'I Would Like to See Gaza Drown in the Sea': Remembering the True Yitzhak Rabin, 20 Years After His Assassination

At an election debate in 1988, Israeli statesman Yitzkak Rabin touted his achievements as the Defense Minister who enacted the “broken bones” policy to suppress the first Palestinian Intifada. 

They also know: 260 Palestinians were killed in the last two months!” he proclaimed to boisterous applause from his audience. “7,000 were wounded!” Rabin bragged. “18,000 were arrested!” 

He continued boastfully, “5,600 are currently in prison. Are these trivial numbers? Are these trivial numbers?”

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing fanatic seeking to scuttle Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians. The past days have been occasion for wistful remembrances of the martyred former Prime Minister by Bill Clinton and a who’s who of the obsolete Israeli “peace camp” that fought for a two state solution.

With his attempts to forge the U.S.-brokered Oslo Accords, Rabin became an icon of liberal Zionism. For the Palestinians, however, he was anything but a man of peace. And, in fact, he never supported an honest two-state solution.

During his campaign in 1992, Rabin warned that a Palestinian state could only be established on the ruins of Israel. Indeed, Rabin was opposed to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, favoring instead a form of limited autonomy in Bantustan-style population centers overseen by dictatorial security forces that coordinated repression with the Israeli army.

“We would like this to be an entity which is less than a state,” Rabin explained in his final speech before the Knesset. He pledged to preserve a “united Jerusalem,” pledging not to cede control of the city’s occupied eastern areas for the establishment of a Palestinian capital. 

Rabin’s aim, and that of his successors, was not co-existence with the Palestinians, but rather a form of hard separation that guarded Israel’s exclusively Jewish character. It was Rabin’s campaign vow in 1992 to “keep Gaza out of Tel Aviv” — to essentially wall off the Gaza Strip — that helped him secure the premiership. Months later, Rabin declared, “I would like to see Gaza drown in the sea.” 

The Oslo era of peace processing may be extinguished, but many of the Rabin’s central strategic ambitions have been fulfilled. Thanks to the siege of Gaza and the construction of a vast concrete wall severing the occupied West Bank from Jerusalem, his vision of hard separation has become a reality. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas are governing in the key Palestinian population centers, embracing a form of limited autonomy beneath Israeli occupation. And as the conditions of basic life in Gaza deteriorate to catastrophic levels, some of the coastal enclave’s most desperate residents are literally drowning in the sea. 

Now that Israel has fallen under the sway of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a bitter rival of Rabin who has vowed to live by the sword in an endless clash of civilizations, liberal Zionists are descending into despair. Their anguish stems not only from their delusions about what could have been had Rabin lived on, but from their loss of power to the post-Oslo generation of right-wing religious nationalists. 

Meanwhile, for Palestinians living under occupation, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Since mid-September, Israeli forces have arrested at least 1,553 Palestinians for demonstrating against the occupation, and indicted 437. Since October 1, 73 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops, including 12 children, two infants and a pregnant woman. 

Numbers like these might be trivial to Netanyahu and the maximalists in his government, but for Rabin, they were once a point of pride.

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