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Israel & Palestine: Breaking the Silence

Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000–2010

by Breaking the Silence
Jerusalem, 431 pp., available at jfjfp.com/?p=19918
Agostino Pacciani/Anzenberger/Redux
Sari Nusseibeh, Jerusalem, April 2004

A few weeks ago I was in al-Nabi Salih, a Palestinian village northwest of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. It wasn’t so easy to get there; the Israeli army had closed off the area on every side, and we literally had to crawl through the olive groves, just beneath one of the army’s roadblocks, before we managed to reach the village. Al-Nabi Salih is a troubled place. The large Israeli settlement of Halamish nearby has taken over nearly half of the village lands, including a precious freshwater spring. Most Fridays there are dramatic confrontations between the soldiers and the villagers protesting this land grab and the other difficulties of life under occupation.

Yet the first thing I saw in al-Nabi Salih was a huge sign in Arabic and English: “We Believe in Non-Violence. Do You?” It was World Peace Day, and speaker after speaker reaffirmed a commitment to peace and to nonviolent resistance to the occupation. Particularly eloquent was Ali Abu Awwad, a young activist who runs a new organization, the Palestinian Movement for Non-Violent Resistance, with its offices in Bethlehem and growing influence throughout the occupied territories. “Peace itself is the way to peace,” he said, “and there is no peace without freedom.”1

All of this is, in some ways, rather new in Palestine, although in his latest book the philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, the president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, traces an earlier stage of organized Palestinian civil disobedience in the popular struggle of the first intifada in 1988 and 1989, in which he had a significant part. In the more recent past, nonviolent resistance in the form of weekly demonstrations and marches has been a mostly local phenomenon, limited to a few villages between Jerusalem and the coastal plain such as Budrus and then more famously Bil’in, and to some extent to a cluster of villages in the Bethlehem area to the south. These demonstrations are invariably violently suppressed by the army with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and, quite often, live ammunition. Sometimes they degenerate into clashes, with stone-throwing from the Palestinian side; at other times, as on the day I was in al-Nabi Salih, the demonstrators manage to maintain discipline in the face of the guns.

The army has so far kept these protests from spreading beyond the villages in question—in keeping with the general policy of fragmenting, isolating, and fencing in all Palestinian communities in the territories controlled by Israel. Budrus was a success story—really the only one so far; nonviolent protests by the villagers, with women prominently involved and with the support of Israeli and international activists, forced the army to redraw the path of the separation barrier and to restore the lands initially appropriated by the government.2 Bil’in, in contrast, though it has kept up a weekly protest for some six years now—at the price of many wounded (some critically), hundreds arrested, and two killed3—has been permanently deprived of at least a third of its lands by the construction of the separation barrier despite a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court in favor of the village claims in 2007.4

One of the leaders of the struggle in Bil’in is Abdallah Abu Rahmah, occasionally called the Palestinian Gandhi—an impressive, indeed charismatic man with a proven record of peaceful, courageous resistance to the occupation and the ongoing theft of land. I know him: I had the honor of being arrested together with him when I first came to take part in the Bil’in demonstrations in 2005. He has spent the last twelve months in prison after being arrested and accused by the army of “incitement” and “organizing and participating in illegal protests.”

Protesting the loss of Palestinian land, especially by the disenfranchised owners of the land in question, is, it seems, by definition illegal under the terms of the occupation. By any reasonable standard, the arrest and prosecution of Abu Rahmah, who has been acclaimed throughout the world as an exemplar of nonviolent struggle for human rights, should have set off a wave of outspoken public protest on the part of Israeli academics, artists, public intellectuals, and even ordinary citizens. Nothing like this has happened.5 Abdallah Abu Rahmah’s case was decided on January 11: the military judge accepted the prosecution’s appeal against the “leniency” of the punishment and extended the jail sentence from twelve to sixteen months, so he’s of course still incarcerated. The judgment is available on the Internet in Hebrew, and it’s quite a remarkable document, disheartening to read. On the face of it, the deafening silence about his case within Israel is a mystery.

Such eloquent silence raises the classic question applicable to many such situations of organized oppression imposed by a government from above. Why are ordinary Israelis apathetic to the fate of Abu Rahmah and many others like him?6 Why do they evince no interest in the daily suffering caused by the occupation?

Last July I heard Sari Nusseibeh speak at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities at an evening honoring its retiring president, Menahem Yaari. In itself, the presence of a major Palestinian figure—in this case the president of al-Quds University—at an Israeli academic occasion is not unusual: Israeli scholars were also welcome guests at various Palestinian academic venues until recently, when despair over the Israeli government’s policies prompted some Palestinian institutions, including al-Quds University, to close their doors to most Israeli academics. But both professional and personal links remain strong.

Nusseibeh used the occasion of the academy lecture to deliver a damning indictment of the Israeli academic establishment for its truly astonishing passivity over the past forty-three years of occupation. Although, in general, the government is probably right in seeing the Israeli universities as a natural breeding ground for leftist—that is, liberal and peace-oriented—opinion, Nusseibeh is also right. Like everyone else, Israeli academic intellectuals as a group have failed to mount a sustained and politically effective protest against the occupation and the accompanying colonial project of settling Israelis in the territories. Like most other Israelis, with some notable exceptions, they live within the system and tolerate its misdeeds. The large audience at the academy listened to Nusseibeh’s scathing critique that evening with what seemed to me, for the most part, a stony and impassive silence.

