Al-Ahram Weekly – 25 September 2003
I am loath to put pen to paper again to continue a debate with Ran HaCohen that doubtless appears more than a little self- indulgent to many outsiders. Maybe we do sound like two birds singing from the same tree limb, as one of Al-Ahram Weekly’s more compulsive Zionist letter writers described us.
But it is not easy to let this correspondence lie, to allow the contents of HaCohen’s second missive go unchallenged. The moral blindness, and complicit silence, of the Israeli people as its government and army set out on a project against the Palestinians that HaCohen rightly describes as “on the verge of genocide” urgently needs explaining.
I do not want to take issue with much of what HaCohen writes. His reply to my reply sets out the nature of the official information blackout imposed on the majority of Israelis: what the headline writer neatly termed “manufactured blindness”. HaCohen is right that Israel, like any other regime, democratic or authoritarian, resorts to propaganda and disinformation in times of crisis.
He is also correct to point out that even those who witness atrocities, such as soldiers, often do not see the whole picture of the occupation (though let’s not forget that they see far more than most foreign visitors to the occupied territories, few of whom leave without being converted to the cause of anti- Zionism by their experiences).
And it is clear that HaCohen and I are agreed that Zionist ideology filters, and hugely distorts, Israelis’ perceptions of what is being done in their name.
But where we part ways is on the more substantive point of whether it is justifiable to describe most Israelis, including soldiers, as “in the dark” about the occupation? HaCohen claims Israelis are almost exclusively dependent on official sources of information, which are now closely controlled by the state to deprive the public of knowledge about the occupation; I posit a theory where Israelis have plenty of access to information — much of it not from official sources but from their own experience or from the experiences of those close to them.
HaCohen, I think, puts too much emphasis on issues of detail to support his case. Does it matter whether Israelis know on which days Hebron is under curfew, or how long it now takes to travel from Ramallah to Bethlehem, or whether removing a particular checkpoint actually improves the quality of local Palestinians’ lives? Is this what it means to “know” about the atrocities being done in their name?
In fact, the information cited by HaCohen is usually available to Israelis, even if it exists on the margins of their news coverage. The question is whether it remains there solely because of government manipulation or also because Israeli newspapers know there is almost no appetite for it among the public. Journalists too share the values prevalent among the wider population. (Consider the differences in British and US coverage of the reasons for going to war with Iraq).
And when it comes to understanding the context of the occupation and its Palestinian response, the Intifada, Israelis are better equipped than most other news consumers. They know what a settlement looks like and a bypass road, they understand the concept of closure, and they know what “a targeted killing” involves. (In contrast, a study by the Glasgow Media Group last year showed that many Britons were unclear whether Israel was occupying the Palestinians or the other way round.)
What I want to argue is that HaCohen’s model of a society stripped of all pretence of democratic accountability, run by a cabal of military politicians who deprive the rest of the society of information, seems improbable at best.
He criticises me for overestimating the homogeneity of ideology in Israel: “Even the most totalitarian regime cannot turn all people into automatons”. But this charge applies to his model far more than it does mine. He is the one claiming that during this Intifada the Israeli government has successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of virtually every Israeli on all the realities of occupation. It is HaCohen, not me, who is forced to conclude that the latest aggressive phase of military occupation “is part and parcel of [Israel’s] decline from a relatively open, relatively democratic society to closed militaristic authoritarianism”.
I have a problem with this position because, whatever HaCohen says, it partially absolves Israelis of their guilt in crimes not just being done in their name but in some cases by their very own hand.
HaCohen’s theory assumes that Israelis have no access to the information they need to make judgments about the occupation. According to his logic, all but the regime’s top echelon will be able to claim ignorance should Israel ever face its own Nuremberg trials.
In other words, the core of his position is that the Israeli media, in manufacturing a reality that makes sense of, and excuses, the brutal policies of the political-military establishment, gives Israelis ready-made grounds for claiming at a later date “We knew it was bad over there but we did not know it was that bad”.
But Israel, however unpleasant and racist a country it has become, is not a military totalitarian regime. It is not, after all, Burma. Despite the lazy labels used by some of Israel’s critics, Ariel Sharon, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Yaalon — HaCohen’s evil triumvirate — do not comprise a junta. For proof of this we need only consider whether there are voices heard in the Burmese media equivalent to Amira Hass’s or Gideon Levy’s, or for that matter voices heard in Burmese politics equivalent to Azmi Bishara’s or Yossi Beilin’s.
Many foreign visitors to Israel are baffled by the apparent paradox of a militaristic bully state that at the same time maintains, and even cherishes, the bases of an open society: a largely unregulated media and a higher education system entry to which is based mostly on merit. Attending a protest, at least if you are a Jew, almost certainly won’t get you shot.
The argument in my earlier article was not that there is no opportunity for debate in Israel but that almost all (Jewish) Israelis conspire in making sure that they never exercise their most basic rights to independent thought and free expression. It only takes a small fraction of the population to start questioning what is being done in their name for the manufactured reality presented in the Israeli media to unravel.
My point about the absolute silence in Israel on illegal flights into Lebanese airspace (apparent to the thousands of Israeli Jews living in the Galilee who hear the sonic booms) and the Hannibal procedure (an immoral order to kill Israeli soldiers rather than let them be taken captive, known for two decades to tens of thousands of soldiers) is that it reveals how much Israelis do not want to open a public debate or exercise democratic control.
