Category Archives: anti-war

There’s nobody to talk peace with (even when you’re speaking to them)

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Peace Square (Bereaved Families Forum), Jerusalem, June 5 2016

The simplicity of the slogan of the Bereaved Families Forum, “It won’t end until we talk,” is already an answer to the simplistic and often repeated phrase “there is nobody to talk to,” (ein im mi l’daber). (The forum’s slogan rhymes in Hebrew: zeh lo y’gamer ad shen’daberI wrote about this slogan in the context of the 2012 war on Gaza). Reassuring themselves in the certainty that talking and dialogue is pointless, Jewish Israelis often convince themselves that while they want peace, “they” (the Others, Arabs, Palestinians) do not. It can hardly be an entirely comforting belief, because it condemns the citizens of the Jewish State to be at war, “to live by the sword,” for the foreseeable future. Inevitably, that means there will be more bereaved Israeli as well as Palestinian families. But we humans are peculiar creatures, so sometimes it makes more sense to us to repeat the trauma of personal and collective loss, to enfold it in a tragic narrative of good versus evil, the peaceful versus the belligerent, the victims versus the perpetrators, than to break through the loss. What could be more horrifying than to think that perhaps our loved one was lost because there was something we didn’t do, especially when that something was as simple as talking to your enemy. So it’s better to insist that there’s nothing that can be done.

Perhaps that is some of the feeling that I could hear in the anger of one of the people who passed by the Peace Square set up by the Parents Circle Families Forum in the German Colony neighbourhood of West Jerusalem. The tent, which I’ve written about previously from a distance, was part of a series of events to reclaim Jerusalem Day in the name of tolerance.  The day marks the “reunification” of Jerusalem when Israeli forces conquered (or some would say “liberated”) East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian control, and has become a festival of the national religious settler movement whose idea of liberation is one of exclusive Jewish control.

Two members of the forum, Rami Elhanan and Roni Hirshinzon, were there to explain the work of the Forum, to answer questions, and once again to open their hearts and tell the story of the loss of their children to the conflict. For the most part, the discussion in the shade of the small park among those who had chosen to come to the event was quiet, somewhat curious, respectful. But not everyone who chanced by and stopped wanted to listen, or even to take note of whose banner marked the square. Foremost among them was Mr. Shouty, who succeeded in rousing other sceptical and critical observers to shout among themselves and close down the discussion.

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Rami Elhanan sitting with a picture of his daughter Smadar and his friend Bassam’s Aramin’s daughter Abir, both killed in the conflict.

Mr. Shouty (for the sake of this blog I’ve absorbed the statements of some others into this one character) had all the regular answers to the Forum’s slogan, all of which add to “there’s nobody to talk to” (ein in mi l’daber). We are only here because we’re strong. If they had the power, we’d all be dead. They vote for Hamas. If the Peace Square can’t be held in the open air in Hebron, that shows we’re the peace lovers and they aren’t.

I was less prepared to hear Mr. Shouty’s brutal put down when Roni told him he’d lost two sons in war: “And did you hand out sweets?” With one sharp rebuke, he dismissed the loss of Palestinians in conflict to dehumanized celebration of the sacrifice of martyrs. We are bereaved, he said in other words, but they are so consumed by hate that they don’t feel loss. Maybe it would have made some difference if a bereaved Palestinian had been there to voice her own pain, but I doubt Mr. Shouty would have been any more ready to listen. To talk.

Earlier a woman had passedby and rebuked “us” for airing Israel’s dirty laundry in the international public, clearly without knowing who “we” were. I asked Rami how he felt that someone could be so dismissive even as he asked her questions. He talked about how much harder it is when he goes into classrooms and the kids shout at him, but that all he hopes for is one hint of acknowledgement from someone at the back of the room – a glance that suggests that he has made once crack in the wall of enmity, that he might have saved one drop of blood. So Rami, Roni, and other member of the Forum keep on talking, hoping that someone will listen, even when they are being shouted at by people who won’t let them talk. They cannot know which small crack in the wall (the title of the Forum’s Hebrew and Arabic community Facebook page) will open the floodgates and stop the last drop of blood from flowing.

