Israel's 50 years of shame

Robert Fisk observes that in all the official commemorations of the Jewish state, the treatment of the Palestinians will remain a taboo subject
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The Independent Online
At the end of Steven Spielberg's awesome Schindler's List, cinema- goers see the Holocaust survivors in present-day Israel. Out of the wickedness of Hitler's Europe has come, for this pitiful few, a happy ending.

Only it wasn't the end of the story. For as Hitler's victims arrived in Palestine - to fight first the British and then the Arabs for a new state called Israel - the Jews of Palestine displaced 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, driving them from their homes and property, slaughtering hundreds in a village called Deir Yassin, whose name has been erased by the Israeli authorities. It is a fair bet that Mr Spielberg will not be making a film about these Palestinians and their tragedy.

Nor will Israel be reminding the world of their plight as it celebrates its 50 years of statehood this year. Instead, we will hear of Israel's struggle to survive decades of Arab hatred and assault, of its battle against Islamic "terrorism" - which includes any Arab who fights against occupation - and of its democratic ideals and culture; all this as its prime minister steadily and deliberately dismantles the "peace process" supposed to end what Yitzhak Rabin called "a hundred years of blood".

The birth of Israel was supported by millions of Europeans and Americans who felt a personal sense of guilt over the destruction of European Jewry. As millions of refugees trekked across the broken lands of post- war Europe, the dispossession of 750,000 Arabs was not going to bother the world's conscience. It helped us to avoid answering the terrible question: why was Hitler permitted to exterminate the Jews of Europe? And in a world that had experienced six years of human mass insanity, there was something deeply inspiring in the image of a risen people creating a new land, a people, moreover, who espoused the ideals of democracy, liberalism and Western culture.

And this is what the world will be asked to celebrate this year: an Israel that created a democracy amid a sea of Arab dictatorships, an Israel which successfully fought three battles - four if you include the deceit of Suez - for its survival. Forgotten will be the Palestinians and the 50th anniversary of what they call their "Catastrophe".

They should have accepted the UN partition of Palestine, the Israelis say. True, agree many Arabs today. They fled because they were told by the Arab armies to leave in 1948, the Israelis claimed - untrue, the courageous Israeli historian, Benny Morris, has since proved. In reality, the Palestinian Arabs fled because they were - with good reason - terrified for their lives. And they remain today - a total, with their children and grandchildren, of well over 3 million - a permanent reminder that Israel was built not just on the dreams of Zionism and the Balfour declaration and the sympathy of the West for the victims of Hitler's evil, but on the lands of dispossessed Palestinian Arabs.

It was this dispossession which led, ultimately, to all those wars. In 1948, Israel took more than its share of Palestine. In 1967, in a war that Nasser obligingly provoked, the Israelis took the West Bank and Gaza and Golan and Sinai. In 1973, in a war with fewer excuses, the Israelis lost and re-took part of Sinai, did the same to Golan, held the West Bank and, within five years, moved into 10 per cent of Lebanon as well. In the West - and with the help of Israel's friends - Arabs were meanwhile vilified as uncivilised, undemocratic and anti-Western, cartooned as hook- nosed, greedy and debauched - much as the Nazis had portrayed the innocent Jews of Europe in the 1930s.

Another historic turning point that will not be mentioned in this year's celebrations will be Israel's defeat in the 1982-85 Lebanon war - when its supposedly elite army watched as its Lebanese allies massacred up to 2,000 Palestinians - and then retreated before a rag-tag militia alliance of Iranian-funded Islamists. The Lebanon debacle gave inspiration to the Palestinian intifada uprising which ultimately propelled Rabin and Shimon Peres towards a peace agreement with their exhausted and bankrupt enemies: Yasser Arafat and King Hussain of Jordan.

And all the while, Israel - with help from its propagandists abroad, its immensely powerful lobby in the United States, an annual gift of $1.8bn from American taxpayers and the pathetic obeisance of journalists (too frightened to criticise Israel for fear of being accused of anti- semitism) - maintained the moral high ground as well as military strength. When the Arabs struck at Israel, they were terrorists. When Israelis struck they were commandos, secret agents or - at worst - "extremists".

The Palestinians, of course, have for 50 years been suffering the cancer of the Arab world, living amid the corruption and dictatorship and secret policemen of the Arab regimes whom the old Soviet Union and then the West largely supported. And across the border in Israel, in the land that was taken from them, the Palestinians could see a nation which created a functioning democracy for its own citizens, a comparatively free press, a singleness of mind and unity of purpose that the Arabs could never match. And it is this which liberal Israelis - fast becoming a minority in their land - will be hoping to celebrate this year.

But if the cancer of the Arab world is corruption, the sickness of Israel remains expansion, the desire to enlarge the Israeli state at the expense of its neighbours. David Ben-Gurion himself maintained in 1948 that his new state had only been founded in "a portion of the land of Israel". The 1967 victory allowed Israel to build Jewish settlements across the West Bank and Gaza. Rabin boosted settlement building before making peace with the PLO and signing his own death warrant in the process. Now Mr Netanyahu - far from withdrawing - is building yet more Jewish settlements on Arab land.

Partly for this reason, Mr Arafat's poisoned agreement with Israel is slowly destroying him. The Palestinian diaspora outside the occupied territories have long ago given up hope. King Hussain's "peace" has brought him the opprobrium of his own people - not least when Mr Netanyahu sent a killer squad to murder a Palestinian militant in Amman last year.

And so, to the despair of Israel's friends and the delight of its enemies, the Israeli prime minister seems set on leading his country into war on the 50th anniversary of its birth.