After Jenin

Yitzhak Laor

What has the war between us and the Palestinians been about? About the Israeli attempt to slice what’s left of Palestine into four cantons, by building ‘separation roads’, new settlements and checkpoints. The rest is killing, terror, curfew, house demolitions and propaganda. Palestinian children live in fear and despair, their parents humiliated in front of them. Palestinian society is being dismantled, and public opinion in the West blames it on the victims – always the easiest way to face the horror. I know: my father was a German Jew.

Disastrously, the Israel Defence Force is the country’s imago. In the eyes of most Israelis, it is pure, stainless; worse, it is seen as being above any political interest. Yet, like every army, it wants war, at least every once in a while. But whereas in other countries military power is balanced by civil society’s institutions or by parts of the state itself (industry, banks, political parties etc), we in Israel have no such balance. The IDF has no real rival within the state, not even when the Army’s policy costs us our own lives (the lives of Palestinians, not to mention their welfare or dignity, are excluded from political discourse). There’s no doubt that Israel’s ‘assassination policy’ – its killing of senior politicians (Dr Thabet Thabet from Tulkarem, Abu Ali Mustafa from Ramallah) or of ‘terrorists’ (sometimes labelled as such only after being eliminated) – has poured petrol on the fire. People talk about it, yet no politician from the Right, the Centre, or even from the declining Zionist Left has dared speak out against it. And despite critical articles in the press, the Army has kept on doing what it wanted to do. Now they have had what they were really aiming for: an all-out attack on the West Bank.

Since 11 September the words ‘war against terror’ have been popular, which is why everything Israel does is a war against terror, including the looting of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah. I’m against terror, too. I don’t want to die walking my son to the mall. In fact I don’t take him there anymore. I don’t ride buses, and I’m scared that my family’s turn will come, but I know that they – that is, our generals – accept terrorist attacks as a ‘reasonable price to pay’ to reach a solution. What is their solution? Peace – what else? Peace between the victorious Israelis and the defeated Palestinians.

The IDF’s ruthlessness should be read against the background of its defeat in Lebanon, when it was driven out after long years of waging a dirty war. Southern Lebanon was burned and destroyed by artillery and an Air Force that no terrorist organisation could fight against. Yet 300 partisans – should I call them ‘terrorists’? – drove us (that is, our Army) out twice. First in 1985, back into what our Army and press used to call our ‘Security Zone’ (the foreign media called it ‘Israel’s self-proclaimed security zone’); and then, two years ago, out of that same Security Zone. The generals who were beaten then are running the current war. They have lived that defeat every day. And now they can teach them – that is, the Arabs – their lesson. Our heroes, armed with planes, helicopters and tanks, can arrest hundreds of people, concentrate them in camps behind barbed wire, without blankets or shelter, exploit the confusion to demolish more houses, fell more trees, take away more livelihoods. The bulldozer, once a symbol of the building of a new country, has become a monster following the tanks, so that everybody can watch as another family’s home, another future disappears.

Israelis look to punish anyone who undermines our image of ourselves as victims. Nobody is allowed to take this image from us, especially not in the context of the war with the Palestinians, who are waging a war on ‘our home’ – that is, their ‘non-home’. When a Cabinet minister from a former socialist republic compared Yasir Arafat to Hitler, he was applauded. Why? Because this is the way the world should see us, rising from the ashes. This is why we love Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (and even more his disgusting film about the IDF) and Schindler’s List. Tell us more about ourselves as victims, and how we must be forgiven for every atrocity we commit. As my friend Tanya Reinhart has written, ‘it seems that what we have internalised’ of the memory of the Holocaust ‘is that any evil whose extent is smaller is acceptable’.

But this ‘evil of the past’ has a peculiar way of entering our present life. On 25 January, three months before the IDF got its licence to invade the West Bank, Amir Oren, a senior military commentator for Ha’aretz, quoted a senior officer:

In order to prepare properly for the next campaign, one of the Israeli officers in the territories said not long ago that it is justified and in fact essential to learn from every possible source. If the mission is to seize a densely populated refugee camp, or take over the kasbah in Nablus, and if the commander’s obligation is to try to execute the mission without casualties on either side, then he must first analyse and internalise the lessons of earlier battles – even, however shocking it may sound, even how the German Army fought in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The officer indeed succeeded in shocking others, not least because he is not alone in taking this approach. Many of his comrades agree that in order to save Israelis now, it is right to make use of knowledge that originated in that terrible war, whose victims were their kin.

Israel may not have a colonial past but we do have our memory of evil. Does this explain why Israeli soldiers stamped ID numbers on Palestinian arms? Or why the most recent Holocaust Day drew a ridiculous comparison between those of us in the besieged Warsaw Ghetto and those of us surrounding the besieged Jenin refugee camp?

The satisfaction over the ‘victory’ in Jenin was part of this constant lie. Some twenty Israeli soldiers (most of them reservists) died in what was supposed to be a zero-casualty campaign, but the defenders of the camp were equipped only with rifles and explosives. On the Israeli side, as usual, there were special units, moving from one alleyway to another, assisted by a drone which supplied sophisticated information to the commanders at the rear. When that didn’t work, there was the shelling of the camp, then the deployment of US-supplied Apaches to destroy houses along with dozens (or hundreds) of inhabitants. Was it a massacre? Like everything else in our corrupted life, it comes down to the number of dead: ten dead Israelis are a massacre; 50 Palestinians not enough to count.

The destruction of the camp, whether spontaneous or premeditated by Sharon & Co, reflects the determination of senior officers to finish their military service with a real achievement: the elimination of the Palestinian national movement, under the guise of the war against terror. But terror won’t be beaten that way; on the contrary. Enslaving a nation, bringing it to its knees, simply doesn’t work. It never did. The long siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is proof that the words ‘Israeli generals’ no longer refer to men capable of strategic thought, or anything like it. Israeli generals may have fought some complicated battles in 1967, 1973 or even 1982, but in Bethlehem they have surrounded 200 young Palestinians for more than three weeks and let the whole world see their stubbornness and senseless cruelty. How, you may ask, can a disobedient nation like Israel follow so foolish a high command?

Here’s the beginning of an answer. As the corpses lay rotting in Jenin, and small children were running around looking for food or their missing parents, and the wounded were still bleeding to death, with the IDF preventing any relief or UN officials from entering the camp (what did they have to hide?), the Ministry of Education issued an instruction to all schools that children should bring in parcels for the soldiers. ‘The most important thing,’ the teacher of my seven-year-old son said, ‘is a letter for the soldiers.’ Hundreds of thousands of children wrote such letters when the war against a civilian population was at its most extreme, under the critical observation of the world media. Imagine the ideological commitment of those children in the future. This is just one aspect of our oppositionless society.

The Israeli imaginaire is constituted, before anything else, of the belief in Israeli supremacy. When there is a cruel suicide bombing in a hotel in Netanya, we will respond on a greater scale, with a terrorist attack on them, no matter if it inflicts death or hunger on two million people who have no connection with that act, no matter if it will create a thousand more martyrs who will blow themselves up along with their victims. The military logic behind this behaviour says: ‘We have the power and we have to exercise it, otherwise our existence is in danger.’ But the only danger is the danger facing the Palestinians. Gas chambers are not the only way to destroy a nation. It is enough to destroy its social tissue, to starve dozens of villages, to develop high rates of infant mortality. The West Bank is going through a Gaza-isation. Please don’t shrug your shoulders. The one thing that might help to destroy the consensus in Israel is pressure from Western Europe, on which the Israeli elite is dependent in so many ways.