Friday, November 14

Bad things happen when we are silent

By Gideon Spiro

When I served in the Reserves in the war of June 1967 (also known as the “Six-Day War”) I was assigned to be part of the occupation army in East Jerusalem during the first days of the Occupation.
During those hoary days when we thought we were dreaming, I had not yet developed firm views on a solution to the conflict, but I remember very well that I felt great discomfort at my status as an armed man in uniform controlling a civilian population. My unit was based in a hotel in East Jerusalem, not the most luxurious hotel, but still on the touristic level, with bathrooms attached to the rooms. The more luxurious hotels were assigned to the senior officer corps that constituted the emerging Occupation government.

Did we ask for permission from the owner of the hotel to stay in his property? Did we pay for its use? A senior officer to whom asked those questions looked at me as if I was deranged. We are the conquerors and we rule, and a conquering army does not ask for permission. The property of the vanquished is free for all and subject to the pleasure of the occupation: it will confiscate if it wants to; it will nationalize if it wants to; it will demolish if it wants to.

As an occupation soldier I was one of the new rulers. The power I possessed was not the result of elections but flowed from the uniform and the weapon that I possessed.

>From the first days, Israel saw itself as an “enlightened occupier” (later it became clear to all that there has never been such a thing). And indeed, we did not shoot wildly on the streets, nor was there any need for that. The Palestinians were still reeling under the shock of the defeat, one of the outcomes of which was a population that was subject to the orders of the Occupation.

When I was released from reserve duty I promised myself that I would never again find myself strolling around armed and in uniform among a civilian population. I have kept that promise. That was before the Occupation had put down roots, before the creation of the settlements, before the Jewish terrorist underground, before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, before the “Bat-Ayin” underground and of course before the planting of a bomb at the home of Professor Zeev Sternhell.

If anybody had told me then that 40 years later the end of the Occupation would still not be in sight, I would have thought they were hallucinating, for those were the twilight days of colonialism, the era of emancipation from foreign rule. What normal country, I thought, would take upon itself, of its own free will, the burden of controlling another people, with all the hardships that entails?

I assumed that after the victory celebrations died down, a matter of months, Israel would evacuate the territories it had conquered, similarly to what had happened after the 1956 Sinai War. Then, as will be recalled, Israel withdrew from Sinai and Gaza after the then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had already announced the establishment of the Third Kingdom of Israel. The Soviet Union and the USA “helped” Israel to get down from the tall imperial tree up which it had climbed. It should be said, to Ben-Gurion’s credit, that he understood very quickly that the lofty talk about the establishment of the Third Kingdom of Israel were empty words without substance, and for their sake it was not worth confronting the whole world, and the withdrawal was executed rapidly and smoothly.

Today, in retrospect, it is clear that the seeds of the horrors of the Occupation were planted in its first days. Even then, General Haim Herzog (later the President of the State who pardoned the Jewish Underground murderers), the first governor of the occupied territories (which in those days were called the “held territories” – shetahim muhzaqim – before the biblical appellation “Judaea and Samaria” was settled on) began the transfer of Palestinians across the Jordan.

In the wake of the victory, Israel was swept by a wave of secular nationalism accompanied by religious zealotry. Religious leaders and public figures on both sides of the political divide, the Labour Movement and the Revisionist Movement, most of them secular, came together in July 1967 and founded the Movement for Greater Israel (eretz yisra’el ha-shlema). The latter subsequently joined the Likud.

The Unity Government, which had a secular majority from the Zionist left (Mapai, Unity of Labour and Mapam – 20 ministers out of 28), derived sustenance from that euphoria and also fed it. In the Knesset, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol spoke about “Greater Israel”.

The Zionist ethos of “redemption of the land” in conjunction with a religious ideology that relied on a Divine promise that appears several times in the Book of Genesis in various formulations, the essence of which is “Unto you and your seed have I given the Land”, is the ideological foundation upon which the occupation rests to this very day.

