Arts & Culture

On the 20th Day

On the 20th day of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, at the time of this article’s writing, what is missing is the quality of rahamim — of mercy, of feeling and knowing when enough is enough. Israel’s government no longer knows … Read More

By / January 16, 2009

On the 20th day of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, at the time of this article’s writing, what is missing is the quality of rahamim — of mercy, of feeling and knowing when enough is enough. Israel’s government no longer knows the difference between mercy and mercilessness.  Overwhelming power has been demonstrated; overwhelming damage has been done. However voices such as that of David Grossman, who early on called for a ceasefire, have been ignored. Grossman understood that part of the responsibility of power lies in realizing when not to use it, or how to cease using power before it damages those who abuse its possession.

 

Rahamim moderates power, understanding that social, political or military advantage is always temporary and that the task of peace-making lies ahead. Hamas represents a vile, reactionary ideology of religious ignorance compounded with racist xenophobia and exterminationist fervor. That is to say, Hamas looks much like its Jewish counterpart among large elements of the settlement movement in the West Bank. Both share nominal commitments to peaceful democratic process so long as it supports their own vision of national sanctification and obedience to divine commandments. Both view two peoples sharing one land as a contradiction whose resolution lies in conquest and expulsion, or at least subordination as a condition for permitting the other’s continued existence. Both represent the face of religious fascism and its call for individual submission to a divine national mission to be achieved by force of arms.

 

Before it became counter-productive, there was full initial justification for using armed force against the more than 8500 missiles Hamas fired into Israel in its militaristic pursuit of an Islamic republic. A government that did not act to secure the safety and well-being of its citizens would fail if it did not act decisively in such circumstances. Yet the same principle holds for Palestinians as for Israelis: how should their government – governments, at this point – attain their interest in peace and security in their own land?

 

Taking one step further, in order to remove these West Bank settlements and establish a Palestinian state, as eventually needs to happen, might we not wonder also how much force will be required to remove Israel’s colonists? That civil war scenario within Israel well may be closer than it appears at present. Despite the exterminationist fantasies of Hamas, it will be Jews fighting Jews to disestablish Israel’s mini-empire in the occupied territories. Will we use the same quantum of force against Jewish theo-fascists in Kedumim as against Palestinians in Gaza, and – equally applicable to both right- and left-wing Israelis – how will we live together if we do? What will be the resulting political ethos in Israel after such a conflict. Will it lead to the creation of a destabilizing new class of ex-settler pieds noirs as in the Fourth Republic? Will the decolonization of Israeli society be possible?

 

The violent logics of colonialism and anti-colonialism not only become visible, their invisible futures hang over current decision-making. Vast majorities in both Israel and Palestine who wish desperately to live in peace with each other nonetheless find themselves caught up in violent conflict because Israeli and Palestinian extremisms feed off each other. In the politics of Israeli-Palestinian antagonism, the middle and its compromises constitute the weakest position. Political power emerges from promises to deliver the hardest blows against the other antagonist. This dynamic has resulted in a lengthy deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian contest towards ever-greater extremism. On the Israeli side, positions decried thirty years ago as racist Kahane-ism achieved cabinet-level advocacy through Yisrael Beitenu until it left the current government. On the Palestinian side, a relatively secular nationalist leadership has been challenged and supplanted by religious extremists in the role of leadership of the resistance. For negotiating with Israel Mahmoud Abbas regularly gets pilloried by rejectionists as a tool of Euro-american imperialism, a Zionist collaborator, and a Palestinian Uncle Tom.

 

How did this dynamic of deterioration seize hold of the Israeli and Palestinian bodies politic? Neve Gordon’s book Israel’s Occupation provides a first-rate discussion of the history of the post 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and enables readers to understand that as a history driven by colonial concepts and policies. Unlike some recent and shoddy scholarship, Gordon exhibits full command of original sources and a clear ability to interpret them, avoiding rhetorical hyperbole in doing so. In fact, his interpretive abilities concerning Israel’s policies to consolidate a new spatial regime in the occupied territories have provided us with as good an historical guide on the subject as has been written to date.

 

Part of the historiographic problem lies in that, as Gordon points out, no Israeli government has adopted formally any of the numerous settlement plans proposed, including the Allon Plan, the Weitz Plan, the Dayan Plan, the Sharon-Wachman Plan, and the Drobles Plan. “This vagueness concerning Israel’s territorial objectives” Gordon writes “was both instrumentally convenient and genuine, and can be seen as serving the temporary and arbitrary modalities of control.” The absence of any formally adopted plan (excluding the Jerusalem bloc) has meant that ideology and opportunity combined to change social topography. For example, a number of Jewish settlements have been created at or near the spots where Palestinian attacks killed settlers, a practice that seeks to reinforce Jewish presence through demonstrative memorialization. Inside pre-’67 Israel, planning and building are heavily regulated; in the territories, Israel’s planning invents a regulatory regime of immediate convenience, one driven by twin beliefs in security and divine sanctification.

 

As Gordon reviews the well-developed mechanisms of control – land appropriations, water appropriation, bypass roads, restrictions on Palestinian movement and development, surveillance, closures, settler violence, and more – a portrait emerges of a model anti-democracy. Most important, he relates this methodology to its effects on the Palestinian economic situation and its decline during the Oslo years of the 1990s. The pauperization of Palestinians during this period contributed heavily to the frustrations that erupted in the second intifada beginning in September 2000. What was once an exploitation of cheap Palestinian labor in the 1970s-80s transformed into economic marginalization by the current decade. An attempt to normalize the occupation along the lines of classic colonialism, Gordon argues correctly, switched to a separation principle in response to the second intifada. Palestinians have increasingly lived within fragmented, restricted, confined and limited spaces.

 

The narrative of deprivation and disintegration of Palestinian civil society that Gordon relates has at least two missing additional chapters, ones that are now in the process of being written. The first of these is the Palestinian one, a chapter whose narrative must include the continued solidification and manifestation of popular rage over the occupation and its denial of human and collective rights. A second chapter must deal with the pervasive damage that Israel has inflicted against its own national interests and social constitution through the perpetuation of the occupation. Defeating and purging the racism that enabled and empowered the occupation will take generations of education, if such an educational project can even be accomplished. Hoser rehamim – an absence of mercy – is in the end an attribute of a colonialist sense of superiority over fellow humans.