The Right to Live Without Fear

Palestinian children playing near the Israeli separation wall at the West Bank village of Hizma on the edge of Jerusalem May 28, 2006. (MaanImages/Moamar Awad)

Lost in the discussion of peace processes, military raids, Qassam rocket fire and unilateralism carried out by the Israeli government for ‘security purposes,’ is the climate of fear that is the defining feature of Israeli and Palestinian life.

The Hungarian dissident and writer Istvan Bibo who wrote volumes on the topic defined it as the primary element of human societies in a historical perspective. It does more damage than anything else. The threat of coercion, of bureaucratic reprimand, the hold up of paperwork, the threat of home demolitions and a myriad of other policies force normal people in to silence even when their rights are violated.

For Israeli Arabs, getting an apartment can involve a humiliating process. They are forced to live with the indignity of having de facto second class status. Even the Supreme Court of the land ratifies laws in the name of security that would be called racist anywhere else. Granted conflict states require unique solutions to deal with tensions, but the policy outcomes reflect the power structures in place.

All the international opprobrium that comes Israel’s way is largely a result of its policies of occupation. They have chosen unilateralism as a way of dealing with legitimate criticism.

There is a Hebrew word called ‘balagan’ which roughly translates into big, crazy, mess. Since the establishment of the state, that is what we are left with today.

Were it not that the root cause of the conflict was the occupation, and that the security argument was an effective public policy weapon to delegitimize Palestinian aspirations and has been effectively applied for annexing blocs of land, perhaps the policies of unilateralism and convergence could be taken seriously. In reality, they are meant to buy time to build new realities on the ground: East Jerusalem, the Separation Wall and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

The security argument is the most effective element of ‘hasbara’ – how else could Israel violate international law so easily and without any threat of sanctions by its two main supporters? There is no end date on the policy – it is the policy. The legitimate desire for security should have been presented on a more balanced platform.

The US, who is the largest subsidizer of Israel, and the EU, its largest trading partner, have largely served the timelines and interests of Israel in foreign policy. There is nothing to suggest that the next five years hold out any hope of change or promise.

Looking the other way when Israel takes military strikes and by hypocritically applying sanctions to Hamas, they expose the deep biases in the formation of their foreign policy – or in the case of the EU, the fact that they actually have one beyond the accession of new states and the expansion of new markets. Human rights is a clause in all their favourable trade arrangements but it is rarely exercised in reality in a practical way. Hamas has blood on its hands, but so does the Israeli state through its occupation policies.

Within the conflict, the narrative of high diplomacy is presented as something done by the elites, far from real people. Under the glare of camera lights, important people shake hands and make statements – they might as well be playing charades. The dissonance between reality, language and images has penetrated in to the political culture of the country itself.

The media cycle is politically malleable and rarely subject to accurate contextualization. The public sphere does not shift from the larger narratives of the Israeli and Palestinian mythology and identity which are irreconcilable at their foundations. The mainstream international media outlets, in their haste to meet deadlines, cater to building stories around images which reflect the pornography of war. The daily form of the news cycle itself, works against contextualizing complexity. They help frame and perpetuate the vicious circle that is the conflict. In this way, the structural system of this horrific and hellish stalemate continues. It is the structural DNA of the conflict. People die, and the next day life goes on. This is ‘normal.’

A military raid in downtown Ramallah killed several people the other day and injured dozens. This day-to-day escalation of the conflict coupled with devastating sanctions on the Palestinian Authority which is teetering on economic collapse has devastating consequences. Looking for militants means that killing innocent civilians in the process falls under the term ‘collateral damage.’ It is a dehumanizing existence for everyone involved including the soldiers.

The logic of the conflict for the warring parties has fallen under a rather primitive concept that could only be likened to Hammurabi’s laws – blood for blood, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

The right wing supporters of Israel like to say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. There are some things worth mentioning – there is a mosque in its basement, NGO’s address its committees and proportional representation is a progressive form of representation. However, democracy is subject to deformations in its processes when an occupation or a conflict shapes its priorities from the traditional elements of public governance. Placing a democratic façade on institutionalizing an occupation does not render it any more humane or just. There is a human rights problem in the entire Middle East whether they are societies run by benevolent and petty despots or whether it is called a democracy.