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Peace of Ass / Walking the Peace Talk

The Peace Superhero

The Peace Superhero

Peace of Ass / Walking the Peace Talk” is an exploration of the symbolism of national identity that is at play in what’s called the  “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict.  In a mock fashion show that includes dance our project employs humorous, irreverent contact-based physical activity to displace the psychic investments of national subjects and to activate alternative enjoyment that entangles the national identities of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs with each other in symbols of peace. The project consists of six sections: playing with flags, walking the peace talk, shouldering peace/heading for peace, getting comfortable with peace, peace superhero, and “Peace of Ass” contact improvisation dance.  In a static exhibition of clothes and flags from the performance, participants are invited to try peace on for size.

The project was staged and performed at the International Zizek conference, “Parallax Future(s) in Art and Design, Ideology, and Philosophy,” held at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, April 4-6, 2014.

The project is discussed by its producers and directors, Ariel Katz and Jon Simons, in “Peace of Ass / Walking the Peace Talk: A non-artists’ statement.” International Journal of Žižek Studies, Special Issue on Žižek & Art (Guest Editors – Kristopher Holland and Hallie Jones), Vol 9 No. 1 (2015).

The essay is available on line: http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/view/513/541

Divine Violence, Divine Peace: Gaza 2014

This blog is an opinion piece I wrote during the time of the Gaza 2014 war, which has been published in a special supplement (which I edited) of the journal Theory & Event about the war. The whole collection is available free on online, and includes essays by smart, insightful and sometimes sad essays by Adel Manna, Amir Nizar Zuabi, Lev Grinberg, Ofer Cassif, Muhammad Ali Khailid, Louise Bethlehem, and Trude Strand.

IAF strike on Gaza (Photo: EPA)

IAF strike on Gaza (Photo: EPA)

On July 7th I flew back to the US after a month-­long trip to the UK and then Israel. On the same day, the Israeli assault on Gaza began, called in Hebrew “Operation Steadfast Cliff” (tzuk eitan). In my summer schedule, I had set aside time after my return to Bloomington to work on a paper titled “Peace: An Emergent Norm of War and Conflict,” for the American Political Science Association (APSA) conference. I intended to consider Walter Benjamin’s essay “Critique of Violence” among other texts.1 But I had not taken into account that during the summer I would be trying to write against the background of a war that I felt immediately, a war that interrupted my daily schedule as I constantly listened for and looked at updates.

As I tried write I was facing the “steadfast cliff” of the Israeli war on Gaza. The utter pointlessness of the deaths, injuries and damage weighed heavily on me. I didn’t want to be in Bloomington. As an Israeli citizen I felt a duty that outweighed my professional duties, a civil duty to participate in the activities of the Israeli opponents of the war, my Israelis, who are increasingly subject to intimidation by ultra­-nationalist phalanxes on the streets and on social media.2

It was impossible to separate my work from my anxiety, anger and frustration. I had to submit to the interruption in order to think critically about the normal abnormality of what Benjamin refers to as a “state of emergency.” By contrast, a “real state of emergency” 3 would interrupt not only our professional normality but also the regular flow of history – in this case, the repetition of warfare. What, then, with Benjamin’s help, did I think about peace while rockets, bombs and shells fell on Gaza and Israel and the anti­-war demonstrations went on? How could protests constitute an “effective critique” of military violence?4

Through Benjamin’s eyes, the predominant, juridical ways of critiquing the violence of this war are not an effective critique of military violence because they partake in the same means that justify it. In his critique of the legal critique of violence, he argues that all law rests on a “common basic dogma,” that “just ends can be attained by justified means, justified means used for just ends.”5 In the legal framework of the self­defense of nation­states, or peoples, Israel condemns the military violence of the other as aggression, as a means to unjust ends contrary to the sanctity of human life. At the same time Israel justifies its own force as self­defense, as a means to a just end – national and individual survival. Legal norms do not rule out extensive use of military violence as a means of self-­defense, while the spiral of condemnation and justification speaks to a diabolical logic of “we are good, our enemy is evil.”6

