Jenin: Collating the Wages of Death

The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers…he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

–J.S. Mill, On Liberty

In my last two posts, I’ve been discussing the rising tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Events are taking place too quickly for me literally to blog them as they happen, so if you’re after a real-time chronicle, or event-by-event commentary, you’ll be disappointed. That’s not something you’ll find here, at least in my posts.

What I’d like to do instead is to slow things down and try to put things in a broader context, one more conducive to understanding than you might get through an event-to-event chronicle or summary. It’s difficult to understand events in the West Bank simply by following them chronologically, one event to the next, as though you were following an athletic competition.

The background normative context of an athletic competition is something that the audience takes for granted: the goals are set, the rules are fixed, and for the most part, the competing parties act in a similar way, in adherence to a shared set of norms. So one can, with full comprehension, understand the Australian Open by listening to someone give a blow-by-blow. The game starts with a serve, and ends with the last point won or lost. Virtually every intermediate sequence can be understood in a narrative of the form, “First Rybakina did this, then Sabalenka did that,” etc.

That method won’t work here. For one thing, there isn’t some one game we’re all watching together in all of its detail. Too many simultaneous events are taking place for that, involving too many variables and too many separate chronologies and locations. For another, there is no way, in the purely perceptual sense, to see everything that needs comprehension. All the lines are drawn for you to see on a tennis court, but none of the lines are drawn for you to see in battle.

It’s not that a chronological summary is dispensable or unimportant, but that it’s far from sufficient for understanding. The problem here is that the background normative context is precisely what the conflict between the two parties is about. The audience can’t take it for granted because the warring parties don’t take it for granted. They’re fighting to establish the political context in which their “game,” with its rules and goals, can be taken for granted. But that requires forcing the other side to accept a very unpalatable fait accompli.

One corrective here is Mill’s. To understand what’s going on, we have to correct or complete any one account by comparison and contrast with alternative points of view.

Another is to focus on a single basic question or set of them in all of its complexity: who are the aggressors in this conflict, and how do we go about answering that question? The key to answering this question is to grasp that the answer to it is far from straightforward. It’s not a matter of consulting some textbook or set of laws, plugging questions into it, and getting some self-evident answer in response, on the model of ChatGPT. It’s a matter of cycling back and forth between the highly concrete and particular, and the highly abstract and general: Who did what, when and how? What norms apply? How? There are more or less rigorous answers, but no formulas or algorithms.

One thing should be clear from the outset, however. The version of events we’re getting from the mainstream American media–from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal; CNN, Fox, PBS, and NPR– is either straightforwardly false or extremely misleading. The impression one gets is that the Israeli military “raided” Jenin in a targeted, limited, discriminate way so as to find and apprehend terrorist suspects planning attacks on “civilians” in Israel. The Israeli military has this authority, it’s implied, because it is the only functional equivalent of a police force in the area, and the people it’s tasked with protecting, Israelis, faced imminent, unprovoked, initiatory attacks by terrorists based in Jenin. The Israelis had the intelligence to find these terrorists, and so, went in search of them.

The picture one gets is analogous to that associated with the American raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan back in 2011. The bad guys were sitting there in that known, specific location; the good guys swooped in; the bad guys started shooting; the good guys shot back; a handful of people were killed, all presumptively bad guys of one variety or another. Either no innocents were killed, or no innocents were deliberately or intentionally killed. Any that died did so as an unintended consequence of a fundamentally justified action. Mission accomplished.


That’s either not what happened in Jenin, or not what can with confidence be said about what happened. The attack on Jenin was not a targeted “raid.” It was a large-scale military operation involving maybe hundreds of troops armed with large trucks and military bulldozers. The Israeli military did not enter Jenin in any targeted, limited, or discriminate way. They barreled into the city, clearing the streets by ramming the vehicles of presumptively innocent people out of the way, simply crashing into them and destroying them. In some cases, they engaged in gratuitious acts of destruction, simply to show the inhabitants who was boss. It’s not clear who was arrested or detained, or why. Nor is it clear why those who were killed were killed. We have no reason to think that Israel’s intelligence on the identity of would-be terrorists is infallible, and indeed, given their conduct in the Shireen Abu Akleh affair, no reason to believe them at all.

Other people in other towns and villages in the West Bank were also simultaneously arrested and detained, and some were killed by Israeli forces. One explanation is that all of these people, despite their spatial dispersal, were part of the very same plot that the Israelis detected ahead of time in Jenin and decided to disrupt. Another explanation is that the whole operation was simply a large-scale act of intimidation, designed to anger the population in a bid to intensify tensions and create the pretext for an all-out war.