Haaretz writer Gideon Levy recently made a brilliant observation: “The occupation is not just the domain of the government, army and security organizations. Everything is tainted: institutions of justice and law, the physicians who remain silent while medical treatment is prevented in the territories, the teachers who do not protest against the closing of educational institutions and the prevention of free movement of their peers, the journalists who do not report, the writers and artists who remain mum, the architects and engineers who lend a hand to the occupation’s enterprises - the settlements and the fence, the barriers and bypass roads and also the university lecturers, who do nothing for their imprisoned colleagues in the territories, but conduct special study programs for the security forces. If all these boycotted the occupation, there would be no need for an international boycott.”

Even the mainstream Israeli peace movement is full of right wingers who defend the Separation Wall as a just public policy measure. That they morally defend aspects of the occupation as the costs of building the Israeli state is a position built on a lie and only serves those interests which continue to perpetuate unjust policies. Hiding behind the ‘peace movement’ does not absolve them from receiving fair criticism. The occupation has gone on for so long that the debate amongst the country’s elite is light years from anything resembling a final status agreement that the Palestinians would accept.

Martin Luther King used to say that the enemies weren’t the racists, but the white liberals who were uncomfortable with protests and wanted the civil rights movement to wait until the time was better to make change. It is the Israeli moderates who say nothing, who accept the flow of events and deny the critics that stand in the way of a fundamental shift in approach to the conflict. Implementing the establishment of a second-class society takes the work of many people through systems and processes. It requires an acquiescence which normalizes and renders routine the blunt policies of occupation.

The Palestinians are not innocents in this. The suicide bomb and Qassam rockets have not achieved a thing from any empirical perspective. They have squandered opportunities and failed to build a non-violent resistance movement with international ties on a tight time frame.

The EU and the US have clearly not been honest brokers. The Palestinians must not just gain support amongst Israelis, it must build public support in the US, France, Germany and Britain particularly. It means a sustained and focused campaign with strategic ends in mind over a limited time frame. It means Israelis, Palestinians and internationals have to come together in a solidarity campaign that is focused on sustained cultural change focussed on changing public opinion. Moving from crisis to crisis will not change at all the fundamental structures of the occupation. The Israelis have handicapped and divided the Palestinian resistance movement through its brutal policies.

The realists would argue that raw power still functions on a Western paradigm and that the UN is a political institution. The Israelis, by building better relations with the global hegemonic powers for historical reasons, like the EU and the US, have strategically played the game of international relations better. They have successfully carried out policies that have created an ungovernable and colonized people who have become bitterly divided by sectarian tensions in what is increasingly becoming an apartheid state.

The Palestinians have been unable to transcend the significant hurdles that are before them largely due to an active policy of division administered by the IDF and the Israeli government. All the PhD’s in the world in Peace and Conflict Studies couldn’t find a solution to this conflict in its present supposition. The Israelis have legitimized a power dynamic with the Palestinians in their own eyes that is morally unjust by any standard of human rights.

Institutionalizing fear in its critics at home and abroad has been an effective psychological weapon for Israel in prolonging the occupation and in dissipating and managing the effectiveness of social movements domestically and critics abroad. Systems and processes such as these can only be fundamentally changed by exposing their flaws and by building more effective responses that fall under the hospices of non-violent civil disobedience and change management. It has to be strategic, focussed and carried out in a mass way.

In Israel, the mainstream left today stands in the way of inevitable change – in their ability to stay quiet when it matters, they prolong and help justify the positions of the Israeli right. Until there is a structural transformation of the Israeli public sphere and a shift in EU and US foreign policy, nothing important related to the conflict will happen that alters the root causes of the impasse.

Fear will remain the most effective weapon in maintaining the status quo.

Am Johal is a freelance writer from Vancouver, Canada who worked during 2004 in international advocacy with the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel.