In the midst of the wearisome compulsions of the present Gaza war, with its familiar but no less heart-wrenching horrors, two striking, perhaps surprising developments—one ominous, the other somewhat hopeful—are taking place far from the battlefield: on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and in the towns and villages of the West Bank. Seen together, they tell us something of what the near future may hold for Israel and Palestine.
The ominous one is the unprecedented wave of blood lust and racist violence, verbal and physical, now raging within Israel. Lest there be any doubt, let me first say that the ruthless nature of Hamas is apparent to all. Its commanders have fired some three thousand rockets at Israeli cities with the deliberate aim of killing civilians, and they have used their intricate network of tunnels for their intended purpose of indiscriminate killing inside Israel. The killing of two Israeli soldiers and the apparent abduction of another on Friday, shortly after a cease-fire ostensibly agreed to by both sides went into effect, is entirely characteristic of the organization.
The current disaster was set in motion when the Israeli government responded to the murder of three Israeli boys with an all-out attack on Hamas institutions on the West Bank. On July 2 there was the lurid revenge killing of the sixteen-year-old Palestinian Muhammad Abu Khdeir; the boy was kidnapped from close to his home in Shuafat, in north Jerusalem, taken to a forest, where he was forced to swallow gasoline, and then burned to death. The police have arrested three Israeli men (two of them more adolescents than men) and charged them for this unthinkable crime.
But this was not an isolated incident. In the weeks since then we have seen organized lynch mobs of Israeli youths prowling the streets of Jerusalem at night in search of Palestinians who have the misfortune to be passing by. Many restaurants and bars in downtown Jerusalem employ Palestinian waiters and kitchen staff; they tend to get off work around midnight or 1 AM, when they have to go home to their neighborhoods. Those are the dangerous hours. Dozens have been attacked. On July 25, two Palestinian men, Amir Jalal Shweiki and Samir Mahfuz, both twenty, were beaten unconscious near the northeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov. They are still in the hospital. There have also been unconfirmed reports of incidents where the police either stood by or joined in with right-wing thugs, for example on July 24 when two Palestinians, Amir Mazin Abu Eisha and Laith Ubeidat, who were delivering bread to stores on Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem, were savagely attacked.
A particularly terrible case occurred in early July when a train of the Light Rail, the electric tram, was surrounded in the border between east and west Jerusalem by an Israeli mob screaming “Death to Arabs!” A Palestinian Ph.D. student in Islamic studies at the Hebrew University, a woman well known to my colleagues, was caught in the tram and witnessed passengers trying to shove another Palestinian woman, a young mother with her baby, out of the carriage, into the hands of the mob. Most of the passengers, as so often in such cases, watched passively. Fortunately, the tram was eventually able to continue its journey, and the mother and child survived. On June 30, according to eyewitness accounts, right-wing youths repeatedly entered carriages of the tram looking for Palestinians to assault.
Similar manifestations of right-wing violence and virulent verbal attacks had been known to occur in earlier periods of tension in Israel. What makes the present moment distinct is the phalangist-like organization of the right-wing thugs, who feed off incitement by politicians, including members of the cabinet, the Knesset, and other figures within the Israeli establishment. Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, has publicly advocated a boycott by Israelis of all Israeli-Arab businesses. In a now notorious Facebook post on July 1, Knesset MP Ayelet Shaked, from the ultra-right Jewish Home party, cited with approval an essay by the late right-wing Israeli journalist Uri Elitzur defining the entire Palestinian people as “the enemy.” On July 3 the general secretary of the orthodox youth movement Bnei Akiva, Rabbi Noam Perl, called on the Israel Defense Forces to become an “army of vengeance that hopefully would not stop at three hundred Philistine foreskins.” (The reference is to Samuel 18.27: the Biblical David brought King Saul two hundred foreskins as a bride-price for Saul’s daughter Michal; it is not uncommon in right-wing discourse in Hebrew to call Palestinians “Philistines.”) To his credit, I suppose, Rabbi Perl retracted his bloodthirsty statement and apologized a few days later. Another rabbi, Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba in the territories, has recently published a legal ruling permitting Israel to carry out the total destruction of Gaza, exterminating the enemy.
The very existence of such open-access domains as Facebook and other social media has surely amplified the hatred, with statements I am ashamed to record here. A large, truly horrifying sample can be found in Gideon Levi’s report in Haaretz on July 24. There have been calls for the execution of all dissidents and leftists.
But the more telling signs of this dark time tend to turn up in unexpected places. In late July a professor of law at Bar Ilan University, Hanoch Sheinman, sent an email message to his students telling them that the examination period would be extended because of the war. He also expressed the hope that his message
finds you in a safe place, and that you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed or were forced to leave their homes during, or as a direct result of, the violent confrontation in the Gaza Strip and its environs.
Bar Ilan is a self-professed religious university committed to Jewish values, or so it says. Students complained that they were offended by Sheinman’s message, and the dean of the law school, Shahar Lifshitz, responded by asking Sheinman to apologize. For what? “Both the content and the style of the letter,” wrote the dean, “contravene the values of the university and the law faculty.” One can only wonder which values he meant. Minimal empathy for human suffering (apart from Jewish suffering) is apparently not one of them. I think that in the five decades I have lived in Israel, this statement by an official spokesman at a recognized Israeli university is the most surreal, and possibly the most disgraceful, I have seen.
