The Silent Side of Occupation

Despite the softly spoken mantra of “there may finally be peace in Israel” and what has been called a precarious cease-fire, children continue to die in Palestinian towns and refugee camps. In East Jerusalem the wall goes up while Palestinian homes come down. This is happening now. This is not something that has just re-appeared to shatter a period of calm, as the talking heads of CNN submit. Political assassinations, invasions and incursions by the Israeli military, expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, these still make up the daily life of many Palestinians. The manner in which mainstream media have embraced Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, viewers might believe that Ariel Sharon is about to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Although alternative news sources document faithfully the impact of Israeli policy toward Palestinians, what has rarely been discussed is what one may call the softer side of the occupation. Or maybe a better term is the silent side of the occupation. What follows are a few examples from what could be a lengthy list.

1. Economics

I first started thinking about this issue when in Jerusalem’s Old City searching for some Palestinian chocolate for my mother in Canada. After asking at several candy stores for such an item I came to the conclusion that there really is a captive market here, in effect an embargo. Nestle sweets and Israeli brands are plentiful. As I spent time in the West Bank I saw this same phenomenon with countless items. I cannot imagine how I would respond, resisting an occupying force, yet forced to buy their products in order to survive. Instead of a common market within the Arab world, Palestinians are faced with shelves stocked largely with goods labelled in Hebrew. Of course this is only one element of this issue. The whole notion of Palestinians being forced to use the Israeli Shekel as their currency has been discussed at length, though I’ll not do that here.

2. Treatment of Internationals
American evangelicals are treated very well in Israel. A few are afraid to venture to Bethlehem or other sacred sites because “that’s the area where we can’t go”, yet their  tour buses make their way through illegal settlements and checkpoints with relative ease. Well-dressed greeters from Benny Hinn Ministries and other evangelical organizations wait with shiny placards to welcome Christians at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Human rights workers -or those even suspected of being such- can expect a rather different reception. Detention at checkpoints, borders and airports, deportation and, in more extreme cases, even death by bullet or bulldozer has been the experience of international activists. Teenage Israeli soldiers laugh at us during demonstrations while shooting teargas, sound bombs, rubber-coated and live ammunition. Young members of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), stationed in near-empty settlements, fire warning shots over our heads in Palestinian olive groves, and Israeli security officers root through us and our luggage, explaining only that “the police ordered this search.”

3. Journalism/Media

A journalist from the Guardian told me in Nablus that there is no shortage of good reporting in the Occupied Territories. One of the problems is getting the stories into print. Articles are written, photos are taken and forwarded by Reuters or the Associated Press to media outlets who subscribe to their news services. Those in positions of power simply refuse to print, or, even more dishonest, do their own editing. An example of this is the Can West Global company in Canada altering a Reuters story in their newspaper chain in 2004. The article referred to the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade fighting a “four year-old revolt against Israeli occupation”, that was changed to read “a terrorist group…involved in a four-year-old campaign of violence against Israel. (Adbusters, Jan/Feb 2005) Other reporters say they are simply blocked from conflict areas and left with the official IDF explanation, with all its twists and turns.

When there is such blatant corporate media bias, such concentration of ownership, it’s nearly impossible to obtain a genuine and complete understanding of what’s happening on occupied ground. I was in Nablus when two boys were shot and killed in the night by Israeli soldiers. Paramedics told us that the boys were unarmed. By daylight the official military version had gone from unarmed boys to rock throwing boys to boys with weapons to boys with explosives.

The Palestinian voice is absent from mainstream media. This is not at all about “Jews controlling the media” or other conspiracy theories. I think this is more about the Bush/Sharon agenda getting a free pass, the superficial obsession with “suicide bombers” at the expense of reporting on the separation wall, expanding settlements and other issues that impact Palestinians. Eytan Fox’s popular Israeli motion picture Walk on Water is a fine example. Although the movie provides some dialogue regarding the occupation and its impact on Palestinians, Fox portrays life in Tel Aviv as if suicide bombings are a daily occurrence…but no more than one per day, he adds.

4. Holocaust Factor
The line between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli policy has been, for all intents and purposes, erased. This has been discussed at length. Even sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the horrors of Nazi Germany are used to deflect and bludgeon any questioning of the occupation of Palestine. This reaction has about the same level of legitimacy as the tired old refrain that “Jews are cheap”. Unfortunately the public seem to be too lazy to dig any deeper. One author,¬¬¬¬¬¬¬ Michael Neumann, suggests in his essay, What is Anti-Semitism, (The Politics of Anti-Semitism) that we might simply refer to any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, thus taking the power out of it, and forcing those who would use the term to justify such use. I won’t spend time here discussing my visits to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. It goes without saying that unless one is inhuman, it is a haunting, sobering experience.

Maybe the reported rise in anti-Semitism is somehow linked to current Israeli human rights violations and not an historical hatred of everything Jewish? In response to my treatment in Tel Aviv’s airport when exiting the country, the security officer said in a matter-of-fact tone, “You have to remember, this is Israel”. It’s as if that one simple phrase can be uttered on any occasion to quell opposition to the treatment of Palestinians, any discussion of the Israeli arms trade, or examining the country’s history of involvement in covert wars abroad.

5.  The Narrative

Souvenir shops throughout the Old City display their wares for tourists. One piece I was particularly fascinated by is a t-shirt with an image of a jet fighter and lettering as follows:
                             “Don’t Worry USA, Israel Is With You”

And in the gift shop of the Holocaust Museum there are racks of camouflage colored shirts for sale with the logo of the IDF next to biographies of Anne Frank, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other victims of Nazi Germany. Across the hall from the gift shop the coffee vendor bragged about how large the coffee mugs are in Israel, so I asked him how that compares to having coffee in the West Bank. His reply?

          ”The West Bank? What is that? I don’t know what you’re talking about”

Maybe if I had asked him if they used chocolate or cinnamon sprinkles on their lattes in Judea and Samaria he would have been more forthcoming?

Another element of the Israeli narrative is the attack on Palestinian culture, or the elimination of the narrative of the occupied. One example of this is the robust Israeli museum industry. John Petrovato writes of how Palestinians are “invisible in the presentation of the past, and in terms of their importance to the geographical area of Palestine” in historical and heritage museums, as well as at archeological sites. Petrovato also wonders “whether it is mere coincidence that, according to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, Israel has more museums per capita than any other country in the world.”

No discussion of the Israeli narrative could be complete without mentioning  “The Ambassador”, a reality television program along the lines of “The Apprentice”, where contestants try to sell an image of Israel abroad through mock advertising campaigns, speeches and the like. Their goal is to alter the world’s image of Israel, and of course avoid being voted out of the competition. Needless to say, they have had some chilly receptions, particularly when speaking at universities where students are aware of the realities of the Israeli occupation. Israel’s thirst for “reality television” appears almost surreal, considering that a fascinating and devastating reality is being played out only minutes from most Israeli citizens, beyond walls and checkpoints. This is similar to the North American pastime of hot dog eating contests, as contestants stuff their faces with wieners and other foods in record time, while obesity rates in adults and children continue to climb.

As with the harder tools of occupation, there are many. These may not have the same bloody force as incursions into refugee camps or political assassinations, but they do impact in a meaningful way by frustrating and humiliating Palestinians. The silent side of the occupation also prevents most North Americans from asking critical questions and seeing the conflict outside of its carefully packaged presentation.

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