Israel wrestles with moral and practical dilemmas of occupation

For two decades, Yeshayahu Leibowitz has thundered at his countrymen like an angry modern prophet of Israel, warning that the Jews started to lose their state the day they won the Six-Day War. ``Since the seventh day, that is, the day after the Six-Day War ended, the state has become an apparatus for violent Jewish domination over another people - the Palestinians,'' says the 85-year-old Hebrew University professor emeritus.

Professor Leibowitz is obsessed with the need to convince Israelis that continued control of the territories and people conquered in the war is destroying Israel's democratic framework and moral fiber.

More than 1 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip live under Israeli military rule, subject to some 1,190 military orders. But the Jewish settlers in their midst, like Jews in Israel proper, participate in a vibrant, raucous democracy. Leibowitz insists this dichotomy cannot persist without corrupting that democracy.

Leibowitz's fears are incomprehensible to Israel Medad. At 39, Mr. Medad has no second thoughts about Israel's presence in the West Bank. An immigrant from New York, Medad lives in the Jewish settlement of Shilo, begun illegally in 1978 by the messianic settlers' group Gush Emunim. Shilo now is home to 90 Jewish families.

``What are the moral reasons for giving it back?'' Medad asks. ``There are no moral reasons. ... [Are there] Jews living in Jordan? How are the Jews in Syria? Why should I make peace with an Arab state that has trouble digesting what it means to be Jewish and to be Zionist?''

Occupation, Medad agrees with Leibowitz, is a bad thing. But the solution for what he calls the limbo in which Jews and Palestinians live in the occupied lands is Israel's annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Once the land is annexed, he says, ``there is no pressing need for Israel to push Israeli citizenship down the throats of the Arabs. Most of them are Jordanian citizens. I foresee a situation of full civil and personal rights, and they'll vote for the Jordanian parliament.''

After 20 years of occupation, public opinion polls here continue to show that Israelis are about evenly divided between a more moderate version of the Leibowitz view that Israel must rid itself of the territories and the Medad view that Israel must keep them all.

But the split is deepening in intensity, says Hanoch Smith, an independent Israeli pollster. ``There is a more polarized support among voters when asked the question `Are you ready to give up part of the territories of the West Bank for peace with Jordan?''' Mr. Smith says.

A slow change has taken place in public views, Smith says, since the right-wing Likud political bloc came to power in 1977 under Menachem Begin. Supporters of the Likud-religious bloc have become more opposed to giving up land. ``Seventy percent of voters who identify as Likud or religious [party] supporters say `no' to giving up some territory. 70 percent of those identifying with Labor or the left say `yes.'''

``The decisive element in the change,'' Smith says, ``is that people supporting religious parties have become very, very hawkish, more hawkish than Likud.''

Medad, a spokesman for the ultranationalist Tehiya Party, is one of those whose views have moved to the right. Tehiya was formed by Likud members who split from the bloc when then-Prime Minister Begin agreed to return the Sinai to Egypt for peace. Medad immediately joined Tehiya. In 1981, he moved his family to Shilo.

``Right now, there are 70,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria,'' says Medad, using the Hebrew names for the West Bank. (Other estimates put the figure at about 60,000.) ``If we can double that in three or four years, we will put the whole political question to rest. If Israel agrees to abandon this land, it begins to roll back Zionism. Once you begin to roll back, there is no stopping.''

Leibowitz is unrelentingly wrathful about the West Bank Jewish settlers. ``Sometimes, patriotism and nationalism rob men of their reason and even of their moral understanding,'' he says dryly.

The professor makes audiences at his public lectures uncomfortable. His analysis is considered radical, but it is hard to dismiss when offered by one who is a lifelong, religiously observant Zionist, who is also a respected theologian and philosopher. And today more Israelis are willing to listen, because they are concerned about the impact an occupation that appears increasingly permanent is having on them and their children.

A problem for Israelis, says pollster Smith, is that although their views on the land may be crystallized, their views on the 1.3 million Palestinians in the occupied lands are much more ambivalent.

``There is great national confusion about dealing with the longer-range prospects of occupation,'' Smith says. ``If I ask Israeli voters whether Arabs in the territories should be given citizenship, I get a confused response. They don't want to give them citizenship, but there is no consensus on how to deal with the problem long range. Israelis think short range.''

