On Saturday morning, 31 August, after a painful summer ‘vacation’, children went back to school all over the West Bank under the authority of the still-existing Palestinian Ministry of Education. They went back despite the curfew imposed on Palestinian towns, despite the two years of cordons around most of the villages, despite the growing death toll. In the week preceding that Saturday, 13 Palestinian civilians were shot dead by the Israel Defence Forces; none of the 13 was implicated in terrorist activity, even in the official IDF version of events, but the Army has already concluded that in all cases the soldiers acted properly. In short, Israel is waging a war, not only against militant Palestinian organisations, but against the Palestinian people.
On that weekend at the end of August, the new Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Moshe (‘Boogey’) Ya’alon, said in an interview for Ha’aretz: ‘I see myself as a Jew, an Israeli, a humanist, a liberal, a democrat and a seeker of peace and security. But I know that I am facing a cruel reality and that I have to defend myself.’ Ya’alon has been the mastermind behind the war against the Palestinians – some sources say that he has been working on his plans since 1996. His appointment does not, therefore, mark a new phase in the war, but it does mean that the war now enjoys much better PR: once again, after years on the sidelines, the Israeli ‘socialist’ elite has a representative at the top of the military apparatus. A kibbutznik is once again in a position to describe himself publicly as most Israelis have always liked to describe themselves: I am an Israeli, therefore I am a humanist, like you, the Europeans, and unlike them, the Arabs. But exactly what part do everyday Palestinian tribulations – how to get one’s child to school, how to fetch him back home, how to see a doctor or visit a grandparent or good friends across what used to be a road – play in our Chief Boogey’s humanism and his self-defence?
Ya’alon’s interviewer writes about the new Chief of Staff in language that now sounds like a parody of the sort of thing journalists wrote in 1967:
When he speaks – he speaks; he says whatever is on his mind. And what’s on his mind is controversial, even if Ya’alon will not admit it: let the Israel Defence Forces win. The fences and the withdrawals can wait. They are perceived as weakness and capitulation. The victory, from his point of view, begins with the resilience and staying power of civil society.
Anyone who remembers the way the ‘typical sabra’ used to speak will be familiar with this discourse. The interviewer also quotes the Speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, himself a former platoon commander: ‘In my eyes Ya’alon is an iconic Israeli, a person of purity without an iota of arrogance. Like a precious metal. A nature reserve of Israeliness.’ It’s as if nothing had happened during the last two years. The more Palestine comes under threat of disappearance, the harder Israelis try to reinvent their ‘essence’: in literature, in songs, in newspaper columns, on TV shows and in documentaries. When politics is in crisis, ideology works overtime.
Meanwhile, as loudspeakers announce the rules of the curfew in crude Arabic, ‘Whoever steps out, will die; whoever steps out, will die,’ Palestinian children and parents are trying to reach their schools, sometimes by skipping over ditches Israeli bulldozers have dug around their villages, sometimes by climbing over piles of rubble – the remains of what used to be homes and factories. And let our General Boogey, the humanist kibbutznik, explain why he was right, some days before, to have described the Palestinians as a ‘cancer’:
When I look at the overall map what disturbs me especially is the Palestinian threat and the possibility that a hostile state will acquire nuclear capability . . . We have good answers for all the other threats. We have a good answer for what Hezbollah can do and for what the Syrians can do. We also have a good answer for what the Iraqis are liable to do . . . The Palestinian threat is invisible, like cancer. When you are attacked externally, you see the attack, you are wounded. Cancer, on the other hand, is something internal. Therefore, I find it more disturbing, because here the diagnosis is critical. If the diagnosis is wrong and people say it’s not cancer but a headache, then the response is irrelevant. But I maintain that it is cancer. My professional diagnosis is that there is a phenomenon here that constitutes an existential threat.
Do not mistake him: he is not saying that acts of terrorism pose a strategic threat to Israel. His is more of a prognosis than a diagnosis: the Palestinian people are a strategic threat. They are the cancer, and they must be removed.
The day before schools in the West Bank opened, before I read the interview with ‘Boogey’, my wife and I called a family we have been helping over the years. They live in a refugee camp near Tulkarem. We were trying to cheer A[*] up on the day before she had been due to start high school – she is 14 years old – in a nearby town still under curfew. She had been looking forward to her first day; her entire family was excited for her. When she finished elementary school we managed to ‘smuggle’ her a present: a calculator. At the time, I encouraged her father to let her study, to avoid the temptation to give up in the face of the awful dangers of passing the checkpoints and the snipers and the nervous soldiers between their camp and the besieged town. ‘Don’t let Israel turn her into another low-paid cleaning woman,’ I said. ‘Let her go to school as long as she is able to.’ And he said in a very quiet voice: ‘Let her not be like me, breaking my back as a construction worker.’ It is, perhaps, too easy to give such paternalistic advice from the safe side of the fence, but without education what prospects does she have? She might give up too soon, get married, and become mother to a fourth generation of refugees. (Her family was expelled in 1948 from a village near the one where I was born a month later.) Do they want to return to that lost land? S, A’s aunt, laughs. ‘Return there? Just let me have my cleaning job back, and I’ll be satisfied.’
