The Ghosts and Illusions of the Occupation

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On Monday, as I watched the press conference held by the family of Tariq Abu Khdeir, a 15 year-old American citizen who was brutally beaten and detained, without charge, by Israeli Border Police in East Jerusalem, I thought to myself, why doesn’t this change everything? 

By everything, I mean the understanding, or at least an acknowledgement, over here, in American Jewish conversation, of the occupation. After all, can you look at Tariq Abu Khdeir’s swollen, bruised, and bloody face, or at the video of the police officers pummeling him on the ground, and not say to yourself, “is this what ‘supporting’ Israel means?”

It’s not an aberration, as Noa Yachot, an editor at 972 magazine, writes. But these abuses rarely receive media attention:

According to Defense for Children International Palestine, 214 children were detained in Israel as of May of this year. In the last 12 years, Israel has detained more than 7,000Testimonies detail terrible abuse and torture while in Israeli detention, with few of the protections afforded children under international or Israeli law. Due process is something of a joke; Palestinians are tried in military courts, where the conviction rate is nearly 100 percent.

Many of those children are accused of stone-throwing – an allegation leveled by the police against Tariq, as well.

But despite the myriad human rights reports and their chilling descriptions, the regular injustices of the occupation rarely make mainstream headlines. Although what happened to Tariq is far from an aberration, few other Palestinian children who land, battered, in Israeli military prisons prompt calls for an investigation by the U.S. State Department and headlines in the likes of TIME MagazineNew York Times the Daily NewsABC, and many more.

Jeffrey Goldberg, who can hardly be accused of being anti-Israel, called Tariq’s beating possibly “more consequential” than the horrific execution of his cousin, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, because it was committed by “agents of the state,” and therefore evidence of a “state failure”—a failure that Goldberg was quick to point out was “not a one-off failure.”

The Mossawa Center, an advocacy group for Arab citizens of Israel, describes an uptick in “price tag attacks, unjustified police violence, and physical attacks on Arabs including women and children has led to increased anger and frustration in Arab localities,” even before the three Israeli teenagers were heinously kidnapped and murdered last month. The group has called on the international community “to put a stop to the racist violence and incitement against the Arab community in Israel and to put an end to the unjustified political arrests of youth and activists.” The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has collected evidence of beatings and abuse in custody (via Emily Hauser).

Violent reaction in East Jerusalem is “no surprise,” says Jo-Ann Mort, writing in Dissent:

[T]he rabid building for Jewish extremists inside of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the lack of adequate building permits for Arab residents has angered the population. City services are scant. The atmosphere in the city fuels discontent. For example, each June on Jerusalem Day, the fiercely nationalist holiday that marks the forceful Israeli unification of Jerusalem in 1967, the police allow tens of thousands of right-wing teens and their leaders to stridently march through Arab neighborhoods with megaphones through which they shout nationalist slogans, hailing their sovereignty over the streets.

“These Jerusalemites,” Mort goes on, “have existed as ghosts to the majority of Israeli Jews and American Jews who don’t usually travel east of the holy basin in the Old City and who have no conception of Arab Israelis’ daily lives or desires.” (emphasis mine)

Tariq isn’t a ghost, though. He’s a kid from Florida who is an American citizen. Does that change anything? My Jewish teenager, your Jewish teenager would have a very different experience if he or she went to Israel to visit relatives on summer vacation. They might, in fact, not even know there was an occupation unless you told them. (Update: After I posted this, I read via the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that, apart from J Street, “among American Jewish groups, the incident hasn’t prompted much comment.”)

Sharon Abraham-Weiss, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote this week, “It is clear that the current tension does not exist in a vacuum. Alongside the complex security situation, Israeli society has undergone a significant shift in recent years where it has become increasingly radical, nationalistic and antagonistic to ‘the other.’”

(Still, though, hope: Elisheva Goldberg reported hundreds of Israeli Jews paying their respects to the mourners for Mohammed Abu Khdeir.)

“The current bleak situation is strengthened,” writes Brooklyn College historian Louis Fishman, “by the fact that there is a total lack of will by the Israeli state to promote co-existence and to educate the Jewish population about the national minority within them, that they too have a legitimate right to the Land. In fact, while the current government plans at allocating money to strengthen Israeli ties with the Jewish diaspora, there are none for creating a safe haven for its non-Jewish citizens.”

Ghosts.