Further complicating the question is the fact that the Palestinian population is growing much more rapidly than the almost static Jewish population. If the territories were annexed and citizenship granted, some say, it could eventually spell the end of the ``Jewish state.''

The deep division over whether to relinquish territory for peace is dramatically reflected in Israel's coalition government. Last month, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres failed to get the 10-man ``inner Cabinet'' to explore the chances for convening an international peace conference. The Cabinet split in half during debate along party lines. Likud is unalterably opposed to a trade of land for peace, while the Labor Party supports it in principle. When Mr. Peres saw he could not win a vote, he withdrew the proposal. The government is nowin stalemate.

Leibowitz has no patience with stalemate. Time, he insists, is running out for Israel.

The essence of the dilemma is simple, he says.

``In consequence of a very long history of many, many centuries, there are two peoples, each of whom is deeply conscious in their souls and who feel in their bones that this is their country,'' he says. ``Therefore there are only two possibilities, either a war to the finish or partition.''

For Medad, partition of what he considers ``Greater Israel'' is unthinkable. But he worries that Peres's talk of a peace conference, Palestinian violence against West Bank settlers, and the militancy of some settlers may turn Israelis against the settlement movement.

``Peace has a magnetic appeal, you can't be against peace,'' he says. ``So what we are for is a strong, secure Israel. There aren't that many people available to come [to the occupied land] for ideological reasons, but there are a lot who would like to move out of the cities, have a good view, and a nice place to raise their kids. The trick in increasing the settlements is to get ordinary people.''

The problem both a Leibowitz and a Medad face is that, even after 20 years of occupation, most Israelis still don't think much about the territories or the Palestinians. Their lives are absorbed with government crises, economic uncertainty, and day-to-day existence. The territories are a distant place that remains under Israel's control because there is no viable option. What the occupation is doing to Israelis and to Palestinians is not the stuff of casual dinner conversations.

``After 1967, we became dichotomized,'' says Meron Benvenisti, head of an independent research group, the West Bank Data Project. Dr. Benvenisti has outraged both the political left and right by saying annexation of the territories has already occurred in all but name, and that all that remains is for civil war to erupt between Palestinians and Jews.

``The democracy and the liberal society of Israel always existed only for the Jews,'' he says. ``It didn't matter so much before 1967, because the Arabs were such a small minority here that people didn't think about them. Now Israel is a binational state. There are two societies, and the norms of the democratic society stop at the ethnic divide. Arabs just don't count. So 40 percent of the population doesn't count. If that goes on forever, then occupation becomes an excuse for inequality. Democracy will apply only to the master race.''

Saed Zeedani is a soft-spoken Israeli Arab who agrees with part of that analysis. Israeli democracy didn't start deteriorating in 1967, Dr. Zeedani contends; it's just that the rest of the world started finding out about its flaws only after the occupation began. ``If you are talking about morals, democratic values, well, from the point of view of the Arabs, these things are of an exclusive nature and always have been in Israel,'' says Zeedani, a philosophy instructor at the nationalist West Bank Palestinian university, Bir Zeit.

``Until 1965, the Arabs who were Israeli citizens suffered under the military government. [Israel's Arab population lived under a military administration, which severely restricted civil rights.] Now that has shifted to the West Bank and Gaza. The deterioration that happened after the occupation is a variation on the theme that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. You feel it especially with the Israeli teen-agers who serve as soldiers on the West Bank; you feel their sense of power over the people there,'' Zeedani says.

Ran, a 24-year-old Israeli born on a kibbutz, experienced that sense of power when he served with his paratrooper unit in Hebron, a Palestinian town on the West Bank. ``I hated to see people afraid of me, an 18-year-old,'' Ran said. ``Believe me, some people like it. Some of my friends liked it. But it was not for me.''

Partly because he was depressed by his service in the West Bank, he chose not to become an officer in the Army, despite efforts to persuade him otherwise. Ran left the Army after his mandatory three years and now thinks of leaving the kibbutz his parents helped build.

Ran's reaction is rare among the generation of Israelis who grew up with the occupation. They generally believe that Israel's presence in the territories and control over the Palestinians is a fact of life, not something that is cause for anguish. For many of this generation, the anguish will come if and when they must make the choice to relinquish the territories in exchange for peace.

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