The most searing image from Jeff Halper’s courageous and disturbing book, An Israeli in Palestine, is the image of Moshe Nissim, a military reservist and bulldozer driver, who was assigned the task of demolishing homes in the Jenin refugee camp in 2002. “For three days I just erased and erased,” says Nissim. “If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down. I didn’t stop for a moment. Even when we had a two-hour break, I insisted on going on. … I had plenty of satisfaction. I really enjoyed it.”
Like Bob Dylan, Halper is a secular Jew from Hibbing, Minnesota. But unlike Dylan, who emigrated to Greenwich Village, Halper relocated in 1973, at age 27, to Israel. A self-described child of the ‘60s, Halper eagerly joined the Israeli peace movement, but for many years he “accepted the idea, fundamental to Zionism, that the Jews constitute a nation in the political sense of the term.” However, on July 9, 1998, he witnessed the deliberate destruction of Salim Shawamreh’s home, and it was a life-altering moment. “Until that day … I suppose you could have called me a ‘Zionist,’” he writes. Today, Halper calls himself a “post-Zionist,” and in his book he takes us on a wrenching journey through the sad history and oppressive present reality of Israel’s ongoing dispossession and yes, ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population both inside Israel proper and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Did you know that between 1948 and 1967 Israel systematically demolished as many as 536 Palestinian villages? Did you know that since 1967 Israel has destroyed more than 18,000 homes belonging to Palestinian families in the occupied West Bank and Gaza—not homes of “terrorists,” but simply homes built in the wrong places or without permits? Did you know that in 2004 the Israeli government announced the establishment of a “Demolition Administration” in the ministry of interior, charged with razing to the ground up to 40,000 homes belonging to 150,000 “internal refugees” who live in more than a hundred “unrecognized villages” inside Israel? Until I read An Israeli in Palestine, I didn’t know any of this.
Halper, a professor of anthropology and the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, makes clear that from the days of its founding fathers through the era of Ehud Barak, Bibi Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon, Israel has benefited from the bloody, forced resettlement of the Palestinians. He quotes Plan Dalet of the underground Jewish army, the Haganah, in 1947:
These operations can be carried out … by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in the rubble).
In excruciating detail, citing chapter and verse, he lays out how Israel
planned and carried out a deliberate and cold-blooded campaign of ethnic cleansing, including … thirty-six massacres.
Even after the 1993 Oslo accords that began the current round of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and especially after Ariel Sharon took power in 2001, Israel has adopted a policy of what Halper calls “unilateral separation.” That policy includes the carving up and cantonization of the West Bank, the countless roadblocks and checkpoints, the construction of labyrinthine Separation Barrier that snakes through the entire area, the building of Jewish-only and Palestinian-only roads and highways, the disengagement from Gaza, and the construction of massive new Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, the Israeli terms for the West Bank.
Halper quotes Sharon, in a 2005 address to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, in which he made it explicit that major parts of the territory would be forever part of Israel: "The major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria will remain an integral part of the State of Israel and will have territorial contiguity with Israel in any final status agreement," declared Sharon. And he and his successor have been busy creating ever more new “facts on the ground.”
In the end, Halper suggests that despite all it is still possible to “redeem Israel.” He says that the traditional, two-state solution is dead, insisting that any version of a side-by-side Israel and Palestine “will be little more than a sophisticated form of apartheid.” And he says that the controversial idea of a one-state solution, in which Arabs and Jews live together in a bi-national, democratic country, is a “non-starter.”
He proposes, instead, a hybrid solution: a regional confederation. Stage One would be an imperfect, two-state arrangement in which the Palestinians would accept a “semi-viable” state, on at least parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Then comes Stage Two: “Following upon the emergence of a Palestinian state, the international community would broker a regional confederation among Israel, Palestine, and Jordan; Syria and Lebanon would likely join within a fairly short time. … All members of the confederation [could] live and work anywhere within the confederation’s boundaries.”
We must go way beyond peace to redemption. We must redeem our country from its colonial past and present not only to enable us to finally normalize our existence and find our place in the Middle East, but for our own sakes.
Even Halper admits that, given the intensity of the conflict today, his idea “sounds like a pipedream.” For myself, I can’t imagine how to get from here to there. I can’t imagine any Palestinian government accepting a weak, semi-viable state in exchange for the promise of a Stage Two-style confederation plan, in some near (or not-so-near) future. But perhaps Halper’s solution is not so much practical but transformational, in a cultural and psychological sense. Indeed, he promotes the idea for a new version of the Zionist idea, a “Cultural Zionism” that eschews the hard-edged, ethno-nationalist version. In the end, An Israeli in Palestine is a passionate call for Israeli Jews to embrace restorative justice.