Israel Has Undermined Itself

Sylvain Cypel

Journalist Sylvain Cypel grew up in a labor Zionist family and served in the Israeli military before becoming disillusioned. In an interview, he speaks about Israel’s unsparing war in Gaza and what it will take to end the occupation.

Fire and smoke erupt after Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 14, 2023. (Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

In The State of Israel vs. the Jews, which was published in France in 2020, journalist Sylvain Cypel argued that then-incoming US president Joe Biden had the opportunity to “change the relationship between the United States and Israel for the first time in a very long time.” Cypel suggested that, by leveraging Israel’s security concerns with Iran and withdrawing diplomatic support from Israel at the United Nations Security Council, Biden could force Israel to end its decades-long occupation of Palestine. Although Cypel described this shift as improbable — especially given Biden’s nomination of “traditional” Antony Blinken to secretary of state — he saw the alternative as catastrophic: “If the extreme right ever comes to power in Israel, the entire Middle East could be dragged into a dizzying round of terrifying conflagrations.”

Two years later, the extreme right came to power in Israel, and the explosions predicted by Cypel soon followed. As of this writing, Israel’s war in Gaza, which many experts have called a genocide, has claimed the lives of more than twenty-seven thousand Palestinians and sparked a series of regional reprisals.

It is surely no comfort to Cypel that his worst predictions have come to pass. Born in France to a Zionist father, he visited Israel after high school, was conscripted into the Israeli military, lived on a communal farm, and enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Following the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Cypel began to draw parallels between the French colonization of Algeria and the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. As Cypel became increasingly anti-Zionist, he was further ostracized from Israeli society, eventually returning to France but continuing to cover the region for Le Monde.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Cypel about Israel’s war and its far right, his predictions of “terrifying conflagrations,” and whether Israel will continue to bleed support among American Jews. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Arvind Dilawar

Israel is often described by critics as an “apartheid state,” invoking white supremacist rule in South Africa, but Jim Crow segregation is much more familiar to people in the United States. How does the Israeli occupation of Palestine compare to segregation in the US South?

Sylvain Cypel

The comparison with white domination in the southern states of the USA was most obvious between 1948 and 1967, after “the Nakba,” Israel’s expulsion of over 85 percent of the Palestinian inhabitants from the territories that in 1949 became those of the State of Israel. At that time, the number of Palestinians remaining in Israel had been reduced to just over 10 percent of the population.

But with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza in June 1967, the demographic relationship between Jews and Palestinians in the territory now controlled by Israel was gradually turned upside down. Now, “between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,” as the saying goes, there are 7.5 million Jews and 7.3 million Palestinians. That’s almost equivalent. From this point of view, we’re not just witnessing a form of apartheid, but also a traditional colonial occupation. There is no “oppressed minority” and no “oppressed majority,” but one people dominated by another.

There are many elements of apartheid in Israel: the fact that, in 2018, Israel’s “fundamental law” enshrined different rights for Jews and non-Jews; the fact that many of Israel’s towns legally prohibit Palestinians from living in them; the fact that different laws apply to Jews and non-Jews in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; the fact that different roads are used by different people. The list goes on and on.

I think, however, that the expression “apartheid,” although useful because it is immediately explicit (I use it myself), is less precise in the Israeli-Palestinian context than “settler colonialism.”

In short, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become primarily about land. This is why, in its recent military operation in Gaza, Israel initially tried to expel the population. It’s also why, in the West Bank, the army and the settlers are doing everything they can to make daily life impossible for the Palestinians. The hope is to create a situation where they can be driven out.

From this point of view, Israeli colonialism is not similar, for example, to French colonialism in Algeria or to the racist system in South Africa. In Algeria, the French monopolized land by enriching themselves with the labor of the indigenous population, as in American slavery. South Africa’s apartheid regime also sought to enrich itself with the labor of the black masses. In Israel, this element also exists, but is marginal. The fundamental idea is to seize the land while expelling its occupants. It’s a form of colonialism that ideally aspires to complete ethnic separation: politically, socially, and territorially.

Arvind Dilawar

What is the Dahiya doctrine and how does it help explain the Israeli siege, bombardment, and invasion of Gaza?

Sylvain Cypel

The Dahiya doctrine comes from Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, when Israel’s air force virtually wiped out Dahiya, a suburb on the outskirts of Beirut inhabited mainly by Shiites. Two years later, Israeli general Gadi Eisenkot made what happened in Dahiya a fundamental norm of Israeli military strategy. In a nutshell, this strategy says that in today’s “asymmetric” wars, between a constituted state and a nonstate enemy generally described as “terrorist,” the “laws of war” adopted in 1949 after World War II are no longer valid. The only way for a state to prevail is to destroy the terrorist enemy’s base, i.e. the society devoted to it. “There is no other option,” said the general in 2008.

This way of thinking is very reminiscent of the standards set by the US administration after 9/11, when the “Global War on Terror” was waged against “enemy combatants” — they were not regular soldiers, so the laws of war did not apply. Similarly, the Dahiya doctrine holds that the laws of war do not apply to the Israeli army against Hamas, since they are composed of combatants who are not soldiers of any state.