Significantly, Benjamin considers military violence to be paradigmatic of all violence, including the “lawmaking”7 violence of the state, whose ultimate end is in preserving itself. Law cannot provide an effective critique of violence because law itself has a “violent origin.”8 The origin of law is war, in the “peace ceremony” that sanctions “every victory” by “recognizing the new conditions as a new ‘law’.”9 The peace that follows victory establishes the “frontiers” in which the law operates and establishes the “power” of the law.10 Israel historically has been the victor that has used military violence to determine the frontiers in which the state’s civil and military law apply. It has determined who has a right to live within these frontiers, as well as granting partial rights to some of the vanquished, denying them entirely to others.

The “mythical violence” that constitutes law is, Benjamin says, the violent anger of the gods, which humans experience as fate. Indeed, fate, anger and retribution are the terms in which military violence is felt, not the reasonable language of international law. Many Jewish Israelis experience rockets falling like bolts of lightning cast down by the gods, as terror, as the manifestation of the anger and hatred of an enemy who has no rational motive, only a will annihilate them. For their part, Gazans experience unrelenting violence from the skies and on the ground as the anger and rage of their implacable Zionist enemy who denies them national and often personal existence. Military violence is their recurring fate.

As an alternative to the fate of mythical military violence, Benjamin asks whether violence is ever justified as a means, irrespective of its ends. His controversial, affirmative, answer is that there is pure, immediate divine violence that halts mythical violence” and initiates “a new historical epoch”.11 Benjamin’s conception of the pure means of nonviolence comes down to pure language that is neither intersubjective nor communicative. It is not a means to an end, nor a medium, but an immediacy that “corresponds … to the messianic end of the history.”12 The pure language of nonviolent means is the same as divine violence.

But Benjamin also takes us in a different direction – towards the non­violent resolution of conflict, towards peace. On the face of it, he has a conventional understanding of the nonviolent means of conflict resolution, referring to the values of courtesy, sympathy, and trust in resolving disputes, along with conferences and diplomacy. 13 Yet, it seems to me, that along with Benjamin’s notion of divine violence is a notion of divine peace that also does the Messianic work of interrupting the cycle of mythical violence.

Must we then wait, perhaps forever, for the coming of the messiah for this violence to stop, or can there be peace now? Perhaps, but perhaps the interruptions of mythical and military violence are performed and witnessed on an everyday level even as the violence continues. As an example, I turn to the activities of the Parents Circle Families Forum ­ Bereaved Families a joint Israeli­Palestinian organization of about 600 families. For them reconciliation between nations is a prerequisite for conventional, negotiated peace. 14 During the Israeli war on Gaza the Bereaved Families have interrupted the military, mythical violence in two ways.

In a video that they disseminated through social media, they interrupt the repetition through which mourning for the fallen is sanctified by further military violence which leads to more bereavement.15 At a time of war when the impulse is for each nation to unite, to become one camp, the video repeatedly tells us in Hebrew and Arabic that they don’t want us “here,” with them, in a circle of bereavement.16 The solemn faces against the grey background speak a pure language, the sharing of language as a sharing of existence.

Parents Circle Families Forum - Peace Square, July 2014

Parents Circle Families Forum – Peace Square, July 2014

The group’s second interruption of military violence is the “Peace Square” next to Tel Aviv’s Cinémathèque, in which they counter the media propaganda and hatred running rampant in Israel by sharing their stories, and their choice for reconciliation, providing a space for dialogue.17 The talk under their canopy will lead to no peace treaty, but it is a sharing of language and a persistent presence. 18 Their slogan is “it won’t stop until we talk” and though “it” hasn’t stopped, their talk interrupts momentarily the flow of violence.