Israeli political commentator Dahlia Scheindlin dissects the disparate labels used to describe acts of terror committed by and upon Jews and Palestinians. “Those distinctions,” she writes, “give political insight and have legal consequences.” Using the term “Jewish extremists” to describe Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murderers “shows that Jewish Israelis have no trouble distinguishing regular people from fanatics when they’re our own.” But, she goes on, “We don’t describe a Palestinian who kills a Jew as ‘Palestinian extremist.’ For most Israelis ‘Palestinian’ is sufficiently synonymous with extremism. Indeed, many Israelis hardly notice Palestinians except to point out acts of violence.”

These labels, in turn, create norms through which extraordinary abuses become routine:

The terrorist label is important because it means the authorities can use extraordinary legal measures rather than due process. But “extraordinary” is misleading: those actions are daily fare for the many Palestinians unlucky enough to go through the military court system. There is much talk of destroying the Jewish families’ homes – from outraged rabbis to the mother of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. That’s precisely because it’s not “extraordinary”:  home demolitions and other facets of non-democratic military rule have become the norm for occupier and occupied alike.

For Jewish perpetrators, though, B’Tselem says that the Israeli military “do not do enough to prevent Israeli civilians from attacking Palestinians, their property and their lands,” and that “perpetrators are rarely tried, and many cases are not investigated at all or are closed with no operative conclusions.”

Journalist Daoud Kuttab reports on this phenomenon at Al-Monitor, including an attack in the West Bank on the Rev. Atallah Issawi and his companions, who feared for their lives. “The attack against the pastor and his companions is only one of many such incidents taking place daily involving an unarmed and rather helpless Palestinian population and settlers who are armed and ultimately protected by the Israeli military,” Kuttab writes. “The army rarely acts against the settlers, and the same frequency applies to attempts to punish or deter them.”

Would the fact of a Christian pastor being attacked — an incident which, committed anywhere else in the world, would prompt American conservatives to level claims of anti-Christian persecution — change any American minds?

Now we have Operation Protective Edge, which, Noam Sheizaf writes today, could have been avoided. Instead of claiming that Hamas rocket fire into civilian areas in Israel left it “no choice,” Sheizaf argues, “the Israeli leadership could start dealing with the root causes of those various problems, rather than waking up when everything is on fire, scoring some easy points by manipulating the public’s rage, and, once more, declaring that they left us no choice but to go to war.”

But these warnings aren’t just coming from the Israeli left; they are coming from the security establishment. At the Forward, J.J. Goldberg translates the Facebook post of the former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, Yuval Diskin, who says that Israeli “illusions” fueled the current escalation:

the rapid deterioration we’re experiencing in the security situation did not come because of the vile murder of Naftali [Fraenkel], Eyal [Yifrah] and Gil-Ad [Shaer] [the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and murdered], may their memories be blessed. The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government’s inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that “price tag” is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done in the West Bank and won’t respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won’t impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won’t take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government’s helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.

Ghosts. Illusions. And so on and so on and so on.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email

  • Whiskyjack

    Excellent article, Sarah. I have a real problem commenting on these things, because the charge of anti-semitism is so easily leveled at those who criticize Israel. I abhor the settlement policy by which Israel is at the root of all these problems. The settlement policy of the Israeli government, along with their Jim Crow attitude towards the Arabs (read Muslims) who inhabit the lands they claim as their own is abhorrent. Admittedly, it is little different from the ways and rationale under which the Europeans claimed the lands from the aboriginals in North America. But that is a shame from which I hope that humanity would have learned from. The real tragedy is that if you lock yourself into an Iron Age morality, there is no hope of moral progress. Those that really believe that an Iron Age god gave them a chunk of land will unlikely be persuaded that more modern ideas of law and right hold sway.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ the Old Adam

    And they continue to try and kill Israelis indiscriminately. They still avow to wipe Israel off the face of the map.

    What else can Israel do?

  • Jim Reed

    Let those people go.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    They unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, Jim. Exactly the place from which the rockets are coming.

    Try again. And you also might want to read up a little on the subject. It’s important to get facts straight.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Israel was founded by overwhelmingly secular socialists. The dominance of the Israeli religious right in Israeli politics is quite recent.

    As for your last remark, Israel is by far the most modern, liberal, and democratic country in the region. By a long shot.

