Yoel Marcus is a miserable old so-and-so, that’s why I enjoy reading his columns in Ha’aretz. There is no one who can write self-righteously about the shortcomings of both Left and Right, Israelis and Palestinians, with the unremitting grumpiness of Marcus. In the mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yoel Marcus is the person you can rely on to speak for you when you really don’t want to look on the bright side, but just want to cast a plague on everybody equally. He vents for you, and you come out the other end of his editorials somehow feeling better.
Though not so much this week. With the much-publicized excesses of the IDF in the Occupied Territories coming under public scrutiny in recent weeks, Marcus devotes his most recent column to a discussion of the corrupting influence of the Occupation, particularly on those soldiers who man the checkpoints. He says nothing that you could really disagree with until, in their defense, he comes up with this gem:
It is easy to say that occupation corrupts, but what are lovers of life supposed to do in a confrontation with those who want to die?
- Quick, The House Is On Fire; Ha'aretz, 10 Dec 2004
Wow. I live in the U.S., so I hear more than my share of "with-us-or-against-us", "good-guys-against evil-doers" rhetoric. Even so, “lovers of life” versus “those who want to die” strikes me as a remarkably dishonest way to characterize the Occupation, with its sweeping whitewashing of the actions of Israeli soldiers and blanket stereotyping of the Palestinians under their rule.
For example, I’m not convinced that “lovers of life” is the best term to characterize the Israeli soldiers at the Tufah checkpoint in Gaza, who held down Palestinian housewife Fatima Najah, forced open her mouth and poured a bottle of cleaning fluid down her throat. Or that it was love of life that made an Israeli soldier at the Bethlehem checkpoint refuse one of Dr Samah Jabr’s elderly patients permission to pass through to the Makkased Hospital in Jerusalem, with the life-affirming words: "Go and die in Bethlehem." And there wasn’t a lot of love of life on display among the IDF soldiers who served in Gaza with Liran Ron Furer, who routinely robbed the civilians who had to pass through their checkpoint, and entertained themselves by punching and terrorizing a retarded Palestinian 16-year-old, taking souvenir photographs of the bound and bloodied civilians they had beaten up, and throwing identity papers on the ground just for the pleasure of watching Palestinians scramble in the dirt to pick them up.
And beyond the checkpoints, nobody in the IDF put much value on the life of Iman al-Hams did they? (At least not until the disgruntled enlistees in an uncohesive army company apparently saw their chance to be rid of an unpopular officer by going public with the story of how he had killed Iman). And when IDF Lt-Col Geva Sagi interrogated a Palestinian child by stripping him of his clothes and threatening to rape him with a bottle, was love of life behind that too? How about the soldier in an IDF sniper’s nest who put a single shot between Dalal al-Sabbagh’s shoulder blades as she was hanging out her laundry? Does he love life too? Perhaps it was just her life he objected to.
And the IDF sharpshooters responsible for taking out 200 Palestinian children with head shots over the last four years, like Ahmed and Asma Mughayer, and twelve year olds Rami Barbari and Muhammad Bilalweh, both shot through the head for the capital crime of throwing a rock at troops safely ensconced inside armored vehicles? Was it love of life that motivated them too? And is it the same love of life that inspires the IDF sniper who explained to Yediot Ahronot “how the adrenaline goes” and how “exciting” it is when you serve in an undercover IDF unit, sneaking into the villages of the occupied territories by night, and “hunting Palestinians”? Apparently so, in Yoel Marcus’ world. No matter how terrible their actions, Israeli soldiers are essentially good people, "lovers of life". Simply good people overwhelmed by the corrupting influence of the Occupation.
Well, fine. Perhaps they are. But how come the corrupting influence of occupation does not cut both ways? How come Palestinian suicide bombers are not “lovers of life” corrupted by the Occupation? Almost two-thirds of all Palestinians - and 100% of Palestinian suicide bombers - have lived their entire life under military occupation, but apparently it doesn’t corrupt or influence them. According to Yoel Marcus, they are simply people who “want to die”. It’s not that they would rather die than live a thirty-eighth year under a squalid military occupation. It’s not that they want to live in an independent Palestine, but have watched Israel use the peace process that was supposed to deliver that independence to accelerate, instead of reverse, the colonization of the land that was meant to become Palestine. It’s not that their homes are illegally destroyed and their economy strangled, so that they have no job and no prospect of getting one. It’s not that they are collectively punished, or tortured in prison, or risk becoming “collateral” victims of extra-judical executions or random fire, and it’s not because they’re being robbed of their land by violent, racist settlers who act under the protection of the IDF and with the connivance of the Israeli government. There is no context at all to what suicide attackers do. They just "want to die".
