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Brutalities of Colonial Occupation
Following the 1967 war Israel seized East Jerusalem, forced out all of the 6,500 residing Palestinians, and bulldozed their religious centers. The UN reported that by 1971, 48 Palestinian villages were destroyed, and by 1974 the Red Cross counted almost 20,000 Palestinian homes crushed by Israeli bulldozers. The surviving refugees joined their 1948 counterparts in squalid camps. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders had come to a certain consensus about the nature of their victims, namely that they were all animals. “Two-legged beasts”, “grasshoppers”, “snakes”, “drugged insects”, “cockroaches”-terms employed not by random Israeli fanatics, but rather very well-placed ones, i.e. prime ministers, defense ministers, and so forth-have been used to describe, or rather dehumanize, Palestinians. One wonders if Israeli leadership plans on erecting zoos across the country to house the newly dispossessed ‘Negroes’: it would be a welcome respite from the hovels and ghettoes that comprise much of the Occupied Territories.
The remarks more importantly reflect a deep-seated racist attitude that permeates Israeli society, and play an important psychological role in the dehumanization process. It would be inhuman to detain, torture, shoot and beat fellow human beings, for the sight of a fellow man in chains is appalling to the Western ethos. But once humans are described in bestial terms-‘animalized’-then the problem disappears; if it is discovered that the hands in chains are in fact paws, that the cries of the tortured are only howls, then it is safe to cease idle talk of human rights and attend to other matters.
Yet it so happens that the colonizer’s projection of a bestial image upon his subject is not a one-sided project, but a dialectical one. Sartre spoke of the settler taking himself for “a horsewhip or a gun”, an idea which a radical African anti-imperialist of the 1950’s, Aimé Césaire, explained in A Discourse on Colonialism:
colonizationdehumanizes even the most civilized manthe colonizer, who, in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal.
The utter brutality to which the Palestinian has been exposed under occupation, compounded by the most fantastic exercises in denial and feigned ignorance by the occupier, can only be explained in light of this deep and explosive dialectic. Since it is in fact impossible for man to appoint himself judge, jury, and executioner of an entire people without committing grave crimes, a boomerang effect emerges. For the native seeks to indict the settler with his own charges of injustice and brutality and, lacking the ballots and bullets provided by imperialism, pours his whole willpower into this gigantic effort. It is in this context that the workings of colonial occupation and anti-colonial resistance should be studied.
The key feature of Israeli military occupation is its all-sidedness: every aspect of Palestinian life is made disorderly, impossible, and chaotic by an injection of one or another element of the occupation No daily established routine of attending school, going to work, or enjoying leisure time exists; in fact it in a sense it can be said that the occupation imposes not disorder but a tyrannical order, whereby the native is constantly trapped, tense, waiting, and essentially imprisoned in his own homeland.
The restriction of movement is the most striking feature of Palestinian life. Endless checkpoints, blockades, and curfews enforce the paralysis. Haaretz on May 19 reported that Palestinians now require-brace yourselves-‘freedom-of-movement permits’ to travel. In order to move, one requires colonial permission: simply another way of reinforcing native submission. All that remains to be done now is issue ‘freedom-to-live’ permits-and no doubt they will be in short supply. In an important article in April 22 Haaretz Gideon Levy points out but a few cases within the year illustrating that movement equals death. One-armed Rada was selling shirts when a soldier informed him he would “take off [his] other arm” if he dared to reappear; six months later an Israeli soldier prevented his pregnant wife through a roadblock despite his pleas. Levy observes, “On his infant’s grave I saw him weeping”. Abdallah, a sick child, was rushed to the hospital, but five hours and five taxies later, the doctors told his parents that the delay, courtesy of an Israeli siege, had cost their child his life. Rafaat, a refugee of ’48, was shot dead from a comfortable distance by an Israeli soldier while on his daily work-related errands. Suleiman, a premature baby, saw life for a mere hour as his desperate mother spent twelve hours trying to get to a hospital despite the siege in Jenin; Mohammed, another premature baby of the same town, managed to live a full eight hours before his death. The soldier manning the tank offered his heartfelt condolences: “I have the right to kill you, but not to let you pass.” And there is Abed, a fisherman of 30 years ran into the Israeli Navy which “made him undress and jump overboard, wearing only his underwear” and then “shot live ammunition into the water around him to frighten him”, ultimately leaving him “naked and blindfolded”. Yes, even in the ocean, there is no respite from Israeli terror.
I do not at all mean to imply, however, that the Israelis focus on killing only moving Palestinians in the Territories. This would be most selective and thus an entirely undemocratic method of murder. Let us turn to Levy again. Eight-year old Ubai stood in his bedroom before being felled by soldiers’ bullets. Brothers Yassr and Samr, 11 and 15, were killed within forty days of one another for throwing stones at soldiers and tanks. Yunis and Mohammed earned wages by building Jewish settlements at Gush Etzion and Pisgat Ze’ev. The settlers kindly thanked them by paralyzing one and blinding the other. The reason? Levy answers: “No reason whatsoever”.
