Tag Archives: middle-east

Two Pictures of War: Over the Protective Edge

On the morning of July 18, 2014 the slide show of photos on the Haaretz Hebrew online version’s front page included a couple of typical photographic representations of war. Perhaps they are unremarkable in themselves, among the daily flow of images of the current armed conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian enclave of Gaza. But perhaps the way the two photos could regard each other, or what they might want of each other, is remarkable.


Reserve soldier says farewell to his girlfriend at a mobilization point in Haifa. Photo by Rami Shalosh, Ha'aretz online, 18 July 2014.

Reserve soldier says farewell to his girlfriend at a mobilization point in Haifa. Photo by Rami Shalosh, Ha’aretz online, 18 July 2014.

One is a picture of how mainstream Israeli society sees itself in this war. The reserve soldier is a citizen reporting for duty, ready to serve his country, to protect it. He is there to be the “protective edge.” There is no celebration in the picture, no excitement, no loud hurrah, no waving flags, no parade. Other than the couple in the foreground, and the military fatigues and T-shirts worn by three of the group of men, they look as if they could be heading off on a job together. That is how Israel sees itself going off to war, somberly, reluctantly, only because it is necessary. Only because of them, their rockets, their refusal to accept a cease fire, their refusal to let us live in peace.
These are men gathering for war, but the face that is turned towards us is not the soldier in the foreground, but his girlfriend’s. Her expression is partly obscured by her sunglasses, so we don’t see her eyes, but we can see the anxiety and concern in her face as she embraces him. This too is part of the way Israel (and other countries) go to war, the men leaving the women behind. He puts himself in danger to protect her. Yet in this war (as in many other wars) as the soldier goes off to the front while the home front is left exposed to their rockets. In this case, as the girlfriend and other friends and relatives in the picture are in Haifa, they are beyond the range of all but a few rockets. But still, it makes sense that we see her face, because in this kind of war, she is as much a protagonist as her boyfriend. All civilians are human shields in this war, including Uda Al- Wadj, the Israeli Bedouin killed by a rocket that hit his community, Qasr al-Sir, close to the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona.


Wounded Gazan girl in the Shifa Hospital, Gaza. Photo: AP. Haaretz online, 18 July 2014.

Wounded Gazan girl in the Shifa Hospital, Gaza. Photo: AP. Haaretz online, 18 July 2014.

In another picture the face that is most visible to us is also a girl’s, in this case an injured, infant girl, in the arms not of a soldier but a man wearing surgical gloves and a face mask. Other than the mark on her head and what might be a bandage on her foot, it’s hard to make out the extent of her injuries. Her eyes are mostly closed, but we see the distress on her face and the concern on the man’s as he moves to rest her on a bed. Behind them, we see a group of men in the uniforms of medical staff. Unable to protect the girl – and themselves – from the missiles and shells that the Israeli military rain down on Gaza, these men’s duty is to treat the wounded. Here there is no difference between the front and the home front. The girl is on the front line, along with the men.
This is how most Palestinians experience the war with Israelis, with the reservists quietly going to the front. They shoot at us and bomb us. They drive us from our land. They make war on all of us, fighters and civilians, men and women, adults and children, young and old. They turn us into refugees. The choice is to remain steadfast and risk death, or flee. In Gaza, there is nowhere safe to flee to that is safe from their missiles and bombs. We are in the hands of God.
If the eyes of the injured Palestinian girl would open and the young Israeli woman would take off her sunglasses, and their eyes should meet, would the killing and maiming stop, would the men be able to stop doing their duty? Is this what the two pictures want from each other? Is this what all the human shields, Israeli and Palestinian alike, want from each other?


This is what “conflict management” looks like

Once again the ongoing tension between the Israeli government and Hamas has deteriorated into a massive, asymmetrical exchange of airborne explosives inflicted mostly on civilians. Last time, in November 2012, the Israeli military code for the “operation” was Pillar of Cloud/Pillar of Defense. Then as now the terminology varied between Hebrew and English, so now we have tzuk eitan (steadfast cliff) in Hebrew and Protective Edge in English. Who knows why. The current outburst of violence punctuates the persistent variation of armed conflict between the Israeli state and the Palestinian enclave of Gaza since the first mortar shell was fired from Gaza into Israel in 2001. We’re now up to the seventh Israeli operation to contain the launch of more than 8,500 Palestinian rockets, resulting in 4845 Palestinian dead and 174 Israelis, according to Ha’aretz. Probably somebody could estimate the mass of Israeli ordinance that has landed in Gaza, but the number would obscure the extension of destruction to Gazan property and prosperity brought about the Israeli-Egyptian siege. The siege hasn’t fulfilled its stated purpose of preventing the build-up of rockets in Gaza, only the rebuilding of homes and infrastructure after each explosion of destruction.

