To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Monday, October 19, 2015

50 Years Into Israeli Occupation, Can You Really Blame Young Palestinians For Doing What A Lot Of Americans Would Probably Do?

It’s a bit rich to hear right wing Israelis and their echo chamber in the lobby here describe Palestinians mounting violent attacks in Jerusalem as being consumed by “a blood fetish” or “seized by a communal psychosis.” As Georgetown scholar Bruce Hoffman points out in his recent book, Anonymous Soldiers, Zionist terrorism played a significant role in driving the British from Palestine in the late 1940’s, clearing the way for the as the Jewish state to come into being. Zionist Terror tactics also encouraged 700,000 Palestinians to flee in fear for their lives during the Israeli War for Independence in 1948. Those Palestinians have never been allowed back into the country, a violation of international law that stands uncorrected.

Still, anyone who has seen or smelled the aftermath of a terrorist bombing can’t cheer the prospect of lone wolf stabbings, spontaneous rioting and outbursts of stone-throwing at Israeli authorities escalating into the organized suicide bombings and gun attacks that marked the Second Intifada in the early 2000’s. It’s also pretty accurate to argue that the second Intifada actually made conditions in the West Bank more severe: More checkpoints and less freedom of movement, with almost four million Palestinians sealed off behind an imposing, highly fortified Partition Wall in what Columbia University’s Rashid Khalili has called “The Iron Cage.” The Second Intifada is also widely blamed for traumatizing the collective Israeli psyche, reducing empathy in the general Israeli pubic and making it more likely to shrug at government military actions that enact collective punishment on Palestinians for challenging Jewish domination. In other words, that harsh treatment is a “fitting Zionist response,” as heel-clicking Israeli right-wingers like to say.

Of course it would be much better if Palestinians embraced nonviolent civil disobedience and took a leaf from Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The growing worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) shows that Palestinians understand this, at least on the international front.  But BDS won’t show any impact on the everyday lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories for quite some time, no matter how much potential BDS holds for forcing Israel to loosen its grip. 

After 50 years of Israeli military occupation, a shell of an economy and a peace process that has gone nowhere however, who can blame Palestinian teenagers for throwing stones at the IDF, burning rubber tires at makeshift roadblocks or standing in the middle of the street and taunting Israeli soldiers to shoot them? While individual teens attacking Jewish bus passengers, IDF conscripts or police officers seemingly at random fits a definition of terror, why should that kind of terrorism be seen as something apart from the material conditions that any detached comprehensive analysis would bring into the discussion? This isn’t to justify this kind of violence, or attacks allegedly orchestrated by Hamas such as the drive-by shooting of a young Israeli settler couple as they drove with their children in the backseat. But it is to explain it, especially when it the violence is coming from teenagers with no record of terrorist connections.

In addition to the heavy handed presence of the Israeli military, the occupation has also allowed a government-sponsored influx of more than 500,000 armed and antagonistic Jewish settlers into Palestinian territory, in full violation of international law. Settler “prince tag” attacks on Palestinians are routine now, amid wider concern for the rise of Jewish terrorism. In one such “price tag” attack last summer, Jewish radicals firebombed a Palestinian home on the West Bank in the middle of the night, burning an infant alive and killing her parents from their injuries in the days after.  According to the New Yorker, Israeli journalists say that this prospective third intifada should be called the “settler intifada” ---a violent response to the often violent provocations of that increasingly powerful faction of hardline Jews.  

The kind of volcanic grassroots violence in Jerusalem these past two weeks, which is really more like a leaderless revolt engaging in uncoordinated daily attacks than terrorism as it is more often seen, is almost mathematically inevitable. It flows out of the toxic combination of desperation, humiliation and rage that has been pent up on the West Bank since the last uprising a dozen years ago, exploding with cumulative force. The children who came to consciousness watching their older siblings, cousins and neighbors being beaten and arrested or shot dead in a clashes back in 2002 or 2003 are themselves in their teens and early twenties, with most having no record of terrorist involvement. They’ve grown up knowing nothing but military occupation, joblessness, the depredations of Jewish settlers and the political impotence of their own Palestinian leadership, with little prospect of gaining their own state, or being accorded political rights within a larger binational Israeli state. In fact, many young Palestinians have given up on the dream of full Palestinian independence and prefer to become Israeli citizens with full political rights.  Israel, obsessed with preserving the Jewishness of the Jewish state, doesn’t seem to be too ready to allow that.

Put in an analogous position, I’m pretty confident that a lot Americans would probably throw a few rocks and light a few bonfires too.  Bad enough to have to live with the grinding indignities of occupation as well as the intimidating presence of armed settlers driven by religious messianism and the racial supremacy that accompanies it. But to have to endure such things for 50 years just seems too much to expect any person or any people to withstand without lashing back.  Would that it not be the case, but unfortunately that is the case. Cause has its effect; action prompts reaction---elementary political physics.  In other words, context is essential, especially fifty years of it, compounded day after day.

The oppressive centrality of occupation in the lives of Palestinians on the West Bank was very simply and eloquently described by Hussein Ibish, of the American Task Force on Palestine at a panel discussion at Columbia last December. The panel was focused on the question of whether Israel’s policies toward Palestinians were justified in light of the security issue it faces.  The panel was sponsored by a number of student groups as well as the Sheldon Adelson-funded Values Network, whose director, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach---America’s Rabbi to some---served as moderator. In addition to Ibish the other panelists were Bret Stephens, the very pro Israel foreign affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal, Peter Beinart, a liberal Zionist opposed to the occupation.