General Gadi Eisenkot later became chief of staff. Today, he is a member of [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s war cabinet. The result: Hamas has committed an appalling war crime, so not only is Israel entitled to commit a crime against humanity on a scale a thousand times greater, but “there is no other option.”

Arvind Dilawar

You wrote in your book in 2020 that “if the extreme right ever comes to power in Israel, the entire Middle East could be dragged into a dizzying round of terrifying conflagrations.” Do you feel the ongoing war is the one you predicted? How do you think this will play out?

Sylvain Cypel

No one could have foreseen the attack by Hamas on October 7. But what we could know without a shadow of a doubt was that Netanyahu’s bragging about making the Palestinian cause a thing of the past was foolish. It has been forgotten today, but on his return from the United States, just ten days before October 7, Netanyahu told Israel that the defense pact that was to be forged very soon between Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia would render the possibility of creating a Palestinian state null and void forever.

Today, no one believes that the “Palestinian question” has lapsed. Netanyahu and his successors can continue to dream of wiping the Palestinians off the map, but the Palestinian question is back in the spotlight.

The Israeli far right has played a major role in this development. Since the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations at Camp David in 2000, the far right has steadily gained ground in public opinion and strengthened its political position. It has given the most extremist religious settlers a feeling of total impunity in the West Bank, and their misdeeds are increasing day by day.

The far right holds Netanyahu hostage. Without these people, he would have no majority. They therefore feel freer to act than ever. In the aftermath of October 7, they thought they could pull off another Nakba, a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza. It didn’t work. But they still have the wind in their sails in Israel. If there are unashamed genocide promoters in Israel, that’s where you’ll find them. And they haven’t given up trying to promote their “solutions,” which are the most radical there are.

Could this generate a much wider regional conflict than the one we’re witnessing at the moment? I’m not a soothsayer, but it could. The more the Israeli army is in trouble in Gaza, the greater the risk that the armed conflict will spread. For the moment, I have the feeling that the main regional players — the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Russia — are determined to avoid this. But while we know how wars start, we never know how they evolve.

Arvind Dilawar

In your book, you describe your father as a lifelong Zionist who nevertheless knew “the story wasn’t over.” What do you mean by that, and how broadly do you think it applies to Israelis and their supporters?

Sylvain Cypel

From the age of fifteen until his death, my father was a fervent Zionist. He had seen the demise of Zionism’s opponents within Judaism, the communists and the “Bundists” (supporters of a socialist tendency hostile to both Bolshevism and Zionism). Only Zionism had survived. He therefore considered that he had “won.”

But, deep down, my father was worried. Before his death in 2000, he was distressed by the way Zionism was drifting. He couldn’t get away from it, but he thought that the Israeli leaders were mistaken, that imagining they could “defeat” the Palestinians would lead to catastrophe, and that their identity had to be recognized and their claims understood. In short, he believed that the occupation of the Palestinian territories would inevitably backfire on Israel. He also hated the nationalist right and the extremist Zionist clerics, because he saw in their evolution a race to confinement. Without being able to imagine it, he feared the evolution we have witnessed over the past two decades: the appalling entrenchment of Zionism in Jewish supremacism and anti-Arab racism.

In the United States, it’s young people who are increasingly turning their backs on Israel. In Israel, it’s the youth who are most embracing the fascist and racist theses of the far right! I don’t know how my father would have felt today. But he would have been distressed.

Only outside pressure at the highest level can force Israel to change its attitude and put an end to its colonial domination. In the current international situation, this seems out of reach. On the other hand, I believe that the deterioration of Israel’s image in the world will accelerate. This is already largely the case in the countries of the Global South. And it is also accelerating in public opinion in the United States and Europe.

Arvind Dilawar

How can Americans, and American Jews in particular, stop the war in Gaza and end the occupation of Palestine more broadly?

Sylvain Cypel

I’m only a journalist, and I try not to give practical lessons in how to solve problems. Having said that, it seems to me that the distancing of American Jews from Israel is becoming increasingly entrenched. On the one hand, there’s Jewish Voice for Peace and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, which are openly anti-Zionist. Their numbers are still small, but their influence is growing. The demand for unconditional annual military support for Israel is increasingly contested in the United States, including in the Jewish community.

But another movement is making steady progress: those American Jews who increasingly want to stop being identified with support for Israel’s acts — and even with support for Israel per se. These people seem to be growing in number. They had a strong moment of “returning to the fold” in the first days after October 7. But since then, in view of the appalling acts committed by the Israeli army, criticism of Israel has returned to the fore.

I don’t like the word “irreversible” — you never know — but it seems to me that this process of distancing an increasing proportion of American Jews from Israel is most likely [enduring].

As for the best way for American Jews to stop this war, I think it’s to pressure Joe Biden to stop his shameful unconditional support for Israel’s massacres in Gaza. If Biden were to say tomorrow that he would order an immediate halt to the supply of arms to Israel while this war continues, or better still, while Israeli domination of Palestinians continues, I can assure you that this would change things radically.

I don’t know how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end, but I do know that the main issue today is not whether there will ever be one state or two or a federation, et cetera, but that the occupation of Palestine must end for good. “Down with occupation” seems to me the most unifying idea. As long as the occupation continues, nothing will change.