Not just random hatred
Photo: Ziv Koren (Polaris Newscom)
In the latest series of Israeli massacres of Palestinians the power dynamics between occupier and occupied fit a structural pattern at work for over six decades. Within this structure, Israel as occupier is able to unleash brutal military violence on Palestinians causing devastation and instability, all the while perversely enjoying overwhelming international political support, sympathy and impunity. Israeli violations over the past month further point to the geographic continuity of its military regime from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. This political and military juncture has revealed the extent to which all Palestinians – whether refugees, residents, or citizens — are targets of extreme Israeli violence and oppression. Any Palestinian act at this juncture, whether popular resistance, calls for solidarity, diplomatic cooperation, or through civil institutions within the Jewish State, becomes a violation and is met with further Israeli acts of displacement, brutal arrest, and physical destruction.
The events of the past month point to a key reality in Israeli society: What was mere indifference to Palestinian deaths has mutated into a sanctioned, audacious and flagrant everyday racism. The aggressive xenophobia and underlying colonial logic of Zionism has produced a disturbing barrage of popular discourse with a commitment to the political, physical, social and psychological ruin of Palestinians.
A word on the hundreds of ‘telegenically dead’ in Gaza
Against the backdrop of Israel’s long list of documented acts of collective punishment of Palestinians (specifically during military onslaughts in 2008, in 2012, in June 2014 but also during regular day-to-day occupation activities long before and during these moments of extreme violence), the crude numbers on Day 23 of Israel’s latest biennial war stand at 1,324 Palestinians killed and over 5,924 wounded. The worst military onslaught on Gaza yet, and by now longer than 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead, its victims include over 328 dead and 1,634 injured children. Over 400,000 Gazans are displaced in the strip (over 20% of the entire population). Over 750 civilian homes have been completely destroyed along with hundreds of others extensively damaged.
In the first two weeks since the operation began on July 8th, the Israeli military dropped over 3,000 tons of explosives on Gaza, more than the total dropped during its eight-day assault two years ago. Some of its targets have included a packed beachside cafe screening a World Cup semi-final game on July 9th killing nine people, the home of the Director of Shifa hospital, and numerous medial facilities including a rehabilitation centre for disabled youth in Beit Lahiya attacked on July 12th, the repeated bombing of the Al Wafa rehab and geriatric hospital in Shuja’iya full of paralyzed and unconscious patients on July 11th and 17th, and the Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir-al-Balah that was shelled on July 21st, among others.
Israeli targets have also included six different bombardments of UNRWA schools, the most recent of was on July 29th at the Abu Hussein girl’s elementary school in Jabaliya refugee camp that served as a shelter, killing at least nineteen and injuring over one hundred civilians. Warned no fewer than seventeen times by the UN that it was a site where thousands of displaced Palestinians were taking shelter – most of whom were instructed by the Israeli army to flee their homes – the school complex was nevertheless smashed overnight as families lay sleeping on the floor of a classroom. And despite announcing a 4-hour ‘ceasefire’ Israel conducted an air strike on a busy marketplace in Shuja’iya the next day killing at least seventeen people and wounding over two-hundred.
Revealed in Israel’s methodology is that a key part of destabilizing Palestinian communities and tearing apart their social fabric is systematically targeting the Palestinian child, the Palestinian family and the Palestinian home:
Around one-quarter of the dead and almost one-third of the injured are Palestinian children. More children have been killed by Israeli attacks in Gaza in the first two weeks of the assault than they were during Operation Cast Lead in 2008–2009; more children have been killed by Israeli bombardment than have Palestinian fighters. On July 16th, four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed by two separate Israeli airstrikes while playing on the beach in Gaza City. The next day another three boys and one girl were killed in Khan Younis. On July 28th, Israel bombed a playground on the beach close to al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City killing ten people, eight of whom were children. These are just a few of many examples of children being killed while sleeping, eating, playing and even while recovering in the hospital from injuries.
Terrifying stories of parents with ‘dazed faces of grief’ and agony carrying remains of their dismembered children by hand or in plastic bags, holding what is left of their children after bombings, and embracing their children while they can during the bombings continue to mount. Displaced and witnesses to the death, carnage and destruction brought on by what is now the third major Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip in the past seven years, Palestinian children — the future teachers, leaders and thinkers of Palestine — figure as the main targets of Israel’s ‘precision war’. Yet with reports of repeated Israeli atrocities we also continue to hear narratives that show the daily resilience of Palestinians, such as a wounded Palestinian child pleading with a doctor to treat his baby brother instead of him, and of young Palestinians refusing to accept an unjust ceasefire that will continue their repression. Israel has inflicted such unprecedented devastation that, by now, the only arrangement ordinary civilians in Gaza are able to consider is ending the Israeli blockade in its entirety; “either this situation really improves or it is better to just die.”
