When I watched the Oscar-winning film The Pianist I had three distinct, uneasy reactions. I was not particularly impressed by the film, from a purely artistic angle; I was horrified by the film’s depiction of the dehumanization of Polish Jews and the impunity of the German occupiers; and I could not help but compare the Warsaw ghetto wall with Israel’s much more ominous wall caging 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in fragmented, sprawling prisons.
In the film, when German soldiers forced Jewish musicians to play for them at a checkpoint, I thought to myself: “that’s one thing Israeli soldiers have not yet done to Palestinians.” I spoke too soon, it seems. Israel’s leading newspaper Ha’aretz reported last week that an Israeli human rights organization monitoring a daunting military roadblock near Nablus was able to videotape Israeli soldiers forcing a Palestinian violinist to play for them. The same organization confirmed that similar abuse had taken place months ago at another checkpoint near Jerusalem.
In typical Israeli whitewashing, the incident was dismissed by an army spokesperson as little more than “insensitivity,” with no malicious intent to humiliate the Palestinian involved. And of course the usual mantra about soldiers having to “contend with a complex and dangerous reality” was again served as a ready, one-size-fits-all excuse. I wonder whether the same would be said or accepted in describing the original Nazi practice at the Warsaw ghetto gates in the 1940s.
Regrettably, the analogy between the two illegal occupations does not stop here. Many of the methods of collective and individual “punishment” meted out to Palestinian civilians at the hands of young, racist, often sadistic and ever impervious Israeli soldiers at the hundreds of checkpoints littering the occupied Palestinian territories are reminiscent of common Nazi practices against the Jews. Following a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories in 2003, Oona King, a Jewish member of the British parliament attested to this, writing: “The original founders of the Jewish state could surely not imagine the irony facing Israel today: in escaping the ashes of the Holocaust, they have incarcerated another people in a hell similar in its nature - though not its extent - to the Warsaw ghetto.”
Even Tommy Lapid, Israel’s justice minister and a Holocaust survivor himself, stirred a political storm last year when he told Israel radio that a picture of an elderly Palestinian woman searching in the debris for her medication had reminded him of his grandmother who died at Auschwitz. Furthermore, he commented on his army’s wanton and indiscriminate destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and farms in Gaza at the time, saying: “[I]f we carry on like this, we will be expelled from the United Nations and those responsible will stand trial at The Hague.”
Some of the war crimes that concern people like Lapid have been lately revealed in eyewitness accounts given by former soldiers, who could no longer reconcile whatever moral values they held with their complicity in the daily humiliation, abuse and physical harm of innocent civilians. Such crimes have become normalized in their minds as acceptable, even necessary, acts of “disciplining” the untamed natives, as a measure to maintain “security.”
According to a recent report in the Israeli media, an army commander was accused of gratuitously beating up Palestinians at the notorious Hawwara checkpoint. Ironically, the most damning evidence presented against him was a videotape filmed by the army’s education branch. In that particular episode, the senior officer at that roadblock, knowing that an army film crew was located nearby, and without any provocation, beat a Palestinian “flanked by his wife and children,” punching him in the face, and “even kicked [him] in the lower part of his body,” the report said.
A recent exhibit titled Breaking the Silence, organized in Tel Aviv by a number of conscientious Israeli soldiers who served in occupied Hebron, exposed in photographs and objects more serious belligerence towards defenseless Palestinians. Inspired by Jewish settlers’ graffiti that included: “Arabs to the gas chambers”; “Arabs = an inferior race”; “Spill Arab blood”; and, of course, the ever so popular “Death to the Arabs,” soldiers used a myriad of methods to make the lives of average Palestinians intolerable. One photograph showed a bumper sticker on a passing car, perhaps explaining the ultimate goal of such abuse: “Religious penitence provides strength to expel the Arabs.”
The exhibit’s main curator described a particularly shocking policy of randomly spraying crowded Palestinian residential neighborhoods, like Abu Sneina, from heavy machine guns and grenade launchers for hours on end in response to any minor shooting of a few bullets from any house in the neighborhood on the Jewish colonies inside the city.
