On April 15 of this year I was returning to Israel on an Alitalia flight from Rome. About forty minutes before landing in Tel Aviv, the captain informed us that Israel had announced extraordinary security measures, constricting its air space in response to an unusual threat, and that from that moment on—we were still high above the Mediterranean—until we would be allowed to leave the terminal, all photography was strictly forbidden; beyond that, we were to follow the instructions of Israeli security personnel on the ground.
My first thought was that Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to attack Iran, despite, or maybe actually because of, the seeming movement in the preceding days toward an effective and acceptable peaceful solution to the problem of the Iranian nuclear project. On second thought I decided that such an attack was still somewhat unlikely. So what was going on?
Upon landing we were diverted to the old, by now outmoded Terminal 1, then, after passport control, taken by buses to the new Terminal 3. There were police and border police everywhere, in large numbers, and we soon saw them arresting a demonstrator and forcing him into a police van. At this point it dawned on me that the extraordinary menace from the skies had to do with the arrival in Israel of a few dozen peace activists from Europe. They were, we later learned, trying to reach Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories in order to protest against human rights abuses by Israel.
These protesters clearly provided reason enough to call out the armed forces, as if a violent invasion were taking place. Some fifty or so were arrested; two managed to slip through the cordon and reach Bethlehem. Government spokesmen that evening proudly spoke of having warded off a threat of almost existential proportions. Their satisfaction was marred only by the fact that the TV news that day was full of one of those incidents that reveal in a flash the violent reality of the occupation.
Shalom Eisner, deputy commander of the army brigade stationed in the Jordan Valley and a settler himself, was filmed while brutally, and without provocation, smashing a Danish peace activist in the face with his rifle. The ugly, indeed horrifying, scene was broadcast dozens of times. I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen the likes of it rather often in demonstrations in East Jerusalem (Sheikh Jarrah, Ras al-Amud, Silwan) and in peace actions in the territories. Eisner has since been temporarily relieved of his command; if earlier cases are any indication, he will probably be reinstated after some two years in another post. Interviewed after the incident, he gave an honest statement of his moral stature: “Maybe it was a professional mistake to use the gun when there were cameras around.”1
Why should a handful of harmless demonstrators elicit so severe a reaction? Netanyahu, in his official announcement, said that if these people…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.