As I mentioned in the last post, my friend’s home was broken into and ransacked. He’s no more of a terrorist than I am. He’s no more been planning any terrorist actions than I have. If he is representative of the victims of this Israeli operation, then the operation is fundamentally predicated on a series of deceptions–deceptions the American press has lapped up and regurgitated back at us. It is not a series of anti-terrorist raids, but the prologue to a war the Israelis are hoping to provoke because they are confident they can win it.

I can’t prove to you that the Israeli operation in Jenin, or in Jerusalem and the West Bank generally, is ill-motivated through and through. There may actually be a security rationale buried somewhere in the wanton destruction. What is obvious, however, is that the evidence for a fundamentally benign explanation is not there. The reports we’re seeing in our press do not prove that the Israeli account is correct, or even close to correct. One question worth asking is whether we’re systematically being lied to. Another is whether we care.

13 thoughts on “Jenin: Collating the Wages of Death

  1. A significant and perhaps growing number of people in Australia and other western countries (?) don’t subscribe to the Israeli narrative, supported by the media. Possibly partly… ironically… because trumpism etc has undermined faith in the establishment story about things. But while financial and arms support for Israel is a given – given that any lessening of this in practical terms would be seen as anti-Semitic – naturally they’re confident. They can pretty much do anything with international impunity. Your articles should be more widely read.


  2. What you say about an immediate aim of intimidation strikes me as likely true (I’m thinking list of usual/likely suspects, maybe or maybe not super-accurate in terms of terrorist activity, with some strategic or political need to intimidate or show who is boss being the proximate cause for the military incursion). The more-ultimate aims here could be partly legitimate strategic (or acceptable political) aims, but they probably include (and maybe prominently) some despicable tribal-hatred aims of sheer domination and humiliation. Accounts in the American press at least encourage the sort of more clear-cut and innocent explanation that you rightly call out as implausible.


    • I think it’s worth considering a radical possibility: the Israeli presence in the West Bank is wholesale aggression in just the way that the Russian presence in Ukraine is wholesale aggression, except that while the Russian occupation has lasted a year, the Israeli one has lasted 55. If Russia wins the war, the West Bank is what eastern Ukraine will look like in the year 2078. The question then becomes whether we would describe Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine, intended to quell unrest, as even “partly legitimate.”

      Same question now. No one would describe a Russian army incursion into a Ukrainian city, intended to “arrest militants,” in the way that Israeli army incursions into the West Bank are described. Israeli operations are described as though they were pro tanto justified, but inevitably, regrettably botched by some problematic motivation or disproportionality. But the real question that needs asking is: what is the justification for the Israelis’ being there at all?

      To clarify the issue, let me assume a few things ex hypothesi that would need argument if I weren’t arguing that way.

      1. The Israelis conquered East Jerusalem and the West Bank by force in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
      2. The Israelis were the aggressors in that war.
      3. The Israeli occupation has been sustained for 55 years by constant, escalating aggression.
      4. Palestinians have a right of self-defense sufficient to repel aggression against them.

      If (1)-(4) is true, Israeli incursions into the West Bank can’t be justified by citing the sheer fact that armed militants live in Palestinian towns and villages. If the armed militants are exercising a right of self-defense, then the sheer fact of being armed militants doesn’t, normatively speaking, mark them out for attack in the first place. Just the reverse.

      The usual argumentative tactic is to describe them as “terrorists” who, unlike the Israelis, attack innocent civilians. But this is triply problematic. First of all, the attack on Jenin was pre-emptive. No evidence has been presented that the targets were going to attack innocent civilians. Second, the Israelis in fact do attack innocent civilians–all the time. So if X’s attacking innocent civilians were a sufficient condition for attacking X, that principle would license Palestinian incursions into Israel. Yet it’s assumed that Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory are somehow defensive, while the reverse incursions are not.

      But on the third point, I would say that the definition of “innocent civilian” being employed here is disingenuous and perverse. Suppose we grant (3) above, and ask: how was the Israeli occupation sustained? The answer is that it was sustained through systematic expropriation followed by re-population intended to solidify the prior conquest. The pattern is: take over; expropriate; re-populate with (armed) “civilians”; permit those “civilians” to run riot; then cry “terrorism” when they’re attacked, and use that as a pretext for further conquest and expropriation.

      All of this is forgotten when places like Neve Yaakov are attacked by Palestinians. (Neve Yaakov is where the seven Israelis were killed following the attack on Jenin.) If we grant (3) above, then Neve Yaakov is a settlement built on expropriated Palestinian land with the express purpose of solidifying the Israeli conquest and re-appropriation of that land. Yes, some of the people in it, e.g., children, are innocent. But the enterprise of living there is not innocent. It’s no more innocent than it would be to create Russian settlements in Donetsk, raise children there, and then complain that “militant Ukrainian terrorists” were out to “kill civilians, including innocent children.” Even less innocent is to invoke that predicament to justify an occupation that literally never ends. But Israel is farther along that path than Russia.

