Israel and the Empire

From the archive (legacy material)

Interview with Jeff Halper by John Elmer | | 20 September 2003

Jon Elmer, You use the term ‘matrix of control’ to describe the Israeli occupation. Can you explain exactly what that is and how it functions?
Jeff Halper: The Israel-Palestine conflict is often framed in terms of territory: ending the occupation, a viable Palestinian state, and what that means in terms of territory. But two states and a complete end of the occupation, even in the best scenario, is not really the best solution. The whole Palestinian state would be on only 22% of the country, divided between the West Bank and Gaza. The State of Israel today, within the 1967 borders, represents 78% percent of the country. So even in the ideal situation, if the entire occupation ended and Israel pushed back to 1967 borders, the Palestinian state would be in only 22% of the country. Israel can’t compromise on any more than that – even that is a question mark.
But Israel does want a Palestinian state because it needs to get rid of the three and a half million Palestinians currently living in the Occupied Territories. If it can’t send them out of the country, it at least wants to enclose them in a little Bantustan-type state. And so, the issue is framed in terms of territory, and what gets lost is the issue of control.
The issue is this: will the Palestinians in the end have a state that has potential for economic development, that has real political sovereignty, that has control of its borders, that has control of its resources, like water? Will Palestinians have a state that is a coherent territory that people can move freely within? Is it a real state, even if it’s a small one, or is it really a Bantustan controlled by Israel?
And so, the matrix of control talks about how Israel controls the Palestinians: through incorporating the West Bank into Israel-proper with roads, through connecting electrical systems, water systems, urban systems, and so on. It talks about Israel keeping military control, about Israel keeping control of parts of the country like Jerusalem and parts of West Bank, which in the end will leave the Palestinians with non-viable islands.
The matrix of control talks about the use of planning and law, and administration bureaucracy to control the movements, building, and commercial activity of the Palestinians. In other words, what the matrix of control says is that besides the issue of military control, and besides the issue of territory, Israel exerts a lot of control over Palestine. It controls the water, it controls the borders, it controls Jerusalem, it controls their army, it controls their freedom of movement. And unless we dismantle the matrix of control, we haven’t really done anything. The difference between a real Palestinian state, even if it’s small, and a Bantustan, is the matrix of control.
Now, I don’t think we can dismantle the matrix of control. I think it has gone too far, and that the occupation is permanent. We are in a state of apartheid. But not everybody agrees with me – Uri Avnery doesn’t agree with me, the people who are in favour of a two-state solution still think that we can end the occupation, or that we can roll it back enough that a Palestinian state will emerge. But the danger in being for a Palestinian state is that if you don’t understand the control dimensions, then you are actually agitating for a Bantustan. I mean, Sharon also wants a Palestinian state; he wants a state that is completely controlled by Israel. So if you only look at territory and you don’t look at the issue of control, you end up advocating a Bantustan.
Elmer: Do you see a long-term political plan within Israel? Or is it just reacting?
Halper: Well, Sharon is accused of not having a political plan, and just blindly hitting out against the ‘infrastructure of terror,’ as they call it. But I think there is a very definite political plan – apartheid. Sharon calls this plan cantonization: a Palestinian state on about 42% of the West Bank in three or four islands, all controlled and surrounded by Israel.
The plan involves making the Palestinians submit by getting a weak Palestinian leadership that will sign off on this Bantustan, this cantonization. It involves getting rid of the Palestinian middle class that would oppose it by what we call ‘quiet transfer’ – forcing them out of the country with bad housing, bad education and no economic life, in order to create a very malleable Palestinian mass that would then simply passively accept a Bantustan. Sharon is not saying that explicitly, he is leaving things deliberately vague, but that is where he is going.
Elmer: Would a move toward a one-state solution, as you’e suggested, increase the likelihood of traditional ethnic cleaning? As Sharon has said, there is already a Palestinian state: Jordan.
Halper: It depends on how threatened Israel becomes. It doesn’t need ethnic cleansing at this stage, because Israel is in a situation where it controls the whole country. A Palestinian state is necessary for Israel, because unless you can place the Palestinians into a state of their own, then Israel really does have existential dangers.