The Hebron horrors pale, however, in comparison to what Israeli army units have done in Gaza. In an unnerving interview with Ha’aretz in November last year, for instance, Liran Ron Furer, a staff sergeant (res.) in the Israeli army and graduate of an arts school, described the gradual transformation of every soldier to an “animal” when staffing a roadblock, irrespective of whatever values he may bring with him from home. From his perspective, those soldiers get infected with what he calls “checkpoint syndrome,” a glaring symptom of which is acting violently towards Palestinians in “the most primal and impulsive manner, without fear of punishment … .” “At the checkpoint,” he explains, “young people have the chance to be masters and using force and violence becomes legitimate … .”
Furer cites how his colleagues degraded and mercilessly beat a Palestinian dwarf just for fun; how they had a “souvenir picture” taken with bloodied, bound civilians whom they’d thrashed; how one soldier pissed on the head of a Palestinian man because the latter had “the nerve to smile” at a soldier; how another Palestinian was forced to stand on four legs and bark like a dog; and how yet another soldier asked Palestinians for cigarettes and when they refused “broke someone’s hand” and “slashed their tires.”
The most chilling of all the incidents was his own personal confession. “I ran toward [a group of Palestinians] and punched an Arab right in the face,” he admitted. “Blood was trickling from his lip onto his chin. I led him up behind the Jeep and threw him in, his knees banged against the trunk and he landed inside.” He then goes on to describe in gruesome details how he and his comrades stepped on the tightly handcuffed captive, dubbed “the Arab;” how they hit him until “he was bleeding and making a kind of puddle of blood and saliva;” how he “grabbed him by the hair and turned his head to the side,” until he cried aloud, and how the soldiers then “stepped harder and harder on his back,” to make him stop crying.
Furer then reveals that the company commander cheered them on: “Good work, tigers.” And after they took their prey to their camp, the abuse continued in different forms. “All the other soldiers were waiting there to see what [my emphasis] we’d caught. When we came in with the Jeep, they whistled and applauded wildly.” One of the soldiers, Furer said, “went up to him and kicked him in the stomach. The Arab doubled over and grunted, and we all laughed. It was funny … I kicked him really hard in the ass and he flew forward just as I’d expected. They shouted … and laughed … and I felt happy. Our Arab was just a 16-year-old mentally retarded boy.”
As savage as it is, checkpoint abuse is not unique in any sense. It fits perfectly well into the general picture of viewing the Palestinians as relative humans who are not entitled to the dignity and respect that full humans deserve. At the height of Israel’s massive reoccupation of Palestinian cities in 2002, for example, soldiers used their knives to engrave the Star of David on the arms of a number of detained Palestinian men and teenage boys. The haunting pictures of the victims were first shown on Arab satellite TV channels and eventually exposed on the Internet.
In the same year, at al-Amari refugee camp, during a mass roundup of Palestinian males, teenagers and elderly included, Israeli troops inscribed identification numbers “on the foreheads and forearms of Palestinian detainees awaiting interrogation.” The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat compared the act to well known Nazi practices at concentration camps. Tommy Lapid was incensed, saying: “As a refugee from the Holocaust I find such an act insufferable.” Nonetheless, Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, was worried only about Israel’s image being tarnished: “clearly it conflicts with the desire to convey a public relations message,” he told Israel Army Radio. Parroting that line, the mainstream media in Israel, too, were far too concerned about the “public relations disaster” to express any abhorrence or protestation at the immorality of the act and the irony of it all.
Yoram Peri, a professor of politics and media at Tel Aviv University, sees PR as “a fundamental issue in Israeli life.” “We do not think we do anything wrong,” he clarifies in an interview with the Guardian, “but we think we explain ourselves badly and that the international media is anti-Semitic.” Obsessed with how Israel is seen rather than with what it actually does, Israelis, according to Peri, are mostly worried that “we do not explain ourselves well. When we discuss the horrible things that happen in the West Bank, we don’t talk about the issue but about how it will be seen.”
Recognizing this prevailing cynicism, apathy and acquiescence among the majority of Israelis in the criminal oppression of the Palestinians, former Knesset member Shulamit Aloni pronounced in a recent interview with the Irish publication the Handstand that “gross insensitivity” was threatening a moral disintegration of Israeli society. Referring to the Germans during the Nazi rule, she added, “I am beginning to understand why a whole nation was able to say: ‘We did not know.’”
I wonder when the time will come when a glamorous, award-winning director braves predictable intellectual terror and intimidation tactics to expose the venomous Israeli cocktail of racism and impunity by making a Palestinian version of The Pianist.
Omar Barghouti is an independent political analyst based in Palestine.