The code names of the Israeli military operation are much less significant than the conception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which they occur: conflict management. Sage “realists” who live in think tanks have concluded that the conflict is too intractable to be “resolved,” as the Oslo process has collapsed and subsequent efforts to revive it and the associated “two state solution” such as the Kerry initiative have failed too.  The best we can hope for, they tell us, is that temporary accommodations can be found that minimize the degree of armed conflict. No more wars between states, only “low intensity conflict” between Israel and its chief current enemies, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah and other “non-state actors.” So, you see, peace may be impossible, but war has been rebranded. The logic of conflict management shapes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s and the Israeli government’s relationship to Gaza and its Hamas leadership. Absent the option of a peace agreement with the Palestinians (which is blamed on the Palestinians), the best alternative is to deter the “non-state actor” Hamas from, well, acting other than as Israel wants, which is to disappear. So it’s within the rules of conflict management to punish Hamas as a whole, and any inhabitants of Gaza who are unfortunate enough to get in the way, with a dose of “low intensity conflict” for the murder of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the occupied Palestinian territories. And as Hamas responded with some “low intensity conflict” themselves, the conflict requires some more intense conflict management from the Israeli side, and so on, until things calm down for a while. Neither side really wanted the escalation, we’re told, so it’s just a question of time until they manage to find their way out. Sorry about the death and destruction until normal management is restored.

IAF strike on Gaza (Photo: EPA)

IAF strike on Gaza (Photo: EPA)

The “realists” who adhere to the doctrine of conflict management are not realists at all. The reality of conflict management is what is happening now. It is families in Gaza buried under rubble, and a lot more rubble. It is enormous and inevitable “collateral damage” (dead and injured people) of an Israeli operation that treats homes as legitimate military targets (“terrorist infrastructure). It is an Israeli pensioner who suffered a heart attack trying to get to shelter from indiscriminate rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is civilians in fear of what is falling from the skies. This is what conflict management looks like.

House destroyed by rocket in Beersheva. Photo by Herzl Yoseph

House destroyed by rocket in Beersheva. Photo by Herzl Yoseph

The asymmetry between the Palestinian and Israel casualties is immense, but it’s not a question of arithmetic. This low intensity conflict isn’t tolerable for Israeli civilians. It’s not so easy to manage shock and trauma, let alone physical injury, when you don’t live in a think tank. If you live in the confines of Gaza, there is nowhere to escape. This is what conflict management looks like.

Parents Circle Families Forum - Peace Square, July 2014

Parents Circle Families Forum – Peace Square, July 2014

There are some realists around, among the few voices in Israel that dissent from the mainstream discussion about how much military force should be deployed to manage the “non-state actors.” They might not look like realists at first sight. When everyone else is thinking about shelters that can withstand rockets, they put up a tent in a square. The Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, also known as The Parents Circle – Family Forum, have created a public space for peace in the midst of the war.

Poster for Parents Circle "Peace Square"

Poster for Parents Circle “Peace Square”

“We, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the ongoing conflict take it on ourselves to be a sign of reconciliation and dialogue.” They invite the public to join them, to listen, to discuss, for support. Based on their own experience of finding a way from their deepest pain to the pain of their enemy, they express their conception of conflict resolution in a slogan: “it won’t stop until we talk” (in Hebrew this rhymes as: ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber). The horrific episodes of death falling from the skies won’t stop until there is a negotiation peace, a peace that the “realists” have given up on. The Parents Circle enact the difficult, painful reconciliation on the ground that is peace itself and paves the way for negotiation peace. That sounds realistic to me, a reality in which people can live.


Remembering the Yom Kippur War by demanding peace

Scene from Amos Gitai's "Kippur" (2000)

Scene from Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” (2000)

Today (10/6/2013) marks the 40th anniversary of the 1973 October War fought between Israel on one side and Egypt and Syria on the other. The war is also known in Israel as the Yom Kippur war, because the Arab states launched a surprise attack on the Jewish Day of Atonement. At the time I was a 12 year old boy living in Manchester, England, and spent the day in Heaton Park Synagogue, a nominally Orthodox institution, most of whose members were non-observant. By 1973 I went to the club house of Habonim, a Labour Zionist youth movement, twice a week (along with my two older siblings), and after being a pupil at King David Primary school for seven years I was thoroughly immersed in a Zionist environment that resonated with my home life, where souvenirs from Israel adorned the walls and the Hebrew records played on the hi-fi. So, when Israel was attacked, I took it personally. If Israel was in danger, so was I.