Israeli bombardment has also repeatedly targeted the Palestinian family. Multiple members of single families are literally crushed to death by their collapsing homes during targeted Israeli missile attacks. The al-Kaware family in Khan Younis lost eight members, six of them children, on July 8th. The next day, Hamad family in Beit Hanoun had six members killed, including a 16-year old girl, while sitting in their power-cut home drinking coffee. Early on the day after, the al-Hajj family in Khan Younis also lost all of its eight members. Two days later the Ghannam family in Rafah refugee camp were attacked in their sleep and lost five members. The al-Batsh family lost eighteen members on July 12th including children and teens from an Israeli airstrike while sitting in their home; all of whom were buried together in a long line of individual graves.
These gruesome numbers were surpassed on July 21st when the Israeli Air Force leveled a four-storey house with two separate strikes, one that killed ten members of the Siyyam family from Rafah and another that killed a whopping twenty-five members of the Abu Jama’e family east of Khan Younis as they were eating dinner. Rescue workers worked throughout the night to pull out the bodies of the victims.
These and other instances of massacres of families occurs in a context where before this latest war Gazans were enduring: 90 per cent electricity cuts, 58.2 per cent youth unemployment, more than 70 per cent of the population relying on humanitarian aid, restrictions on movement of goods and a total ban on exports, collapse of 90% of industry in the strip, and a medical state of emergency declared by health officials reporting depleting supplies and extensive damage to hospitals due to aerial bombing.
When describing victims of Israel’s latest onslaught as merely “telegenically dead Palestinians” Netanyahu is both cynical and grotesque, but he also points the invisibility of Arab suffering in the global mainstream. As Israel continues to pummel Gaza the physical appearance and images of massacred Palestinians are all too familiar, monotonous, and even appear to be normalized for Western television viewers most of whom continue to support Israel’s deadly operation. Indeed, interactive online chronologies of Israel’s recent brutal record of military onslaughts such as the one prepared by Al-Jazeera illustrate the failure of regional and global political forces to exhaust the Jewish State’s international credit-to pound Gaza.
Abu Khdeir’s murder: Blurring Israel’s colonial lens
By now it is clear that Israel’s so-called ‘profound national reckoning’ after the kidnapping and brutal murder of 16-year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 2nd remains seeped in the continuous colonial logic of liberal-Zionism. While the details of the murder deeply shocked most Palestinians, the possibility of such extreme violence at the hands of ordinary right-wing Jews was not surprising in a context of fervent anti-Arab hatred and general indifference to Palestinian deaths.
Depicted as a ‘spiritual crisis’ in Israeli society by mainstream commentators, the details of the crime brought an enormous amount of public attention to the question of anti-Arab violence in Israel. Leading Israeli scholar Shlomo Avineri called the crime a “wake-up call” signalling that “a line has been crossed,” while both left-wing and extreme right-wing Israeli politicians publicly condemned the murder. But the colonial lens of this public outcry was most visible in the comments of Meretz MK Ilan Gilon who pointed out that the public “so wanted [Abu Khdeir’s murderers] not to be one of ‘us’ [Jewish Israelis].” He continued, “the rotten fruits that grow among us [Jews], that, yes, as surprising as it is, they are the same as the rotten fruits that grow among them [Arabs].” In other words, the ‘watershed moment’ emerging from the murder was that for once the line between Arabs and Jews in Israel’s colonial mindset was not crossed, but blurred. Often immediately following their condemnation of Mohammed’s killing, Israeli MKs would point to the need to punish Arab citizens who oppose the state. So instead of challenging the racialized structures of exclusion that delimit Zionism — and by extension mainstream discourse, social exchange and citizenship in Israel — Jews once again occupied the structural positions of whiteness in the racial hierarchy of the country, perceiving themselves as defenders of morality against the irrationality of an Arab Other.
This meant that the ‘existential shock’ that emerged as a reaction to the killing was quickly cushioned with a collective distancing of right-wing voices in Israeli society from the perpetrators. The men arrested for and confessing to Mohammed’s murder are one 29-year old and two 17-year olds. Speculated to be linked to the large right-wing Beitar Jerusalem football club, the older defendant is a store owner, one of the younger defendants is a Jewish seminary student, and the other had pursued religious studies but later worked in a toy shop. Put differently, they are average, and quite young, Israelis.
Yet suddenly Mohammed’s murderers became ‘extremists’ and were re-located to the fringe of the very society through whose Zionist education system, long-standing practices of exclusion and demonization of Arabs their xenophobia was actually formed. Further, by designating the murdered Palestinian youth a “victim of terrorism” without making links to the racialized structures of socialization in Israel that caused such a crime the entire incident appears as an anomaly, a deviation from the common state practice of violence against Palestinians.
