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talking politics

Between Betrayal and Brutalization

Twice in a single week, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon was forced to take opposing positions when relating to events that happened in his own backyard. The first time was a news item on Channel 2 that showed putative activists of "Breaking the Silence" (an organization which exposes the moral effects of the occupation on the Israeli occupation forces) recording testimonies of discharged soldiers. These "activists," it turns out, were right-wing moles; they claimed that Breaking the Silence was collecting sensitive and classified information on Israeli military operations. Ya'alon quickly called Breaking the Silence a group of traitors. Thus he joined a right-wing smear campaign against human rights organizations whose activities are perfectly legitimate.

Not long after that, Ya'alon had to deal with a B'Tselem video showing an Israeli soldier shooting Abdel-Fattah Sherif in the head while he lay wounded on the ground. Abdel-Fattah Sherif had made a stabbing attack on Israeli soldiers patrolling the center of Hebron. This time Ya'alon did a verbal about-face. He condemned the soldier's action. Confronting his colleagues on the right who came to the soldier's defense, Ya'alon asked in the Knesset: "What do you want, a brutal army that has lost its moral backbone?"

Ya'alon is caught in a contradiction. He attacks Breaking the Silence, but just a week later he supports a B'Tselem video that breaks the silence. The two organizations complement each other. Breaking the Silence documents testimonies of discharged soldiers talking about the acts they were forced to carry out against Palestinians. B'Tselem publishes testimonies of the Palestinian victims, including those hurt by the soldiers who later broke silence.

Both organizations are seen by most Israelis as "provocateurs” that seek to tarnish the country's image abroad. Indeed the video distributed by B'Tselem was immediately transmitted by foreign broadcasting agencies, and its effectiveness can be measured by its wide international distribution. It turns out that the defense minister, who is in fact the minister responsible for the occupation, holds one mishna (an instruction in Jewish law) when he removes his uniform and addresses the Likud Central Committee, and another mishna when he steps into the shoes of Defense Minister. The leap from the Likud Central Committee to the Ministry of Defense, and the accompanying ideological gymnastics, indicate that ideology and reality do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.

Ya'alon is the one who leads the view that there is no room for negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state. He argues that the Palestinians seek to destroy Israel and return to Acre, Haifa and Jaffa. It is in this spirit that the political platform of the present government was written. It operates according to the understanding that the occupation in its present form is here to stay. The occupation stands on three legs: Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the Hamas government in Gaza. The problem is that there is no coordination among the three: the PA in the West Bank is at odds with Hamas in Gaza and both are at odds with Israel. Thus the occupation is not stable, while neither Palestinian party is able to impose complete control and create the stability needed to maintain its rule.

The PA is in deep distress, partly stemming from its security coordination with the IDF at a time when the Israeli government opposes any negotiations leading to a Palestinian state. Along with the absence of a so-called "political horizon," other destabilizing factors must be added: the economic hardship of the Palestinian civilians; the prolonged teachers' strike which allows Palestinian children to roam the streets; the high unemployment rate of those with academic degrees; the tens of thousands of Palestinians illegally working in Israel; and the general sense of humiliation in a life without freedom of movement and without sovereignty.

These conditions resulted in the outbreak of “lone wolf” attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers. Palestinian political instability finds expression in the “stabbing intifada.” This creates a situation in which both "good" and "errant" Israeli soldiers kill Palestinian youngsters who attack Israelis with scissors, knives, cars, improvised guns, or anything in sight. It is very difficult to maintain morality when the most modern military force in the Middle East faces knives instead of aircraft, scissors instead of missiles, cars instead of tanks. It is an unequal war between soldiers and civilians, without morality.

Just as the Palestinian boy does not heed the orders of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli soldier is not exactly heeding the directives of Defense Minister Ya'alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Ya'alon's goal is to “normalize” the occupation. For this purpose, he needs not only the PA to commit to what Abbas once called the “sacred” security coordination, but also for Palestinian citizens not to rebel against this strange security arrangement. He needs Breaking the Silence, B'Tselem and other human rights organizations to stop snitching on injustices that take place “here and there" in the West Bank. He also needs Israeli soldiers, who find themselves in a “real” life-threatening situation, to differentiate between acting defensively and carrying out an execution, to differentiate between a 20-year-old woman attacker and an 11-year-old girl, between scissors that are used for cutting hair and those used for cutting metal.

Ya'alon wants the PA to clamp down on incitement in its territory, and he has harsh words for home-grown agitators, whether it's Bennett sitting in the government or Lieberman sitting in the opposition. Nonetheless, in order for the occupation to work, Ya'alon needs the cooperation of all parties: Bennett, Islamic Jihad, Lieberman, Hamas, the incited Palestinian child, and the incited Israeli soldier. This is, of course, impossible. Ya'alon loses his temper because no one understands him. He's angry at everyone, from the extreme right to the extreme left. Why the hell don't they realize that, if only they would fall into line, he would be able to stabilize the situation to the satisfaction of all?

The intelligence reports that Ya'alon receives every morning give him a sense of optimism. Syria is breaking up, Hezbollah is involved in the Syrian civil war, Egypt is preoccupied with its war against the Islamic State (ISIS), while Iran is under international supervision. Hamas has surrendered to Egyptian dictates and is ready for any arrangement that would secure its continued rule. Even the PA, miraculously, is still committed to security coordination with Israel – and without any progress in negotiations! Never was Israel's strategic situation better! Were it not for the “isolated incidents” (stabbings, car rammings, shootings) it would be possible to realize the vision of an informal Palestinian autonomy. But it turns out that reality is not to be found in intelligence reports, and what appears to be a favorable environment to maintain a secure occupation is quickly veering out of control.

Palestinians themselves do not understand the 'what and why' of all this brouhaha in Israel. Palestinian commentators don't see Abdel Fattah Sherif's execution as anything unusual. An editorial in the newspaper Al Quds summarized this feeling. Its headline said: "Military occupation cannot be moral." For his part, Muhammad Abdul Hamid wrote a commentary entitled "Kill or be killed" in the newspaper Al Ayam; in it he cites the statements of Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who recently said it was forbidden by Jewish law to allow non-Jews to live in the land of Israel (a phrase that includes the West Bank and Gaza).

What every Palestinian understands is not understood by the Israeli Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Chief of Staff: there's no such thing as a moral occupation. If you want to have a moral army, do not send soldiers on unethical missions. If you want to fight against the brutalization of the army, it can only be done in a greenhouse. You cannot fight racism, fascism, and religious extremism while sending Israeli youth to perpetuate the occupation of the Palestinian people on the pretext of defending their country. All attempts to make the occupation “normal” explode daily in the face of the current government. The army is brutal. People are brutal and extremism rules. Ultimately, when the “lone wolf” intifada turns into a “large-scale” intifada, the Israeli right will be at a total loss.

  • Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman
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