I find it instructive to return to my feelings of forty years ago, because though now strange to me, they are familiar to so many others. Then, I felt an existential fear, a terrible dread on that day of awe. I should remind myself when I confront and engage with Diaspora and Israeli Jews, who say they are worried that the Arabs want to wipe out Israel, that they’re probably experiencing something close to those old emotions of mine. I should remember how tangible my worry was, how the terror of annihilation tasted dry like my fasting mouth, how the anxiety felt like my empty stomach. The news of what was happening that day filtered through the congregation slowly. Nobody was supposed to be listening to the radio, but Manchester City were playing at home against Southampton, and a few people had gone outside to hear the score (the match ended in a draw). Seated some distance from my father on this crowded day in the synagogue, I turned to the authority of the Rabbi, also my Hebrew school teacher, to confirm the rumours. The news we heard and watched when we all returned home was dismaying. Was Israel about to be destroyed? Were the Jews going to be thrown into the sea? Was this somehow God’s judgment? What sin had I or we committed that deserved such punishment?

The intense fear gave way to apprehension as the days passed, and the Israeli armed forces turned the situation around. Within days, our youth leaders in Habonim took us out knocking on doors to gather donations for some sort of medical aid for Israel. Soon, we had a new song to learn, Naomi Shemer’s Lu Yehi (Let it Be), which had been quickly rewritten when her husband came home from his military reserve duty, and was then adopted as Israel’s popular anthem for the post-war period. It’s a mournful song, a secular prayer whose chorus beseeches: ‘All that we seek, let it be,” and the final verse of which implores: ‘grant tranquility and also grant strength to all those we love’. Even today, the song feels comforting.

The terror passed, replaced by the relief of Israeli success on the battlefield, a cease-fire, and the beginning of disengagement talks that would eventually lead to the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, concluded in 1979. I should always remember my fear of forty years ago, but I should not forget that fear can be overcome. Fear is not a state to dwell in, not an emotional homeland, but an uninhabitable exile.

For Israel, the 1973 war was traumatic, not simply because of the surprise attack, but because of the series of military and political failures that led to the attack. The Agranat Commission (1973-75) looked into shortcomings on the military side, and by 1977, the Labour-led coalition that had dominated Israeli democracy since 1948 had paid the electoral price, paving the way for a government led by the right. The 1973 war is an unhealed wound that Israel is still picking at, and which it has barely begun to reflect on its public culture. One exception, Amos Gitai’s semi-autobiographical art-house film about the war, Kippur (2000) leaves the viewer with a sense of disorientation and detachment, its minimal action focused on a helicopter rescue unit that flies over muddy scenes of labyrinthine tank tracks as they ferry back the injured and leave the dead behind until the rescuers too become casualties, prey to the purposelessness of the war.

For the generation of Israelis who fought the war, their fear gave way not to despondency but to anger at the ineptitude and negligence of the country’s leaders. While for some the Labour establishment remained the focus of their frustration, others came to understand that as citizens they could no longer trust to their government to do what is best for Israel. Following President Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977, a group of the ‘1973 generation’ wrote to then Prime Minister Begin in the famous ‘officers’ letter’ to argue for a path of peace rather than settlements, and the Peace Now movement was born. That generation, also central to the civil opposition to Israel’s First Lebanon War in 1982, overcame their fear, and frustration, through activism. Their activism figured Israelis not as the inevitable targets of unfounded Arab hatred, condemned to fight one war after another, but as partners for peace who wanted “No more war, no more bloodshed’ and that ‘the October War will be the last war’, as Begin’s and Sadat’s words repeated in a jingle on the Voice of Peace radio station.

In 1973, the founders of Peace Now could not know as soundly as they do now that the disaster of the war was not only that Israeli forces were caught off guard but that the war happened at all. By October 6th, there was no choice but for Israeli soldiers to fight back, but leading up to that point there were significant opportunities for Israeli governments to negotiate over the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights which had been captured in the June 1967 war. The war was an example of politics fought by other means, when diplomacy would have been far preferable.

