January 18, 2012.
The wheel is turning full circle. Last week the Israeli parliament updated a 59-year-old law originally intended to prevent hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from returning to the homes and lands from which they had been expelled as Israel was established.
The purpose of the draconian 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law was to lock up any Palestinian who managed to slip past the snipers guarding the new state’s borders. Israel believed only savage punishment and deterrence could ensure it maintained the overwhelming Jewish majority it had recently created through a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Fast-forward six decades and Israel is relying on the infiltration law again, this time to prevent a supposedly new threat to its existence: the arrival each year of several thousand desperate African asylum seekers.
As it did with the Palestinians many years ago, Israel has criminalised these new refugees — in their case, for fleeing persecution, war or economic collapse. Whole families can now be locked up, without a trial, for three years while a deportation order is sought and enforced, and Israelis who offer them assistance risk jail sentences of up to 15 years.
Israel’s intention is apparently to put as many of these refugees behind bars as possible, and dissuade others from following in their footsteps.
To cope, officials have approved the building of an enormous detention camp, operated by Israel’s prison service, to contain 10,000 of these unwelcome arrivals. That will make it the largest holding facility of its kind in the world — according to Amnesty International, it will be three times bigger than the next largest, in the much more populous, and divine retribution-loving, US state of Texas.
Israeli critics of the law fear their country is failing in its moral duty to help those fleeing persecution, thereby betraying the Jewish people’s own experiences of suffering and oppression. But the Israeli government and the large majority of legislators who backed the law — like their predecessors in the 1950s — have drawn a very different conclusion from history.
The new infiltration law is the latest in a set of policies fortifying Israel’s status as the world’s first “bunker state” — and one designed to be as ethnically pure as possible. The concept was expressed most famously by an earlier prime minister, Ehud Barak, now the defence minister, who called Israel “a villa in the jungle”, relegating the country’s neighbours to the status of wild animals.
Barak and his successors have been turning this metaphor into a physical reality, slowly sealing off their state from the rest of the region at astronomical cost, much of it subsidised by US taxpayers. Their ultimate goal is to make Israel so impervious to outside influence that no concessions for peace, such as agreeing to a Palestinian state, need ever be made with the “beasts” around them.
The most tangible expression of this mentality has been a frenzy of wall-building. The best-known are those erected around the Palestinian territories: first Gaza, then the areas of the West Bank Israel is not intending to annex – or, at least, not yet.
The northern border is already one of the most heavily militarised in the world — as Lebanese and Syrian protesters found to great cost last summer when dozens were shot dead and wounded as they approached or stormed the fences there. And Israel has a proposal in the drawer for another wall along the border with Jordan, much of which is already mined.
The only remaining border, the 260km one with Egypt, is currently being closed with another gargantuan wall. The plans were agreed before last year’s Arab revolutions but have gained fresh impetus with the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Israel is not only well advanced on the walls of the bunker; it is also working round the clock on the roof. It has three missile-defence systems in various stages of development, including the revealingly named “Iron Dome”, as well as US Patriot batteries stationed on its soil. The interception systems are supposed to neutralise any combination of short and long-range missile attacks Israel’s neighbours might launch.
But there is a flaw in the design of this shelter, one that is apparent even to its architects. Israel is sealing itself in with some of the very “animals” the villa is supposed to exclude: not only the African refugees, but also 1.5 million “Israeli Arabs”, descendants of the small number of Palestinians who avoided expulsion in 1948.
This has been the chief motive for the steady stream of anti-democratic measures by the government and parliament that is rapidly turning into a torrent. It is also the reason for the Israeli leadership’s new-found demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel’s Jewishness; its obsessions with loyalty; and the growing appeal of population exchange schemes.
In the face of the legislative assault, Israel’s Supreme Court has grown ever more complicit. Last week, it sullied its reputation by upholding a law that tears apart families by denying tens of thousands of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship the right to live with their Palestinian spouse in Israel — “ethnic cleansing” by other means, as leading Israeli commentator Gideon Levy noted.
Back in the early 1950s, the Israeli army shot dead thousands of unarmed Palestinians as they tried to reclaim property that had been stolen from them. These many years later, Israel appears no less determined to keep non-Jews out of its precious villa.
The bunker state is almost finished, and with it the dream of Israel’s founders is about to be realised.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He won this year’s Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.
*****Comment: The imagery of a bunker in this article reminds me of the 'circling of the wagons' by Boer insurgents in the era before apartheid.
The circle was at first a defense strategy. It worked to some extent but the extension of the wagon circle as political metaphor into the ideology and practice of apartheid was fatally flawed.
The lesson that Israel will learn over time is that a bunker just like a circle of wagons cannot forever preserve illegitimate regimes.
To re-imagine Israel there will need to be radical leadership that will dismantle its preoccupation with surviving at all costs. To do this the ideology of Zionism must be abandoned. There cannot be peace in Israel until all its peoples, Jews and Palestinians alike, are accorded equal legitimacy to co-exist peacefully.
That progressive vision is, however, severely lacking. In the last couple of days Israeli forces have again struck out at Gaza killing more innocent civilians.
No bunker and no ideology can save Israel from the inevitable crumbling that comes with this kind of fascist abuse. Zionism, as distinct from Judaism, is akin to fascism in much the same way that apartheid was.
In the end, the white regime had no-where to run. Apartheid could have been so much less devastating if in the 1950s the ideology of apartheid was just abandoned in favor of democratic equality.
It took decades more to force the apartheid regime to its senses. The same is unfolding in Israel.
What strikes me is that Israel today feels/looks a lot like South Africa in the declining years of white supremacy. By the mid-1980s the writing was on the wall, so to speak, even though the apartheid regime was still a fierce military force in the region.
But military force cannot withstand the onslaught of the struggle toward freedom; Israel should be paying close attention to the manner that apartheid unraveled in South Africa.
No bunker can save Israel from the inevitable. Freedom for Palestinians is inevitable. Israel must embrace this inevitability for its own sake.