Al-Ahram Weekly – 21 August 2003
In these pages recently (Al-Ahram Weekly, 7 – 13 August) the left-wing Israeli academic and journalist Ran HaCohen argued that most Israelis had almost no idea what their government and army were doing in their name in the occupied Palestinian territories. “The Israeli public is kept in the dark about what is happening just a 20-minute drive from Tel-Aviv, or just across (and even within) the municipal borders of Jerusalem,” he wrote in an article headlined “Eyes Wide Shut”.
HaCohen’s usually admirable qualities as an analyst of the situation inside Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza appear to have deserted him on this occasion. Let us examine how plausible the assumptions he is making about the “Israeli public” really are.
For he writes as though Israel’s occupation of the territories is being carried out by Martians rather than by tens of thousands of Israeli teenagers. Military service is compulsory for most Israeli Jews, men and women, for the first two to three years of their adult lives, when they leave school at 18. More than 30,000 young Israelis are conscripted into the army each year.
Alongside them are thousands more men in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are required by law to complete 39 days reserve duty each year. Some of them have been enforcing the occupation since well before the first Intifada.
These Israelis observe Palestinian suffering at close hand — more so even than aid workers and journalists — not least because they are responsible for so much of it themselves, whether manning checkpoints, carrying out house-to-house searches, enforcing long curfews on Palestinian cities or guarding interrogation and detention centres.
After all it is ordinary Israelis driving those bulldozers demolishing Palestinian families’ homes, and firing their guns at a speck on the horizon that might be a suicide bomber or might equally be a woman breaking the curfew to get bread for her children.
At weekends, these ordinary Israelis go home to spend time in the bosom of their own families. They are husbands, wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren, nephews and nieces to the overwhelming majority of the Israeli population. Any Israeli no longer serving in the territories, or too young to serve, has ample opportunity to find out what is really happening to Palestinians — not from the now mainly compliant Hebrew media but from eyewitnesses to the actual events.
The only Israeli sectors not involved in the occupation are Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, both of whom are exempt from military service. In both cases the exemption is a useful way to prevent groups that do not subscribe to the Zionist ethos of the state from seeing — and possibly reporting — the realities of occupation.
Of course, this argument relies on its own very large assumption: that a whole people can be made to conceal the truth, to perpetrate a grand fraud on the rest of us. It sounds like the ultimate conspiracy theory. How could a lie on such a mammoth scale be engineered?
It is a difficult question to answer for an outsider, not least because it requires seeing Israel on the same terms as its Jewish citizens — raised with many of their own assumptions about the status and purpose of their people (the Jews) and their nation (Israel) and about the threat posed by the Other (generally Arabs and more specifically Palestinians).
It depends on passing through an education system that transmits historical and moral values of exclusiveness to the religious and the secular alike: premised for the former on a biblical mission to be realised by God’s chosen people; and for the latter on the overriding need to provide a sanctuary for a people blighted by centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust.
It also depends on a military rite of passage to adulthood that cements Israelis to their society, itself perceived as their only protection from a hatred, anti-Semitism, to which — if they are to believe their teachers, media and government — every gentile in the world is susceptible. This is their unique fate as Jews — and Israel is their one and only insurance policy.
Israelis who believe this — and almost all do — feel that they have no choice but to submit to the collective good. Not a universal good, one of values shared by all mankind, but a collective good reserved only for Jews.
Talk to Jewish anti-Zionists in Israel — a tiny number of people, barely reaching four figures out of a total Jewish population of five million — and most will tell you how hard they struggled to overcome the Zionist training they were given from birth. Many say they are still fighting to defeat their own racist assumptions to this day.
Jeff Halper, an academic and leading Israeli activist against army abuses in the occupied territories, recently described to me the decades-long process of “unlearning” his Zionist responses. Deprogramming is what he called it. The kind of thing we read about in the papers when vulnerable youngsters need to be revived from the dangerous ideas implanted by a cult. But how do you loosen the grip of a cult when a whole nation is under its spell?
Even the two groups that serve in the army but are most marginal to the state’s mass indoctrination programme — the small Druze community and the nearly one million Russian immigrants who arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union — face their own pressures to conform. As outsiders they have the most to prove, and the most to lose if they fail. All sorts of social and financial benefits, from houses and jobs to mortgage benefits, flow from the successful completion of military service.
In addition they watch the same Israeli media incitement against Arabs and Palestinians, they are subject to the same government-promoted climate of fear — what might be termed the cult of the suicide bomb. After each blast, Israelis are asked to kneel before the TV, to fetishise the endless film-footage loops of a burnt-out bus and the charred corpses inside.