I point out these few incidents of violence and murder only in passing and only briefly to highlight but one aspect of Palestinian life under occupation: death. If the native moves, he dies; if the native remains still, he dies; if the native exists, he dies. The words occasionally brandished on the helmets of Israeli soldiers, “Born to Kill”, are fitting: the occupier is born to kill, and the native is born to die.
There are other aspects of occupation which deserve our attention, including economic suffocation. It is impossible to talk of a national economy when we are examining not a nation but a set of discontinuous, sliced up ghettoes. This is precisely the case in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Theoretically, the Palestinian Authority controls some territory, but in reality the constant presence and invasions of Israeli military forces, bulldozers, and settlers, put the actual land effectively in control of the occupiers. Sara Roy notes in the book The New Intifada that, “by December 1999, the Oslo agreements had created 227 separate West Bank enclaves under the full or partial control of the PA,” and that “88 percent of these areas are less than two square kilometers in size.” Two square kilometers? Perhaps the Israelis are hoping to build mini-golf courses. The economic situation in Palestine is bound up with its colonial context, which involves, naturally, more Israeli theft and aggrandizement. Roy further notes that “Between 1994 and 2,000, the Israeli government confiscated approximately 35,000 acres of Arab land in the West Bankworth more than $1 billion” and stole some 10,000 acres more after 1999. What does this mean on the ground? Only that unemployment in the Territories hovers between 60% to 70%, that half the Palestinian population lives under the poverty rate, and that our friend Ben-Gurion, with his fondness for Palestinian “disintegration, chaos and hunger,” is cheering on from hell.
In essence the Palestinian economic situation is dire, enough so that it is pointless to talk of GDP and inflation given the most pressing economic concern of Palestinians: survival. Soon after the initial rape of Jenin, the IDF blocked crucial and sorely-needed (economic and medical) humanitarian aid. But does anyone remember Jenin? This was the site of Israeli destruction and terror so grave that it caused UN special envoy Roed-Larsen to comment, “It is horrifying beyond belief”, and even prompted US envoy William Burns to admit it was “obvious what happened here has caused enormous suffering for thousands of Palestinian civilians”. The Independent on April 21st reported that “The Israeli army refused to allow the Red Cross and others into the camp for six days, well after most of the fighting had ended,” and cited a senior UN official as saying “they kept out humanitarian aid for days and that in itself is a war crime.” The Scotsman on April 19th stated that the UN was “allowed access after 12 days during which ambulances were turned away and scores of injured bleed to death”. Here we have a grave example of not just economic but all-encompassing suffocation. Jenin is only worth mentioning in this context because today the Israelis have imposed these tight chains on the entire Territories. Peter Hansen, head of the UN’s Relief and Development Agency, recently cited the month-long blockade on Gaza’s ports as hindering humanitarian aid, and added that often only 20-25% of his staff were active because Israel refused to issue new permits, which “are normally about to expire by the time they are issued”.4 On July 4 according to BBC, a full thirty aid agencies issued a joint statement condemning Israel for obstructing their relief missions through harassment and delays. As Palestinians starve and sell off assets simply to buy food, the colonizer only smiles at his humiliation before straightening his face and sternly citing “security concerns.”
The most prominent and recognizable physical feature of the colonial occupation are the settlements. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reported in May that over 40% of the West Bank is controlled by settlers. Sharon alone is responsible for the building of at least forty new settlements. Maps reveal that the Territories are sliced up, separated, and isolated by the perpetual construction of settlement roads and buildings. In the Gaza Strip alone, a full one million Palestinians are huddled onto 60% of the land-the other 40% is occupied by 3,000 colonists. 5
These numbers are only symbolic representations of a violent life and death struggle being waged by the native against land expropriators, bulldozers, and soldiers, against the all-sided destruction and robbery which has never ceased to haunt him. Some observations made by international volunteer Justin Podur in a July 1st interview highlight this process.6 No sooner had he arrived he observed “an orange grove being knocked down by Israeli bulldozers”, and no sooner had he started taking pictures did “nearby tanks fire into the air”. Returning a day later he discovered the army “shot up [the] house and [the] water tank” of the grove-owners. Citing the proximity of checkpoints to settlements, he explains, “A few days ago, on June 28, a couplewere shotThe man had gone out to hang up laundry. He was shot by Israeli soldiers. His wife went outside to see what was happening and she was shot as well.” Security concerns, no doubt. Remarking on travel discrimination, he added “Israelis have orange license plates. Palestinians have green. At just about any checkpoint, you see a long line of green license plates waiting for hours while the orange ones zip right through.” (An aside: there is, of course, also a whole network of settlers-only roads that surround Palestinians.) Podur further comments that “in southern Gaza, an Israeli bulldozing operation left a broken, open sewer that was becoming a serious public health concernWhen workers tried to fix it, they were fired upon” The internationals “formed a ring around the workers, and the workers fixed the sewer”-an instance of both tremendous courage by the internationals and remarkable barbarity by Israel.