I asked S how A would manage to get to her new high school. ‘God is great,’ she replied. As it turned out, there was little for A to be excited about. Soon it was the Jewish New Year and an even harsher curfew was imposed. Schools were closed; children were not allowed to leave their homes. (A’s four sisters attend an elementary school inside the camp, which most of the teachers can’t get to since they are not residents there.)
The reason for writing about schools and children is that this is one of the areas where there is a pretence that life is ‘normal’, where ‘civil society’ and ‘political society’ are resilient enough to defy the Boogey and his junta. This is one of those everyday truths in Israel that becomes a ‘slander’ if one says it abroad: it is the military, not the ‘elected leadership’, that has been setting the range and scope of this war – which the military itself was quick to define as a war. A report published on 6 September in the (right-wing) daily Ma’ariv revealed that during the first three weeks of the Intifada – before the wave of terror attacks against Israelis even began – the IDF, according to Army records, fired one million bullets.
At present, most of the big towns in the West Bank are under curfew. Usually there is no way of finding out how long the curfew will last. Ramallah, for example, a town that enjoyed a night-time curfew, was suddenly put under a round-the-clock curfew. Nobody knew why. One rumour had it that a Hamas cell had been uncovered in East Jerusalem. (So, why Ramallah? But then again, why not?) Another that the military governor of Nablus, under curfew for three months now, had been transferred to Ramallah and that he had downgraded the ‘luxury’ town of Ramallah to the level of Nablus. This is, of course, black humour, Palestinian humour. Apart from the Palestinian vernacular, only Yiddish can render it more or less accurately.
Despite its richness and long colonial tradition, English cannot keep up with the massive production of IDF Hebrew as it infiltrates our media along with the semi-official jargon emerging from military briefings. The assassination policy has several names, including ‘focused interception’, but unofficial military jargon prefers something more direct: ‘liquidation’. The new language teaches us to distinguish between all sorts of curfews, closures, ‘encirclements’, and other (illegal) actions and prohibitions on movement. The latest example is the euphemism used by the state in response to an appeal by two Palestinians against expulsion from Nablus to Gaza. Each time their attorney used the word ‘expulsion’, the state attorney jumped to his feet to demand the ‘proper usage’, something that can be translated, carefully, as ‘re-zone-ification’. In Hebrew it might sound better, but no less grotesque. Israel’s Supreme Court, famous at Columbia Law School for its progressiveness, accepted the state’s position. The expulsions were allowed, and sooner or later the word ‘re-zone-ification’ will become a familiar part of our vocabulary and legal life. Another veil will fall over what happens beyond the hills, ten minutes from my relatively safe home, while there, under the non-reported non-event of a curfew, a nation is incarcerated and preparing for the worst.
The Israeli agenda is way ahead of what critics of Israel abroad manage to grasp in their sometimes too careful language. I have just seen Edward Said on the BBC’s Hard Talk trying to explain to Tim Sebastian that Israel is destroying Palestinian civil society. That is true, of course, yet it is already an understatement. What is being destroyed, every day, every night, by guns, by undercover units, by raids and manhunts, by arbitrary orders, by rapid military trials, by kidnappings and numberless arrests without trial is something greater than ‘civil society’. We are shown the ‘events’: suicide bombings, bombardments of civil neighbourhoods, assassinations of political activists or terrorists. What we do not see is the undermining of the idea of society itself.
One of the popular rumours circulated among Palestinians echoes something spoken of more than once in the Israeli press: that if Blair and Bush go to war against Iraq, then that will be the ‘right time’ for the Israeli military to expel the Palestinians, or at least a portion of them. For when the Western press is full of reports of Anglo-American war aims defined in moral terms, who will notice towns and villages suddenly disappearing? How many noticed during this long and exhausting summer that most of the Palestinian people were under house arrest?
During the first week in September, Daniel Barenboim came to play in a West Jerusalem chamber music festival. He was booed by right-wing hooligans as a ‘traitor’, because the day before he had entered Ramallah ‘illegally’, and given a concert to besieged children in the local cultural centre. The hall was overcrowded; a friend of mine in Ramallah said she hadn’t seen such happiness in a long time. As I finish this article it is the eve of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day for Jews. We have to ask God to forgive our sins, so the Palestinians are under full curfew, and the schools are closed. A is at home. S says: ‘One day at school, six days at home.’
At the little house belonging to A’s family, a pregnant woman, Y, is in her ninth month. Her two sons, aged four and three, remember nothing but closures and deprivation and poverty: their father has had no work since his taxicab was destroyed last winter by shots from a helicopter while it was parked at the side of the road. They pray for her to go into labour during the day: at night no Palestinian can move; two weeks ago four workers in a village near Hebron were shot dead on their way from a workshop as evening fell. What if it comes at night? I ask S. ‘God is great,’ she answers.
[*] I cannot disclose her full name. Even the smallest child in the family knows to answer my phone calls with a special code, in Arabic, when they have guests at home and cannot talk to the ‘enemy’.