There are three and a half million Palestinians in the Territories, and almost a million in Israel, that threaten the Jewish majority. So the only way to keep a Jewish majority is to control the whole country. It is to take the Palestinians, put them into these little islands, and call it a state. That’s what Israel will try to do.
Now, to the degree that this does not work, because, for example, the international community doesn’t accept the Bantustan – as in the case of South Africa – or because of continued Palestinian resistance, or a movement towards one state develops, or the refugees show signs of wanting to return – namely, in a situation where Israel feels demographically threatened, and therefore existentially threatened, it could resort to transfer as a last resort.
Elmer: Commenting on the expulsion option, David Ben-Gurion wrote in the 1930s, “What is inconceivable in normal times is possible in revolutionary times; and if at this time the opportunity is missed and what is possible in such great hours is not carried out – a whole world is lost.”
Are the assassinations that Israel is conducting right now an attempt to create the pretext for ‘revolutionary times,’ in much the same way that they used the bombing raids on Southern Lebanon in 1981 and early 1982 to provoke the inevitable retaliation that provided the pretext for the war on Lebanon in 1982?
Halper: The assassinations are partly an attempt to destroy a real Palestinian leadership. Israel needs a quisling, a collaborator-type leader – like in South Africa in the Bantustans – in order to make its apartheid plan work. I asked a Palestinian fellow the other day, “look, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] didn’t work, Abu Ala [Ahmed Qureia] doesn’t seem to be working, aren’t there any strong Palestinian leaders?” He said, “Israel killed them all.” Like Abu Jihad [Khalil al-Wasir, head of the military wing of the PLO killed in Tunis in 1988], the strong Palestinian leaders were killed by Israel. And now they are threatening Arafat. You eliminate the leaders that could really stand up to you, and you only allow leaders who will sign off on this Bantustan to emerge. I think it’s a part of Israel’s strategy. Israel thinks that if it can defeat the Palestinians militarily, it can make them submit. It has to break the Palestinians militarily.
Elmer: Is there a military solution?
Halper: Sharon believes very much that there is a military solution. The Israeli government and the army are working on the assumption that this is a win-lose situation: we can win and they can lose. As a matter of fact IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’lon told Yedioth Ahronoth a couple months ago that we won, and now we’re just mopping up. Assassination is part of the war to defeat the Palestinians, and it is also part of the political process of eliminating leaders who won’t agree to the Bantustan option.
Elmer: Can you describe what you have called the ‘paradigm panic’ within Israeli society – how Rabin shaking hands with Arafat in Oslo disturbed the ‘Arabs are our enemy’ paradigm?
Halper: From the 1920s until 1993, every generation of Israelis were educated into the notion that ‘Arabs are our enemy. We’re the good guys; they are the bad guys, they are terrorists, they just want to kill us, they just want us to ‘throw us in the sea’ – there is no political solution.’ After Oslo there starts to be a little bit of a change.
In Oslo the whole world turned around. On every Israeli television, there it was, Yitzhak Rabin, a soldier, shaking hands with Yasser Arafat. Maybe there will be a Palestinian state, maybe no occupation, maybe no refugee problem… And you have a paradigm panic. For example, there was a popular bumper sticker in Israel after Oslo saying, ‘This is a nightmare peace.’ But in 1994 and 1995, there was a small window where it looked like the old paradigm might be changing, but it was closed down again with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996.
The Hamas bus bombings in 1996 did enough to give Netanyahu that fraction of a percentage point electoral advantage in which he beat Peres in the election – and that of course led to the collapse of the whole Oslo process. With Netanyahu, you have a return to the old paradigm, and Israelis are even further into that mindset today.
Elmer: Norman Finkelstein has commented that the Israelis have always bided their time, waiting for a ‘miracle.’ He cites several examples: i) The Balfour Declaration of 1917, which nobody could have predicted, ii) The USSR and USA agreeing in the United Nations in 1947 on the founding of a Jewish State, iii) during a serious economic crisis in the 1960s came the ‘miracle’ of the June ’67 war, and iv) the ‘miracle’ of the immigration of one million Soviet Jews, right at the time that the ‘demographic bomb’ as at its most threatening. Can you comment on this?