So when Yusuf Sweitat, who had no prior connection with Palestinian militants, drove to the Israeli town of Hadera on 28 October 2001, and shot dead four Israeli women at a bus stop before being gunned down himself by Israeli police, that was nothing to do with the fact that ten days earlier he had watched twelve-year-old Riham Ward bleed to death in his arms after being struck by an IDF tank shell as she sat at her school desk at the Ibrahimiya Elementary School in Jenin. Similarly, the IDF’s assassination of 21-year-old Fadi Hanani in Nablus on 15 December 2001 had no bearing at all on his cousin Saed Kamal Hanani’s decision to kill himself and four Israeli bystanders at Geha Junction, near Tel Aviv, just 10 days later. And it was entirely coincidental that seven days after the IDF shot dead 15-year-old stone-thrower Amjad Al-Masri, and six days after the IDF fired upon Amjad’s funeral procession, killing his cousin Mohammed, Amjad’s 17-year-old brother Iyad blew himself up in Ginsafut near Qalqilya. The fact that Iyad was spattered with his cousin’s brains when an IDF sniper shot Mohammed through the head, and later found pieces of Mohammed in his hat, had nothing to do with it. And when Hanadi Jaradat slipped through the Jenin checkpoint on 4 October 2003, headed for Haifa and blew up herself and 20 innocent Israelis at Maxim’s Restaurant, she did so just because she wanted to die. She was not influenced by the shooting deaths of her fiancé, brother and cousin at the hands of Israeli soldiers. And it is not at all relevant that just one week before the bombing she had been refused a permit to take her father through the Jenin checkpoint to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, for treatment that might have prevented his liver cancer becoming terminal. And just because Shin Bet interviews intensively every intercepted suicide bomber to find out their motives, and reports that the single most common motivator is having a relative or close friend killed by Israeli occupation forces, why would anyone think the Occupation has anything to do with Palestinian suicide attacks? They just “want to die” It’s that famous “culture of death” the Islams have.
So to sum up: Israelis are good people who commit terrible acts because of the overwhelming corrupting influence of the Occupation. The overwhelming corrupting influence of the Occupation does not however affect the Palestinians, who commit terrible acts because, well, that’s the kind of people they are. Is that clear?
And it’s more than that. Even if Marcus had recognized that both sides are detrimentally affected, that still wouldn’t represent honestly the dynamic of the Occupation. Because who is occupying whom here, and do both sides have an equal say in whether the Occupation will continue or end? The truth is that whether the Palestinians under Abu Mazen turn into three million wild-eyed jihadis or three million Mother Teresas, they will not be the deciding factor in whether they remain under Israel's military rule. The Occupation is going to continue till the Israeli people decide - for reasons of morality or simple cost - that they will finally let go of "Greater Israel" and no longer rule over another people. So the salient point that Yoel Marcus fails to mention is that those good young people corrupted by occupation happen to be Israeli soldiers, enforcing Israeli Occupation, in furtherance of a deliberate Israeli policy of slow annexation, that for 38 years has been engineered by successive Israeli governments of both Left and Right, repeatedly returned to power by Israeli voters including, presumably, Yoel Marcus. That’s the downside of being the much-vaunted “only democracy in the Middle East”: when you choose governments that you know are going to perpetuate the Occupation and continue the creeping annexation of the Palestinian Territories, you don’t have the option, 38 years on, of shrugging your shoulders as if to say: “This Occupation of which you speak; where did it come from?”
And that’s where Yoel Marcus has it backwards: his good people who are suffering the corruption of the Occupation are the same people who democratically choose to be and to remain an occupying, annexing power; while those who are occupied against their will and inexorably forced off their occupied land are perversely held to blame for the quagmire in which the Israeli Occupation leaves Palestinians and Israelis alike. That is a remarkable abdication of responsibility from someone who presumably lives literally minutes from the Occupied Territories and could with little effort raise his head above the Wall and get an honest, first-hand view of the nature of foreign military occupation. Instead, Marcus writes as if the Occupation were preordained from above and landed on Israel’s lap without the Israelis having any say in the matter. As if those settlements just sprang up out of the West Bank soil, and no one knows how. As if 400,000 Israelis suddenly woke up one morning to find they were unexpectedly living in illegal settlements on the most productive plots of the occupied land. As if the West Bank's fertile arable lands and crucial water resources inexplicably annexed themselves to Israel, while a great big Wall grew up spontaneously to keep the former Palestinian owners from accessing them...
I have no doubt that the people in the Israeli army are no better and no worse than anyone else, and I don’t disagree with Marcus’ main thesis that occupation corrupts. In fact I'm sure it does, especially when the young people carrying it out are being raised in deliberate ignorance of their own and their Palestinian neighbors' complex history; hear ugly racist talk about Palestinians even at the highest level of public life; and know that once in the army they may kill with impunity so long as it is only Palestinian life that is lost. Under those circumstances, Yoel Marcus is almost certainly right to say that some corruption of the occupying soldiers is inevitable. But the bigger point that he ignores is that the Occupation itself is not.