“I think people don’t want to see what is going on.”
I am in Haifa, Israel talking to a group of 16 year old Israeli students about life in the West Bank, when one of the girls says this. I have just summarised what takes place in Hebron – Israeli soldiers, Israeli settlers, life for Palestinians – the types of things I have written about in my blogs. I struggle to hold it together when speaking, both because of the reality of life in Hebron but also because I am acutely aware that these young people are the next generation of Israeli soldiers. Any of them could be serving in Hebron in a couple of years: protecting violent settlers living in illegal settlements and doing the things I have observed like searching Palestinian children’s schoolbags, harassing ordinary people going about their business and detaining children.
Some of the students tell me they have never heard of Hebron and had no idea about what goes on there, or about the situation with checkpoints and other problems that my EAPPI colleagues based in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Yanoun describe. A lively discussion between the students arises as to why this might be. A few blame the media. We point out that these issues are in the press on a daily basis, including the Israeli press, and there is a vast amount of information on the internet. After all, none of us EAs come from the region, and we managed to find out about what is going on.
The conversation changes when a girl suggests that many Israelis don’t want to see what is going on, they don’t want to know.
Certainly, it is absolutely possible to live a fairly normal life in Israel whilst mostly ignoring what goes on just a few miles away on the other side of the wall that separates it from much of the West Bank. Ruth, another Israeli who kindly hosted me with her family in Haifa for a weekend, told me that in the last five years there were just three days when the conflict with the Palestinians touched her life in some way. The rest of the time, if she had chosen to, she could have completely ignored that it was happening. This is despite the fact that, if things carry on as they are, her two sons will be conscripted into the army in a few years.
It tallies with what organisations like Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers says, “Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years… While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny what is done in its name.”
During our meeting with the young people at their college in Haifa, they showed us a memorial room which has photographs of 20 students or former students who were killed in the conflict. Although significantly fewer in number overall, the examples of tragic loss seem to be everywhere you turn in Israel, as in Palestine. But still, those young people were entirely ignorant of Hebron – one of the most notorious examples of this conflict.
I find this deeply, deeply troubling. In a previous blog I mentioned that a 20 year old Israeli soldier was shot and killed recently at checkpoint 209 in Hebron, apparently by a Palestinian. His name was Gavriel Kovi and, as it happens he came from Haifa, the city where I spent the weekend staying with an Israeli family – Ruth, Sarah and their two sons. I have seen no outcry in Israel about why he was there in the first place and this is puzzling. He was there to protect a group of Israeli settlers who use violence to further their views, which I have both witnessed and experienced. Such acts of violence would normally be subject to the force of the law but instead, the Israeli government sends its army to protect them. This army is made of young people who are sometimes tragically killed, as with Gavriel Kovi. I fail to understand both how it is in Israel’s own interests for this to be happening or why people don’t want to see this.
But some, like Israeli settler Bob Lang, feel differently. He was born in the USA but is now spokesperson for the settlement of Efrat. I felt uncomfortable going to Efrat because of the damage that the settlements do, and their illegal status. I was expecting him to try to charm us into agreeing that he had a fair case but I was wrong. His method of persuasion was to shout at us for about 10 minutes at a time, at one point shaking and going red with rage in response to questions about international law.
He told us about the expansion of the settlement – it has permission from the Israeli government to build 1000 new housing units, with 600 currently under construction. All of these are being built on Palestinian land that is illegally occupied. Bob told us of “The masterplan for Efrat… to be built on seven hilltops. We have five already.” He gestured at caravans on a nearby hilltop, which is often how settlers begin to take more land. They are normally illegal under Israel’s own laws as well as international law. Despite this, they are often supplied with water, electricity, roads and public transport by the Israeli government, and end up becoming new settlements or merging with existing ones, eating up more Palestinian land. It’s not that Bob doesn’t want to see what is going on, more that he sees it and supports it.
In Sderot, southern Israel, I meet an Israeli called Nomika Zion who couldn’t have more different views to Bob Lang. Yet she lives in a part of Israel where it is most difficult to be. Sderot is unfortunately famous because it is located very close to Gaza and is often on the receiving end of rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian groups who use violence. Some fifteen Israelis living in Sderot have been killed by the rockets. Nomika tells us that the last rocket was around a month ago.
She describes the fear and stress caused by living in such circumstances, “you never know what will happen in the next minute”. She tells us that in the past many people slept in their clothes in case they had to run outside to the communal bomb shelters. Some families could no longer cope, so they locked their villas and left. The Israeli government has now built a security room onto each house which people can run to when warning sirens sound. We see a children’s playground with a giant concrete caterpillar which Nomika tells us is specially designed to double up as a bomb shelter as well as a plaything, so that the children can shelter in it immediately the sirens sound. How sad that such a thing is needed.
Despite the rockets, Nomika is hugely concerned at the attitude of the Israeli government and much of Israeli society towards the Palestinians and the conflict with them. She describes the situation when Israel invaded Gaza in 2008 in a 22 day war known as Operation Cast Lead. Its stated aim was to end the rocket attacks. According to Amnesty International some 1400 Palestinians were killed – many of whom were unarmed civilians – including some 300 children. With clear distress, Nomika recalls many of her neighbours sitting on their roofs watching the bombs dropping on Gaza and cheering each time one exploded.
Nomika and a group of around 20 fellow Sderot residents have formed Other Voice, a group which keeps in touch with some of their neighbours who live in Gaza. As the bombs dropped, the group was receiving texts and emails from their Gazan friends. One email came from a 14 year old girl in Gaza, “Help us. Don’t they understand that we are also humans?”
After ten days of bombing, Nomika says that she couldn’t stand it anymore and had to speak out about what was happening. She wrote an article about why the bombardment was not in her name, ‘War Diary from Sderot’. This was very controversial in Israeli society because it went against the conventional wisdom that the war was right. It received huge national and international media attention, and Nomika was viewed as a traitor by many of her neighbours. But, she tells us, “as long as something remains of our democracy, it is my civil obligation to speak out.”
Nomika agrees with the 16 year old Israeli girl in Haifa who thinks that many Israelis don’t want to see what is happening in their name. The goal of Other Voice is simply “to make the invisible visible.” She is gravely concerned about the consequences of the kind of wilful blindness that seems to have permeated Israel,
“We have lost our ability to see the Palestinians as human beings. This is very dangerous. We have becomes blind to them. We don’t see them. They don’t have voices or faces. We give them one collective identity: terrorists. Palestinians equal terrorists to most of Israeli society.”
“We have become blind. Worse than this, we have become numb. Like Hannah Arendt said: the evil becomes so banal that you don’t see the evil anymore. This is very dangerous to the spirit of our society. We have lost our ability to feel empathy. When you lose this, you lose part of your humanity. The Jewish people carry a tragedy on our backs: the Holocaust. We know that to lose our human empathy is dangerous.”