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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
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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.

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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.

What does the future hold? Sari Nusseibeh repeatedly expresses his belief that change is possible if people have the self-confidence and faith in themselves to act. He sees his task as an educator to be one of inculcating such faith. And he also describes, in several chapters of his often moving book, a moral basis for political action that can speak to all of us. Like Gandhi, and like Abdallah Abu Rahmah and Ali Abu Awwad, with whom I began, Nusseibeh seeks not to coerce his opponents—in this case the Israeli people along with their political and military institutions—into changing their self-destructive course but to change their will, or their feelings. He wants them to step back from prejudice and an obsession with brute force and to open their eyes. He wants them to find in themselves the generosity of spirit needed in order to take a chance on peace, whether in the form of two states or a single binational entity or, perhaps, some kind of confederation.

Can nonviolent political action have an effect on Israelis? I don’t know. I think a generosity of spirit does exist, somewhere, in the collective, fearful, angry Israeli soul. It might even be hiding under the superficial veil of apathy. Nusseibeh closes his book with a paradoxical observation that he himself characterizes as “astounding.” In a situation like that in Palestine, where there is a vast asymmetry in power, the moral leverage to “draw out the desired attitudinal change in the other party” by the nonviolent exercise of one’s innate freedom, and by holding fast to universal values, belongs to the weaker, not to the stronger, party. Thus

if one defines power as the ability to cause political change to one’s own advantage, it is the Palestinians who hold this power even though (or precisely because) they are being held down by a mighty military force.

Some Palestinians, at least, including the current Palestinian government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have clearly internalized this truth and are putting it to use in practical ways. These days, Fayyad uses every public opportunity to announce unequivocally that violence is not an option, no longer a part of the Palestinian repertory. He is, of course, not the only player in the field.

So here is one answer to Sari Nusseibeh’s question. A Palestinian state that emerges from mass nonviolent struggle, clearly occupying the moral high ground, would undoubtedly have intrinsic worth, quite apart from its practical value in solving the tragic anomaly of Palestinian statelessness. But I don’t expect the Palestinian state to emerge like that. Only immense international pressure, on many levels, can bring the Israeli occupation to an end. Still, at this particular moment the Palestinians have a major asset in Israel’s recalcitrance, its steadfast refusal to make peace. Under current international conditions, and despite the continuing suffering on the ground inside the occupied territories, the more foolish, cussed, and destructive Israel becomes, the better for the Palestinian cause. Maybe someday even the US will no longer be able to swallow further humiliation at Israel’s hands and will choose not to exercise its veto in the UN and other international forums on Israel’s behalf.

A Palestinian state, recognized by all the world except for Israel, would, no doubt, be only a step toward an indeterminate future, replete with old and new dangers. Judging by recent statements by right-wing Israeli politicians such as Michael Eitan,10 one such danger is that Israel may (following the Gaza model) eventually retreat from much of the occupied territories without making peace with the new state—probably the worst of all possible outcomes, but one entirely consonant with the collective blindness I have described. I’d like to think the tortured peoples of Israel and Palestine could do better.

—January 27, 2011

For an expanded series of testimonies from Occupation of the Territories, see the author’s blog post, “‘And No One Wants to Know’: Israeli Soldiers on the Occupation,” NYRblog, January 9, 2011 (www.nybooks.com/nyrblog).

—The Editors

  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. 

  8. 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). 

  9. 9

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

  10. 10

    See “Pro-settlement Likud Members Begin Floating Idea of West Bank Pullout,” Haaretz, December 21, 2010. 

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