At the beginning of the Occupation there were voices that warned against what could be expected. There was Professor Yeshayahu Liebowitz who warned that the State of Israel was likely to become a Shabak** state if the Occupation persisted. Later he would coin the term “Judaeo-Nazi” in recognition of the cruel nature that the Occupation had taken on. There was the Matzpen Declaration, the initiative of the writer and artist Shimon Tzabar and the journalist Haim Hanegbi, which looked to the future, and it is worth quoting in full: “Our right to defend ourselves against destruction does not confer upon us the right to oppress others; Occupation brings foreign rule; foreign rule brings resistance; resistance brings repression; repression brings terror and counter-terror; the victims of terror are usually innocent people. The retention of the occupied territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims; let us leave the occupied territories immediately”. (Haaretz, 22/9/1967)

After the war I worked as a correspondent for Al Hamishmar (Mapam’s daily newspaper) at the UN and in the United States. In November 1967 my report, “A week of changes in the Security Council”, was published. It read, in part: “Does Israel’s adamant stance of ‘peace through direct negotiations’ express an honest desire to come to an agreed solution, or is it perhaps a political manoeuvre which indeed wins over public opinion, but behind which is concealed an inclination to keep the situation as it is in the long run? So far no authoritative declaration has been heard which reaffirms that Israel does not aspire for annexations and conquests”. (Al Hamishmar, 24/11/1967).

In April 1972, the 19th conference of the National Student Union was held in Meir Shfeya Youth Village. The main speaker at the conference was Prime Minister Golda Meir. I was then the editor of the student publication at Haifa University, Post-Mortem, and also a delegate at the conference. Students were given the opportunity to ask questions. In the newspaper Davar (the Histadrut organ) I read the following report. “Prominent among the questioners was the editor of the student newspaper at Haifa, Gideon Spiro, who posed questions about the government’s peace plans, such as ‘what takes priority, peace or territory’, and such like. His words gave the impression of being opinionated and extremist, and when he was asked by the Prime Minister, ‘What is your peace plan?’ he replied ‘return to the 1967 borders’. To which the Prime Minister replied ‘I beg to differ from the illusion that there is such a choice, peace or territories’ ”. (Davar, 4/4/1972) Less than a year later we paid a heavy price for that arrogance with the Yom Kippur War. I hardly need to say that Golda Meir’s words were received with stormy applause and my questions were received with hostility.

I relate that story, not only because I remember it well, but because it expresses what has been happening in Israeli society over a prolonged period. The voices of peace are drowned out by triumphalist braying and support for the Occupation, and the stormy applause of hundreds of delegates at the conference symbolized the ugly phenomenon that has afflicted the public in Israel: collaboration, whether with silence or with action, with the injustices of the Occupation.

Israel set up one of the most elaborate and cruel machines of occupation and oppression in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.

In the Occupied Territories Israeli governments established the state of the settlers, the state of the Occupation and apartheid in which there is one law which confers privileges on Jews, and another law, of oppressive military administration, for the native Palestinian people.

Many Germans claimed after the Second World War that they “did not know” about what was going on in the concentration and death camps, most of which were far from their homes.

In Israel no one can claim that “we did not know”. The horrors of the Occupation and the war crimes occurred and are occurring at our doorstep with the full cooperation of substantial parts of the population. The Israeli public knew that the settlement enterprise was illegal, a war crime under the international conventions. It knew that the establishment of settlements involved the plunder of Palestinian lands. It knew that those actions are the fuel that feeds Palestinian resistance, that as long as the settlement enterprise grows and expands, the resistance will grow, which in turn engenders a harder repressive hand by the Occupation. The Israeli public knew about the collective punishments, about the destruction of houses, about the curfews imposed on entire communities for weeks, about the hundreds and thousands of administrative detentions, about tortures in Shabak dungeons, about roads for Jews only. It knew about the Occupation forces’ shooting at a civilian population, which has caused the deaths of more than a thousand children. It knew about daily humiliation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians at checkpoints, about the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, about pogroms that settlers carry out against their neighbours, about nightly forcible entry into the houses of Palestinian families, about the malnutrition of segments of the Palestinian population because of economic hardship caused by the Occupation, while the settlers stole their neighbours’ water so they could frolic in swimming pools.

The Israeli public knew, not only because everything was published in the newspapers, but because a significant part of them were and are partners in the crimes. The regular soldier along with the lawyer, the doctor, the lecturer, the electrician, the civil servant, the insurance agent and the plumber that do Reserve duty – what is called the “People of Israel” – knew and know first hand about what is going on there. The soldier on leave told his girlfriend about his actions, and the lawyer, the doctor, the lecturer, the plumber and the electrician told their friends.