Their ignorance is not manufactured, or imposed, it is an expression of their free choice (though admittedly one severely handicapped by their life-long Zionist training).
There are hundreds of other examples I could have chosen. Consider just one: the Israeli army’s continuing use of Palestinians as human shields. The Adalah legal centre has been cataloguing such incidents, which not only break all norms of international law but do so in such a flagrant manner that any soldier who is involved in such an event should be in no doubt that he has been party to a crime against humanity, an atrocity.
And yet listen to one soldier, reserve sergeant, Nati Aharoni, in an interview with the army’s weekly newspaper Bamahaneh on 12 April 2002 on his experiences in Qalqilya: “We had entered the building in the past and were afraid that this time the Palestinians might have left explosive devices for us. So according to normal practice the unit commander took a Palestinian from a neighbouring house and made him look through the place. Then we shook his hand and thanked him.”
Incidents like this take place every day in the occupied territories: this is just another “normal” event, so ordinary that the speaker does not think that what he is describing may strike the listener as startling, let alone a heinous crime.
Take another account, this time from that great rarity, an Israeli soldier prepared to speak out. In July Adalah presented an affidavit from 39-year-old Gedalia Etzion, who revealed that during his recent reserve duty his battalion had been advised on new rules about the taking of human shields, a practice now known duplicitously in Israel as “prior warning”.
In inimitable Israeli style, the courts have approved the practice but only so long as the army seeks the consent of any Palestinian before he or she is taken hostage. When Etzion’s commanders explained the new rules, he recounted, “One guy asked what we would do if the Palestinian did not agree to serve as a shield, to which the instructor answered — grinning and joking — ‘There is no such thing’.”
It is notable that Etzion chose to come forward, but it is also notable that no one else has. What about the others in his unit or the soldiers in all the other units who sat through the same or similar lectures? Where are their voices?
When HaCohen says only a few combat soldiers are exposed to the atrocities of the occupation, I think he is wrong. You don’t have to shoot someone, or bulldoze their home, to be a party to war crimes. Being privy to these kinds of internal military conversations, and remaining silent, is enough.
Israel’s soldiers understand the nature of the occupation because they inhabit a military culture which is not shy of talking, or joking, about what is involved in enforcing it. More than this, they live in a military culture that openly lauds its own excesses. Just think of Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon recently telling Israelis that his job is to “sear” into the consciousness of Palestinians the awareness that they can never succeed in their struggle to end the occupation.
What of the judges who listened to the series of human shield cases brought before them? Did they intervene, did they stop a practice clearly illegal under international law? No, more than a year after the original case was brought, they have done nothing.
To understand how judges respond to such cases, consider the comment of one supreme court judge, Michael Cheshin, in a related case involving Israel’s “targeted killings”, more accurately described as extrajudicial assassinations. He observed that he preferred the use of such assassinations — even if they endangered the lives of civilian bystanders — than have his son, a soldier in the army, do the job. “My son goes into that [Palestinian] territory and I don’t want to endanger him,” he said in court.
Judge Cheshin’s outburst was published in Israeli newspapers as part of reports on the hearing but no internal Israeli debate was provoked by his comment. Ordinary Israelis presumably felt the judge was only giving voice to their own values.
Finally, let’s not forget that there are many other Israelis exposed, in a different way, to the occupation. After all more than 400,000 Israelis (nearly a 10th of the country’s Jewish population) live as settlers in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
The vast majority, at least 80 per cent according to Peace Now, can be classified as economic settlers: ie they live in illegal occupied territory because the Israeli government gives them huge financial incentives to do so rather than for ideological reasons.
Most are not zealots, or bigots beyond the Israeli norm, but nonethless they are very close to the occupation. They see Palestinians caged into their villages, they see the roadblocks, they drive past as the sick, elderly and pregnant are held or humiliated at checkpoints. Many can see the fearsome “security wall” being built across, and destroying, Palestinian farmland.
They also understand that they are living on stolen land (that, after all, is why it is so cheap), and that the Palestinian farmers they once saw tending their fields now live under curfew or, because of abuses by the army or fanatical settlers, are too scared to leave their villages. They see it, and so do the Israeli relatives and friends who visit them.
As I read HaCohen’s response I was reminded of a mildly left-wing Israeli friend I have known since before the Intifada. We studied together in London before she returned home to Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and later with the outbreak of the fighting I came to Israel too, to live in Nazareth.
We usually meet at her home as she is too frightened to come to an Arab area, meaning the Galilee. Every other weekend she travels to see her parents in a settlement in the West Bank, in her mind not quite so clearly an Arab area.
My work, and what I see happening to the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab citizens, inevitably drives many of our conversations. Over long months my friend has had the chance to hear much about the occupation, about Israeli atrocities, including those I have witnessed, and about how her and other Israelis’ opinions are manipulated by the Hebrew media.
What she sees as she travels by bus to her parents’ home has been given context by my own descriptions of what is happening, often unseen, to the non-Jewish neighbours who surround her parents’ settlement.
Yet, though it pains me to say it, I am sure she has gained almost nothing from our conversations. Her Labour-Meretz politics have remained largely unchanged. Her fear of the Arab, all Arabs, is unaltered. Her curiousity levels are still so low as to barely register.
This is her choice, it is not imposed on her by a cabal of leaders. It is why Israel embodies that greatest of oxymorons: it truly is both a Jewish and democratic state.