The moral superiority projected by Jewish-Israelis was also reflected in the manner in which the status of African asylum seekers was covered in the wake of the Gaza onslaught. Accused of “killing the ‘Zionist dream’ [of a Jewish demographic majority]” the rise of xenophobic attitudes on African migrants is an extension of Israel’s settler-colonial project and pervasive anti-Arab sentiments in Israeli society. The persecution of African migrants, the majority of them from Eritrea and Sudan, as well as racist and de-humanizing depictions of Africans made by Israeli public figures has been increasingly documented by observers. In a startling article in Haaretz on July 10th, after Mohammed’s killing and during the latest military attacks on Gaza, Israeli attention was suddenly put on the helplessness of migrants kept in the Holon Detention Center facing rockets from the strip. Why they are kept in a densely populated detention center in the Naqab desert, where they are locked in at night and prohibited from working outside the facility, is not asked. Instead African migrants are cynically mobilized to solicit political support for Israel as it wages it multifaceted bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza. Such momentary elevation of African migrants to the status of subjects-worth-protecting is part of Israeli society’s collective self-reflection through a colonial lens.
If Mohammed’s murderers “aren’t functioning individuals” then this also speaks to the dysfunctional social relations and anti-Arab racism that is reproduced by Israeli practices and policies. In January 2011 a source at the Israeli Ministry of Education noted an escalation in racism among Israeli students. Citing the public political discourse as fueling anti-Arab racism among Jewish-Israeli students in schools, the source stated “We’re not talking about a minority, or children from families that have extreme political views, but about normal children who are afflicted with ignorance…. The political discourse in recent years has given them the legitimacy to be prejudiced.” And so, instead of being abstracted as an “absolute evil,” as a departure from the normal order of violence in Israel, this heinous crime ought to be understood as a consistent extension of the racialized structures of Zionism.
A new form of Israeli radicalization?
Overall, a few clear features about Israeli society arise from the above reflections.
The first is that these experiences are a continuation or extension of existing anti-Palestinian ethics in Israel. And this point deserves to be emphasized: these expressions of anti-Arab hatred are not simply random and they are not just a temporary escalation or trend in Israeli society. Further, they are not limited to the operations of the current right-wing and settler makeup of the Knesset. These are popular, systematic, rooted and, as in the case of Mohammed’s killing, premeditated expressions of murderous hatred of Arabs, Palestinians and Muslims. They are not crimes without purpose or direction that occur passively, but rather clear expressions of deep loathing by active and engaged citizens.
Whether it is young Jewish mobs wearing fascist insignia while chanting ‘death to the Arabs’, ‘no children left in Gaza’, ‘leftists to Gaza’ or ‘leftists to the gas chambers’ on the streets and hunting down co-citizens they suspect are non-Jews, the ‘Sderot cinema’ where crowds of Israelis watch the spectacle and cheer from the mountain-top as rockets pummel Gaza, or the celebration of slaughter in Gaza on social media in the form of Facebook campaigns to kill Arabs, selfies inciting revenge on Arabs, and the horrid Tweets of over-sexualized pre-army Jewish teens, average Jewish-Israelis are creating and seizing opportunities to publicly express and prove their anti-Arab ‘street-cred’. Like the growing Zionist legal and political infrastructure targeting every arena of Palestinian life within the regime, these events signal a sustained and popular racism in Israeli discourse and society.
Yet while this latest round of anti-Arab attacks is clearly a continuation of the old racism, there is also something more that has changed, which ought to be reflected in the way observers discuss Israeli racism. Indeed, this increased radicalization in the thinking and identity of mainstream Israeli voices is also reflected in the incredible devastation of the current onslaught in Gaza. While obviously incomparable to Palestinian deaths, the number of Israeli soldiers killed stands at fifty-six. Lets put aside the disturbing fact that the incredible number of dead Palestinian children alone has yet to mobilize any major sympathy or self-reflection by average Jewish-Israelis. But, as various observers have noted, unlike the 2006 war on Lebanon, deaths of soldiers have also yet to significantly temper or moderate the willingness of Israeli society to continue ongoing military attacks.
Moreover, the repressive current of this entrenched xenophobia has also not limited itself to explicitly and violently targeting dissenting Palestinians alone. In conjunction with recent legislation targeting the work of critical civil society groups in Israel, there has also been a rise in right-wing chants calling for the physical extermination of Jewish protesters as well as violent attacks on left-wing Jews in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Evidently, apologists for liberal-Zionist policymaking who thought this increased radicalization would only affect Arabs are wrong.
In the end, the struggle will not merely be to end the brutal bombardment and siege of Gaza, the military occupation and repression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, or the legal oppression of Palestinians citizens of Israel. Instead, any effective long-term struggle will also require the de-colonization, de-militarization and de-racialization of the attitudes, discourses, politics and self-understanding of average Israelis.
