No more than a month ago I sat with a
friend drinking coffee at the Hillel Café in Jerusalem.
Today it is a shattered edifice, with blood stains on the
floor. Indeed, this was the first thought that crossed my
mind after hearing the news about the horrific suicide attack
that left another 7 Israelis dead and 45 wounded. "I
could have been there," I said to myself.
It is a frightening thought, one that has crossed the mind
of many an Israeli, particularly since the eruption of the
second Intifada in September 2000 -- a period in which 244
suicide attacks have been carried out. Just as disturbing,
though, is the thought that this bloody reality has been accepted
by the Israeli public as part of their daily routine; so much
so that the same people who are terrified to leave their homes
now consider Israel's gory mode of existence as their karma,
as if the political realm were in some odd way predetermined.
But politics, as the great Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt
repeatedly stated, is the realm of freedom, where humans actually
have the opportunity to begin something new through speech
and deed. Even "in the epochs of petrifaction and foreordained
doom," she claimed, the faculty of freedom, "which
animates and inspires all human activities and is the hidden
source of production of all great and beautiful things"
usually remains intact.
What Israelis and Palestinians have been witnessing in the
past few weeks is a concerted effort to destroy the road that
might have led the two peoples out of a foreordained doom
and into a new beginning. Notwithstanding the impression some
people might have, this myopic effort has been led by Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon, not only by Hamas. His strategy is
one of preemptive strikes.
Approximately two months ago, the different Palestinians
factions decided to implement a houdna (ceasefire in Arabic)
and to stop attacking Israeli targets. Despite the fact that
numerous militant groups operate without a central command
in the Occupied Territories, for almost a month and a half
the houdna managed to hold up. While one assault was perpetrated
in the West Bank by a small splinter group, the violence had
subsided and it appeared as if serious negotiations would
Then, suddenly, as if out of the blue, the Israeli military
invaded Askar refugee camp, killing four Palestinians, including
two members of Izzeddin Al-Qassam, Hamas' military wing. The
operation was a preemptive strike, the Israeli spokesman explained.
The Palestinians decided not to retaliate.
Less than a week later, on August 14, Israeli troops entered
Hebron and killed a member of the Islamic Jihad. Another preemptive
attack. Only this time the Palestinians did respond, and on
August 19 a suicide bomber exploded inside a public bus. Israel,
in turn, used its forces to carry out a series of extra-judicial
executions, and now a month after the preemptive assault on
Askar camp, the streets between the Jordan Valley and the
Mediterranean Sea are once again covered with blood.
The logic of preemptive strikes, however, does not merely
inform Sharon's policy of extra-judicial executions; it is
the logic that has informed his actions throughout his military
and political careers.
Three examples will have to suffice: the Jewish settlements,
the Lebanon War, and the separation wall.
Sharon is considered by many to be the father of Israel's
unruly settlement project. He earned this title while serving
as Minister of Agriculture during Menachem Begin's first government.
Sharon had hoped to become Defense Minister and was disappointed
when Ezer Weizmann received the appointment, but minor details
of this kind have never stopped him from pursuing his goals.
Weizmann opposed the settlement project and opined that
Israel should withdraw from the territories within the framework
of a peace accord. Sharon, on the other hand, believes in
the Greater Israel, and, in order to preempt the possibility
of any future agreement based on land for peace, he initiated,
as the chair of the government's Settlement Committee, a massive
settlement enterprise. Whereas Israel built 20 settlements
between 1967 and 1976, within less than four years Sharon
managed to build close to 50 new settlements, totally changing
the landscape of the West Bank.
In August 1981, Sharon became Defense Minister. Four years
earlier, he had told an Israeli reporter that "the Arab
states are swiftly preparing for war, and we are sitting on
a barrel of explosives wasting our time on nonsense. The Arabs,"
he continued, "will launch a war in the summer or the
fall." The war did not come, at least not until Sharon
The story of how Sharon led Israel into Lebanon, hoping
to establish a puppet government in order to preempt attacks
from the north, is by now well known. When Israel finally
withdrew its forces 20 years later, thousands of civilians
and soldiers lay buried in the ground, hundreds of thousands
of people had been displaced, and much of Lebanon was in ruin,
but Sharon held on to the logic of the preemptive strike.
Not unlike the settlement project, Lebanon War, and extra-judicial
executions, the separation wall should also be conceived as
a preemptive attack. While Sharon declares that the wall is
being built solely for security reasons, he neglects to say
that it is not being erected on the 1967 borders, and is actually
being used as an extremely effective mechanism to expropriate
Palestinian land and create facts on the ground so as to preempt
any future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Its effect is not less violent than the assassinations and
suicide bombings. Already in this early stage, the wall has
infringed on the rights of more than 210,000 Palestinians,
some of whom now live in ghettos between the wall and Israel.
The crux of the matter is that Sharon's preemptive logic
undercuts all form of dialogue and negotiations. Its rule
of thumb is violence, and then more violence, whether it manifests
itself as a military attack or as an aggressive act of dispossession.
So while it may seem that the bloody routine is in some way
preordained, it is actually Sharon's preemptive zeal alongside
Hamas' and Islamic Jihad's fundamentalism that has clouded
the horizon and concealed, as Arendt might have said, the
possibility for a better future.