When the episode of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s popular TV show Parts Unknown filmed in occupied Palestine aired last September, I couldn’t bring myself to join in some of my friends’ effusive praise on Facebook and Twitter over its scenes of Palestinians preparing and enjoying traditional cuisine. And it wasn’t just because of my general aversion to all things celebrity.
The episode aired while I was working on a story about efforts to preserve rare footage recorded by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s film unit in Lebanon in the 1970s which documents the heyday of national organizing in the refugee camps.
I had a hard time reconciling that revolutionary moment during which Palestinians were producing the audiovisual representation of their own struggle with the excitement four decades later over an American TV show airing images of Palestinians doing wholly banal things like eating together as a family.
A very principled, brief speech made this week by Bourdain himself has now helped me understand why I was reluctant to join the showering of praise on the Palestine episode of his show.
Upon receiving a media award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council for the episode, Bourdain recorded this video message accepting the honor:
In the video, he says:
“It’s a measure of how twisted and shallow our depiction of Palestinian people is that these images — showing regular people doing everyday things, cooking and enjoying meals, playing with their children, talking about their lives and hopes and dreams — come as a shock to so many. The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show, a small, pathetically small step toward understanding.
Bourdain hits the nail on the head: it’s incredibly sad that any popular culture representation of Palestinians as normal human beings is heralded as a great achievement, that the humanity of the Palestinian people has to be proven and affirmed, again and again.
Bourdain zeroes in on another point that cannot repeated enough: that people are not mere statistics.
This is what drives the work of publications like The Electronic Intifada, to insist that Palestinian lives cannot be reduced to dehumanizing, abstract numbers.
That each of the 1,400 Palestinian children slain by Israeli forces and settlers since 2000 has a name and leaves behind an incomplete family who loves them.
That the 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners held by Israel in an attempt to break the liberation movement have children who haven’t been hugged by their fathers or mothers who haven’t been kissed by their sons in years.
That the testimonies of the survivors of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine will be told and never forgotten. And that robbed of their cultural heritage and property, Palestinians’ history will be recorded, honored and preserved despite Israeli effacement and enforced exile.
“We don’t raise our children to die”
The two teenagers whose unprovoked murders last week were recorded on security camera video that shows them falling to the ground by a sniper’s live fire had names, too: Nadim Siam Nuwara and Muhammad Mahmoud Odeh Abu al-Thahir.
Nadim’s father Siam told Al-Jazeera English: “You can’t begin to imagine how it feels when you hold your son for the last time and put him in a grave,” adding, “We don’t raise our children to die. We raise them to live.”
So did the parents of Iman al-Hams, the 13-year-old girl killed when an Israeli army captain fired the entire magazine of his automatic rifle into her small body in southern Gaza in 2004. A year later, an Israeli military court acquitted the soldier who killed Iman of all charges.
The Guardian reported:
The manner of Iman’s killing, and the revelation of a tape recording in which the captain is warned that she was just a child who was “scared to death,” made the shooting one of the most controversial since the Palestinian intifada erupted five years ago even though hundreds of other children have also died.
After the verdict, Iman’s father, Samir al-Hams, said the army never intended to hold the soldier accountable.
“They did not charge him with Iman’s murder, only with small offenses, and now they say he is innocent of those even though he shot my daughter so many times,” he said. “This was the cold-blooded murder of a girl. The soldier murdered her once and the court has murdered her again. What is the message? They are telling their soldiers to kill Palestinian children.”
Since Iman’s murder, hundreds more Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, and all doors to justice slammed in the faces of their surviving families.
During Israel’s three weeks of relentless attacks on Gaza in winter 2008-09, from which no civilian could flee, the approximately 1,400 Palestinian victims included 21 members of a single family who were killed when Israel bombed a home in which, according to the UN-commissioned Goldstone report, “Israeli forces knew there were about 100 civilians …”
Nine children from the Samouni family were among the dead: Azza Salah al-Samouni (3), Waleed Rashad al-Samouni (17), Ishaq Ibrahim al-Samouni (14), Ismail Ibrahim al-Samouni (16), Rifka Wael al-Samouni (8), Fares Wael al-Samouni (12), Huda Nael al-Samouni (17), Ahmad Atieh al-Samouni (14), Mutassim Mohammed al-Samouni (6), Mohammed Hilmi al-Samouni (5).
