Fear in a little bit of heaven

Fear, fear. That is the overwhelming theme in Israel, which I visited recently.

It makes a stark contrast with the sheer beauty of the country and its smartly preserved historical sites. Israelis have created a modern, developed state with elegant cities and a thriving economy.

Life seems to continue normally in the big cities, such as Tel Aviv, with its strong restaurant culture and unexpectedly vibrant nightlife.

The kibbutz system is particularly impressive to a former romantic socialist such as myself. Many kibbutzim have become commercial undertakings, but in some the original ideals of communal life, usually in a rural town, and sharing as opposed to the pursuit of private property remain intact.

For a South African it is astonishing to see people giving up all private property, whether cars or houses, and everyone earning the same salary and donating all other income to the kibbutz, which then looks after their family.

In contrast with South Africa, Israelis boast that they have no rural poverty because of the kibbutzim and their focus on agricultural production. The people who live in the kibbutz we visited described their communal life as being “like a little heaven”.

But at the Kibbutz Be’eri, just 7km from the Gaza Strip in the south of Israel, the illusion of an idyllic rural lifestyle was shattered. Residents told us that the settlement had been hit by rockets from the Gaza Strip, fired by their Palestinian neighbours. The fear of an attack was a daily constant.

“But we should live not to allow fear to control us,” said Vivien Silver, part of the kibbutz leadership.

Fear keeps rearing its head in our discussions. It is fear that explains the omnipresence of soldiers in every town, big or small. It is the word that drips from the mouth of every commentator we meet.

Dr Yehudah Paz, of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, which promotes Jewish-Arab cooperation in Beer Sheba, said that the Jewish people “cannot survive if we are not strong, but we cannot survive if we are only strong”.

After speaking to a range of stakeholders, my impression was that most Israelis believe in a powerful military state.

Well-known Israel journalist Nahun Barnea said there was room to discuss how the Israeli military should behave—but insisted that no reasonable person could argue against the need for a military response.

Barnea said force could be used, but not excessively. There was no need, for example, to shell Palestinian areas.

Most citizens of Israel are convinced that they are under siege and that the government must protect them. This, in turn, poses a threat to the democratic values of the country’s founders.

Last week Israeli newspapers published a survey showing that more than 50% of Jewish Israelis think human rights organisations that expose immoral behaviour by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely.

The same number of respondents, polled by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, believed that there is too much freedom of expression in Israel and support the idea of punishing journalists who report news that reflects badly on the defence establishment.

According to the diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz newspaper, Barak Ravid, the implication is that most Israelis are content with the status quo, even if it means they continually live under threat of attack. “They don’t see the need for change,” said Ravid.

He pointed out that when the brother-in-law of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently went on radio to brand Barack Obama as an anti-Semitic president, he was speaking for many in the Israeli establishment who are uncomfortable with Obama’s tough line.

“As a politician running for presidency he had to hide it, but it comes out every time and I think we just have to say it plainly—there is an anti-Semitic president in America,” Hagai Ben-Artzi was quoted as saying.

Of course, there are still dissenting voices. Writing in Haaretz, Gabriel Sheffer, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: “Israel looks at itself in a one-way mirror. It tends to attribute all its troubles to the other side and protest that its hands are clean.

“The one-sided Israel approach that accuses personages, political parties and non-Jewish organisations as anti-Semitic when they criticise Israel ignores Israel’s contribution to these manifestations.

“The one-sidedness is also seen in the crude accusations by Israel and diaspora Jews about US President Barack Obama and his administration [who] are accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and preferring Muslims and Arabs.

But Obama and his administration, in which there are many Jewish appointees, are very far from those positions.”

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the Middle East situation is the general pessimism about the peace process.

The first problem is the deep rift in the Palestinian leadership, with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, refusing to recognise any agreement reached by Fatah, which controls the West Bank.

Israel will not recognise the elected Hamas government, which controls the tiny strip of land in which 1,5-million Palestinians reside, arguing that Hamas is bent on destroying the Israeli state.

The second stumbling block is the Netanyahu government’s continued building and extension of settlements in the occupied territories, including disputed Jerusalem. It is this that underpins worsening relations between the US, which is trying to broker a solution, and the Israeli government.

And although there is general convergence on the need for a two-state solution, Palestinian refugees still want to return to the land from which they fled or were removed, whereas Israelis insist a right of return would be suicidal, as they would end up a minority in the land they consider theirs.

What constantly strikes one as a visitor is the contrast of the normal within the abnormal. Israelis ask me why the world and the United Nations are so obsessed with their tiny state, when there are worse conflicts in Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Underpinning everything is the divisive power of major religions, amply demonstrated when we visited the old city of Jerusalem, which is partitioned into the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters. All three faiths regard it as their Holy City.

After witnessing such a deep gulf between these communities, after hundreds of years of coexistence, it is indeed hard to be optimistic.

Tabane visited Israel as a guest of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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