The Cossacks were settlers in Southern Russia who were granted land by the Czars in return for their obligation to defend the border. They were known as fierce and ruthless fighters, and in Jewish memory they became notorious as the perpetrators of the most abominable pogroms.
Therefore, there is a lot of bitter irony in the old Jewish adage "a robbed Cossack". It describes a Cossack who not only causes havoc, murders, rapes and plunders, but also accuses his victims of robbing him. The perpetrator pretends to be the victim, the robber pretends to be robbed.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a kind of championship fight between two grand masters of victimization.
Israel is gradually becoming a "robbed Cossack". An alien on Mars, following Israeli broadcasts on inter-stellar satellite, would get the impression that it is the Palestinians who are maintaining a cruel occupation of Israel and that Palestinian soldiers are roaming the Israeli towns.
This is explained by the competition for the international media. Each side to the conflict paints itself as the victim in order to gain the support of world public opinion, which always tends towards the weak. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a kind of championship fight between two grand masters of victimization.
But the phenomenon is more profound. For generations the Jews were persecuted in many countries and developed the consciousness of victims. It could almost been said that most of the Jewish culture created during the last two or three centuries revolves around this axis. The Holocaust, of course, strengthened this central motif even further.
The Zionist enterprise in this country should have changed this pattern. After all, the Zionist penetration drove the Palestinians from their lands and turned most of them into refugees. In this historic struggle, the Palestinians lost: lands, villages, great parts of the country. This process is still going on daily.
Now the Palestinians have come and demanded for themselves the victim's crown of thorns. Nothing offends the Israelis more. It seems to us the height of Chutzpah, an attack on the core of our national consciousness. Therefore we react with fury. We describe the intifada as a malicious attack on our existence. We have brought back from the junk-yard the slogans of past generations: the Arabs want to throw us into the sea, they want to take Haifa and Jaffa from us. Forgotten is the fact that we have the mightiest army in the region, that Israel within the Green Line possesses 78% of the country, that we now control the rest of the country (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) too, that we enjoy a vast superiority in almost all fields. Forgotten is the fact that the Palestinians demand for themselves a mere 22% of the country and that the intifada is an uprising against an occupation that has been going on with increasing brutality for 34 years already.
Never mind! We are the victims, and we shall bash the head of anyone who tries to rob us of this title.
And if Israel is the robbed Cossack par excellence, then the settlers even more so.
True, they are in a very difficult situation. They are being attacked daily, their families live in constant danger, they are being killed and wounded. Nobody can envy them.
But it cannot be forgotten that they put themselves into this situation, with open eyes and deliberate forethought. Even those who dreamed only about "quality of life" on stolen land and of amusing themselves in swimming pools filled with stolen water cannot complain about the rude awakening. Not to mention the hard core of the settlement movement, the Gush Emunim fanatics and their ilk.
They settled in the midst of a dense Palestinian population, on land stolen from the people who became their neighbors. After settling, they expanded, taking over more and more lands, quarreling with the nearby villagers, talking highly of "co-existence" while treating the "locals" with arrogance and contempt. Every Palestinian on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, who woke in the morning and looked through the window saw that the red roofs of the adjacent settlement had come even closer to his yard.
What did they think, these settlers? What did their leaders and rabbis think? How did they intend to survive in the middle of a population whose hatred became stronger from day to day? Well, it's no secret: they hoped that this population would disappear. Their aim was not only to settle the whole of Eretz Israel, but also to have an Eretz Israel empty of Goyim. The "dream" of Rabbi Ovadia Joseph, to which he confessed some days ago, of a country between the sea and the Jordan in which there was not a single non-Jew, is not new for them. It had been proclaimed in the past by the Judea-and-Samaria rabbis, who inspired the Jewish underground that aimed at blowing up the Dome of the Rock, who sang the praises of the mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein in public and of the Rabin-murderer Yigal Amir in secret.
Now the settlers are hanging by the thread of the bypass roads and cry bloody murder. The army must defend them all, a soldier every meter. They do not send their children back to Israel, because the danger to the children is a trump card in their game. Their great hope is that the present confrontation will escalate to such monstrous proportions that it will be possible to complete in 2001 or 2002 the work that was begun in 1948 and continued in 1967. The Palestinians will be removed from the country, their villages eradicated and in their stead settlements will cover all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Many of them believe that this hope is near fulfillment.
The settlers argue that "the state" sent them there. Their opponents say the opposite is true, that they held all the government by their throats and compelled them to endorse their settlements, sometimes before and sometimes after they were set up.
Both sides are right. The settlers fulfil a hidden dream in the Zionist unconscious, and therefore both Labor and Likud governments supported and promoted them. The army has gradually become a militia in the service of the settlers. Many generals and colonels are settlers in their minds, if not with their bodies. With the advent of Sharon, a symbiosis of the government, the senior officers and the settlers has come into being, and all of them stand and shout: "Help!! They are killing us!" And with the same breath: "Attack!!!"
It's not really the settlers' problem, but the problem of the state. Beyond all the gibberish about Mitchell, Tenet and the other nonsense, we face a simple and stark choice between the evacuation of millions of Palestinians and the evacuation of 200,000 settlers (40,000 families at most). The first option will cause an eternal war against the whole Arab and Muslim world, an,d, in the end, the destruction of Israel. The other option will cause a profound inner crisis, and, in the end, peace.
We have to choose.
Uri Avnery is a peace activist and former member of the Israeli Knesset.