Young relatives of newborn baby Amira Abu ‘Aser mourn during her funeral in Gaza City, 5 March 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)
Compared with the international silence that surrounded Israel’s recent massacres of Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Gaza Strip, condemnation and condolences for the victims of the shooting attack that killed eight students at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem have been swift.
“I have just spoken with [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert to extend my deepest condolences to the victims, their families, and to the people of Israel,” US President George W. Bush said. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added his “condemnation” and “condolences,” as did EU High Representative Javier Solana.
The day before the Jerusalem attack, Amira Abu ‘Aser was buried in Gaza. She had lived just 20 days on this earth before being shot in the head by Israeli occupation forces who attacked the house of friends she and her family were visiting. Needless to say, she had not been firing rockets at Sderot when she was killed. One of the house’s inhabitants was found the next day, shot dead and his head crushed by an army jeep, an apparent victim of an extrajudicial murder by Israeli forces.
But confirming their status in the eyes of the “international community” as less than complete human beings, neither Amira’s killing, nor any of the dozens of Palestinian civilian victims of Israel’s onslaught in Gaza have merited condemnation or condolences.
The fallacy that lies behind the differential concern for the lives of innocent Israelis and Palestinians is that the massacre in Jerusalem and the massacres in Gaza can be separated. Israeli deaths are “terrorism,” while Palestinian deaths are merely an unfortunate consequence of the fight against “terrorism.” But the two are intricately linked, and what happened in Jerusalem is a direct consequence of what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians for decades.
Let me be clear that the killing of civilians, Israeli or Palestinian, is wrong, repugnant, and cannot bring this one-hundred-year war caused by the Zionist colonization of Palestine to an end. There will be an Israeli propaganda effort — as always — to present Palestinian violence as being simply motivated by hatred, and divorced from the context of brutal occupation that Palestinians live under. What greater proof could you need than an attack on religious students, devoting their life to the study of the Torah?
We cannot expect much analysis in the media of why the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva might have been chosen as a target. Was it mere coincidence that the school, named for Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and led after his death by his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, is the ideological cradle of the militant, Jewish supremacist settler movement Gush Emunim?
Unlike other sects in Israel which sought exemption of their students from military service, Gush Emunim encouraged its followers to join the army and become the armed wing of religious nationalist Zionism. Gush Emunim settlers, many of them, like Moshe Levinger, graduates of Mercaz HaRav, founded the most extreme and racist settlements in the Occupied West Bank, including the notorious colonies in and near Hebron whose inhabitants have made life miserable for Palestinians in the city and forced many of them out of their homes. It is the militant settlers of Gush Emunim who still honor Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in February 1994. It is in Hebron that the Gush Emunim settlers spray “Arabs to the gas chambers” on Palestinian houses.
It is possible that the Mercaz HaRav gunman did not know or care about any of this, that any target he could identify as Israeli would have satisfied his desire to exact revenge.
In 2002, Israeli army chief Moshe Yaalon declared that “the Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.” This would be achieved by the massive and constant application of force until they got the message. The same philosophy was elaborated in 2004 by Professor Arnon Soffer, one of the architects, with former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, of the 2005 Gaza “disengagement.”
Soffer, an avid supporter of turning Gaza into a hermetically-sealed pen for unwanted Palestinians, explained that if Palestinians fire a single rocket over the fence into Israel, “we will fire 10 in response. And women and children will be killed, and houses will be destroyed. After the fifth such incident, Palestinian mothers won’t allow their husbands to shoot Qassams [rockets], because they will know what’s waiting for them.”
Soffer predicted that in a few years’ time, “when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam.” With Palestinians closed in, “The pressure at the border will be awful,” Soffer predicted. “It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.”
To be fair, Soffer did display a human side: “The only thing that concerns me is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings” (“It’s the demography, stupid,” The Jerusalem Post, 21 May 2004).
For decades Israel has been exercizing with ever-escalating brutality this deliberate strategy to crush through force and starvation a civilian population in rebellion against colonial rule. To Israel’s vexation, the Palestinians are not playing their part. After sixty years of expulsions, massacres, assassinations of their leaders, colonization, torture, and mass imprisonment, the Palestinians have utterly failed to understand that they are a “defeated people.”
The vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank endure unprecedented oppression by the Israeli army and settlers without resorting to violence in response, but they maintain an inextinguishable determination to endure until they regain their rights. If the methods the Palestinian resistance has sometimes used are reprehensible, they have also been typical for anti-colonial resistance movements throughout time, as William Polk shows in his book Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism and Guerilla War from the American Revolution to Iraq, and Robert Pape demonstrated through his study of suicide bombing in Dying to Win.
Is it not time for the rest of the world to step in and force Israel at last to understand the same thing, so that the senseless bloodshed can finally stop and all the people of the country — Israelis and Palestinians — can begin to imagine a future other than an endless parade of funerals?
Editor’s Note: The quote from Moshe Ya’alon used in this article has been widely cited. It was included in an 8 January 2009 op-ed by Rashid Khalidi in The New York Times (“What you don’t know about Gaza”). Subsequently, on 30 January 2009, the newspaper appended the following note to that op-ed: “An Op-Ed article on Jan. 8, on misperceptions of Gaza, included an unverified quotation. A former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, was quoted as saying in 2002 that ‘the Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.’ This quotation, while cited widely, does not appear in the Israeli newspaper interview to which it is usually attributed. Its original source has not been found, and thus it should not have appeared in the article.”