It feels awkward to pick out one person from all those who have been killed in Lebanon, Israel and the Occupied Territories over the last few weeks, but I do want to say a few words about the death of Uri Grossman, the son of Israeli novelist David Grossman, killed while serving with an IDF tank crew in Lebanon on 12 August.
I suspect that for many people who grew up on the grotesque popular Zionism of Leon Uris - with his heroic, blond-haired, blue-eyed, European Zionists set upon by the bestial, backwards, incorrigible Arabs - it was David Grossman, and especially The Yellow Wind, his 1987 expose of life under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, that helped to snap them out of it.
Personally, the part of the book that stayed with me for years after I read it was Chapter 7 (Catch-44), in which Grossman describes an afternoon he spent observing proceedings at an IDF military court in Nablus. Virtually every Palestinian brought before the judge has already “confessed” under interrogation, so most cases consist entirely of IDF officers discussing among themselves how much jail-time the defendant will serve, while the defendant himself – unable to speak Hebrew and served by bored and incompetent military translators - uncomprehendingly awaits his fate.
But then a real trial begins. The defendant, Jafer Haj Hassan, isn't just accused of a technical violation like failing to get a permit for some everyday activity, but of being a terrorist. And as he – unlike all the others – has refused to confess, Grossman finally gets to witness an IDF court at work.
The charge is that Jafer Haj Hassan has been in contact with a terrorist organisation. The evidence against him is that years earlier, Hassan had asked his father to help him raise money to study overseas. His father had sought help from an old friend in Jordan who was a member of Fatah, and the friend had arranged for the movement to pay tuition for Hassan to study German at a univerity in West Germany. As it turned out, Hassan hadn't really taken to German; the scholarship had been revoked, and Hassan had eventually come home to the West Bank. The prosecutor acknowledges that Hassan isn't involved with terrorism, and has never actually been in touch with anyone in Fatah – which is the basis of the charge against him - but asks the judge to convict him anyway on the grounds that while in Germany he had remained in contact with his own father, who had in turn once been in contact with the old friend in Fatah.
Grossman can tell that the judge is skeptical that staying in touch with one's own father is sufficient grounds for a terrorism conviction, but he can also see that the judge cannot bring himself to order an acquittal:
Since the defendant, Jafer Haj Hassan, had already spent forty-four days in prison, the judge faced a serious problem . Can a military court of an occupying power admit that the military government of the occupation made a mistake? And how will that influence its authority, esteem, and power, in the eyes of the inhabitants? Everything depends on the answer to this question.
The judge disappears to his chambers to consider how to deal with the dilemma. Two hours later he emerges, like Solomon triumphant, to announce that he has reached a verdict. Jafer Haj Hassan is not guilty of the charges he is facing, but the court has found him guilty of a charge he wasn’t facing, specifically, smuggling foreign currency into the territories! Grossman notes that Hassan never actually received any foreign currency (his tuition was paid for him); and he didn't receive the scholarship in the Occupied Territories, but in Germany; and in fact it is illegal even under the IDF's own regulations to convict a defendant of a charge he didn't know he was facing… But none of that matters. What matters is that the defendant who was charged has been found guilty of something, proving to the natives that Israeli military justice does not make mistakes.
In recognition of the fact that Jafer Haj Hassan is really no more guilty of currency smuggling than he was of terrorism, the judge sentences him to time served – forty-four days (hence the title of the chapter) – which is effectively an acquittal. So the honour of the occupier is preserved. The court is spared from having to acknowledge that the defendant is innocent, but lets him go home, because everyone knows he is.
As the trial ends, all Grossman can think of is George Orwell’s classic essay on the White Man’s Burden, Shooting an Elephant:
Orwell, while serving in the British Army in Burma is drafted by a Burmese mob to kill a giant elephant in heat. As he strides toward the elephant – pressed by the expectations of the crowd – he first understands that he may not be as free to decide his own actions as he thought beforehand…
“I perceived in this moment,” Orwell, the colonial officer, says in his essay, “that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the 'natives' and so in every crisis he has got to do what the 'natives' expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”...
The Yellow Wind is a call for Israelis to end their domination of the Palestinians, on the grounds that the occupation is neither just, nor moral, nor humane. But the book is also a warning to Israel that if it cannot end the occupation for morality's sake, then it should do so out of simple self-interest, because the occupation is going to destroy it. In fact, that's why the book is called The Yellow Wind. The term originates in a conversation that Grossman has with an elderly Palestinian refugee he encounters during his travels in the West Bank:
I tell Abu Harb that I called my book "The Yellow Time" in Hebrew, and he asks me if I have heard about the yellow wind. I say that I haven't, so he begins telling me about it, and about the yellow wind that will come soon, maybe even in his lifetime: the wind will come from the gate of Hell (from the gates of Paradise comes only a pleasant, cool wind) - "rih asfar", it is called by the local Arabs, a hot and terrible east wind which comes once in a few generations, sets the world afire, and people seek shelter from its heat in the caves and caverns, but even there it finds those it seeks, those who have performed cruel and unjust deeds, and there, in the cracks of the boulders, it exterminates them one by one. After that day, Abu Harb says, the land will be covered with bodies. The rocks will be white from the heat, and the mountains will crumble into a powder which will cover the land like yellow cotton...
David Grossman wrote his indictment of the occupation in the summer of 1987, when the Occupied Territories seemed to the outside world to be calm and subdued and its inhabitants resigned to their fate. The idea that Israel was sowing a wind and would reap a whirlwind seemed to be a problem for a distant future, if not outright scaremongering. Just six months later, the first intifada erupted, seemingly - to the vast majority who had never seen what Grossman had seen - inexplicable and out of nowhere.
Now, with the benefit of almost 20 years' hindsight, we can assess how Grossman's diagnosis played out. Clearly, Israel didn't end the occupation, and for the most part remained too jealous of its own victimhood to be moved by Grossman's argument that its treatment of the Palestinians is neither just, nor moral, nor humane. The need to end the occupation out of self-interest has certainly gained more traction, although the disconnect between knowing what needs to be done and electing a government capable of doing it remains profound.
The big difference between 1987 and now is that I think no-one now would look at the destructive, corrosive effects of the occupation on Israel and the entire region, and think this is a problem to be put off to a distant future. No-one can look at Israel's internal and external situation at the moment and seriously believe that the status quo is tenable. The real question is whether Israel can accept the widely-accepted formula for regional coexistence or will choose instead to muscle it out through an escalating series of Gazas and south Lebanons. Either way, I think that the moment of truth that David Grossman described as a yellow wind is upon Israel. How sad and ironic that one of the first people swept away by it should be the son of the author who looked at the false calm of the Occupied Territories in 1987, and knew what was coming.
Photo: Members of the Shiite Mehdi army militia carry Lebanese Hezbollah flags as they rally in Baghdad's impoverished neighborhood of Sadr City. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites thronged the streets of Baghdad chanting "Death to Israel" and "Resistance" in a massive and noisy demonstration of support for Lebanon's Hezbollah militia; 4 August 2006. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)