The great Occupation apparatus is built from secondary apparati of military units, police, Shabak, Civil Administration, the military justice system and the settler leadership. All of them act as a well-oiled machine that rides and flogs the bent back of the Palestinian people, with full cooperation of civilian apparati within the Green Line. The Occupation enjoys the cooperation of the court system, from the Magistrate`s Court up to the High Court of Justice, from Social Security, the Ministry of the Interior, the Education Ministry and the Health Ministry. The agents of the Occupation, after they complete their duties as absolute rulers in the Occupied Territories, are absorbed within similar apparati inside the Green Line. Military judges who gave judicial backing to the actions of the occupation army become judges in the civilian system and continue to give backing from there. Military doctors, who betrayed their profession and provided support for torture, are absorbed by the civilian health-care system. Senior officers, after they have drained the poisoned cup in the Occupied Territories, are absorbed in the civilian system, whether as a businessman, mayors or school principals, and to our shame also as prime ministers and ministers who have committed war crimes, and from those positions they continue to support the Occupation.

Not only does Israeli society not condemn and vomit up the criminals, it sees them as an asset and collaborates with the evil.

Journalism too collaborates in various ways, first of all by adopting the language of the Occupation. The Occupation army is called the “Defence Force”, the guerrilla fighters are all “terrorists” or “saboteurs”, and the Occupied Territories, as we have seen, are called “Judaea and Samaria”. Military correspondents normally operate as an extension of the arm of the IDF Spokesperson. It is no coincidence that the Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, was chosen by Channel 2, the most popular in Israel, as Man of the Year. The voting journalist Emanuel Rozen gloried in the image of Dagan as a cutter of Arab throats with a box-cutter between his teeth, while in his time the now-comatose ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke highly of Dagan’s expertise in separating heads from bodies.

The universities too constitute a layer of collaboration with the Occupation. Most of the “National Security” institutes that were set up in the various universities harbour senior army officers who have been converted from killers to honourable academics.

“Ariel College”, which is considered part of the system of higher education in Israel, operates in the Occupied Territories, and no institution of higher learning boycotts that institution, which operates under the protection of the apartheid Occupation regime.

As for Israel’s artists, from whose ranks it might have been expected the biggest protests against the injustices of the Occupation would come: most of them revealed themselves to be as rabbits and cowards (my apologies to the rabbits). You can count on the fingers of one hand the artists who have come out against the Occupation and supported the peace and human rights organizations. The overwhelming majority of them are “apolitical”, and even exhibit their work to soldiers in the Occupied Territories. Indeed they sing, but when it comes to civic courage their lips are sealed and they thereby echo Jabotinsky’s words to the effect that silence is mire.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel is perhaps the ultimate example of the schism in the personality of Israeli society. What could be more noble than the struggle for good governance, against corruption and in favour of sound administration? Every year, the Movement allocates the “Knight of Quality Government” award. The problem is that the Movement stops at the Green Line. What occurs in the Occupied Territories does not interest it. The Movement’s leader, Eliad Shraga, who is linked at the navel to the army (“a colonel in an elite paratroopers unit”, as the Movement’s website puts it) was interviewed on Channel 7, the settlers’ station, and spoke high words about integrity and the struggle against corruption, as if he weren’t addressing a bunch of land-plunderers and violators of human rights. Thus it happens that in 2007 the Movement gave the Knight of Quality Government award to the settler MK Aryeh Eldad, “in recognition of his important contribution to strengthening the rule of law and quality government in Israel. MK Dr. Aryeh Eldad is a marvellous example of the integration of public activism with integrity and clean hands”, no less. The Movement did not sense the absurdity of giving such an award to a settler who lives in the Occupied Territories and participates in the plunder of land, who justifies the apartheid regime, who called for the imposition of the death penalty on the Prime Minister because he had expressed opinions that were unacceptable to him. In short, the man is a classic fascist. But for all that, he wins recognition as an example and exemplar of integrity. Those who shared the award with MK Eldad that year, including the former vice-president of the High Court of Justice, Mishael Cheshin and the journalist Mickey Rosenthal, did not see this as an unacceptable situation from the perspective of integrity, and it did not occur to them to declare that they would not be part of that group. In that regard I am particularly saddened that former MK Aryeh “Lova” Eliav, an honest and decent man (even if he is from the Zionist left), has agreed to serve in the Movement’s honorary presidency and have a hand in that farce.

This critique is written from the perspective of a human-rights activist. Nuclear-armed Israel today constitutes a danger to itself and to others, but it is important to emphasise that the picture is not purely black. In Israel there is an impressive list of human rights organizations and organizations that struggle against the Occupation, and in my eyes they are the “Beautiful Israel”. Those exemplary groups have not yet succeeded in changing the configuration of power in Israel, but they are our hope, pending the war of Gog and Magog.

* This article was written at the request of the Public Committee Against Torture on the occasion of the launching of the exhibit “Silence on the Brink” at Artists’ House in Tel Aviv, 25 October 2008 to 18 November 2008.
**Israeli Secret Service

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