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Israel & Palestine: Breaking the Silence

Ed Kashi/VII
An Israeli soldier standing guard at a checkpoint in Qalqilya, West Bank, with waiting Palestinians visible in the mirror of a vehicle, June 2003

Nusseibeh’s proposal is clearly meant to challenge the political elites on both sides to think seriously about what lies around the next turn in the road or after the next terrible explosion. Even so, it seems not a little disingenuous. Booker T. Washington famously proposed something rather like it for African-Americans—the so-called Atlanta compromise—in 1895; it was, of course, almost immediately superseded. Can one really separate political from civil rights? Is that what most Palestinians want or need? Practically speaking, were the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself and demand something along the lines of Nusseibeh’s suggestion, Hamas would surely fill the void that would be created within twenty-four hours. The Hamas leaders are, in fact, ready and waiting for just such an eventuality, as Nusseibeh knows well.

Still, one can easily understand how he, like so many on both sides, has more or less given up on the notion of two states, although at various points in his book he still seems to suggest that the two-state model, were it feasible, would be the optimal solution. Many, both in the peace camp and outside it, think it is simply too late—the extent of Israeli colonization and appropriation of land makes the notion of partition impracticable.

I don’t agree, but I think we are rapidly approaching such a result, and I think the cause is, on one level, entirely clear. It lies in the steadfast reluctance of the Israeli establishment to make a real peace, under any circumstances. What the present government and the Israeli security services clearly want is to continue the occupation under one form or another, maintaining near-total control over the entire Palestinian population. (Whether the Israeli public at large really wants this or not is an open question.)

But surely such a policy, perfected to hitherto unknown levels of mendacity by Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, is irrational and self-defeating, possibly even suicidal, quite apart from being immoral and criminal under international law. Here the mystery deepens. At present, there is on the table—still somehow alive—the Arab League’s peace initiative of 2002, also known as the Saudi initiative, which was reaffirmed at the Riyadh summit in 2007. Anyone who has looked carefully at the written document or listened to what the Arab leaders are saying publicly should have no doubt that this route to peace and normalization should be broadly acceptable to Israel. It calls for an independent Palestinian state, with Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories; a “just solution,” subject to negotiated agreement, to the problem of Palestinian refugees8; and a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states.

Had the Saudi initiative been offered to David Ben-Gurion in the 1960s, it would have looked like a utopian dream come true. But the plan has never even been discussed at an Israeli cabinet meeting, and Netanyahu’s government has made it clear so far that it will do whatever is necessary to avoid making such a peace with the 250 million or so Arabs surrounding Israel, to say nothing of the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories and beyond. How are we to explain this stubborn refusal? How is it related to the eerie silence about Palestine I mentioned earlier?

Many Israelis, including those who might acknowledge the accuracy of my description, will readily blame the impasse on the cumulative trauma resulting from Arab, including Palestinian, violence against Jews going back to the beginning of the conflict. There is clearly some truth to this claim, though it does not explain the gratuitous cruelty inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians over the last few decades or the enormous and continuing theft of land that must be seen as the true raison d’être of the occupation. To understand the issue more deeply, it’s crucial to see what the occupation really means on the ground—and, apart from actually spending time in the occupied territories, there is no better way to understand this reality than to read the volume of soldiers’ testimonies just published by the Israeli peace group known as Breaking the Silence, a book, in my view, that is one of the most important published on Israel/Palestine in this generation.

Published in both Hebrew and English but so far only in Jerusalem, Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000–2010 documents the everyday miseries of the occupation as seen through the eyes of over a hundred ordinary soldiers who served in the territories and who tell us what they saw and did and heard in the course of their service. Some of them were shocked by their experiences; others report almost nonchalantly, in the rich colloquial Hebrew of the army, as if they were detached from feeling, their sensibilities blunted or anesthetized. They were all part of a vast machine—the occupation system, which includes not only the army units but also the police, the military police, the military courts, government bureaucrats, politicians, and, of course, Israeli settlers—and they almost always followed their orders, including orders that were patently illegal, without protest, indeed even without speaking with one another about the crimes they witnessed or took part in.

You have in the book published by Breaking the Silence an account of the whole sordid business that all Israeli activists see week after week in the territories: the routine use of terror against the Palestinian population as a principle of control; the beatings and shootings and arbitrary arrests; the inventive and pervasive forms of humiliation inflicted on innocents; the expulsions from homes and grazing grounds and fields; the farce of the military courts; the occasional acts of pure sadism on the part of senior officers as well as ordinary soldiers and, in particular, settlers; the violent suppression of nearly all forms of protest, including (especially) nonviolent civil disobedience and peaceful demonstrations; the premeditated irrationality of the Civil Administration, which controls the lives of the occupied population through a bewildering regime of permits and bureaucratic regulations; and, above all, the intimate interweaving of the army units and the settlers, who regularly and freely assume the authority of telling the soldiers what to do (inevitably at the expense of Palestinian civilians).

