Israel holds the key to ending a war it will never win

January 12, 2003|By Hope Keller

THE BODY count was high in the latest suicide attack in Israel: 22 dead and 100 wounded Jan. 5 in twin bombings in a crowded area of south Tel Aviv.

News reports noted the choreographed nature of the attack and its aftermath: the blasts, the sirens, the maimed trailing blood, the body bags, the pious in rubber gloves using spatulas to collect human remains.

A gruesome routine has been established. Within Israel's pre-1967 borders, more than 300 Israelis have been killed since Palestinian violence broke out again nearly 2 1/2 years ago. Three hundred more Israelis have died in the West Bank and Gaza.

This grim roulette -- Will my kids' bus explode? What if we pick the restaurant that gets blown up tonight? -- appears to be Israel's future. Although polls show 60 percent of Israelis favor an immediate unilateral evacuation from most of the territories and settlements, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to handily win the Jan. 28 election on a platform that could be characterized as "hammer the Palestinians until they give up."

Except they won't. More than 35 years of Israeli occupation have bred a tenacious rage. No matter how long and high the Israeli security fence, no matter how many the checkpoints, so long as Israel controls Palestinians' lives, Palestinians will kill Israelis.

The only way to break this numbing, idiotic cycle of violence is for Israel to get out of the West Bank and Gaza. It is pointless to wait for the Palestinians to stop terror attacks or for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to become a trustworthy negotiating partner.

This is not a recondite or radical notion in Israel. A pullout is routinely discussed in the Israeli media, military censor and all. The Labor Party candidate for prime minister, Amram Mitzna, seeks to convince Israelis that their security lies in disengagement from the territories and the return of settlers to Israel.

It is in the United States that proponents of an Israeli withdrawal are likely to be labeled anti-Semites, self-hating Jews or, at best, "beautiful dreamers." If a U.S. professor gave a lecture along the lines of a typical political column in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, he or she would soon be in the sights of Campus Watch, an American group that collects dossiers on and harasses professors and academic institutions that it deems anti-Israeli.

For many Israelis, this is a time of despair. They see little hope for the nation that they helped build and that, in many cases, saved their lives. They know any eventual "victory" over the Palestinians will be Pyrrhic.

"It's so awful living here, you have no idea," a friend in Tel Aviv said the other day. She was talking about the Jan. 5 bombing and Israel's political course.

"I came to this country, I was going to save the Jewish people, I was going to save the world," she said. "What we have here [now] is something like a white colony in the Middle East where we have all these beautiful things," but where normal life is impossible.

"I stay because my kids are staying," she said. "My kids stay because their jobs are here and they're not sure they can get jobs anywhere else."

Fifty-three years ago, when she and her husband met in their hard-won new state, could they have imagined the present -- the barbed wire and the disturbingly familiar watchtowers around Jewish settlements?

"Apparently we were all fooled," she said.

How will Israel reproduce all that expensive West Bank real estate inside its pre-1967 borders? How will it relocate the nearly 400,000 settlers from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza?

It is tempting to say that is Israel's problem. Israel built the settlements largely on expropriated Palestinian land and in the face of wide international condemnation. But the settlements are America's problem, too.

The United States, which for years tsk-tsked about the settlements but kept sending the money to build them, must help Israel with a massive construction and relocation job. We are complicit in the creation of the settlement blocs that jeopardize Israel's future as a democratic, livable nation.

A pullout is hard to swallow. No one wants to seem to reward terror. But Israel cannot win this war.

Hope Keller, who lived in Israel for two years in the 1980s, is a free-lance journalist. She lives in Baltimore City.

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