Of course, I do not mean that in actuality the violence stops. The messiah is not here, and history continues. The language of divine peace is a language we don’t yet understand, but through it passes the “weak Messianic power” that each generation has.19 One of the Bereaved Families’ projects is a dialogue on Facebook in which posts are translated from Hebrew and Arabic, and vice versa. The site is called “Crack in the Wall,”20 and it indicates how “every second of time … [can be] the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”21 Through these small cracks in the wall, the Bereaved Families interrupt mythical violence, making room for a different history that might burst through at any time. Peace.

Notes

1.  Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz (Schocken Books, New York, 1978): 277–300.

2.  Omer Raz, “Unprecedented’ violence stalks anti­war demos across Israel,” +972 blog, July 29, 2014. http://972mag.com/unprecedented­violence­ stalks­anti­war­demos­across­israel/94530/. Accessed August 3 2014.

3.  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, (Schocken: New York, 1968), 257.

4.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 284.

5.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 278; 293.

6.  See for example Ari Shavit, “In this sad war story, Israel is in the right,” Ha’aretz online, English version, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium­1.606865. Accessed July 29th 2014.

7.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 283.

8.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 288.

9.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 283.

10.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 295.

11.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 297; 300.

12.  Carlo Salzani, “Purity (Benjamin with Kant),” History of European Ideas 36 (2010), 444.

13.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 289.

14.  Its mission is to prevent further bereavement through dialogue, tolerance, peace and reconciliation. http://www.theparentscircle.org/Content.aspx? ID=2#.U4Ss7PldWSo. Accessed May 24, 2014.

15.  See Jon Simons, “Mourning the fallen: working through bereavement,”  Picturing Peace blog, July 26 2014.

16.  Parents Circle Families Forum, “We Don’t Want you Here,” video, July 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dgo1MpWuwgE&list=UUxz­1IROo6QyjY8fheIA9AQ. Accessed August 1 2014.

17. Peace Square Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/483960538374211/?ref_newsfeed_story_type=regular. Accessed August 3 2014.

18.  Israeli Social TV “Peace Square.”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KrilbWAei4 Accessed August 1 2014.

19.  Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 254.

20. Crack in the Wall Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/crackinthewall/info.

21.  Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 264.

Test is Copyright © 2015 Jon Simons and The Johns Hopkins University Press

 

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After the dreadful episode of the Israeli war on Gaza this summer, it’s easy to forget that it took place less than two years after the previous “round” of the long war which is Israel’s continuing politicide of the Palestinian people. But yes, two years ago, on November 14th 2012, Israel launched an assault on Gaza. Before the “steadfast cliff” of July-August 2014, there was the “pillar of cloud” of November 2012.  To commemorate the start of that war I have chosen this clip, a Social TV report of a small demonstration on the evening of the first day of the war, outside the apartment building of then Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In the clip, protesters ask how come that yet again a war had been launched on Gaza. They are talking wearily about the “cast lead” of 2008-9. The offenses against Gaza  repeat themselves terribly every few years.

Radical banality: “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies.”

Placards at anti-Gaza war demonstration, Tel Aviv, July 26 2014. Still from video by Social TV.

Placards at anti-Gaza war demonstration, Tel Aviv, July 26 2014. Still from video by Social TV.

A large demonstration was planned for this evening by the Israeli peace camp in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Today the police cancelled it in accord with the directive of the Homefront Command against the assembly of more than 1,000 people in areas including Tel Aviv because of the danger of rocket attacks from Gaza. The organizing groups (the Meretz and Hadash parties, Peace Now, Combatants for Peace, The Forum of Peace Organizations, The Young Guard in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Another Voice, and the Parents Circle Families Forum) decided to postpone the demonstration. But activists called on social media to come to the square anyway, without the stage and the speeches, but with the call: “We’re changing direction to peace: not to war, but a political solution.”