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Diplomacy seems to be breaking out all over the Middle East now – in the case of Syrian chemical weapons, and Iran’s nuclear programme. As several commentators have noted, this outbreak has made Benjamin Netanyahu anxious. In his UN speech on October 1st he referred to Iranian President Rohani as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, thereby directing not only Israelis but the whole world to be wary of the new mood blowing from Tehran. Netanyahu is a salesman in statesman’s clothing, a merchant of fear whose domestic political standing is directly proportional to the terror he induces. He is a political Mafiosi, promising Israelis protection in the form of armed might against a threat that he magnifies in order to sell his wares more effectively. He makes offers of ‘defence’ and ‘security’ that the voters can’t refuse. Netanyahu is a politician of fear, an orchestrator of powerful emotions who constantly builds them into renewed crescendos. It is not that there are no threats at all to be concerned about, but the politics of fear need to be confronted with a politics of different emotions, including hope. The fear of extinction that is shared by so many Diaspora and Israeli Jews is not unfounded but palpable. It cannot be dismissed, but nor can we remain hostage to it. The generation of 1973 found in Peace Now the best counter to the politics of fear in their activism, in giving voice to a demand for a better present. Their demand remains the best memorial to the Yom Kippur war.

World War Zion: or Trumpeldor’s Return

Zombies rush the wall in World War Z. Paramount Pictures

Zombies rush the wall in World War Z. Paramount Pictures

(spoiler alert)

By now word is out that the new Hollywood summer blockbuster zombie movie, World War Z, includes a controversial section about Israel/Palestine. In the rapidly paced plot, driven at the speed of an action movie, the world is overrun by a viral pandemic of fast-moving zombies. Gerry Lane, the hero of the film, an American former UN investigator (remobilized for the emergency), played by co-producer Brad Pitt, learns from a former CIA operative in a US military jail in South Korea that Israel knew of the outbreak and had time to quarantine itself behind a wall. Lane flies to Jerusalem, where Mossad agent Jurgen Warmbrunn dispels the hint of a global Zionist conspiracy by explaining that they had intercepted Indian military communications about fighting the zombies, then implemented their survival plan based on prior experience of persecution and attack. As Lane is shown around Jerusalem, the film shows scenes (filmed in Malta) of a huge wall on the edge of Jerusalem that clearly resembles the existing notorious separation wall that encloses and cuts off most of the Palestinian West Bank. As in reality, the film portrays an elaborate military checkpoint through which healthy people of any background may pass into the safe zone, apparently allowing Palestinian Arabs as well as Israeli Jews to enter. But the joyful survivors celebrate together noisily, attracting the zombies outside, who pile on top of each other to climb over the wall, bringing the safe haven of Zion to an end. Lane narrowly escapes by plane, taking with him one of the Israeli military escorts, a woman who calls herself by her rank segen (lieutenant) and whose left arm Lane amputated hastily after she was bitten by a zombie, thereby saving her. Segen becomes Lane’s lieutenant for the rest of the film, a heroine who assists him in discovering and obtaining the medical means to camouflage the survivors from the zombies, namely, injecting the healthy with terminal but curable pathogens.

Al-Jazeera reported that some viewers have interpreted the film (both critically and favourably) to be ‘pro-Israeli’ because it justifies the separation wall as a means to keep out an implacable enemy bent on the annihilation of the Israeli population. Others noted the irony of Palestinians as well as Jewish Israelis being admitted through the checkpoint in the film, while others pointed out that the wall failed to keep out the threat. In a piece published in the Washington Post, Jake Coyle noted the ambiguity of the film’s message about the wall, wondering if it might be a symbol of peace, a haven for Jews and Muslims, which unfortunately is not secure enough. In light of the film’s sympathetic treatment of Israel’s brief, militarized survival as the world’s last civilized state, Jordan Hoffman approvingly takes it to be ‘the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since Otto Preminger’s Exodus’, even while noting that it is the ‘joyous cherished vision of unity and peace’ – Israel’s admission of Palestinian as well as Jewish survivors who celebrate together – that leads to its downfall. Jesse Benjamin notes the same point in her critical reading according to which the audience is treated to a ‘not at all veiled justification of Israel’s current and widely condemned Apartheid Wall’ along with the usual (for Hollywood) racial and gender hierarchies.

The ‘message’ of the film regarding Israel goes deeper than whether the wall failed because it was not mighty, high or exclusive enough, or because the survivors were too noisy in their celebration, or because the wall is a failed strategy for security. The real wall itself is often credited by the Israeli government with preventing terrorist attacks, especially suicide bombers. ‘Zuicide’ bombers appear akin to zombies in that they are implacable, irrational, inhuman, and are already dead, or committed to death. Yet, the wall is neither complete yet, nor hermetically sealed, and the Palestinian Authority’s security force’s sustained cooperation with their Israeli counterparts, along with changes in Palestinian attitudes towards such violence, probably explains as much about the reduction in suicide bombings as does the wall itself. Nor is it one wall that encloses Israel, but a series of walls, fences, barriers and checkpoints built around Palestinians in the West Bank, in addition to being a target of protest and resistance itself.