Is there a voice reminding them that more Israelis die on the roads in a year than are killed by terror? Is there any debate about Israel’s appalling road safety record, one of the worst in the world? You bet not. Israelis are far too busy watching the TV-loop.
For the doubters among you, consider two recent news stories.
The first is the confrontation between Israel and Lebanon that escalated dramatically last week, after Hizbullah fired anti-aircraft missiles over northern Israel killing a youth. Hizbullah said it was responding to a car bomb in Beirut — blamed on Israel — that killed one of its veteran fighters.
A key context for understanding the simmering tensions on Israel’s northern border is the regular and illegal flights carried out by Israeli fighter planes into Lebanese airspace — low-flying warplanes that intentionally frighten residents with sonic booms.
This is no state secret. Anyone who lives in the Galilee as I do — and there are a few hundred thousand Israeli Jews living here too — can vouch for the sonic booms we hear on an almost weekly basis. They wake us up, usually with a jolt, and rattle our windows. And in Nazareth I am dozens of miles away from where the planes are breaking the sound barrier. What the noise is like over Beirut or Sidon, God only knows.
But the Israeli media almost never mentions these provocative tactics by the Israeli military against a neighbouring country, even though the price would be monstrously high were the region to slip into war. If the Hebrew media refer to the overflights it is always in terms of Hizbullah claims — as though Israeli ears are deaf to the sound of their own planes’ sonic booms.
Where are the letters to the Hebrew newspapers from the concerned citizens of the Galilee? Where is the debate about a provocation apparent to all? Do Israelis really believe their national security depends on their collective muteness on behalf of the government?
An even grosser mass deception by Israelis was recently revealed, accidentally, by an Israeli newspaper. Since 1986, the military censor had been excising any mention of one of the army’s most controversial orders, known as the Hannibal procedure, in the media.
The procedure was developed after an incident in May 1985 when Israel was forced to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for three soldiers captured in south Lebanon by Hizbullah. It was decided that the price being paid to retrieve kidnapped soldiers was too high.
So troops touring south Lebanon were told their first duty was to prevent the capture of comrades. If that meant killing them, then so be it. Apparently the order provoked a furore in the army when it was first revealed.
“At least one battalion commander refused to transmit it to his soldiers, arguing that it was flagrantly illegal, and in a number of units lively debates took place about the morality of the order,” Ha’aretz reported in May, in the first media discussion of the subject for 18 years. “Some soldiers said they would refuse to open fire at their buddies. A religious soldier put the question to his rabbi and was told to refuse to obey the order.”
(Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that the immorality of the order in the eyes of many of these soldiers — and the above-mentioned rabbi — was almost certainly the cheap price it placed not on life but on another Jew’s life. For more on Orthodox rabbinical rulings about the superior value of Jewish life, see Israel Shahak’s book Jewish History, Jewish Religion.)
Despite this vehement opposition, the Hannibal procedure is still in force in the Palestinian territories and was in force in south Lebanon until the army’s withdrawal in May 2000.
That means tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of soldiers knew of the procedure. Maybe tens of thousands more spouses and parents knew about the order too. And yet not a word slipped out, not even to the international media, which is not bound by Israel’s military censorship laws.
Even allowing for the censor’s eagle eye, it is remarkable that so many people managed to keep that secret under wraps for so long. For 18 years generations of army recruits kept their lips sealed and continued to do so after finishing their military service. Their families showed equal restraint.
But when in May this year a reference to the Hannibal procedure slipped through the censor’s fingers and into Ha’aretz, the floodgates were open. Those 18 years of pent-up emotions about an immoral order could finally be released. Israelis could tell all.
But a Google search on the Hannibal procedure produces only two references: to the Ha’aretz feature that broke the story and to a follow-up article by the prolific left-wing opinionist Uri Avnery. It seems there was no flood to unleash. Israelis were happy to keep on with their silence indefinitely.
HaCohen is wrong to think Israelis are ignorant of what is being done in their name. They know exactly what happens: their Zionist training simply blinds them to its significance. As long as the enemy is Arab, as long as the catch-all excuse of security can be invoked, and as long as they believe anti-Semitism lurks everywhere, then the Israeli public can sleep easy as another child is shot riding his bike, another family’s house is bulldozed, another woman miscarries at a checkpoint.
It seems that a people raised to believe that anything can be done in its name — as long as it serves the interests of Jews and their state — has no need of ignorance. It can commit atrocities with eyes wide open.