Among the slogans that will probably still be shown and shouted in the square tonight, as at so many demonstrations before, such as the one in the same place last week, is the seemingly banal statement” “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” The slogan is most often seen on the posters of the Hadash party, but everyone joins in, and others have adopted it too. It sounds like a naïve statement, as if merely repeating it will stop the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. It seems to fly in the face of the reality of the conflict, the spiral of violence, the unwillingness to compromise, the distrust and fear. It also appears to contradict another slogan of the Israeli peace movement, often attributed to Yitzhak Rabin, that “you make peace with your enemies.” Do those who chant and display this slogan really think that the Israeli government and the Palestinian delegation, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, can find a way to restart and extend the ceasefire into a broader agreement by waving a magic wand that ends the entrenched enmity?

The slogan “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” is neither unrealistic nor naïve. It is rather a radical, if not revolutionary statement. It does not deny the reality of the conflict, but refuses to accept the ethno-national-religious grounds on which the conflict is conducted. It speaks an ethical imperative, for (Israeli) Jews and (Palestinian) Arabs to refuse to be mobilized as Jews and Arabs in this war or any other war. It refuses the seeming naturalness of the belief that “well, I’m an Arab, and you are Jew, so I hate you, because you want to kill me,” and vice versa. It rejects the imperative to impose ethno-national and masculinist identities on ourselves and our bodies, instead of putting people before flags.

People on flags. Design by Ariel Katz, produced with her by John and Hazel Varah from Same Sky.

People on flags. Design by Ariel Katz, produced with her by John and Hazel Varah from Same Sky.

The slogan calls instead, implicitly, for Jews and Arabs to recognize themselves according to other, intertwining identities – as citizens, as humans, as Middle Easterners, as people of Abrahamic faith. The slogan refers, indirectly, to the civil society of Jews and Arabs that existed in Mandate Palestine until 1947-48. It was a civil society that could, with difficulty, have survived the 1947-8 partition process, had the network of Arab-Jewish relationships documented in the film Civil Alliance directed by Ariella Azoulay been sustained. The slogan is practiced daily by joint Israeli-Palestinian peace activists in groups such as Combatants for Peace, Parents Circle Families Forum, Ta’ayush and the Hadash party. The slogan refuses enmity and embraces peace by radically changing the terms, identities, loyalties and affiliations of war. The slogan at once calls out in the identities of Jews and Arabs, and puts them aside. Instead of Jews against Arabs, Jews or Arabs, it chooses and. Jews and Arabs.

Update: several hundred did demonstrate in Rabin Square on the evening of August 9th

It won’t stop until we talk

Parents' Circle slogan

Parents’ Circle slogan

Yesterday came the awful news of the breakdown of the 72 hour humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza war known as Operation Protective Edge, and that an Israeli soldier (Hadar Goldin) was missing, perhaps abducted by Hamas, perhaps already dead. It seemed that there would be no end to the Israeli ground operation and continued attack on built-up areas in Gaza, with the terrible toll in Palestinian civilian casualties as well as the losses of Israel and Palestinian fighters. Today (August 2, 2014) it seems that there is some relief. As I write, the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Security Minister Ya’alon are completing a press conference in which they confirm earlier reports during the day that Israeli forces are withdrawing from built up areas in northern Gaza and that all the known tunnels crossing from Gaza into Israel will be destroyed within hours. The Israeli government is scaling back the war in Gaza unilaterally, rather than trying to arrange another ceasefire with Hamas and beginning negotiations for a longer term agreement through Egyptian (and other) mediation. They will rely on deterrence, the cost of the war for Hamas and Gaza, instead of coming to an arrangement to end the military violence. At the same time, they said that the Israeli government would continue to do whatever it takes to achieve “quiet” and security for Israeli citizens.

But it isn’t over. It’s not over not only for the reasons that the Israeli government gave, namely that the air bombardment or fighting on the ground would resume if it turns out that Hamas are not already deterred. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri had already declared that Hamas won’t be bound by any Israeli unilateral measure: “They either stay in Gaza and pay the price, unilaterally retreat and pay, or negotiate and pay.” Probably, the Israeli government’s latest move has left the cards in the hands of Hamas, who can choose to drag Israeli forces back into full-scale war as they wish.