Less significant than the portrayal of the wall in the film is its very character as an action drama infused with the terror of human annihilation by the mouths of the insatiable zombies. If, as I did, viewers suspend all disbelief, mortal fear is rarely more than 30 seconds away. Such existential anxiety in the film has been carried over from the books by Max Brooks on which it is loosely based, who explains in an interview that his books are not horror that conjures up fear but instead a vehicle for ‘a baseline level of just anxiety about the world I live in’ (emphasis added). The child of anxious and protective parents, Brooks enables his readers to ‘metabolize’ their fears about the world – HIV/AIDS, post 9/11 instability, natural disasters – into science fiction. The zombies are not real, but the grounds for fear are.

In the case of Israel and Zionism, such existential fear for survival is rarely far from the surface. For many, probably most, Jewish Israelis, fear of collective annihilation by a ferocious, implacable enemy underlies their felt need for security embodied in armed force and high walls. Zionism’s first military hero was Joseph Trumpeldor, a decorated former officer in the Russian army, who lost his left arm in battle (like Segen in the film), emigrated to Palestine in 1911, and died as the legendary defender of the Tel Hai settlement in 1920. Given Trumpeldor’s fate, I was relieved that Segen survived the movie, but by now Trumpeldor is very much a faded legend in Israel, as much a target of satire as a heroic figure, as Yael Zerubavel explains in her book Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Segen, self-identified only by military rank, is always serious. With her shorn head, she appears in the scene in which she and Lane survive a plane crash wrapped in a blanket, looking every inch like a death camp survivor. The connection between near annihilation in the Holocaust and survival through military might is blatant. In the face of such inhuman hostility, much Israeli policy operates under the conviction that ‘the whole world is against us’, and ‘there is no partner for peace’. In World War Zion, Israel faces the zombies alone, and there can be no peace with zombies, or zuicide bombers.

Segen (Danielle Kertesz) with Brad Pitt in "World War Z" (photo credit: Courtesy)

Segen (Danielle Kertesz) with Brad Pitt in “World War Z” (photo credit: Courtesy)

The fear is real, but the zombies are not. The Palestinians are not zombies, but people who want what Israelis have: civil rights, independence, and so on. Not all Israeli Jews see the Palestinians and other Arabs (and Muslims) as zombies, and Israeli perceptions and policies change over time. But the upper hand is with those who see zombies everywhere, build walls to keep them at bay, and disregard the value of their lives. The lives of the Palestinians do not count. Their lives are not, as the American Jewish philosopher Judith Butler puts it in another context, grievable when Palestinians are framed in Israeli discourse as zombies.

The ‘zombies’ that many Jewish Israelis fear came from elsewhere, from another time and place. Like the fears that Brooks channels into science fiction, these Israeli Jews displace their just fears of former persecutors in Europe and other places onto Palestinians and Arabs in general. It is a fear that I carry too, a fear that also allowed me to feel, for a while, in the movie that if only Israel survived, that would be good enough. But in order to avoid the injustice of treating Palestinians as zombies, as ungrievable lives, I and other Jewish Israelis need to understand – and feel- that we are not the only ones who are afraid, whose lives are lived in the shadow of existential anxiety, whose lives are, as Butler says, precarious. Out of concern for own precariousness, we have imposed it on the Palestinians. We have sought to be exclusive and pure in our precariousness, yet in the film it is not purity that immunizes human beings against the zombie threat (by camouflaging them), but self-contagion with pathogens. So long as we seek to be utterly secure at the cost of the insecurity and precariousness of Palestinian existence, we will not be secure, nor will we be at peace. Acknowledging the shared human condition of precariousness, and the unjust imposition of it on those we frame as zombies, is a precondition for a future peace.

Obama’s Peace, Our Occupation

Cover of Shimon Peres' book from 1993

Cover of Shimon Peres’ book from 1993

Watching Obama's speech in Rabin square. From Peace Now facebook page.

Watching Obama’s speech in Rabin square. From Peace Now facebook page.