Halper: It’s true, we’re waiting, but waiting from a position of power. In all these instances, even though we had problems, we were still the strong party. Today we are also waiting, because Israelis don’t believe there is any solution. And Israelis are also very disenfranchised; we have a system of government here that is really a rule by political parties. You vote for parties, you don’t vote for candidates in Israel, so there is a huge distance between the parties and the people. No political party in the history of Israel has ever gotten a majority in the Knesset, so there has always had to be coalition governments, with partners that your own voters wouldn’t necessarily agree to.
As Avi Shlaim [pointed out] in the Iron Wall, when Nasser approached Ben-Gurion in 1954 with a famous negotiation, Ben-Gurion turned him down. He said that the Arabs will always make peace with us, because we are strong. The Arabs will always sue for peace, so we can’t do it too early. First, lets get everything we want. So it is not a passive waiting. You create a situation where you pick your opportunities, and you are ready to spring.
The June ’67 war was a miracle in a sense – it was unpredictable. On the other hand, when it happened, Israel was right there ready and knew exactly what to do. Within two weeks you had the Dayan Plan [settling Jews in densely populated Arab areas, ie Hebron], Alon Plan [establishing settlements as territorial buffers in strategic areas] and Israel had already taken half of the West Bank.
Israelis today say that there is no solution, but we have American support, European support, we’re strong militarily, so something is going to give, at some point, in someway. And when it does, we are primed to take advantage of it. For now, we can wait.
Elmer: Noam Chomsky has said that Israel is essentially an offshore American base. What strategic role does Israel play in the American empire, and what does that mean for activism within the United States, in terms of ending the occupation? Does it make activism in the United States just as important, or more important than in Israel, or in even in Palestine?
Halper: I don’t completely agree with Chomsky – I think he underestimates the proactiveness of Israel, and how Israel manipulates the United States. In a way, if you did a rational analysis, you would say that [America’s support of Israel] is counter-productive for the United States. It is messing up the whole Muslim world, it is messing up oil, and now there is occupation of Iraq and its comparison to here. The alliance of America and Israel made sense in the Cold War – we used to have a joke within Israel that we were America’s largest aircraft carrier. Maybe then it made sense, but today?
The key that everyone is missing, though Chomsky has picked up on it because this is what he studies, is that Israel has located itself very strategically right in the centre of the global arms industry. Israel’s sophisticated military hardware and military software are very important to weapons development in the United States. Israel has also become the main subcontractor of American arms. Just last year, Israel signed a contract to train and equip the Chinese army. It signed another multi-billion dollar contract to train and equip the Indian army. What is it equipping them with? It is equipping them with American weapons.
Israel is very important, because on the one hand it is a very sophisticated, high-tech, arms developer and dealer. But on the other hand, there are no ethical or moral constraints: there is no Congress, there are no human rights concerns, there are no laws against taking bribes – the Israeli government can do anything it wants to. So you have very sophisticated rogue state – not a Libyan rogue state, but a high tech, military-expert rogue state. Now that is tremendously useful, both for Europe and for the United States.
For example, there are American Congressional constraints on selling arms to China because of China’s human rights problems. So what Israel does is it tinkers with American arms just enough that they can be considered Israeli arms, and in that way bypasses Congress.
For the most part, Israel is the subcontractor for American arms to the ‘Third World.’ There is no terrible regime – Columbia, Guatemala, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile during the time of the colonels, Burma, Taiwan, Zaire, Liberia, Congo, Sierra Leone – there is not one that does not have a major military connection to Israel. Israeli arms dealers are there [acting as] mercenaries – the guy behind Noriega was Michael Harari, an Israeli, who got out of Panama. Israeli mercenaries in Sierra Leone go around the UN boycotts of what are called blood diamonds, same in Angola. Israel was very involved in South Africa, of course, during the apartheid regime. Now Israel is developing missile systems with England, developing a new jet aircraft for Holland, and it just bought three sophisticated submarines from Germany. So Israel is playing with the big boys.
Israeli arms dealers are at home, they’re like fish in water in the rough and tumble countries that eat Americans alive: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, Indonesia, these countries where Americans just cannot operate, partly because of business practices, and partly because they have [Congressional] constraints and laws.
