality rupture is his divorce from historical fact. He is certain about exactly what happened in Palestine thousands of years ago but is remarkably ill informed about what has happened in his own lifetime. William Helmreich, his editor, regrettably does not alert the reader even to the author's grossest errors -- though in an otherwise excellent introduction he does mention Rapaport's "literalist view of religion and history" and his being a leader of a "movement whose adherents regard the Old Testament as their constitution." But of course, only part of the Old Testament -- that "venerable sufferer," as Thomas Huxley once called it; extremists like Rapaport follow the Davidic, monarchic and imperial tradition in the Old Testament, and ignore the great prophetic tradition. We do not know what Jeremiah would have said about Netanyahu, but we can be fairly sure that it would not have been complimentary.

Rapaport gets virtually everything wrong. According to him, in 1929 "hundreds of Jews" were massacred by Arabs living in Hebron. In fact, sixty were killed in Hebron -- although of course that is sixty too many. Again, in 1967, according to Rapaport, "some seven Arab countries attacked Israel, intent on driving us into the sea." As Finkelstein points out, that is quite untrue. Both Yitzhak Rabin, then chief of staff, and Meir Amit, chief of the Mossad, said that Nasser did not want war, while Menachem Begin admitted, "We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." Rapaport claims that "hundreds of Jews were massacred by the Arabs" at K'far Etzion in 1948. Arabs did indeed attack K'far Etzion in the 1948 war and inflicted heavy casualties, but there was no massacre. They took 350 prisoners, who were soon returned unharmed to the Israelis. Rapaport's predecessors -- the Irgun and the Stern Gang -- took no prisoners on such occasions.

"Israel," by which of course he means Greater Israel, is the "one place that the Arab is really safe," says Rapaport. Finkelstein exposes the fatuous mendacity of that allegation. Staying at Beit Sahour, a Christian Palestinian town near Bethlehem, during the intifada, he saw Israeli terror from the other side. Every expression of Palestinian violence that he witnessed was little more than symbolic, and the average age of "the Intifada vanguard" was about 12 because the older generation of teenagers was either in hiding or in jail. Yet Israeli "terror was omnipresent," if latent for much of the time. Once at Jalazoun refugee camp, children were burning tires when a car pulled up. "The doors swung open, and four men (either settlers or the army in plainclothes) jumped out, shooting with abandon in every direction. The boy beside me was shot in the back, the bullet exiting from his navel.... Next day the Jerusalem Post reported that the army had fired in self-defense."

The most common form of Israeli violence in the refugee camps was "the pogroms. Entering the camps after dusk, soldiers or settlers sprayed them with bullets and tear gas, banged on doors and smashed windows and solar heaters, broke into homes, then beat a swift retreat (usually with a hostage or two)." Once, shortly before Finkelstein returned to the United States, the army ordered the inhabitants of three houses to clear out their life's belongings in fifteen minutes and then demolished the stone structures. "No warning. No explanation. No legal recourse." Yet in Rapaport's eyes the Arab is "really safe" in Greater Israel.

To Palestinians, Israeli rule is completely arbitrary (and so, too, is Arafat's). In East Jerusalem Finkelstein saw the police order Palestinian youngsters to dump their freshly cut vegetables into garbage bins. Nearby an old woman struggled to prevent a police officer from overturning her basket of goods and was knocked on the forehead by a second policeman. A Hebronite who refused to call Arafat a prostitute was clubbed.

In 1989, the second year of the intifada, some 13,000 Palestinians were under arrest. Although conditions in the internment camps were appalling, few in Israel, as the late Mattiyahu Peled complained, were prepared to do anything about them: "Nice people...stand at a demonstration," he wrote. "They shout out a few slogans. They go home satisfied that they have done the job, but they are not prepared to shake the system." Nevertheless, many of the Israeli reservists were horrified by what they were required to do. Finkelstein quotes the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit's account of what he saw at the internment camp at Gaza Beach: Many Palestinians awaiting trial

are in their teens. Among them, here and there, are some boys who are small and appear to be very young.... The prison has twelve guard towers. Some Israeli soldiers are struck -- and deeply shaken -- by the similarity between these and certain other towers, about which they have learned at school.... almost every night, after it has managed, in its interrogations, to "break" a certain number of young men, the Shin Bet delivers to the [soldiers] a list with the names of the friends of the young men.... the soldiers...go out [and] come back with children of fifteen or sixteen years of age. The children grit their teeth. Their eyes bulge from their sockets. In not a few cases they have already been beaten.... Or maybe the doctor is to blame. You wake him up in the middle of the night to treat one of those just brought in -- a young man, barefoot, wounded, who looks as if he's having an epileptic fit, who tells you that they beat him just now on the back and the stomach and over the heart. There are ugly red marks all over his body. The doctor turns to the young man and shouts at him. In a loud, raging voice he says: May you die! And then he turns to me with a laugh: May they all die!

Rapaport was pleased with himself for apparently outwitting his interrogators in "a fencing match." The encounters were rather easier for him than for Palestinians. His interrogations amounted to little more than arguments, after which he went home. Before he was convicted, he feared he would get a long prison term. In fact, he got three years. Had he been a Palestinian and his victim an Israeli, he would have gotten twenty. Indeed, Rapaport might argue that he was harshly treated. Last year four Israelis convicted of unjustifiably killing an Arab were fined the equivalent of a few cents.

If Netanyahu continues building illegal settlements on the West Bank, more explosions are sure to follow. Something similar to the intifada will occur, followed by the same draconian Israeli repression "bankrolled," in Finkelstein's phrase, by the U.S. taxpayer and protected by the U.S. veto in the United Nations. Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration will go on pretending that it is an honest broker in "the peace process." For the Administration to pose as impartial is roughly equivalent to having as an umpire in the World Series the owner of one of the teams. It is lucky the Palestinians have a sense of humor.


Ian Gilmour is a former British defense secretary and deputy foreign secretary.

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