It’s not over not because nothing has changed. More than 1600 Palestinians have been killed, along with 66 Israelis, and thousands of homes and other buildings in Gaza have been destroyed. The death and destruction has been colossal and dreadful.

It’s not over because we didn’t talk. It’s not over because the underlying issues that led to the violence have not been addressed. It’s not over because there is still an occupation; there is still a siege on Gaza; there are still Israeli settlements throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories; there is still one law for Israelis and another for Palestinians in Area C; there is still a separation barrier running through Palestinian land; there are still checkpoints restricting Palestinian movement; there are still Palestinian refugees. It’s not over because Hamas and Islamic Jihad use murderous military violence rather than nonviolent means to bring the Palestinians an independent state. It’s not over for all the reasons that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has not been reached yet.

At the root of all those reasons is the refusal to talk. To really talk. To speak and to listen. To hear what is painful and to say what you fear to say. To talk not only to those with whom one feels comfortable, but with those whom you don’t trust and don’t like. To talk to your enemies. There are many reasons why Israel’s government and its citizens distrust Hamas and also the Palestinian Authority, and why talking with them will be difficult, painful, infuriating. And vice versa.

It’s not over in part because the Israeli government has decided that as a matter of policy it will not talk. It will not talk, except by the most indirect means to Hamas at all, and it will not talk in good faith – really talk – to the Palestinian Authority. It will not talk about peace agreements other than as a way to keep talking but not talk at all. And it won’t talk to a Palestinian reconciliation government that includes Hamas. It won’t talk to Hamas other than through the coercive, violent language of Operation Brother’s Keeper and Operation Protective Edge. Hamas talks back with rockets and tunnel attacks. Helluva way to talk.

PCFC.logoIn the midst of the horrific, terrible violence there has been a quiet voice, a voice that talks, that really talks, because it also listens, because it talks for the sake of talking. Not empty talking, but talking for the sake of reconciliation, for the sake of practicing peace long before the politicians get around to talking earnestly about peace. The voice, and the ear, is the Parents Circle Families Forum whose slogan is “It won’t stop until we talk.” During this war, the group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families has made efforts, such as this video on social media, to keep talking, to turn people away from the violence that breeds bereavement, and to turn them towards the talk that also listens in their “Peace Tent.”  The tent has operated daily throughout the war, in Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque square, offering a space in their words, “to provide an alternative to the propaganda and hatred running rampant in Israel …. [and]  share their stories, their choice for reconciliation.” It’s not over yet, because not enough people are listening.

Rockets or refugees, war or peace

One of the most frequent targets of rockets fired from Gaza during the current military violence, aka Protective Edge, is the Israeli town of Ashkelon. Ashkelon is on the Mediterranean coast, about 13 km or 8 miles north of Gaza, so its 117,000 inhabitants have only 20 – 30 seconds to reach cover once a Code Red alert sounds. Not surprisingly, they are fed up with living that way, and before the Israeli ground offensive began some of them wanted it to happen, while others disagreed. On the street, according to this Jerusalem Post report, there was a feeling that the government needed to get tough – we need a Putin, they said. Be careful what you wish for.

A Hamas rocket hit a house in Ashkelon, Israel, about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip. A woman in the home was taken to the hospital for a panic attack. Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

A Hamas rocket hit a house in Ashkelon, Israel, about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip. A woman in the home was taken to the hospital for a panic attack. Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

When the situation is presented this way: “we just want to live here peacefully, but the Hamas terrorists keep attacking us,” it make sense to limit the discussion to the extent of the measures that self-defence should take. Of course, air shelters and the Iron Dome rocket defence system, but to really stop the rockets, just air strikes or also a ground invasion? Just to weaken Hamas, or wipe them out?

The context calls for some other questions, both about what self-defence means, and what the situation really is. Here I won’t try to provide a whole context or history, merely to point out that Ashkelon was not always Ashkelon. It has been inhabited since long before Jews and Arabs arrived in the land, but from the 16th century until 1948, it was the Palestinian Arab village of al-Majdal, with about 11,000 residents.