What Ibish stressed was that the Jewish democratic state of Israel was in fact, not that at all in that it “completely disenfranchises” at least 4.5 million people living under its jurisdiction in the occupied territories. There was nothing like Israel’s occupation that he could think of anywhere else in the world today, Ibish declared, citing “intolerable conditions of disenfranchisement and discrimination.”  

Everything you can do in the occupied territories depends on whether the Israeli government classifies you as a Jewish settler or an occupied Palestinian. Every single aspect of daily life is determined by this inevitably ethnic distinction. Where you may live, what roads you can drive on, whether you can be armed for self defense or not, how much water and other basic necessities you get per capita, what type of education your children will have, whether you can travel freely around your own country or leave it with the normal confidence of being allowed to return, or whether you need the permission of foreign soldiers, many of them just out of high school, to go from one village to another, whether you may be subjected to midnight house raids, what laws you live under, etc.

I could go on till midnight, I really could.

Does this arrangement sound like the basis for a reasonable security policy to you? I mean, really? Because that’s how it’s conceptualized– as forward bases in enemy territory. “This is Israel’s strategic depth.” We hear that all the time from people, except Israeli security professionals, who don’t see it that way.

The bottom line is that in the occupied territories, Palestinians, who are citizens of no state, live under one set of laws and conditions, and... Israeli settlers even standing next to each other live under another. Settlers are Israeli citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that. The Palestinians have neither.

Millions of people have been living like this for almost 50 years, the vast majority of the history of the modern Israeli state. Now I want to put it to you, There’s not a single person in this room, not one of you– not one of you– who would accept to live like that, generation after generation, decade after decade, with no end in sight. You would resist, in an intelligent manner hopefully. And you would not put up with it. And if you think you would put up with it, you’re lying to yourselves.  

As direct and intuitive as Ibish’s observations were, most Zionists here and in Israel reject any suggestion that Palestinian resistance should be contextualized, preferring to see it as expression of a history of “hate” triggered by “incitement” on the part of Palestinian leaders or Muslim clergy. It’s analogous to the way that Zionists denied any connection between the rising tide of anti Semitism among European Muslims and the Israeli military actions in Gaza, which killed almost 1500 noncombatant civilians, many of them women and very small children. It’s far more convenient and exculpating to see anti Israel actions as being a function of anti Semitism---"The Devil That Never Dies,” as Holocaust scholar Daniel Goldhagen titled his most recent book--- than in acknowledging that anti Israel hostility springs from actions that Israel itself has taken: house demolitions, evictions, expulsions, summary executions, live fire attacks from Israeli snipers, to cite just the beginning of a long list.

Last week during the Q&A of a Harvard appearance, Secretary of State John Kerry stepped on this political landmine, specifically the issue of Israeli settlements. “There’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and there’s an increase in the violence because there’s this frustration that’s growing,” Kerry noted. He added that most people involved in the peace process “have a pretty damn good sense of what has to be done,” but implied that there was a lack of “courage” to do what was needed.  Comments like this were a way of “Blaming Israel” for the “Terror Wave” as the Times of Israel phrased the Zionist reaction. Kerry backpeddled pretty quickly, explaining through his spokesman that even if settlements were a source of frustration for Palestinians settlement activity was not “the cause for the effect we're seeing,” and that he was not “affixing blame on either side here for the violence.” 

Wall Street Journal "Global Affairs" columnist Bret Stephens had no real response to Ibish’s remarks that night up at Columbia. But he certainly showed his contempt for those citing “context” in his column this week, indulging tribal generalizations and highlighting his own lack of human empathy even as he condemned the Palestinians for the very same thing. Ridiculing those citing Palestinian despair at the peace process or ragged economy, Stephens declared that it was “time to stop furnishing Palestinians with the excuses they barely bother making for themselves.”

The significant question is why so many Palestinians have been seized by their present blood lust—by a communal psychosis in which plunging knives into the necks of Jewish women, children, soldiers and civilians is seen as a religious and patriotic duty, a moral fulfillment.

Above all, it’s time to give hatred its due. We understand its explanatory power when it comes to American slavery, or the Holocaust. We understand it especially when it is the hatred of the powerful against the weak. Yet we fail to see it when the hatred disturbs comforting fictions about all people being basically good, or wanting the same things for their children, or being capable of empathy.

Today in Israel, Palestinians are in the midst of a campaign to knife Jews to death, one at a time. This is psychotic. It is evil. To call it anything less is to serve as an apologist, and an accomplice.

It was significant that Stephens failed to mention the words “settlements,” “settlers,” “occupation,” and made no reference to the civilian death toll in Gaza last summer or the rising tide of Jewish terrorism against Palestinian civilians, among many other factors anyone with a sense of simple cause and effect would cite. To ignore or to underplay these factors represents an its own apology for violence and exposes one to the charge of complicity too, especially after 50 years. Indeed, it may not be psychotic, but it is in its own way pathological, demonstrating that the Iron Cage that Israel has built for its restive Palestinians has an analogue in the iron cage Zionism has built around itself to protect the movement’s ideological certitudes from the political realities now challenging them.