Nusseibeh is a gentle, urbane, reflective man, a philosopher and historian of philosophy (he is an expert on the great medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Sina) who has, perhaps contrary to his natural disposition, found himself deeply involved in Palestinian politics over many years. He is also a courageous and honest person who does not hold back from his own people his view of what is right.7 I once saw him try to persuade a very hostile Palestinian student at the Hebrew University—in Arabic, and in public—that Palestinians will have to relinquish what is called the right of return in order to reach peace. Some years ago I also heard him deliver another lecture at the Academy of Sciences, no less damning than the one just mentioned, but this time directed against what he sees as negative, narrow-minded, and self-destructive trends among contemporary Arab intellectuals generally.

In 2002 he joined up with Ami Ayalon, the former director of Israel’s General Security Service, the Shin Bet, to advocate a so-called two-state solution based on agreed conditions that today seem axiomatic to a majority on both sides of the conflict: Israel’s retreat to the Green Line border of 1967, a demilitarized Palestine, no right of return to former homes within Israel—which does not exclude compensation for losses—and a divided Jerusalem serving as capital for both Palestine and Israel. Nusseibeh is a Palestinian patriot who, given the developments of the last few years, is no longer at all certain that a separate Palestinian state is worth the effort, as the skeptical title of his new book suggests.

There is, of course, a more general question underlying his title. What is any state actually worth? Is it really something worth killing—or for that matter dying—for? If so, just how many deaths might it be worth? Ten, as in Abraham’s bargain with God? Ten thousand? A million, as in the slogan made famous in the Algerian struggle for independence? Such questions have become pressing in the Palestinian case by the continuing consequences of Palestinian statelessness and by the unacceptable reality of ongoing Israeli occupation. States, says Nusseibeh, are “meta-biological entities”—that is, essentially, fictions that take on a life of their own and all too often end up exacting fatal costs from their citizens, who buy into the concocted vision these entities tend to propound.

Like Hobbes, he thinks that states should be seen as instruments to accomplish practical goals, not metaphysical entities, although he recognizes that they sometimes can, under auspicious circumstances, provide the vehicle for expressing a people’s collective identification with its homeland, its landscapes, memories, and hopes. Nusseibeh is also what we might call a moral optimist: he believes—I am tempted to say, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that history is evolving along a “moral trajectory”; that is, that human beings are slowly getting better and that shared, self-evident universal values, based on the irreducible rights of the individual and “our common sentiment for compassion,” are gradually beginning to transform the world.

The two basic values for any society, he says, are equality and freedom (in that order); he thinks that we can all agree on them and that, once we so agree, they should allow for

peacemakers to break meta- biological barriers: for Israelis and Palestinians to see each other as human beings, and to forge a common fight for the well-being of the two communities.

Does this hopeful vision imply that there will be two states? Not anymore. Nusseibeh sees the two peoples as already, de facto, part of a single political unit between the Jordan River and the sea.

What, then, does he propose for the future of this political unit? He suggests, at least as a thought experiment,

a single-state but electorally non- democratic consensual arrangement, that is, a mutually agreed-upon conferral by Israel of a form of “second-class citizenship” on all Palestinians currently under occupation who wish to accept it.

What this means is that Palestinians would renounce political rights—such as voting for the Knesset and serving in high government office and in the army—but receive basic civil rights: health insurance, social security, freedom of speech and movement, education, legal self-defense, and so on. They would be subjects but not citizens of the joint Israeli-Palestinian entity, which would be owned and run by the Jews. As Nusseibeh notes, there is already in place a precedent for some such arrangement: the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem have lived like this for the past forty-three years. The advantage is that the present untenable situation, in which a vast Palestinian population lives without basic human rights, will come to an end; and perhaps eventually another, better model will evolve, as happened in South Africa.

  1. 1

    You can listen to Ali’s speech on YouTube: “World Peace Day—Nonviolence and Social Resistance in Nabi Saleh.” 

  2. 2

    The protest in Budrus has been documented in an outstanding film by Julia Bacha and Ronit Avni, Budrus (2009). 

  3. 3

    Bassem Ibrahim Abu-Rahmah was killed in April 2009 by a tear-gas canister that struck him in the chest. His sister Jawahir was killed on December 31, 2010, from tear-gas asphyxiation. 

  4. 4

    For the text of the ruling, see elyon1.court.gov.il/files_eng/05/140/084/n25/05084140.n25.pdf. In early 2010, the army began shifting the barrier (now built of concrete slabs) slightly to the west, but present projections show that much of the appropriated village land, including large areas on which Israeli apartment blocks for settlers have been built, will remain in Israel. 

  5. 5

    Some small-scale protests were circulated on websites connected to the peace camp, and a number of artists and professors petitioned the minister of defense and the government’s legal adviser on behalf of Abu Rahmah. 

  6. 6

    An analogous case is that of Adnan al-Gheith from the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, where the presence of armed Israeli settlers and their security guards has produced a particularly volatile situation. Adnan, whose main crime is apparently his participation in nonviolent demonstrations (also, perhaps, building a playground for the neighborhood children—no specific charges have been filed), has recently been served an order by the army exiling him from Jerusalem for the next four months. 

  7. 7

    See Amos Elon’s review of Nusseibeh’s autobiography, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) in these pages, April 26, 2007. 

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