~Israeli jazz musician Gilad Atzmon
I can't seem to have a conversation with anyone concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without feeling like the person I'm talking to has ontologically prioritized one side's view of reality, that side's metaphysics, ideology, catalog of personal experiences, over the other. And once they've done that, they can calculate the lives of even innocent Israelis and Palestinians--even children--as means to an ultimate political end. Although I'm suspicious of universalizing ethics, my response to this conflict has always been a very specific insistence on solutions that view the ordinary people involved as ends in themselves rather than means to an end.
Viewing Israelis and Palestinians as ends in themselves also means viewing them as agents in themselves, not as extensions of their leadership--elected or otherwise. Elections are important, but those who cry "but Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East"* or "but Hamas was elected!" overestimate their importance in determining the character of a people, and underestimate the way in which elections are always already rigged by their containing systems.
So it is that I find myself compelled to write about Israel and Palestine again, but dreading doing so because I am likely to be smacked on both sides of my head, by friends, pundits, and anonymous strangers accusing me of preaching "moral equivalency," when in fact I am advocating a third perspective: that of the ordinary people on both sides of the conflict, who might find themselves dragged into it, or might have the prejudices you would expect them to have, but who also have the potential to search for solutions to the conflict outside of a paradigm of victory and defeat, and who are not only capable of, but seemingly eager to form personal and political bonds with their so-called "enemies."
Those who are absolutely certain that the best way to defeat extremism is to crush it in a vice grip, and who drone on about Palestinian intransigence, are unwitting generators of self-fulfilling prophesy.
Islamization is undoubtedly growing in the Strip. Government ministers are urging women to wear loose-fitting, modest clothing and asking shopkeepers to remove female mannequins from their windows. During my visit, I saw a warning given to adults and children not to wear T-shirts or sweaters with certain "inflammatory" English words and phrases, such as "Madonna," "pork," "kiss me," "I am ready for sexual affairs" and "vixen."Radical Islam grows where you try to squeeze the life and will out of its potential converts.
Journalist Fares Akram, whose father was murdered by the Israelis during the January war, told me that he feared the people of Gaza were too exhausted and preoccupied with daily life to worry about the creeping implementation of Sharia law."
It's precisely because Israel is a partial democracy that we can question conservative Israelis' treatment of their critical-minded fellow citizens. Plumber and gay peace activist Ezra Nawi may be jailed for 18 months for opposing the demolition of Palestinian homes. “Being gay," he says, "has made me understand what it is like to be a despised minority." Of course, we are all familiar with the charges of "self-hating Jew" bandied about, particularly in the context of American Jews critical of Israeli aggression, but even levelled against undoubtedly establishment folks like Rahm Emmanuel.
But, as Gilad Atzmon speculates, Israel may be "imploding" under the implications of its own posturing and ethical license.
Breaking The Silence is an advocacy group made up of IDF reservists in Israel. BTS has been conducting investigations and soliciting testimony from IDF reservists. They have done so anonymously, and the testimonies have been damning; I've blogged about this before. Conservatives in Israel hate soldiers who document war crimes as much as conservatives here in America hate talkative, critical soldiers.
Now, in what is certainly cynical politics in its own right, we've learned that some European countries are funding BTS and other internal Israeli peace and human rights groups. This isn't illegal, and I won't even venture into its ethics. But it could probably be replaced or supplemented with something more constructive on the part of those governments. MuzzleWatch reports:
Netanyahu has asked Spain, Britain and The Netherlands to stop directly funding the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence (BTS). BTS has been releasing IDF soldier testimony on the invasion/massacre in Gaza. The accounts by the soldiers are harrowing and document war crimes. The Israeli government claims that governmental support of “politicized” NGOs undermines democracy in the Jewish state. Netanyahu is “contemplating legislation that would ban foreign government funding for groups such as Breaking the Silence.” The main argument is that foreign governmental funding of non-governmental institutions that are ostensibly working “against” the interests of the duly elected government are undemocratic. Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s senior political adviser, was quoted as saying that funding from foreign embassies for the group amounted to “blatant and unacceptable” intervention in Israel’s internal affairs.But the Moriah Fund's Don Futterman makes the following arguments: (1) That BTS verifies all its charges and won't go public with a charge without at least one other "reliable source;" (2) that it allows anonymous testimony because (3) soldiers are threatened with retribution; (4) that more and more soldiers are coming forward despite those threats, because of which (5) the Israeli government is in a panic. That last charge may be particularly true given the pressures being brought down from the United States concerning Israeli heavy-handedness and obstanance on settlements and so on.
BTS gathers and then publicizes testimony in both words and pictures from soldiers who are willing to come forward. The organization makes every effort to check the veracity of these testimonies, and will not publish any soldier's comments unless it has corroborating testimony from at least one other reliable source. BTS promises anonymity to these witnesses, to allow them to testify as openly and fully as possible, despite social norms urging them to keep silent, and the threat of possible retribution from within the IDF.According to BTS's public statement: "the IDF has never denied the [validity of the] testimonies and it and the foreign ministry's virulent reaction... only strengthens the position of the testifying soldiers, who are not willing to be exposed..."
According to the organization, following the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead last January, soldiers were directly instructed not to speak of their experiences or the destruction they had witnessed. When reports of alleged misdeeds by soldiers during the war were publicized in March, BTS asserts that leading combat units received severe warnings against speaking out, and were told there would be serious repercussions if they did so.
The fact that soldiers have nonetheless testified to BTS about the Gaza operation appear to have caused panic within the government.
The conversation is only made more difficult by publications and groups that are so blindly "pro-Israel" that the mere existence of accusations against the IDF is evidence of BTS's intention to "undermine one of Israel's bedrock institutions." Really? Undermine? Not improve through criticism? Israeli Civil rights activist Gila Orkin writes:
Rather than engaging in meaningful analysis and debate of the disturbing contents of these testimonies, Israeli officials have chosen to try to silence and discredit the messenger while completely ignoring the message.
* ... but wait! I thought we brought democracy to Iraq...?