Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

THE ISRAELI OFFENSIVE AND ISRAELI POLITICS

What did the Israeli government hope to accomplish by its assault in the Occupied Territories? They told us that their tanks and helicopter gunships were meant to stop the suicide bombings in Israel. Can Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his advisors really expect us to believe this? Could every shell and bomb be directed against a known hiding place of the next suicide bombers? If they actually knew where the bombers were, they would send small, secretive hit squads, not massive battlefield armaments. Surely the Israelis know that their policy will only enrage Palestinians and ensure more attacks within Israel.

The Israelis must have some goals in mind.

First, they probably hope to intimidate the Palestinians. Very few Palestinians would dream of building or using a bomb against Israeli civilians. But most are determined to resist the occupation in many other ways. Sharonís policies are meant to break this resistance in all its forms, to demoralize the Palestinians so that they will accept peace on Israelís terms.

Second, the Israelis probably hope to undermine all viable Palestinian leadership groups, including first and foremost the circle around Yassir Arafat. That is surely the result, if not the goal, of Sharonís constant mantra: "Everything is Arafatís fault." A leaderless population is far less able to resist occupation.

Third, the Israelis are creating for the world an image of traditional war on a traditional battlefield, as if two more or less evenly matched armies were fighting it out. This masks the truth that the two sides are outrageously mismatched. An occupying army, one of the worldís finest, is firing at will upon a civilian population scarcely able to defend itself. The claim that Israel is defending its homeland against potential military invasion is ludicrous. But the image of a traditional war seems to justify Israelís massive firepower. After all, in war, anything goes.

Finally, and most importantly, Sharon and his Likud government always have at least one eye, and perhaps both eyes, firmly fixed on Israeli public opinion polls. Likud must satisfy its natural voter base, Israelís hawks. Every show of "toughness" whets their appetite for more of these martial images, so Likud is obliged to offer them more, and the appetite for violence grows.

Likud also wants to woo Israeli moderates. The moderates can be persuaded to support peace negotiations when times are already peaceful. But when there is violence against Jews, they typically join the right-wingers in demanding a more violent response. Likud courts these voters by creating a mood of fear and crisis, then supplying images of Israeli retaliation that keep the center-right coalition happy and voting for Likud. (Of course, when the Labor party is in power, they do much the same, to create a center-left coalition.)

Why are images of Jews firing from tanks and gunships so appealing to a majority of Israeli Jews? A big part of the answer lies in a feelings that go back to the beginnings of Zionism. Leaders of that movement decried the long history of Jewish powerlessness. They said it was shameful and disgraceful, making the Jews "abnormal." The early Zionists dreamed of Jews being able to wield power like any "normal" nation. The horrendous disempowerment of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust amplified this fear of Jewish powerlessness.

Now, any attack upon Jews triggers the same fear. For many Israelis, the only way to ease this fear is to see their own soldiers massively overpowering an enemy. Sharon and other Likud leaders are well aware that these images are the key to their political success.

No Israeli offensive can stop suicide bombings or the Palestinian resistance, which is sure to increase, the more the Israelis attack. The bombings and resistance will end only when the Palestinians are no longer under the heel of an occupying army. Rather, the offensive has everything to do with internal Israeli politics. It is tragic that this crucial piece of the story is ignored in mainstream U.S. media. It is more tragic that Palestinians must die so that a political party can offer TV cameras images to promote its success at the polls.


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