Despite the low expectations about President Obama’s visit to Israel and Palestine, everyone on the Israeli left seems to want to talk about his speech to Israeli students, which was also his direct address to the Israeli public rather than its politicians. Quick off the mark was Moriel Rothman in his Leftern Wall blog, who found five positive points in the otherwise biased, ‘gloop-filled’ speech, such as Obama’s call for an independent, viable Palestinian state to achieve peace, his condemnation of unpunished settler violence, and especially the phrase: ‘Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer’. Similarly, Gush Shalom praised the speech for reminding us ‘that peace is possible and necessary, that we do have a partner for peace, … and that Israel must end the occupation’. Peace Now labelled it a ‘historic speech’. Commentators in Ha’aretz were impressed too. Ari Shavit considered the 18 minutes of the speech dedicated to the pursuit of a necessary, just and possible peace to be ‘a soft admonishment’ to Israelis in what was otherwise ‘a royal visit of love’. According to Barak Ravid, the speech was ‘a combination of a warm embrace and a punch in the gut’, both identifying with Jewish Israeli self-perceptions and also trying to ‘shake their paranoia and their fears’. More critical voices on the +972 blog noted that while the speech contained some ‘niceties regarding peace … the Right proved that the occupation has no cost, that the rift with the U.S. doesn’t exist and that denying the Palestinians their freedom is sustainable policy’. Obama called settlements ‘counterproductive’ to peace, but he did not repeat his 2009call for a freeze. And he endorsed the recent Israeli expectation to be recognized as a Jewish State by the Palestinian Authority, even though about twenty percent of Israel’s population isn’t Jewish but Palestinian Arab.

Obama’s visit to Israel was a successful charm offensive, his speech being a key part of that by taking rhetorical responsibility for the state of mind of the Jewish Israeli public. He did this most clearly when he said first in Hebrew and then in English ‘You are not alone’ so long as the USA exists, a point repeated twice when he said that ‘Israel has the unshakable support of the most powerful country in the world’ and that the USA is ‘a country that you can count on as your greatest friend’. Before first making that point, he had rehearsed the Zionist narrative of Jewish exile, persecution, and longing for return to the promised land, of building the land, of resilient defence in the face of external hatred and military threats to the state’s existence and terrorism, of rebuffed offers for peace to the Arab world. No wonder, then, that for the audience in Ramallah Obama’s speech proved that he’s more Jewish than the Jews, according Amira Hass’s report. And perhaps it’s less surprising, given all this reassurance that Jewish Israeli fears are not only understood but also justified, that the applause continued to punctuate Obama’s speech when he called for justice for Palestinians too, for them to be ‘a free people in their own land’ (echoing the words of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, in reference to Jewish nationhood).

In advance of Obama’s delivery of the speech, we were told that its writer, Ben Rhodes, would want to convey messages that ‘that Israel can no longer rely on authoritarian leaders in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world to help guarantee its security’ and that ‘people can make a difference, even if their leaders are stuck’. Those points were made, but what matters more are the grounds of the American appeal to Jewish Israel (overlooking the non-Jewish fifth of Israel) which is based on complete American identification with Israel. The speech also hopes that the reassurance of this empathetic identification will propel Jewish Israelis to identify with what it takes to be the shared hopes of Palestinians. It offers an image of peace in which both Israelis and Palestinians are said to want the same things: ‘the ability to make their own decisions and to get an education and to get a good job, to worship God in their own way, to get married, to raise a family’. The speech asks the audience to imagine ‘a future in which Jews and Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land’. In the final section of the speech, Obama focused on Israeli prosperity and innovation, echoing the Israeli PR image of the ‘start-up nation’. He figured Israel as the embodiment of that which people across the Middle East ‘are yearning for — education, entrepreneurship, the ability to start a business without paying a bribe, the ability to connect to the global economy’. In other words, Obama asked Jewish Israelis to identify peace with the sort of prosperity offered by neo-liberal global capitalism, the prosperity that some Israelis do enjoy, but most feel excluded from, as demonstrated by the massive social protests of the summer of 2011. Nonetheless, it is a positive image of peace that speaks to Israeli sensibilities, a continuation of the charm offensive. His host, Israeli President Shimon Peres, had tried to sell a similar image of peace at the time of the Oslo agreements, but his vision of a prosperous new Middle East has long since been tarnished by the absence of peace and the failure of negotiations.

Yet, in another key section of the speech Obama identified peace as justice, first insisting on the centrality of Israeli security to any peace agreement, then calling on Israelis to identify with Palestinians, to ‘put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes’. Briefly, Jewish Israelis were invited to see the Israeli military as a ‘foreign army’ in the Palestinian occupied territories, to see themselves as farmers barred from their land and families displaced from their homes. But only briefly, and then peace as justice gave way to peace as prosperity, and the Israeli audience saw itself mirrored again in America’s unconditional love, the favoured child of its Big (M)Other, tied by a relationship that began just ‘eleven minutes after Israeli independence’.

