Summer on a kibbutz as Sharon dragged Israel into a quagmire
Published in The Independent (January 13th, 2014)
In 1982, facing the long summer of a second-year student in the days of student grants, I followed a friend – now my wife – out to Israel. She had fixed a job working on a kibbutz, and I persuaded her to let me join her. Just days before we flew there, however, Israeli tanks thundered across the border into Lebanon; everyone told us we would be mad to holiday in a war zone.
We ignored the advice. Upon arrival, as news reports showed young soldiers flashing victory signs, we were told we were going to a different kibbutz – one mile from the border, just beside the contested Golan Heights. We ended up spending six weeks working in chicken sheds and avocado fields while the apparatus of war sent fear into people living just a few miles away.
Yet in our idyll it was a time of inspiration. I learned about Jewish pioneers who created kibbutzim after surviving the Holocaust, saw a rare example of real socialism in practice, and discussed the history of the nation into the night. Never any mention, of course, that the fields we weeded belonged previously to Palestinian villagers. Instead, there was hard work under a teenage boss who liked to talk about music, drugs and his dreams of joining the special forces – and a fair amount of partying.
Afterwards we travelled the country, the poignant Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem leaving a profound impression. Later, the bus taking us across the Negev desert to Eilat stopped to show us the melon farm of Ariel Sharon, the revered war hero who as defence minister was architect of “Operation Peace for Galilee”. Back in Britain, I wrote my first article for a student newspaper, arguing that the invasion stopped missiles raining down on the kibbutz.
This favorable impression of Israel, informed by that pioneering spirit I witnessed, was reflected in much of the media at the time. Palestinians were portrayed as terrorists – people who hijacked airplanes, murdered athletes and screamed at the cameras. And there was strong sympathy for the survivors of genocide, for all Britain’s contorted role in the creation of the Jewish state.
The death of Sharon, last of the combat generation of leaders who fought in the 1948 war of independence, is a moment to reflect on the evolution of Israel – and indeed of my own views. For that summer I spent in Israel, sometimes chatting to young soldiers nervously heading to war, was the moment the narrative began to change. The invasion turned into Israel’s first indefensible war, so different to previous struggles for survival.
Sharon said the operation would last 48 hours, then extended the objectives. Initially, his popularity soared as Palestinian groups were pushed back. But as Beirut was besieged, homes destroyed, families wiped out and ceasefires ignored, the mission looked nastier and more punitive. Then came the slaughter in Sabra and Shatila; suddenly the larger-than-life war hero became “The Butcher of Beirut”, accused of the most appalling atrocities.
Instead of securing peace, Sharon dragged his people into a quagmire that in some ways they have never escaped. Israel’s invincibility was ended, its image indelibly stained, and its army trapped into ill-fated occupation for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, that misguided invasion, driven by his brutal impetuosity and disdain for consensus, provoked the rise of Islamic militias that make any peace deal far more difficult.
Since then Israel itself has changed fast, not least with the influx of nearly one million Russian Jews following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sharon, son of Russian emigres himself, played a leading role in supporting their arrival. But today that idealistic place I visited in 1982 has all but disappeared; if you doubt this, just look at the current hostility of a nation founded by refugees towards thousands of Africans fleeing repression.
This transformation was seen in the struggles of the kibbutzim movement – although their abandonment of socialism has sparked a recent revival; my kibbutz is now a large hotel offering nature tours. Likewise, my own outlook has evolved, not least after traveling extensively in the Arab world. I still admire aspects of Israel such as its vibrant democracy, its fierce internal debates, its innovative technology sector. Yet these are overshadowed by the short-sighted bombast of its latest leaders, the endless expansion of settlements in occupied territory, and the dreadful cruelty towards Palestinians.
Sharon showed what happens when self-preservation sours into something more poisonous, when noble dreams calcify into nightmarish oppression. Ultimately, he diminished his nation. Yet like other founding fathers, he understood all too well the fragility of Israel and its people. In his final years, he went on the offensive again by clearing thousands of settlers from Gaza and talking about Palestinian statehood; one can only wonder what might have happened had he not suffered that stroke eight years ago.
Israel is not the only country to have changed these past three decades, of course. As the latest peace talks drag on, it looks even more isolated amid the carnage, conflicts and civil wars ripping apart chunks of the Middle East. After he was sacked as defence minister, Sharon wrote in his autobiography that it had always been his belief that Jews and Arabs could live together. More than ever, we must cling to that hope.