So this is the missing piece. If you read the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) website, the main pro-Israel lobby in the US, there’s one piece called ‘Strategic Cooperation.’ The United States and Israel have a formal treaty, a formal alliance, which gives Israel access to almost all of American military technology.
When AIPAC sells Israel to Congress, it doesn’t go to Congressmen and ask them to support Israel because it is Judea Christian, or because it is the ‘only democracy in the Middle East,’ which it also does. It sells it on this basis: ‘You are a member of Congress and it is your responsibility to support Israel, because this is how many industries in your state have business links to Israel, this is how many military research people are sitting in universities in your district, this is how many jobs in your district are dependent on the military and the defence industry,’ and they translate it down to the extent to which your district is dependent on Israel. Therefore, if you are voting against Israel, you are voting against the goose that lays the golden egg.
In most of the districts in the United States, members of Congress have a great dependence on the military. More than half of industrial employment in California is in one way or another connected to defence. Israel is right there, right in the middle of it all. And that is part of its strength.
And then we (the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, for example) come to a member of Congress, we talk about human rights, about occupation, about Palestinians, and he says: ‘Look I know, I read the papers, I’m not dumb, but that is not the basis on which I vote. The basis on which I vote is what is good for my constituents.’
So in terms of activism, when you are thinking of an international campaign, an important part of it must be to expose Israel’s links to the defence industry, the arms industry, Israel’s support of terrible regimes and their violations of human rights, and what that is doing to the world.
If you want to talk about Empire, although it is a tiny country, Israel is a key member of the Empire. If you look at the AIPAC website they’ll say in black and white that the job of Israel is to protect American economic interests in the Middle East. They say we are developing laser weapons from outer space to protect American interests. It’s all upfront. Israel sees itself, and is proud of being a part of the American Empire. Where Israel has a great PR advantage is that it presents itself as a victim. It a country surrounded by a sea of Arabs, and Arabs are all terrorists, and Muslims are fanatics.
Elmer: And playing the victim becomes a political tool, much like anti-Semitism.
Halper: Yes. Anti-Semitism feeds on the idea that Israel is a victim. The Foreign Ministry of Israel invented a new form of anti-Semitism in the last few years called the ‘New anti-Semitism,’ and they then found some professors willing to give it some academic credibility. The New anti-Semitism that is now being spread all over says that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, period. And it has been very effective.
A member of Congress will say, ‘besides voting for my constituents, I also have to get re-elected, and the last thing I need is someone saying I’m an anti-Semite.’ This complex is very powerful, it allows Israel to avoid accountability – you can’t apply international law to Israel, you can’t apply human rights obligations, you can’t hold it responsible for its actions, because we are the victims, we are the weak party, we are just defending ourselves. You can’t criticize us, we are Jews, and you persecuted us. This complex is impenetrable, and this is why Israel can thumb its nose at everybody.
For example, [19 September 2003] the United Nations General Assembly voted 133 to four against Israel’s threat to remove Arafat. The four are Israel, the United States, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. That’s happened for years. It happened back in the ’70s and Israelis said ‘Micronesia? Where is Micronesia?.’
And so they sent a journalist from Yediot Ahronoth to get out a map and go to Micronesia. And he went and he found this little country that doesn’t even have a newspaper, and he said, ‘Why do you support Israel?’ And he was told, ‘100% of our national budget comes from the United States, so we do what the US tells us – there is no issue here.’ So that’s Israel’s great Pacific ally, Micronesia. That’s the point. The entire world can be against the United States on these issues, and it doesn’t care, because that one United States vote more than equals the other 133.
So we need to change the image that Israel is the victim. In other words, we have to reframe things. Israel presents the conflict in a certain way, and if we are just left to rebut them all the time, we will never win. Whoever frames the conflict wins, whoever frames the discussion wins, because conclusions follow from the way you frame things. We need to expose Israel as the regional superpower and [necessary component in the American Empire] that it really is. Its economy is three times larger than Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon put together. Israel is not the little David of the area, but actually the Goliath.
Jeff Halper is an anthropologist and the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, ICAHD.
Jon Elmer is currently reporting from Israel-Palestine and is the editor of
* This interview was conducted in Jerusalem, 20 September 2003.
* Thanks to Valerie Zink for help in editing and transcription.