In this speech Obama failed to ‘create the change that you want to see’, if indeed he wanted to picture peace as justice and for Israelis to identify with Palestinians. Instead, he reinforced the prevalent Israeli view that their security takes precedence over justice for Palestinians (in the form of the ending of occupation and independent statehood). The speech reassures Jewish Israelis that they should repeat their hegemonic narrative of victimhood and persecution, according to which the question of justice pertains primarily to righting the wrong of past generations through present force and might. Seeing itself in the mirror of American power, when asked to see the world through Palestinian eyes, this Jewish Israeli narrative can see only that a Palestinian child is being beaten, not that we are beating the Palestinian child.

No justice, no peace.

Planning Peace from Afar: Stop Repeating the Trauma

Photo from Jürgen Stroop’s report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943 and one of the best-known pictures of World War II.
The original German caption reads: “Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs.”

Samir ‘Awad being evacuated from the scene after being shot, 15 January 2013. Photo: Nasar Mghar

Samir ‘Awad being evacuated from the scene after being shot, 15 January 2013. Photo: Nasar Mghar

In an expression of unbridled American optimism, former diplomat Dennis Ross, a key figure in the post-Oslo process, published in today’s (3 March 2013)  New York Times a 14-point agenda for reviving the halted peace process and reviving the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In principle, there is nothing wrong with being optimistic in an effort to imagine the achievement of peace, but ungrounded optimism can become the grounds for the lost hope of failure. Ross is aware that ‘most Israelis and Palestinians today simply don’t believe that peace is possible’ and that ‘neither side believes that the other is committed to a two-state outcome’, arguing that each side needs to overcome ‘the problem of disbelief’. So, he proposes a package of trust and confidence building measures, most of which can be undertaken unilaterally but in coordination by each side, that ‘can actually generate changes that ordinary citizens on both sides could see and feel’. Never mind that the whole approach of ‘confidence building measures’ championed previously by Ross and US administrations has led into the cul-de-sac of disbelief and despair. He has learned from his mistakes and seeks to repeat them perfectly.

One could take issue with Ross’ specific proposals, which reflect American attunement with Israeli rather than Palestinian concerns. He suggests that the Israeli government from now restrict its settlement building to the blocs in the West Bank that Israel intends to keep as part of any future agreement, while preparing to relocate those settlers who currently live outside those blocs. He does not suggest that Israel dismantle all settlements established since 2001, as required by the 2003 Road Map. Ross does call for Israel to expand the scope of Palestinian self-government and policing in Areas A, B and C of the West Bank, but he does not insist on an end to Israeli military incursions into Area A, the 18% of the West Bank that’s supposed to be under the Palestinian Authority’s full civil and security control.

Last week, there were demonstrations throughout the Palestinian occupied territories in support of the prisoners on hunger strike. In an impassioned appeal to the Israeli public on Israel Channel 2 news on 24th February 2013, PA official Jibril Rajoub spoke of the prisoners and their detention without trial in Israeli prisons as the most sensitive issue of the occupation, the focus of unrest that’s been labeled the ‘prisoners’ intifada’. But that’s not on Ross’s radar. Nor are the numerous, unpunished attacks on Palestinians and their land by extremist settlers, despite the ‘culture of impunity’ regarding such attacks, described in detail in a recent UN Human Rights report. There is no mention in Ross’s list of the ongoing friction caused by the completion of the separation barrier, which entails seizing Palestinian land and separating owners from unhindered access to it. The planned dispossession of Palestinians in the South Hebron hills to clear way for military Firing Zone 918 also does not get Ross’s attention. The weekly catalogue of shootings of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, their excessive use of force to suppress demonstrations, recorded by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, does not register for Ross as part and parcel of the insufferable burden of occupation that must be relieved before Palestinians can be convinced that the Israeli government is serious about ending its control over them.

