Eyal Press is a 2011 Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing writer at The Nation. His book Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times will be published next February. (November 2011)
Traitor, hacker, high-school dropout, narcissist: Edward Snowden has been called many things since coming forward as the source who gave documents to The Guardian showing that the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone and Internet data on hundreds of millions of Americans, revelations that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed the NSA to explain at a contentious hearing in Washington last week. The one thing that Snowden’s detractors have insisted he does not merit being called is a whistleblower.
Surprisingly little is known about the legal apparatus that has enabled and structured Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, now in its forty-fifth year. Filmed in nine days but based on years of archival research, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts, a new Israeli documentary now being shown at Sundance, aims to expose it. Even before the 1967 Six-Day War, the film reveals, officers in the army’s legal corps drew up guidelines for a separate system of laws that could be applied to territory under IDF control, rules they were convinced could strike a balance between order and justice. Focusing on these handful of Israeli legal officials who worked largely in the shadows, Alexandrowicz’s unsparing inquiry is targeted at Israelis and foreign observers, who trumpet the achievements of Israel’s democracy and the High Court’s willingness to restrain abuses even at the occasional expense of security.
“We want a welfare state!” chanted members of a movement that soon had the backing of unions, women’s groups, parents upset about the exorbitant cost of day care, and medical workers on strike over low wages in public hospitals short of resources. The eruption of popular disenchantment and call for a “more just, humane Israel” spelled out in a manifesto released by some of the protesters made the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly look a lot less stable, not least since the man at its helm has long been a staunch advocate of the laissez-faire economic policies the demonstrators angrily assailed.
Shortly after the democratic uprising began in Egypt, a group of young Israelis led by freelance journalist Dimi Reider launched Kav Hutz (“Outside Line”), a Hebrew-language blog devoted to covering the events across the border. Unable to enter Egypt on short notice with his Israeli passport—a predicament all Israeli correspondents faced—Reider chronicled the insurrection by posting minute-by-minute updates culled from an array of online sources on the ground: Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Egyptian bloggers. The tone of Reider’s blog was reportorial, but hardly detached. “Good luck,” he wrote on the eve of the huge “Day of Departure” rally in Tahrir Square—a sentiment rarely voiced in Israel’s mainstream media, which stressed the danger of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood if the protesters prevailed.
Four days after Israeli commandos stormed a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, killing nine passengers and igniting an international firestorm, several hundred Palestinian demonstrators guided a nine-meter wooden model of the raided boat, the Mavi Marmara, on a march through the West Bank village of Bil’in. Adorned on both sides with the star and crescent of the Turkish flag, the patchwork vessel had been mounted on a car and steered toward the Israeli-built security fence, which cuts through the village and has since 2005 inspired regular protests there. After the procession pulled to a stop, two marchers dressed as pirates and armed with fake swords leapt aboard the deck and began assaulting the Palestinians standing on it. The performance stopped when Israeli soldiers flooded the area with tear gas and chased the demonstrators away.
It was a symbolic reenactment of the bloody confrontation that took place at sea a few days earlier. It was also a sign that, even as the “proximity talks” promoted by the Obama administration founder, some quieter but arguably more noteworthy developments have been taking place in the West Bank.
“PRES OBAMA: SAVE ISRAEL FROM ITSELF.” So proclaimed a sign at a demonstration in late March in Sheik Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where activists gather every Friday to protest the eviction of Palestinian residents from their homes. Among the demonstrators was the Israeli novelist David Grossman, with whom I struck up a conversation about Barack Obama, who is not generally regarded as a popular figure in Israel these days, not least because of his public call for a halt to Israeli settlement activity. Some news sources have put his approval rating among Israelis as low as 4 percent.
One evening last October, several hundred new recruits to the Shimshon Battalion filed into the vast plaza adjoining the Western Wall in Jerusalem. At a site normally thronged with worshipers, the soldiers gathered to be sworn in to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), surrounded by parents and well-wishers who snapped …