How I became a target for Israel’s ‘Jewish terrorists’

Peace campaigner attacked with a pipe bomb tells Donald Macintyre why right-wing extremism should be feared

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Quique Kierszenbaum

Professor Zeev Sternhell is a Holocaust survivor and a combat veteran of Israel’s wars

Zeev Sternhell is careful about his choice of words when he unhesitatingly calls the pipe bomb which exploded outside his front door last week “an act of Jewish terrorism.”

As a Holocaust survivor orphaned by the age of seven and a combat veteran of Israel’s wars, Professor Sternhell, 73, who was lucky to have only been injured in the leg by flying shrapnel from the bomb, is “horrified” not for himself but because it might have hit his wife, daughter his grandchildren on one of their sleepovers, or their neighbours. “It was a terror act because they couldn’t know who would have been hit.”

Given that, as he wryly puts it, he has no known enemies in the “criminal underworld”, the reason for what police think was attempted murder isn’t hard to find. As a veteran member of Peace Now, and vigorous opponent of the occupation since the late 1970s, the Hebrew University scholar, Israel Prize laureate and internationally-known authority on the roots of fascism apparently became the target of the highest-profile attack inside Israel by far right-wing Jewish extremists since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

But if the attack was meant to silence one of the country’s foremost public intellectuals, it hasn’t worked. For a start he does not rule out a connection with strong signs of increasing violence by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. In recent weeks, extremist settlers have rioted, blocked roads, burned Palestinian orchards and in one case, armed settlers have attacked a village.

Lamenting that the army and the police are “either unwilling or unable or probably both” to enforce the law against attacks on Palestinians in a West Bank where the settlers enjoy a kind of “self rule”, he says the extremists believe that “people like me who think that they are the real danger to Zionism, to the future of the Israeli state, should be neutralised and should be punished… So I think there is a link between the brutality and violence that is the reality of everyday life in the West Bank and this attack.”

Of the 250,000 West Bank settlers he estimates that only some 40,000 to 50,000 are truly ideological and of these only “a few thousand are ready to use force.” He pinpoints the new generation of “hilltop youth” who, in a pattern familiar from “revolutionary movements”, regard their aging leadership as “traitors” for being willing to discuss with the government even the possibility of voluntary evacuation from a few outposts.

Activists who are “deeply convinced that the future of the Jewish people depends on them,” therefore regard violence as legitimate and believe that “God is with us, and God will see to it that we will get rid of the Palestinians. That is more or less their philosophy.”

For Professor Sternhell, the answer is the early evacuation of “at least 95 per cent of the West Bank” and for the authorities to prepare to bring the settlers across back across the 1967 border and into Israel. But here there is a paradox. On the one hand, he believes that the violence may stem “from a sense of urgency” on the extreme right because “they have reached the conclusion that the Israeli political elite is now much closer to what I think than to their ideas”.

This conclusion was reinforced by the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who this week finally acknowledged something that Professor Sternhell has been arguing for 30 years – that almost all the West Bank will have to be handed back if there is to be peace. But while he thinks ideologically the left may have won a “battle” – though not the “war” – he is highly conscious that after relentless settlement growth over 40 years, bringing the settlers “home” in practice will be “a very tough job” and questions whether the Israeli establishment has “the moral energy and leadership capability” to carry it through.

“The Israeli political elite is very weak… the fact is that the people in power are not ready for the confrontation with the settlers… I am not optimistic. I don’t see who is able in the coming years to start confronting the question seriously.”

Which is why he believes that the only hope is a “strong intervention by the international community – the US and EU”. He adds: “I think that the British, French the Germans should start thinking seriously about moving their arses and trying to do something more than what Tony Blair is doing.”

Professor Sternhell may be stretching Mr Blair’s mandate as Middle East envoy by declaring that he is “in charge of negotiations”. But he is in deadly earnest when he considers: “I personally have reached the conclusion we cannot do it on our own, due to the weaknesses of the Israeli democracy, the weakness of the Palestinian Authority.”

Saying that the “step by step” approach of Oslo was a “total mistake”, he insists: “All the issues need to be dealt with together and everyone with an interest in the Middle East must participate I don’t see how things can move otherwise.”

Asked how he feels, as a Jew with his classic Israeli biography, to have had his home attacked by Jews, Professor Sternhell muses that: “Everybody is able to do anything. Being Jewish or not being Jewish does not immunize you from all the evils that can exist in history and politics.”

Just as it makes him “very, very unhappy” to see Sudanese refugees arriving in Israel from Egypt being treated not so differently from how “Jews were treated in Europe 70 years ago”, so he is also mortified to see “Jews as occupiers of the West Bank” – or the treatment by Israeli soldiers of Palestinians – not because the soldiers want it but because of a “horrible” situation.

And he says: “What I want to do is to change the situation.”

The thoughts of Zeev Sternhell: An Israeli scholar’s verdict

On Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy on behalf ofthe US, the EU, the UN and Russia, the so-called Quartet:

“Tony Blair is transforming himself from a ten-year successful Prime Minister into a ridiculous figure, a clown. He is now in charge of negotiations, so what is he doing exactly. Where is he?”

On Ehud Olmert, outgoing Prime Minister of Israel and a recent convert to the idea of handing back “almost all” of the West Bank:

“He’s just 30 years late. It’s unbelievable. This is what [we on the left] have been saying for 30 years.”

On Ehud Barak, Israeli Defence Minister:

“It’s funny – well, not funny buttragic – to see a man like Ehud Barak, a real war hero, someone who was scared of nothing, who didn’t know what it meant to be scared. [Yet] politically, a confrontation with the settlers is beyond his capacity. It’s very sad.”

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