  • Whiskyjack

    The secular socialists don’t seem to hold as much sway these days. Most of the rationales that I’ve heard for Israel’s illegal settlement policy involve historic claims to land, with the only documentation for the claim being the Bible. I can conceive of no other place in the world where turning back the clock three thousand years to a claim based on a legendary past would be taken seriously.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Yes, the Israeli Left has almost completely collapsed, and the government is currently in the grip of the Rightists and a handful of religious parties. I just wanted to make it clear that this is not the culture that created the country in the first place.

    As for ‘taking it seriously’, there really was not much choice after the second world war and the Shoah. Given that many of the European powers today, who are most critical of Israel, were responsible or complicit in the genocide of the Jews, they are the last people who should be saying anything about it. Ditto for the Americans, who dropped two atomic bombs on civilian targets, killing more people in an afternoon than the Israelis could kill if the Intifada were to go on for a thousand years.

    The situation between Israel and the Palestinians is a tragic one, the reasons for which are complex and difficult. It will require a lot of effort and a willingness on the part of both sides to accept not getting much of what they would like. What does not help, however, is righteous heckling from nations whose own behavior should make them too ashamed to pontificate on such things. Help with the process is welcome. Rubbish about “Iron Age Gods” etc. serves no useful purpose other than to puff up the speaker.

  • Jim Reed

    It’s not a free country. Israel controls their borders. Let those people go.

  • Whiskyjack

    Personally, I think the supposed divine warrant for the land is a significant part of the problem. It precludes any rational discussion of the matter.
    As for helping the process, I think that loud condemnation of Israel’s aggressive settlement process and its apartheid policies is warranted. I hear far to little of it from either the nations that support Israel financially, or from North American Jews.

  • Nation State

    It’s really not that complex and assuming it is defines the crux of the issue. Europe killed Jews and forced them out so Zionists did the same thing to Palestinians in order to gain land. A population that in no way was connected to the Holocaust that Zionists love bringing up as if it entitles them to behaves they wish pays the price for European war crimes and is subjected to yet more war crimes. Cruel irony or foreseeable outcome of the abused becoming the abuser, either way until you can accept your independance was won on the backs of fleeing Palestinians this simple fact will forever be obscure and “complex” to you. Can’t believe how many Zionists believe OttomanPalestine was an empty plot of land and Jordanians migrated there just to block Jewish immigration lol. As if Jordanian and Palestinian were ethnically different enough to warrant a shit.

  • Nation State

    Withdrew then blockaded. Still considered occupied by international law.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Condemn away. If Mexico was firing missiles into Texas, we’d send a half a million troops in. Israel’s response is measured, in comparison to how we react when attacked. Talk about double, triple, and quadruple standards.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Actually, much of the land was purchased by the Jews, from Arabs who laughed at them for buying it.

    I should say that I am for full withdrawal to the pre-67 borders and a comprehensive peace settlement. I am also for the dismantlement of all Settlements — every last one. I am very much on the Left, with respect to how I view the situation. But when you get down to questions of basic legitimacy, I draw the line.

    When we give back half of the US to Mexico and the rest back to the
    American Indians, I’ll take these sorts of “legitimacy” arguments
    seriously. Until then, not so much.

    Israel is a thriving, modern, economic powerhouse, with a largely liberal and democratic society (much more so than any of its neighbors). It’s not going anywhere, no matter how much you flap your gums. It’d be smart to make some sort of deal with them. What the Palestinians are doing now? Not smart. It simply guarantees that more and more of the Israeli public will be driven into the arms of the Right.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Hey Jim. What do you think the US would do, if Mexico started firing missiles into Texas?

  • Jim Reed

    Mexico is another country. Don’t you mean something more like what if Texas started firing missiles into California?

  • Nation State

    No one is questioning the legitimacy of Israel. The facts on the ground are just that facts. Israel exists and Hamas needs to deal with it. To encompass all Palestinians in that dilemma is intellectually dishonest. I think we can agree on many points but it’s a 1 sided conflict. Palestine has no authority or power to dictate anything on any issue and is very much at the whim of its occupier. PLO has been non violent since Oslo yet what has that gotten them? More settlement construction and loss of legitimacy and support among Palestinians. Israel is in a bind because Palestine will never exist yet they still cling to the hope of a 2 state solution for the PR. They won’t be able to incorporate all the Pals into Israel and remain a Jewish and democratic state. It will have to choose or some truly dire consequences will unfold all by Israels own hand. At this point it’s a waiting game to see what Israel does after it has shot its self in both feet.

