Palestinian pacification, Franz Kafka, the global arms trade and why the Boycott movement needs to change its strategy – my interview with leading Jewish Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper
Jeff Halper grew up in the 1960s, and as a 60s radical he knew there was “a problem with Israel and the Palestinians”. So deciding to take up his Jewish ‘Right of Return’ in the early 1970s and become an Israeli was hardly the most obvious life choice. “I wanted to go to a place where I could be politically active,” Halper explained as we talked at the Greenbelt Festival in Kettering, England at the end of August. “I wanted to be in a country where I would have a voice”. Activism turns out to be Halper’s defining characteristic.
In the early 1970s Jeff Halper didn’t call himself a Zionist despite his decision to make his home in the Jewish State. Today he’s quite clear where he stands, “I’m an anti-Zionist”.
That “anti-Zionism” has expressed itself in the last 18 years through his work as Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions which he co-founded in 1997. Since 1967 48,488 Palestinian homes and other buildings have been demolished by the Israeli authorities, 450 so far during 2015. This is not an exercise in collective punishment for alleged terrorist activities, but rather the playing out of a policy that makes home building for Palestinians almost impossible in Area C of the West Bank but remarkably straight forward if you are a Jewish Settler. ICAHD has chosen to focus its educational and campaigning work on an issue that makes plain Israel’s strategy for the West Bank.
Not every activist gets to coin a phrase that encapsulates their cause and then enters the lexicon of the conflict. Halper has achieved exactly that with his ‘Matrix of Control’.
“It’s the regime; it’s the laws; it’s the concept of one group dominating –institutionally, and permanently –another group. And we’re “Judaizing”the country. We’re turning Palestine into the land of Israel. It’s a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. The entire Occupied Territory is being run by about 2,000 military orders that make up a corpus of law that isn’t really law!”
Halper’s ‘Matrix’ isn’t hard to spot if you take the trouble to visit the area and speak to both Palestinians and Settlers. As I saw again for myself this summer, the integration of the West Bank into Israel ‘proper’ continues at a pace. The ever expanding Settlements; the major new highways connecting them together and back into Israel; the new light railway. There is nothing temporary about any of this. Permanence is the clear objective.
Meanwhile, the destruction of the Palestinian agricultural economy through Israeli control of water supplies, the route taken by the Separation Wall, and the inability to reliably export produce, has left thousands of Palestinians reliant on the Settlements and Israeli construction projects for employment.
Halper sees all this as the explanation for the lack of resistance and ‘pacification’ of the vast majority of the Palestinian population on the West Bank.
“The Palestinians are so embedded in this, that they can’t resist. That’s the whole concept of the Matrix of Control.”
Having spent years documenting, explaining and campaigning against ‘the Matrix’, Halper’s new book ‘War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification‘ attempts to set the Israel/Palestinian situation in a wider context, one that will, as Halper frames it, answer the question: ‘How Does Israel Get Away With It?’.
His short answer is: the global arms industry.
How else, Halper argues, can you explain why Israel does not receive the wrath of the international community for its actions against the Palestinians.
Typically, Israel’s critics point to America and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington or the influence of right wing Christian fundamentalists to explain the lack of international pressure to resolve the conflict. In Western Europe, we assume it’s guilt over the Holocaust that inhibits criticism by our governments.
But in many of Israel’s key, and emerging, trading relationships none of this applies. There’s no Jewish lobby in India or China, nor is Christian fundamentalist Zionism a political force in Thailand or Colombia. And what explains Saudi Arabia’s willingness to do business with Israel despite its long-standing criticism of the Jewish State?
“It seemed to me there was an elephant in the room that we’re not seeing. And, casting around, I think that it’s the military security connection.”
“You can’t explain why Israel would be close to Saudi Arabia. They’re very close, in all kinds of ways; politically, and militarily; and they co-operate. It seems counter-intuitive if you take normal international relations. There’s nothing in common, and they’d be enemies if you talk about the Arab/Israeli conflict.”