A view of al-Majdal, Palestine, in the 1930s, from the American Colony photographic collection. (Library of Congress)

A view of al-Majdal, Palestine, in the 1930s, from the American Colony photographic collection. (Library of Congress)

According to the 1947 partition plan, it was to become part of the Palestinian Arab state. During the 1948 war, most of the inhabitants fled as it became the forward position of the Egyptian army, and so a target for Israeli attacks, and as a result most of the inhabitants fled further south to Gaza. When Israeli forces took the town in November 1948, there were only 1,000 people left. At first, they seemed to be luckier than the 700,000 or so Palestinians who became refugees, as local Israeli officers ignored an order by their commander Yigal Allon to expel them. In fact, their numbers increased to 2,500 as other Palestinians who had been uprooted from the surrounding area either sought a relative haven with them or were sent from other places from which they had been expelled. But they were kept in a barbed wire ringed camp known as the ghetto (yes, really) and dispossessed of their homes and livelihoods.

Generally it’s claimed that the exodus of Palestinian refugees was an immediate result of the war and the fighting, or a military necessity for the fledgling Israeli army fighting the armies of the surrounding Arab states. But the refugee crisis was really created after the war had ended, both by preventing the return of the civilians who had fled their homes and by expelling more of them. Not only were the 10,000 residents of al-Majdal who left the arena of battle in 1948 not allowed to return, but the 2,500 Palestinians who remained there after the war had ended were expelled. There was actually some discussion in the Israeli government about what to do with them, so there was no rushed response to an emergency situation, but a policy decision was made that they had to go either by choice or by force. The “voluntary evacuation” was a sham, the main point of which was to get those who left to sign papers relinquishing all future claims to return. On 17th August 1950 the expulsion began, with almost all of them going to Gaza. The expulsion is documented in Israeli records, including photographs of Palestinians loaded onto trucks.

Al Majdal, October 12th 1950. Photo by Beno Rothenberg.

Al Majdal, October 12th 1950. Photo by Beno Rothenberg.

So if we know and understand that most of the Palestinians in Gaza are refugees and their descendants, mostly from the areas where Israeli civilians are under rocket attack, how else might we think about “what must be done” now? If we perceive the horrendous situation not simply as something that began when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, but as a violent reality that has existed since 1948, what would it take to address the issues feeding into the current violence?

Zochrot, an organization to promote Israeli Jewish society’s acknowledgement of and accountability for the Nakba, looks at today’s crisis in these terms. The organization understands that for most Israeli Jews, the very thought of the Palestinian refugees returning to Israel conjures up existential danger and the fear of annihilation. But as they put it: “Return does not mean expelling Jews from their homes, but the very opposite: The mutual existence of Palestinians and Jews in the country.” They pose quite practical questions, which they work through in imaginative and creative projects: “What might return actually look like on the ground? What needs will have to be met for the refugees to be reabsorbed? How would major social institutions be reorganized to prepare for return?”

Zochrot visit to Ashkelon/al-Majdal, 2003. Al-Ustaj and Al-Shuk Streets, posted at the corner of Herzl and Eli Cohen. Photo by Adi Kemmelgren

Zochrot visit to Ashkelon/al-Majdal, 2003. Al-Ustaj and Al-Shuk Streets, posted at the corner of Herzl and Eli Cohen. Photo by Adi Kemmelgren

So, what would self-defence look like if Palestinian refugees living in Gaza returned to Ashkelon, a growing city? Would we need an Iron Dome or air shelters? Who would be firing rockets, and at whom? Would “we” need a huge military budget to defend ourselves from “them” if all of us lived not in zones defined by barbed wire and concrete walls, but by the myriad connections of Jewish-Arab, Palestinian-Israeli civil society – neighbourhoods, schools, transport, trade, culture, language, government? What do we prefer, to protect ourselves from the rockets at the cost of many more lives, or to live with the refugees?