Being in Israel these days is as strange as ever: an Israeli military machine that kills Palestinians daily is wedded to a society that denies their humanity daily. The more Israel punishes Palestinians, destroys their basic infrastructure, eradicates their social institutions, terrorizes them, and forces them to live in fear and despair, the more the Israeli elite and its fourth strongest army in the world obsesses over a primitive Palestinian-made short-range rocket like the “Qassam” (which causes minimal damage and is far from a serious threat to life or property) or a “mastermind of terror” like exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal; breeds doubt over (or, outrightly denies) the Israeli army’s killing of scores of families in Gaza; legitimizes the illegal arrest of tens of democratically-elected Palestinian representatives and officials; and presents Palestinians as a nation of terrorists who seek to eradicate Israel. In a colonial twist of logic, Israel accuses Palestinians of wanting to do to them the exact same things that Israel itself is routinely and systematically doing to the Palestinians: destroying their society, denying their national and democratic rights, and dehumanizing them.
For Israel, then, to be Palestinian today is to be subhuman. Racism is thus endemic to present Israeli politics and society. The current conception of Israeli nationhood is premised on the notion that Israeli-Jews are superior human beings. They deserve all the rights and privileges that are systematically denied to others. And from this stems the current conception of Israeli security, which is also particularist to the extreme: in order for Israelis to be safe and secure, Palestinians have to live in a state of permanent occupation, insecurity and fear. Military might, expansionism, and war have been Israel‘s routine instruments for achieving these ends. Israeli politics has therefore never seriously contemplated the option that Israeli peace and security should be premised on the notion of Palestinian security, freedom, and independence. In a colonial society like Israel, then, universal notions of equality and mutuality are sadly absent. And for this the Israeli elite is mainly responsible. In order to safeguard its own colonial privileges in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it has forced Israeli society to live in what Israeli sociologist Avishai Ehrlich has aptly called ‘a permanent war society,’ premised on the construction of Arabs and Palestinians as national enemies.* War and occupation are thus not only means of crushing and denying Palestinian national rights of self-determination, but also serve a clear domestic purpose. They are instruments of Israeli self-fashioning: militarizing Israeli society is necessary for the continued domestic domination of Israeli colonial practices. Israeli society is ceaselessly indoctrinated into believing that it exists in a permanent state of existential conflict with the Palestinians, and this in order for the Israeli elite to meet and realize its colonial policies and objectives of land expropriation and expansion (militarizing Israeli society is also a necessary precondition for acting as US watchdog and for serving American imperial interests in the region). One important outcome of such a sustained aggressive agenda is that Israel has become, as Gideon Levy has put it recently in Haaretz (26 March 2006), ‘one racist nation.’ There is not one Jewish political party in the Knesset, he concluded before the Israeli elections, which believes that Palestinians are equal human beings or equal partners in peace. Such racism can also be gauged in the tragic absence of an Israeli popular peace camp today: not one mass demonstration was organized in Israel to protest the endless shelling of civilians in Gaza in the last two weeks. Popular dissent is clearly absent among Israelis. Even though a significant majority of them (60%) do support the release of Palestinians prisoners in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier (as Hamas has offered), their position remains passive and paralyzed. Those demonstrations which did take place in Israel to protest army brutality in Gaza were either spontaneous minority expressions of outrage (like the recent one in front of the home of the Israeli army’s Chief of Staff Dan Halutz in Tel-Aviv) or ones that were organized by the Palestinian minority in Israel (in Haifa, Nazareth, and the villages of the Galilee). No Jewish-Israeli popular dissent is legitimate, it seems, when the life of an Israeli soldier is at stake, as the killing of tens of Palestinians (16 in the last 24 hours alone), the wounding of hundreds, and the bombing of beaches, bridges, fields, houses, power plants, and roads is received with cynical and complicit silence.
Also denied is the seemingly endless Palestinian peace offers that have been coming out of occupied Palestine for at least the last month. The prisoners’ document has been attacked by the Israeli government as either ‘insignificant’ or as yet another attempt to legitimize terrorism and destroy the state of Israel! Solidly wedded to the international consensus (rejected by Israel and the US) of ending the illegal occupation, dismantling settlements, creating a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank (with East Jerusalem as capital), and abiding by international laws and resolutions over the Palestinian refugee problem, the prisoners’ document has been resoundingly adopted by the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government. As Israeli bombs fall on Gaza, then, Palestinians have yet again shown that they are able and willing to consider a settlement of the question of Palestine in a fair peaceful manner. A peace offer has also been clearly articulated by Prime Minister Haniyeh in the Washington Post (July 11, 2006), modestly asking Americans to support the same rights that sovereign and independent nations enjoy: ‘to live in peace, dignity and national integrity’ and to create ‘a fair and permanent peace’ with Israel. Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that in the last couple of weeks Hamas has embarked on what one Israeli strategist before the 1982 invasion of Lebanon called ‘a peace offensive’ referring to the PLO. And the analogy is powerful and ominous: when ‘threatened’ by a Hamas ceasefire (which, like the PLO’s previous one of 1981-82, also lasted over a year) and real peace, Israel bombs its way out of a diplomatic settlement. 2006 may well be a repetition of 1982 in this regard. And if Israel in 1982 used the attempted assassination of Israeli ambassador to London Argov by Palestinian groups not signed on to the PLO ceasefire as an excuse to put into motion a pre-planned invasion of Lebanon in order to crush the PLO, then the capture of soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 has also been exploited in order to unleash a re-invasion of Gaza planned and hinted at months in advance of the Keren Shalom military operation. Confronted with real peace, Israel responds by waging war: and the ‘permanent war society’ is actively reproduced. As a result, a permanent peace society is as rejected and as illusive as ever.
As one hears the incessant bombing of southern Lebanon in response to today’s (July 12) Hezbollah military incident in Northern Israel (details of which are hourly emerging), it is easy to conclude that another broad and brutal military adventure in Lebanon is also on the horizon. If Hezbollah has sought to force Israel to release the illegally held Lebanese prisoners it still holds captive in Israeli prisons, the Israeli military echelons will most probably respond by unleashing Israeli military might against yet another defenseless Arab nation. As of now: the near future looks bleak, as Israeli rejectionism and military logic dominate.
* Avishai Ehrlich, ‘Israel: Conflict, War and Social Change’, in Colin Creighton and Martin Shaw (eds.), The Sociology of War and Peace, New York, Sheridan House, 1987, pp121-142.
Bashir Abu-Manneh teaches English at Barnard College, New York.