Over the last couple of decades, Israel has become a leading exporter of security, surveillance and military equipment. It’s one of the top ten arms exporters in a global market worth $2.5 trillion a year. Israel’s share of that in 2012 was $7 billion. And Israel, according to Halper’s analysis, has an advantage over some of its commercial rivals – its own real time military laboratory, a testing ground with real life targets.
“You’ve got 4.5 million Palestinians that you can test these weapons and security devices on. And that’s what’s given Israel this cutting edge in the market. So that if you insert that, the whole world looks different. All of a sudden, countries that seemed to be your enemies are your friends. There’s all kinds of interests that come out.”
For Halper, Israel has succeeded in ‘globalising Palestine’ but in a very different way than the Palestinians had hoped for. And Israel doesn’t mind who it trades with.
“Israel is very amoral. So they’re willing to deal with anybody, sell anything to anybody; they don’t care about the context. Israel’s very involved in Southern Sudan, in the civil war. In Equatorial Guinea, Israel will help you pacify your own people. So it works from the biggest hegemons to the littlest ones. It’s become the go-to place for that kind of control.”
Halper’s research also shows how arms deals then open up trading relationships in all sorts of other areas, from mobile phones to pharmaceuticals.
But if the global arms industry is the ‘big picture’ that explains Israel’s immunity to serious criticism and sanction, what hope does the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign have? Why bother, surely it doesn’t have a hope of making any difference?
“BDS is not going to hurt Israel economically; I mean, that’s not the point of it. Caterpillar’s not going to fold because there’s a boycott campaign against it, or divestment. But there’s also a moral level for this.
“Companies are starting to really not reinvest in Israel, or pull their business out. Veolia just pulled out of Israel. And you simply create a moral climate among the people, with changes of public opinion, that makes it very hard for businesses, corporations, and eventually governments, to do business as usual. So from that point of view, BDS does have the potential of being a game-changer.”
There are other things that need to happen if the boycott campaign is to be the “game-changer” Halper believes it could be. He offers a criticism of BDS that’s expressed by both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps. BDS fails to be clear about the political outcome that will be required for its goals to be achieved.
It’s a political agnosticism that Halper believes will ultimately hold back the campaign and leave it ill prepared to take advantage of changes in the situation such as the potential collapse of the Palestinian Authority. For Halper, only a single bi-national state will go anywhere near to addressing the fundamental issues of justice and civil rights. It’s a position he’s reached with some reluctance as neither side gets the national self-determination they desire.
“The two-state solution was far from being fair and equitable, but it would have given –in a way –self-determination to both groups. I supported it for many years. I’m not opposed to the two-state solution. That’s not the issue. The issue is, it’s gone. Whether it’s good, or bad, or whether both sides would want it or whatever; the reality is that Israel deliberately and systematically ended it. You have such a mass of Israelis living in the Occupied Territory; like I said, the whole country has been reconfigured; there is no more West Bank! It is Judea and Samaria, with Palestinians in little, tiny little pockets; there is no more East Jerusalem! It’s gone. There are more Israelis living in the Palestinian side of the city than there are Palestinians. And with the highway systems and everything else, there is, today, one state. It exists.”
Halper believes it is time to “bite that bullet”.
“If there’s another option that I’m missing, tell me! It seems to me, if the two-state solution has gone, there’s two options; one is apartheid, and one is a single democratic state. Give me another option!”
The critical factor for Halper is that ‘Activists’ have to play their part and be the ‘agents of change’.
Halper’s parting words to me are a challenge to all those who see themselves in solidarity with the Palestinian cause or who want a way out of the Jewish cul-de-sac of Zionism.
“Without agency –without us formulating a just and workable solution, and then pushing it strategically, we’re not going to be able to get that just peace implemented.”
Jeff Halper’s new book is published by Pluto Press