Nonetheless, Ross suggests that the Israeli government take some concrete steps that would be felt and seen by Palestinians. By contrast, the measures he proposes that the PA take would not make much difference to the daily lives of Israelis. Instead, he says that the PA should ‘speak’ of two states, ‘acknowledge’ the existence of a Jewish as well Palestinian national movement, ‘show’ Israel on their maps (though he does not ask for a parallel redrawing of Israeli maps so that they show the ‘green line’), and end ‘incitement’. The only practical step that Ross asks of the PA is to build permanent housing in the Palestinian refugee camps (presumably to reassure Israelis that Palestinian refugees will forego their ‘right of return’ to their former land now in Israel). As he acknowledges that Palestinian security forces fulfill their obligations to collaborate with Israeli forces in preventing armed attacks on Israelis (which he’d like the Israeli government to acknowledge publicly, so long as the PA is equally generous about Israeli good-will measures, such as treating Palestinian patients in its hospitals), Ross does not include in his plan increased PA security action against armed militants. Nor does he explain how the PA should continue to repress Palestinian militant opposition to the occupation while also (as he recommends) focusing on ‘the rule of law’.

What then is Ross asking of the PA, with all this speaking, acknowledging, showing and abstinence from inflammatory language? He is asking that the PA take rhetorical responsibility for the state of mind of the Jewish Israeli public. Ross grasps well that much of the Israeli public feels insecure about its existence, dubious that further withdrawal from territory seized in 1967 will bring peace and security – although the two recent withdrawals he mentions, from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 were both unilateral Israeli moves, in the face of incessant armed and civil opposition to their presence. But such an approach, according to which the PA offer Israelis the reassurance they want to hear repeatedly, assumes that the Palestinians (and other Arab nations, and Islamic states) are the source of Israeli insecurity. This is a false assumption, one that does not go deep enough into the trauma that needs to be acknowledged and worked through if peace is to be first imagined, and then made real. The clue is on another page of the same issue of the New York Times, a chilling report on recent research about the Holocaust that dramatically increases the known number of Nazi ghettos, and concentration, slave labour, prisoner-of-war, euthanasia, abortion and brothel camps. Well-meaning, instrumentalist, technocratic, pragmatic ‘confidence-building’ measures cannot be the remedy for a conflict in which a traumatized people has brought trauma to another. The headline of Ross’s piece is ‘To Achieve Mideast Peace, Suspend Disbelief’. The last phrase should be ‘Stop Repeating the Trauma’.

Warsaw Ghetto 1943

Thankful for the living, not mourning for the dead

Far from the daily tensions and confrontations of Israel, Palestine and occupation, I am spending the Christmas holiday with my niece’s family in rural Leicestershire, England, staying at a bed and breakfast in the hamlet of Teigh. On a morning stroll we did hear some shooting – but this is hunting and farming country. The owner of the bed and breakfast gave us a large, iron key so we could let ourselves into the local church, after telling us a little about the history of the Old Rectory where we are sleeping, as well as of the church and the pattern of landownership and farm tenancy of the estate on which Teigh is built. Patterns of land use and ownership go back centuries, Teigh being mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1085 following the Norman conquest, the Rectorship in the hamlet being continuous since 1238. Holding the heavy key in my hand, I thought of the similar ones held by Palestinian refugees as material symbols of their lost homes, and of their claims to ownership and usage of land that are denied by the Israeli laws since 1948.


Teigh church interior

Teigh church interior


The small church was unused this Sunday, cold and yet intimate. At the end of the south wall is a brass plaque that says:








Let everything that have breath praise the Lord

Teigh is thus known as a ‘Thankful Village’, for having escaped casualties in that horrendous, murderous war.


Plaque in Teigh Church

Plaque in Teigh Church


Memorializing those who died in wars is a way to legitimize and sanctify wars, to turn them into acts of collective sacrifice that bind a nation together in conflict with Others. With the passage of time and under conditions of peace, the antagonistic force of such commemoration can be blunted as old enmities give way to new alliances, as between Britain and Germany. But in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, memorialization of the victims of violence for the most part reinvests the emotions and practices of mourning in confrontation between the two peoples. A notable exception is the ‘Alternative Memorial Day’ held by the bi-national group Combatants for Peace in which casualties on both sides are remembered.

But what if instead of investing our energies in commemorating the dead of war and violence, we focused on the living, as in thankful Teigh? What if we chose life rather than death? What if we spent less time sanctifying the fallen, and more time caring for those with whom we share life in the present? If we became less reconciled to the repetition of hostility and more hopeful that routine life will go on, would it become easier to imagine peace rather than expect war? The serenity of the winter countryside is seductive, the warmth of a family holiday immunizing against thoughts of national hostility. It’s easy to overlook the history of conquest in this landscape, never quite forgotten in the inequalities of lands seized and ancient rights erased. Yet, being thankful for the living must, I believe, be a more peaceful practice than memorializing the fallen.