Some of the most appalling testimonies relate to the years of combat during the second intifada. On the other hand, one could argue that what passes for normalcy under the occupation, as we see it today, is even worse, precisely because of its relentless, daily, dehumanizing grind. Any reader of Occupation of the Territories will soon see how the occupation has become a degrading system of control. I have never accepted Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the banality of evil (or rather, of the evildoer—which is what she meant), but I have observed the workings of the devastating drug of habituation. I have seen how evil, embedded in a ramified, often impersonal system, can be broken down into small, daily acts that, however repugnant at first, rapidly become routine.

Consider the following, chosen more or less at random from Occupation of the Territories:

i>During your service in the territories, what shook you the most?
…There was a thing that they [the IDF soldiers] came to a house and simply demolished it…. The mom watched from the side and cried, the kids sitting with her and stroking her….
What does it mean to wreck a house?
To break the floors, turn over sofas, throw plants and pictures, turn over beds, break closets, tiles…. The looks of people whose house you’ve gone into. It really hurt me to see. And after that, they left them for hours in the school tied up and blindfolded. At four in the afternoon the order came to free them. That was more than 12 hours.

Or this, from a soldier sent to guard the fanatical Israeli settlers in Hebron:

[There are Palestinian kids] who die for no reason, innocent, where settlers go into their homes and shoot at them, and settlers go crazy in the streets and break store windows and beat up soldiers and throw eggs at soldiers and lynch the elderly, all of these things don’t even make it to the media…. The people who live in that [settlers’] neighborhood do whatever they want, the soldiers are forced to protect them. And it exists here in the State of Israel, and no one knows about it…. People prefer not to know and not to understand that something terrible is happening not far from us, and really no one cares.

It is not surprising that there have been efforts within Israel, including by the Foreign Ministry, to silence Breaking the Silence and to dry up the group’s funding, some of which comes from European sources.9 The book is painful, and shameful, to read. It is also, incidentally, eloquent testimony to the remarkable freedom of speech that is, for now at least, still the norm inside Israel. The editors’ conclusion, stated in a mild and careful way (milder than I would have put it), is incontrovertible and worth quoting in full:

While it is true that the Israeli security apparatus has had to deal with concrete threats in the last decade, including terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens, Israeli operations are not solely defensive. Rather, they systematically lead to the de facto annexation of large sections of the West Bank to Israel through the dispossession of Palestinian residents. The widespread notion in Israeli society that the control of the Territories is intended exclusively to protect the security of Israeli citizens is incompatible with the information conveyed by hundreds of IDF soldiers.

One has always to bear in mind that we are dealing with a deeply entrenched system driven by its own internal logic and largely independent of local decisions made by individuals—soldiers, judges, bureaucrats—who are caught up in it, although each such person bears his or her

own measure of responsibility and guilt.

This particular system could not continue to exist without a profound and willful blindness that we Israelis have cultivated for decades, and whose roots undoubtedly predate the existence of the State of Israel itself. I am speaking of blindness not to the existence of millions of Palestinian people—they are there for all to see—but to the full humanity of these people, their natural equality to us, and the parity (at least that, if one can measure such things) between their collective claim to the land and ours. There is also, again, a studied blindness to the cumulative trauma that we Israelis have inflicted upon the Palestinians in the course of realizing our own national goals (and later, in going far beyond any rational conception of such goals).

This is no ordinary blindness; it is a sickness of the soul that takes many forms, from a dull but superficial apathy to the silence and passivity of ordinary, decent people, to the malignant forms of racism and protofascist nationalism that are becoming more and more evident and powerful in today’s Israel, including segments of the present government. I suppose that to acknowledge these facts is too demoralizing, and too laden with potential guilt, for most of us. Often it seems that we will do anything—even risk catastrophic war—to avoid having to look our immediate neighbors in the face, to peel away the mythic mask. Palestinian violence over many years has made it easier for Israelis to make this choice, but it is important to bear in mind that it is, indeed, exactly that, a choice. There is a clear alternative—clearer today than ever before. In the history of this conflict, Israelis have by no means had a monopoly on blindness, but they are the party with by far the largest freedom of action and the greatest potential to bring about serious change.

  1. 8

    There are conflicting interpretations of the refugee clause in the text of the initiative. The critical phrase, marking a historic change in the Arab position, speaks of a “just solution” that will be agreed upon in negotiations, thus recognizing Israel’s say in the matter (for this very reason, Hamas and the other “rejectionists” have opposed the initiative). See the careful study by Israel’s foremost authority on contemporary Palestinian matters, Matti Steinberg, “The Arab Peace Initiative, Its Significance and Implications,” www.iepn.org (July 2010). 

  2. 9

    See Barak Ravid, “Group That Exposed ‘IDF Crimes’ in Gaza Slams Israel Bid to Choke Off Its Funds,” Haaretz, July 26, 2007. 

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