The most barbaric feature of the settlements is the settler himself. In a rare article by Jack Kelley of USA Today in September 2001, we gain some insight of the settler’s psychology. Thirteen settlers of Hebron “grabbed their semiautomatic rifles and headed toward Highway 60” to set up a barricade to stop Palestinian taxis and, “Surround any taxi, ‘open fire’ and kill as many of the ‘blood-sucking Arab’ passengers as possible,” as leader Avi Shapiro ordered. The aim outlined by Shapiro is indeed noble: “to drive these sons of Arab whores from the Land of Israel.” We can perhaps forgive him for such daring romanticism given his deep ancestral attachment to the land: he is from Brooklyn. Citing Israeli and Palestinian officials Kelley informs us, “Jewish settlers are shooting and beating Palestinians, stealing and destroying their property and poisoning and diverting their water supplies,” in this area comprising 450 Jews and at least 120,000 Palestinians. The article goes on to cite one instance where men load their rifles, women grab ammunition, and children gather up rocks, all to target a Palestinian car. More recently, as reported by The Times of India on April 22, a gang of twenty Jewish settlers in Nablus “busted into a Palestinian goat farm” and shot two Palestinians. They then proceeded to steal “some fifty goats from the farm, ten of which they had shot.” The Israeli army arrived, and did nothing-it is but twelve dead animals to them.
This should surprise no one: the settler’s existence forever depends upon the constant and unrelenting harassment, humiliation, and destruction of the native.
The aggrandizement of 90% of Palestinian water, daily construction of settler fences, daily destruction of native homes, military outposts, apartheid roads, beatings, thefts, and at least 126 killings (B’TSelem) can all be traced back directly to the settler. And yet what is the settler-a racist and a white supremacist by any account-but the modern, most current representative of the Israelis of 1948, of 1967, and of the government that supports him? Is he not merely a reflection of what Israel has done to the Palestinians for the last fifty years? Indeed, he is the vanguard element of Herzl’s “outpost of civilization”, equipped with a rich history of beatings, killings, and theft. Free samples of ‘civilization’ can be found at a settlement near you.
As evidenced, it is difficult to separate the physical paralysis, economic suffering, and offending settlements, as the native often finds himself victim of all three elements at once, in addition to others. Thus it is hard to classify certain Israeli atrocities, such as the inclination to gun down ambulances and medics. On April 20, Jordan Flaherty, an international speaking from Bethlehem informed the world via e-mail that he and others rode in ambulances because “Israeli soldiers continue to target doctors and relief workers for assassination”, and spoke of a fifteen-year old Palestinian girl who volunteered as a medic, “shaking and crying in fear, as we tried to stop Israeli soldiers from seizing her.” On May 18 The Guardian issued a special report on the subject, citing the bullet-holes of 75 ambulances, destruction of eight more, deaths of two drivers and three medics, and fifteen injuries, all at the hands of the IDF. Thirty-five more workers were “handcuffed, blindfolded, and forced to strip.” Is the world inclined to re-examine its most ‘moral’ army, which has now taken to destroying ambulances and beating medics? Then there are peripheral crimes of the occupation: a June 15th Jerusalem Post article explains that the Israeli government has refused to allow American Jonathan Miles, head of a Christian humanitarian agency, from re-entering the country. His crime was most heinous: “facilitating the transfer of Palestinian babies to Israeli hospitals and bringing medications into Gaza unavailable there.” Like army, like government.
Regardless of the impossibility of classifying every Israeli atrocity, we can state steadfastly that they are all bound together by one decisive feature: inhumanity. The colonizer is duty-bound to steal land, hoard resources, and expand constantly, he is duty-bound because nothing belongs to him by right, and thus he must take everything by force. To soothe his conscience the colonizer must convince himself that the land is rightfully his and that it has always been his, and to this end he must dehumanize the native and crush him. For if the colonizer can strip the native of his humanity he will no longer be guilty of stripping the native of his land, but of saving it from the clutches of his unworthy claws. But the land is not his, and never was his, and because of this the colonizer becomes jealous of the native, whose very existence is a constant reminder of this fact-yes, of course he can beat and torture him to no end, but the fact remains that he not only can but must; there is no escaping it, and he is in fact condemned to this task, for regardless of his subjective illusions to the contrary, the objective fact remains: he is a criminal. The colonizer is in the constant process of committing one crime to absolve himself of another. That is the self-fueling contradiction of Israel’s ongoing colonial occupation; that is the crux of colonialism itself.
M. Junaid Alam’s Raping the Palesitians is continued in Part Three: Concerning Violence.
M. Junaid Alam is an undergraduate in political science at Northeastern University.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org