“Hanna Siniora, editor-in-chief of the East Jerusalem daily Al Fajr…was questioned for five hours about his recent call for Palestinians to boycott Israeli cigarettes and soft drinks—which gained little support—and released on a $1,300 bond.”

—Jonathan C. Randal,
The Washington Post, January 15

A civilized society cannot reasonably be asked to grant the ruled a sovereign right to throw rocks at their rulers. But can a society long feel assured of its civility once it has taken to arresting men who did no worse than urge the ruled not to buy the coffin nails and bellywashers sold them by their rulers?

Israel need not apologize if it is no longer as concerned to be a light unto the nations as of old. Its problem is distinctly more intimate: it is ceasing to be a light unto itself. Harsh treatment of violent extremists is repression, which is unattractive but has some show of excuse. Harsh treatment of moderates is oppression, which is far more unattractive and without a plausible excuse.

Hanna Siniora has been a moderate. Israel now thinks him a danger to the peace. It did not think him such five years ago. Something has changed. Perhaps it is Israel that has been changed in the course of the conduct that has finally carried it to the logical, which is almost always the wrong, conclusion that every conspicuous Palestinian who objects, however peaceably, to twenty-one years of occupation is a danger.

Or perhaps Hanna Siniora has changed and arrived at a sympathy with extremism that he could not have imagined before now. In that case what could have changed him except the events of two decades when all available options belonged exclusively to the conquerors?

Israel did not take over the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 with the slightest notion of being there in 1988. Now its occupation has settled into a condition of at least semipermanence; and the West Bank’s identification as Judea and Samaria, which used to be the slogan of a political sect, has of late emerged as a quasi-official designation. The West Bank, one suspects, is managed now pretty much as it was then, with the difference, all but inevitable for occupations, of the occupier being more morose, more callous, and infinitely more alienated from the occupied.

The Israelis have frozen themselves with their situation and engraved it with every appearance of inalterability. But people are not inalterable; you can put off the process of changing your situation, but you cannot escape the process that this postponement works upon you. There is a look that comes upon a soldier’s face when he frisks an Arab laborer for the 175th time and it is not the look of the human in company he thinks quite as human as himself.

The voice Israel now raises from the isolation of its beleaguerment at the United Nations strikingly defines the difference of what it is becoming from what it used to be. When Israel lurched toward Beirut more than five years ago, Yehuda Blum, its ambassador, spoke for the defense at the UN Security Council. It could be argued that he made too much of his facts; but every one was a fact beyond challenge. That used to be official Israel’s way; its interpretations were open to dispute, but you could count on the truth of every citation.

But who can give rational credence to the words of Israeli ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu when he echoes the sheriffs of our own old South and blames a pervasive rebellion on alien agitators? Conjuring this sort of thing is not quite up to the wild fancies common to Iran and Iraq; but there is enough scent of the rhetorical excess of the Middle East to make the listener wonder whether the Arabs may be on their way to beating the Israelis after all, because they have at least corrupted the Israelis into sometimes talking a language like theirs. (The UN ambassador’s statement seemed rather too much for Defense Minister Rabin, who said, on January 18, “…it started without any instructions from outside.”)

And then there is the coldness of the occupation, an indifference no less to the elementary needs of the Palestinian refugees than to their grievances. There can be found in the racks of the UN press office these days a message from Giorgio Giacomelli, secretary-general of the UN’s Refugee Relief Agency, announcing new emergencies in Gaza and the West Bank. What is called for, Giacomelli said, is “immediate relief: improvements in water quality, sewerage, roads, etc.; housing.”

In the interim, he reported, the occupation force is still paltering with its promise to provide permanent shelter for fourteen families whose houses it had demolished in 1971. Twenty years ago, Israeli troops came to Gaza representing people unique for their generosity and found this tragedy of the hitherto innocent. Whether or not they are themselves required to ease these sufferings, they have a plain duty not to hinder those who are trying to. And yet Giacomelli reported to the UN General Assembly last October that Israel had arrested thirteen of the UN’s refugee relief workers in the previous twelve months. In fairness, Israel also contributed $296,000 worth of supplies to the United Nations Refugee Relief Agency, which is approximately forty cents a head.


To read the Old Testament and come upon the pitch of some prophet’s outrage is now and then to think, “Unhappy is the nation that needs a Jeremiah.” Israel may or may not be an unhappy nation; but it looks very like needing a Jeremiah.

Copyright © 1988 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

February 18, 1988