In May 2012 an Israeli military court announced that no charges would be filed against the soldiers responsible for this atrocity. And always setting new standards for cruelty, Israel even refused the mother of one of the surviving children permission to travel with her daughter to Jerusalem for treatment for head injuries caused by shrapnel during the massacre.
Later that year, an Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron shot dead Muhammad al-Salaymeh on his 17th birthday. The bullets that took al-Salaymeh’s young life were fired by Nofar Mizrahi, whose account that al-Salaymeh held a pistol to another soldier’s temple was proven to be a lie by surveillance video from the scene.
Mizrahi, who said that she felt no remorse for killing al-Salaymeh, going so far to say she was “happy” with the outcome, knows that there is no meaningful repercussion for slaying a Palestinian child and lying about the circumstances.
According to figures given by the Israeli legal advocacy group Yesh Din, only a scant number of Israeli military investigations into alleged offenses committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians result in charges; from 2005 to 2011, 94 percent of such investigations were closed without any indictments. And in those rare cases where there are convictions, punishments usually amount to a slap on the wrist.
Culture of impunity, culture of violence
Israel’s culture of impunity is enabled by the US, which shields the state from all means of accountability in the international arena while unconditionally giving the billions in military and financial aid that keeps the deadly occupation machinery oiled and running. And in Israel, not only do child-murdering soldiers go unpunished, but favorable attitudes towards violence against Palestinian children (as well as those towards other vulnerable populations under Israeli rule) are disturbingly mainstream.
This April, just days before Nadim Nuwara and Muhammad Abu al-Thahir were shot dead in cold blood, soldier David Adamov became an overnight hero among Israelis after he was caught on video cocking his loaded assault rifle at unarmed Palestinian youths in Hebron and threatening to shoot them in the head.
As Rania Khalek reported for The Electronic Intifada:
But this particular video struck a nerve among soldiers following rumors that Adamov was sentenced to twenty days in military jail for aiming his gun at civilians. The Israeli army quickly clarified that Adamov was being held for assaulting a superior officer for the second time. In fact, it was the Palestinian youth who was arrested and interrogated. But it was too late to stop the backlash.
Within hours a storm of outrage erupted within the Israeli army, culminating in the Facebook page “David from the Nahal brigade” — or “David Hanahlawi” in Hebrew. With more than 129,000 likes as of this writing plus thousands of photos of Israelis, mostly soldiers, holding up signs in Hebrew that say “We are with David Hanahlawi,” the page is still gaining traction.
After the video of Adamov went viral, the offices of Youth Against Settlements, the Palestinian group that recorded the footage, were repeatedly raided by the Israeli military. Twenty-year-old activist Saddam Abu Sneineh, who is seen being kicked by Adamov in the video, was arrested, beaten and tortured in revenge for the video. His mother and sisters were also subjected to abuse.
This is only one episode of many demonstrating a contempt for life resulting from the constant dehumanization of Palestinians under Israeli rule, a dehumanization necessitated when an entire population is seen through the scope of a rifle.
The slayings of Nadim Nuwara and Muhammad Abu al-Thahir are the direct consequnece of impunity for the deaths of Iman al-Hams, the Samouni family children and Muhammad al-Salaymeh, and thousands of other Palestinian boys and girls who have names, who had lives, and who had those lives stolen from them.
Those in the Israeli military responsible for these children’s deaths — and the civilians in the Israeli government who design the policies of the settler-colony state enforced by the army — have names, too.
Our obligation toward upholding the humanity of these children is to keep building the pressure so there is a cost for their crimes. So that one day the names of these precious children and their killers will be read not in an Israeli military court or in public relations battles fought over “Israel’s image,” but in a real court of justice.