      I’ve been writing here ex hypothesi, granting (1)-(4) above. Claims (1) and (4) are pretty uncontroversial, but (2) and (3) are highly contested. You can see the narrative war going on right here in this Wikipedia article, which is practically at war with itself.

      Anecdote: I once walked up to the edge of Neve Yaakov after making a wrong turn while looking for something else. I had this weird feeling like I was in the wrong place. Eventually, I called a friend, and he was like, “Yeah, you’re definitely in the wrong place.” I mention that because it looked and felt like any other Jerusalem neighborhood. Phenomenologically, that fact made it very difficult to think of it as a settlement with a military purpose as opposed to a pleasant neighborhood full of ordinary people. But Fort Meade, Maryland is also a pleasant neighborhood full of ordinary people. It would be absurd to pretend that it’s no more than that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In many conflicts, there is no clear-cut illegitimate initiator of aggression (violence, hostility, etc.) – if for no other reason than that it is not clear just what constitutes initiation or aggression (especially in messy collective-agency sorts of situations). (And of course many conflicts start out as disagreements, with lack of communication, understanding and the will or skill to de-escalate driving cycles of hostility, violence, etc.) In such cases, the most normatively salient question is often the more-fine-grained question of whether, at any given step in the conflict, the relevant party is engaged in morally forbidden aggression or is otherwise violating a moral requirement (e.g., responding disproportionately to the other party’s aggression or in a way that is not proportionate to the level of threat or danger). I tend to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as fitting this template. That leaves plenty of room for a fundamentally damning evaluation of Israel’s actions. To wit: even if neither the establishment of Israel nor Israel’s actions in the 1967 war constitute illegitimate aggression, (a) Israeli settlement activity quite plausibly does constitute on-going illegitimate aggression and (b) the occupation is tainted enough with sectarian hatred and cruelty (and Zionist rationalization) that it is as much a case of domination and humiliation as it is a case of self-defensive policing or military occupation. That’s not very analogous to Russia invading Ukraine, but it is not entirely disanalogous either and, in any case, this comes to a damning verdict on the actions of Israel toward the Palestinians. Even in a proper war, you don’t do this, you don’t dominate and humiliate your enemy. When you hold the whip hand in an ambiguous and uncertain situation of potentially violent hostilities, there is absolutely no excuse.


        • Well, that’s one possibility, but it leaves the possibility I raised on the table. Sometimes there is no clear-cut aggressor in a conflict, but sometimes there is. Whether rightly or wrongly, the conventional wisdom holds that the South started the US Civil War, Japan invaded China and Manchuria, Italy invaded Ethiopia, the fascists invaded Republican Spain, the Axis started World War II, North Korea invaded South Korea, and most recently, Russia invaded Ukraine. There is no a priori reason to ignore the possibility that Israel was/is similarly the aggressor against the Palestinians. But if the media adopted that hypothesis, coverage would change in radical ways.

          The possibility that Israel is fundamentally the aggressor (on par with Russia in Ukraine) is, in the American media, widely ignored on essentially a priori grounds. If it’s true, then coverage of Israeli aggression should be on a par with Russian aggression. Yet it isn’t. Nothing Israel does is ever covered in the way that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is (or the earlier invasion of Afghanistan was) covered. Likewise, no one outside of RT would dream of covering the Russian invasion in the way that the Israeli occupation is covered. Yet if the default assumption was that there are no clear-cut aggressors in military conflicts, it’s a puzzle why an exception should be made for Russia. There are no clear-cut aggressors…except for Russia?

          Clearly, the people who cover the conflict believe that there is no parity there. What is unclear is why they think that. Part of the reason is that no one ever asks them to justify their assumptions. They somehow think it obvious that if a Palestinian is a “militant,” he deserves to die, but if an Israeli is a member of the “Israel Defense Forces,” he has a presumptive right to kill. It makes things worse that some members of the IDF are Americans. If an American kills Palestinians under Israeli command, that’s OK, because Israelis are presumptively allowed to kill Palestinians while pursuing militants. But if an American were to kill Israelis or Americans under the command of a Palestinian militant organization, he’d get the treatment meted out to Anwar Awlaki. There is no such activity as “justifiably pursuing Israeli militants.” The word we use for the activity is “terrorism.” Eventually, someone will have to hold up a Stop sign and put an end to that double standard, but a lot of people will have to die before it happens.


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