The Circumstances of Injustice: Ben Ehrenreich on Tel Aviv and Hebron

I’ve said before that American reporting on violence in Israel and Palestine involves a single predictable pattern: ignoring the moral significance or experiential nature of the occupation, such reporting fixates pointillistically on discrete, acontextual acts of violence by Palestinians, treating such acts without argument as initiatory violence or aggression “against civilians”; it then treats the Israeli response to such acts as retaliatory force, only raising questions (at best) about the “proportional” or “disproportional” nature of Israel’s resort to force.

American audiences rarely grapple with the possibility that this picture gets things backwards: what if Palestinian violence is the response to Israeli aggression, and Israeli responses to Palestinian violence are not just disproportionate by jus in bello criteria, but continuations of prior acts of aggression? Such audiences are also rarely asked to grapple with the fact that Israeli settlers are not civilians (or non-combatants) in any recognizable sense of the word, but heavily armed paramilitary enablers of the occupation, present in the occupied territory precisely in order to promote the military aims of the occupation.

I’ve just finished reading an account of the occupation which gives plausibility to the “what if” in the preceding paragraph–Saree Makdisi’s Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (2010). If you have the time or inclination for a book-length treatment of what the occupation is and is like, I highly recommend Makdisi’s book: once you finish it, you won’t be able to read or watch the news in the same way as you did.

But events move quickly in Israel/Palestine, and Makdisi’s book is now several years old, so if you want something shorter and more up to date, the thing to read is Ben Ehrenreich’s “How Israel Is Inciting Palestinian Violence,” published a few days ago at Politico. Though his account doesn’t apply uniformly to the West Bank, it applies exactly as he says it does to Hebron and environs in the southern part of the West Bank. And applied there, it’s eye-opening. If Ehrenreich is right, Israel isn’t responding to Palestinian violence; it’s practically inviting the violence it claims to be “responding” to. (That assessment, by the way, echoes Chris Hedges’s famous account of Israeli incitement in Gaza, “A Gaza Diary,” published in Harper’s back in 2001. Here’s a link, but unfortunately the article is behind a paywall.)

Ehrenreich’s article is instructively worth comparing with Jeffrey Goldberg’s  “The Paranoid, Supremacist Roots of the Stabbing Intifada,” published last October to much acclaim in The Atlantic. There’s an undeniable element of truth in Goldberg’s piece, but divorced from the facts Ehrenreich that identifies, Goldberg’s presentation amounts to little more than rhetorical noise. It’s typical that a so-called “expert” on Arab/Israeli affairs–whose claim to expertise derives largely from the time he spent as a guard at an Israeli prison camp–thinks that he can explain Palestinian violence by ignoring facts on the ground in Palestine.

Goldberg’s approach is par for the course in American journalism: apparently, Israeli violence doesn’t need an explanation, either because it doesn’t exist in this universe, or because we can assume without argument that it always takes defensive form, and is therefore fundamentally legitimate. By contrast, Palestinian violence is to be explained by invoking facts decades or a century in the past, while ignoring obviously relevant facts that obtain right now.

Just as a thought-experiment, you might want to invert the usual reasoning. Consider the possibility that some of the people we take for granted as innocent non-combatant victims are the real terrorists, fanatics, and criminals in this story, and that the people who want to kill them kind of have a point. I don’t claim that the inverted reasoning is exactly correct. I just claim that it’s a useful corrective to the dogmas that have become so entrenched in our discourse as to determine what we regard as thinkable about Israel and Palestine. A week in Palestine convinces me that a great deal more is thinkable than our pundits have dreamed of. A great deal more is happening here than they seem equipped to handle.

Postscript, June 18, 2016: Consider two examples of the point I make in the original post:

(1) Compare The New York Times’s coverage of the Jerusalem Day parade here with the coverage by free lance reporters Dan Cohen and David Sheen at Mondoweiss. The Times mentions “chanting,” but doesn’t tell us what the chanting was about. By telling us that the event ended without incident, The Times papers over its political significance: in fact, Jerusalem Day is a celebration of violent Zionist irredentism, a cause that seems to be gaining in popularity in Israel, not that you’d ever figure that out while reading The Times. The Times then move to what it regards as the real story, on an unrelated topic but back in its ideological comfort zone–Hamas, Islamic terrorism, and Palestinian violence. You get no sense that Jerusalem Day is a thousands-strong celebration of Jewish terrorism, subsidized by the Office of the Prime Minister of the Government of Israel. It’s noteworthy that The Times didn’t even bother to send its reporters to the Jerusalem Day event; its coverage of the event consists of an Associated Press report without a byline.

(2) Compare The New York Times’s coverage of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s recent visit to the site of the shooting in Tel Aviv. Here is The New York Times’s anodyne version, which couches the Liberman trip in the context of Israeli solidarity after the Tel Aviv shooting. In this version, Liberman merely drinks coffee at the site of the shooting and follows a safely generic post-traumatic-event script, saluting the people of Tel Aviv in the aftermath of the attack. You have to read this badly-written piece in The Times of Israel to figure out what he actually said there. Somehow, The New York Times (which features a nearly identical photo of Liberman sipping coffee at exactly the same event) missed it.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman reportedly asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit if it would be possible to expedite the legal process for destroying attackers’ homes, during a security cabinet meeting following the terror attack. “We should be leveling [their] homes within 24 hours. Why is that not happening?”

How’d they miss that? Did they not regard it as “news fit to print,” or were they just not listening? Or just not there?

Bear in mind that “attackers’ homes” means “homes where the attackers lived,” regardless of who owned the homes and regardless of who else lived there. The homes are to be demolished prior to any trial of the accused on grounds of general deterrence, and the inhabitants are to be rendered homeless (including elderly and children), with no provision to be made for housing them, simply because they lived in the same domicile as the accused. Attorney General Mandelblit doesn’t dispute the legitimacy of home demolitions per se; he objects to extra-procedural home demolitions performed on Liberman’s expedited schedule. The debate, then, concerns whether home demolitions should take place tomorrow or next week, not whether they should take place at all. I’d like to think that were the same policy to be proposed in the U.S. post-Orlando, there’d be an uproar over it. In “Judea and Samaria,” however, it’s par for the course.

I’ve commented on example (2) at TimesWarp.

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