Shourideh C. Molavi is a PhD. student and writer based in Toronto, Canada. She is author of Stateless Citizenship: The Palestinian-Arab Citizens of Israel (Brill, 2013), which explores the dynamics of Israel’s multifaceted legal, political and structural system of control through the lens of citizenship.
We ought not forget that a multi-pronged collective punishment of Palestinian residents and refugees in the West Bank led up to this latest onslaught on Gaza. Three Israeli settlers had gone missing in the West Bank, and though the Shin Bet knew that these youth were kidnapped and killed immediately, the victims’ parents were misled and a gag order was imposed on the national media prohibiting reports of the news. Operation Brother’s Keeper was launched on June 12th in the West Bank, putting Palestinians under collective punishment with closure of checkpoints locking down mobility, imposed curfews and (in coordination with Palestinian Authority police) besieging of the downtown core of Ramallah while attacking protesting Palestinians, arresting over 500, raiding over 2000 Palestinian homes, turning homes into military sites, and conducting three dozen punitive home demolitions.
By the second week of the operation, 18 Palestinian civil society organizations and charities were raided. Palestinian educational institutions were also attacked and within the span of five days Israeli military entered Bir-Zeit University in Ramallah, Polytechnic University in Hebron, American Arab University near Jenin, An-Najah National University in Nablus, and Al-Quds University in Abu Dis/East Jerusalem. Offices of campus groups were raided, computer equipment and disks were confiscated and a number of students were arrested. By June 30th, when the bodies of the three settlers were located and before the latest massacres in Gaza, Israel had already killed 11 Palestinians in the West Bank including a mentally disabled man who was shot four times, as well as an old woman who died of a heart attack when the Israeli forces raided her house and prevented her transfer to a hospital for medical treatment. In one funeral procession in al-Bireh, Jewish settlers shot at the mourners and when met with stones from protesting Palestinians the Israeli army responded by firing “stun grenades, tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and live fire.”
The next evening, on July 1st, within two hours of the funeral of the murdered settlers and with no evidence of Hamas complicity, Netanyahu announced Israel’s intention to escalate the situation. “They were abducted and murdered in cold blood by human animals,” Netanyahu said, “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay.” Coupled with existing anti-Arab education and xenophobia in Israeli society, incitement to racial violence from above whether from public figures, lawmakers or Members of Knesset led to violent riots emerging from the funeral processions by Jewish right-wing vigilantes in Jerusalem. Their tactics included visiting food-service places like McDonald’s where low-income persons, usually Arabs, work, as well as roaming the streets asking dark-skinned people for the time in Hebrew to check for an Arab accent in the reply.
Yet the tipping point of Jewish racist violence occurred on the next morning when 16-year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped in the Shua’fat neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem. Hours later in the Jerusalem Forest — a green space on the Western slopes of the city built by Israel in 1967 to erase remnants of destroyed Palestinian villages in the area — Mohammed’s burned body was found. Results from an autopsy revealed that he was still alive when set on fire. The horrid details of this murder triggered four days of mass protests and violent clashes with riot police in East Jerusalem.
During the search for the three kidnapped settlers Arab politicians were silenced, intimidated and physically removed from Knesset meetings. On July 9th, two days after Israel launched its latest onslaught on Gaza, MK Ahmed Tibi stated “everyone has names, even Palestinians” and proceeded to read the names of Palestinian children killed in the strip. Pointing to horrid pictures of dismembered bodies and accusing the IDF of war crimes, Tibi and other Arab MKs were repeatedly interrupted and heckled by both the Chair and right-wing Jewish MKs. After mass arrests in Jerusalem and news of the brutal murder of Mohammed, MK Jamal Zahalka said in a Knesset committee meeting that, “the police commissioner’s hands are covered in blood” and was physically removed by security officers. During this exchange MK Moti Yogev told Zahalka to “go to Syria” and continued that “on the Temple Mount our temple will be built in our time,” while the Chair MK Regev mockingly told security to “fling him to Gaza” and called Arab citizens of Israel “Trojan horses, traitors and terrorists.”
Prior to the attacks on Gaza, Israel’s Palestinian citizenry were at the forefront of the protests and unrest. Against the backdrop of a barrage of racist laws targeting every sphere of Arab life in Israel, civil actions, mass protests and solidarity statements by Palestinian citizens living in the Jewish State, including Bedouin communities, have been met with legal sanction, the threat of imprisonment, and heavy police repression. In the context of top-down mobilization and support of violence, we saw a rise of right-wing attacks on Arab citizens by Jewish extremists, racist protests calling for “death to Arabs” without police interference and mass arrests and detention of Palestinian citizens, including minors. Commenting on the mass arrests, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made the connection that an extension of the mass arrests and brutal policing of Palestinian citizens needs to be a decisive justice system that, “through harsh punishment, deliver[s] a clear message to those who enjoy Israeli citizenship and act as terrorists.”