  • Nation State

    And no the land was purchased by the JNF under false assumptions. Land rights didn’t exist in Palestine the way the Zionists were accustomed to in the West. Most of the land was bought without the owners actual knowledge.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    The West Bank and Gaza are semi-autonomous.

    Look, the point just is that everyone seems to have a massive double standard. When we get attacked, we invade two countries and kill hundreds of thousands of people. But when Israel gets attacked they’d better “show restraint” etc.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Actually, the legitimacy of Israel is constantly being questioned in these discussions.

    As for dire consequences, they will all fall on the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states. Israel is a thriving success of a country, with a better high tech industry than our own. The rest of the countries in the region are basket cases. Once the First World moves beyond oil based energy, they will be utterly, completely finished.

    At this point, what needs to happen is for a provisional peace—any peace—to be made, with the full acknowledgment that it will all be revisited, when cooler heads are in charge. In that period of relative quiet, each side must do everything they can to purge the radicals from their politics. Only then–only when the likes of Hamas and the Settler Movement are purged–will any sort of real, longstanding peace be possible. But such an internal reorientation can only happen when this constant, low-grade warfare stops. Until then, the fighting itself empowers the radicals on both sides.

  • Jim Reed

    Our wars were far worse. We are a divided country, and many of us blame the US for all that damage and loss of life and increased trouble in the middle east, and our reason for the war (stealing oil) made it even worse, and our lies about the reasons (weapons) made it even more worse.

    “semi-atonomous” means they are not their own country. That is a problem. Let those people go.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    “Letting those people go” is what the peace process is about. Unfortunately, the parties have not been able to come to an agreement yet.

  • rolloboy

    If all the peoples of the world suddenly took claim to areas they once
    lived in total chaos would ensue – take the American Indian for
    instance !

  • Whiskyjack

    That was kinda my point.

  • rolloboy

    rolloboy When I brought up the settlements with a J Street spokesman
    today, his answer was “they are only buildings – they can come down.”
    When I protested this, he did say they were absolutely against the
    settlements, and that is going to be a big issue for them in future. But
    allowing the settlements speaks to the lack of the Israel’s good faith.

  • Whiskyjack

    The element of the analogy that you’re missing would be that Texas would have been building settlements in Mexico outside of international boundaries. Israel has been de facto claiming extraterritorial land through its settlement policies. In your analogy, wouldn’t Mexico be completely justified in retaliation?

  • rolloboy

    Your logic needs some work ! Texas is not occupying Mexico.

  • Whiskyjack

    Agreed. The settlement of Palestinian land is, to me, a major issue. It is both illegal and immoral. A hypothetical scenario in Texas vs Mexico is no justification for the land grab currently being conducted by Israel.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    A good portion of the US was stolen from Mexico, by force, including Texas. I don’t hear anyone suggesting we give it back. And if they attacked us for it, we’d invade them. Hell, we even invade countries that don’t attack us.

    My logic is just fine, thanks.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    You mean, unlike the entirely stolen country that we live in?

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Actually, Texas used to be part of Mexico. We stole it from them, by force. So, the whole state is one big illegal settlement.

    I am entirely against the Israeli settlements and think they should be disbanded, as part of *any* peace agreement. I am just getting a little tired of this refrain of criticism from people living in countries that have behaved and continue to behave far worse. The point of the Mexico/Texas analogy was to remind people what *America* does, when *it* is attacked and ask them to consider that, in light of Israel’s quite measured response, when it is attacked.

  • Lamont Cranston

    Speaking as a patriotic American, if Mexico started firing missiles into Texas, I would (1) rejoice; and (2) demand that no American lives be risked defending Texas, and allow the Mexicans to have it.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Given what we did to Iraq — who never attacked us — and Afghanistan, I suspect the nation’s reaction would be more severe than yours.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Thank you Sarah. Job well done. Folks, this argument is getting rather silly. To state the world operates in a double standard may be true, but it IS sidestepping the issue of a horrible and brutal occupation in place. If we say ‘oh well, all nations have done the same thing’, how would anything change ethically? Bad stuff will still happen but at least we believe its wrong. I do believe the arc of justice is alive, but slowly for human dignity. I would like to point out that millions of people have been born (including me) post WW2 and don’t adhere to your “Oh well, we’re all just a bunch of hypocrites”. I see amnesia at work and I can’t live that way.