Such events should be juxtaposed with others, of a different kind (and, sadly, on a different scale). On July 26, a pro-peace demonstration took place at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Some five or six thousand people turned up despite the overwhelming public atmosphere of war hysteria, an attempt by the police to close down the demonstration in advance, and the inevitable presence in the square of right-wing phalangists, who indeed brutally attacked some of the participants with clubs and pepper spray as they were beginning to disperse. One sign held by a demonstrator caught my eye. Pieces of the Israeli and Palestinian flags were superimposed on one another, and the text read: “There’s enough guilt to go around.”
But more important, and ultimately more hopeful, is what has been happening in the West Bank. This is the second noteworthy development I mentioned at the outset. On July 24, two days before the Tel Aviv protest, there was a peaceful march of Palestinians expressing solidarity with Gaza—the largest such demonstration in many years. The marchers set out from the southern outskirts of Ramallah and walked the three or four kilometers to the Qalandia checkpoint north of Jerusalem. It was organized, mostly through social media, by a group calling itself the 48k March and drew at least 10,000 men, women, and children, and perhaps even twice that number. There were refugees from the 1948 war marching with the rest.
Eyewitnesses report that when the marchers approached the checkpoint, at a distance of some fifty to a hundred meters, the Israeli soldiers opened fire, using live ammunition, possibly including dum-dum bullets, as well as rubber bullets and the usual tear gas and stun grenades. Two Palestinians were killed outright and some two hundred wounded, including ten still in critical condition. My friend Muhammad Abu Hummus from Isawiyya, in north-east Jerusalem, was wounded by a bullet (apparently from an M-16) that passed through his ankle. He says the march was entirely nonviolent until the protesters were fired on—this in stark contradiction of the army’s report that the demonstrators provoked the army by throwing stones and even firing on soldiers. According to Abu Hummus, there was no way anyone on the Palestinian side could have fired a weapon in the midst of thousands of women and children. These are his words, spoken when we met in Isawiyya on July 29:
On my way to Ramallah in the morning, I saw that the soldiers at the checkpoint had closed the road and set up firing positions. That night when we were about fifty meters from the checkpoint, they turned off all the lights and then started shooting rounds into the crowd. They must have been using silencers, we hardly heard the sound of the guns; anyone who was hit initially was totally taken by surprise. It was clearly planned. There was a huge number of soldiers, one every meter. After the shooting began, on our side people starting throwing rocks. Many children were wounded. In the hospital in Ramallah, where they took me, it was chaos. More and more ambulances arrived. Anyone wounded from the waist down was sent to a waiting room, most of us for X-rays. Wounds from the waist up were sent to some other room. There were some seventy people waiting for X-rays where I was. We waited for hours. Some thirty or forty had been hit by dum-dum bullets. You should see what they do to the human body. There was no room left in the hospital, they bandaged me and sent me home. It’s too bad they hit my good foot.
Abu Hummus has diabetes and a bad limp, the result of an accident some years ago; he walks with a cane. He is a long-time activist in Ta’ayush, “Arab-Jewish Partnership,” the group of peace activists to which I belong; we’ve been through a lot together. I asked his wife Wafa what it’s like having him home all day, with his foot elevated. “Tayyib, good,” she said, “it’s a rare occurrence. He gets to see the children.”
The West Bank is on the verge of conflagration. Just to visit Isawiyya, a Jerusalem neighborhood inside the Separation Wall, at this time is no small thing; we went under the protection of Palestinian friends. There have been daily battles in the village, with the Border Police doing its best to terrorize residents. Anyone caught wearing the black T-shirt we saw on Muhammad’s sons is beaten by the soldiers. The shirt reads: Ana mush mu’ayyid, ruhi fi Gaza, “I’m not celebrating the festival [‘Id, at the end of Ramadan]; my heart is in Gaza.”
One can only hope that when the fighting stops, the status of Gaza will be transformed in a wider, pragmatic agreement that will lift the siege and, who knows, maybe even produce some tentative steps toward demilitarization. But Hamas is a particularly good enemy to have nearby if, like Netanyahu, one doesn’t want to make peace. One can always count on Hamas, or on whoever turns up to take its place, to provide both a useful distraction and a convincing excuse for deepening the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, with the ongoing land-grab at its core.
Here we have the tragedy of the present moment at its starkest. If the Gaza war were part of an Israeli policy meant to empower the Palestinian moderates in order to conclude a settlement with them, then there would be at least some sense to the carnage. But it is not. The government’s attack on Hamas in the West Bank , which set off the present war, was presumably an attempt to break up the recently formed Palestinian unity government. Netanyahu predictably saw this alliance of moderates and extremists—under a single program that explicitly rejected violence—as a serious threat rather than the opportunity it could have been.
Yet the July 24 march shows a possible way forward. Qalandia was one dramatic event, quickly followed by others in Bethlehem, Beit Umar (where three Palestinians were killed), Husan (two killed), and elsewhere. Even if the army somehow manages to suppress the protests now, the Qalandia march shows us what may happen sometime soon. Those of us who are familiar with the situation in the territories have known for years that the thin veil of stability could be torn away at any moment, revealing the volatile reality underneath; and we have also known, as do the grassroots leaders in the villages and towns, that the Occupation will perhaps end when some form of mostly nonviolent resistance achieves large numbers. Tens of thousands of Palestinians may someday be able to wash over the army’s barricades, no doubt at considerable cost in lives; Israel has no viable answer to such a process. No one should, however, assume that when this happens—a third Intifada—it will be entirely Gandhian in tone. And what begins as peaceful civil resistance can swiftly change its color. It could begin tomorrow, or in a year or two, or five.