Last week I was watching the TV news. It was a day when some particularly harrowing footage of Israeli victims of the Hamas attacks was airing. The most horrifying was a video of a family huddled together, cowering in the corner of a room while armed men shouted commands at them. What made it so distressing was the knowledge that on the other side of the room was the body of their 18 year-old daughter who had just been shot and killed – some of her blood visible on the clothes of her father who was then kidnapped. Often it is the things you don’t see and can therefore only imagine that can make something all the more shocking.
Perhaps as a balance to this segment the programme also showed some video from Hebron in the West Bank. This was of the fatal shooting, by Israeli soldiers, of a 15 year-old who made the mistake of cautiously peering down the road outside his house and took one step too far. His father went to try and rescue him and was also shot.
When we see these things it is easy to identify with the victims, their families and their trauma. This is the picture we are encouraged to see. But in both of these situations I think there is something important we don’t see: the stories of those pulling the trigger.
Think about the soldier with that 15 year-old in their sights. Ask yourself what they were actually seeing and what had led them to that point? What’s the story of the hours beforehand, couched in terms of military operational objectives? Or what happened in the weeks and months beforehand, couched in terms of political justification? Or in the years, decades, beforehand couched in terms of a socially normalised precedent?
That soldier was not a terrorist, an extremist or a psychopath. In all probability they were just a young Israeli citizen doing their military service or reserve duty. And yet they found themselves at the point where they shot and killed a child outside his house and then shot and seriously wounded a father trying to rescue his son.
How did that actually happen?
And afterwards? Presumably there was paperwork: reports of the operation that have to be compiled, details of casualties incurred. There was almost certainly a template and boxes to be ticked. The casually would be categorised as non-compliant, an activist, insurgent, a potential threat. There would not have been a tick-box for an innocent child and a desperate father.
And the point of everything that went before and everything that happened afterwards was to create a picture in the mind of that soldier that enabled them to sleep at night and then get up the next morning, pick up their gun and do it all over again without the horror of what they had just done from paralysing their life.
I was a volunteer on a kibbutz on the Lebanese border 41 years ago, when Israel invaded Lebanon. This was a critical point in Israeli history because it marked the beginning of the strategy of using overwhelming military force to crush a terrorist threat. I remember a conversation with a soldier over a beer in the bar on the kibbutz which the international volunteers ran. He had just come back from the fighting but he was not sleeping easily. He said “I don’t know why we are there. I don’t know what we are doing. It’s just kids and civilians – we are killing kids and civilians.” And I remember the words of my work boss on the kibbutz. He was a German who survived Auschwitz, whose entire family died in the camps, who was on one of the first boats that came to Palestine and fought in the Haganah, in ‘48 and ‘67 and who finally made a life for himself on a kibbutz. He was one tough man and the story of Israel is told in his life and he said to me “why are we doing this? For all these years now we have had peace and now this.” And he cursed the politicians down south in Tel Aviv who, for their own political advantage, had destroyed his peace: the peace he had fought to secure.
Forty one years later what has really changed other than the deaths of countless thousands? For one thing, the voices of that soldier and my boss can no longer be heard. The questions they are asking can no longer be asked. I suppose that is so everyone can sleep at night.
Because it isn’t just that soldier. Every Israeli citizen at some point will have had that 15 year-old in their sights, either literally or figuratively, because everyone has served in the military or acquiesced with a strategy that hasn’t changed in all that time. It is a strategy that says “you take one of ours, we take 10 of yours.” Or else it’s just called mowing the grass I believe. We all mow the grass – how normal is that? Killing becomes normalised, it is the default strategy and everyone becomes complicit. Everyone becomes traumatised.
It also explains the extreme sensitivity to any form of criticism. A dam can only be relied upon to hold back the water if it has no cracks within it. Allow those cracks to develop and the awful reality can burst through.
And what of those Hamas terrorists who filmed the terror of that Israeli family after they shot their teenage daughter in front of them? What led them to that point? What picture were they seeing? This is a harder one to comprehend and while I can understand that soldier I struggle to see the world through the eyes of those people. We can at least call these people terrorists, extremists, or psychopaths. An armed militia is a terrible thing, as examples from the Balkans to sub-Saharan Africa show. Unlike a citizen army it is self-selecting and therefore draws from the most extreme or damaged people. It has no codes of conduct and therefore easily capitulates to the worst of human instincts.
The question we have to ask here though is one for the wider Palestinian population because, literally or figuratively, these people are your children. As much as you may condemn or disown their actions they came from within you. It is not sufficient to shelter behind the truth that their extremism was created by prolonged Israeli persecution. An explanation is not the same thing as a justification.
A solution to this problem may need to be framed in terms of political structures or agreements but none of these can ever come into effect so long as the leaders on both sides know they can rely on the normalisation of killing. So long as Israeli citizens are prepared to put that 15 year-old in their sights and pull the trigger, or Palestinian citizens are prepared to accept the creation of psychopathic killers as an inevitable consequence of occupation, we will get nowhere.
But it’s hard. When I was talking to that soldier in the bar or my boss I didn’t really understand what they were saying. It didn’t fit with the picture of Israel that I had in my head. Back then Israel was a sexy, glamorous country filled with heroes who had held-off the bad guys. It was obvious who the bad guys were: the Arabs. It wasn’t the Palestinians so much back then. In the 1960s and ‘70s we called it the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the politics changed after 1973. A new political force emerged with leaders who saw the conflict as something to be exploited as much as resolved and a new existential threat was therefore required.
Thus the Palestinians were singled out for attention and the 1982 invasion was the moment everything changed. It is worth remembering that the trigger, one might say excuse, for the invasion was not an attack on Israeli settlements on the border, it was an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador in London. Israel occupied southern Lebanon for the next 18 years. 18 traumatic years when a generation of Israelis were forced to put civilians in their sights not to forget the countless operations launched since: back in Lebanon in 2006 and then many times in the West Bank and Gaza. It is now 41 years where stated military objectives were not achieved, where Israel does not become safer and where thousands of civilians were killed (and the grass got mown). But this reality has been edited out and a different picture is created. And this is the picture that is pasted onto the dam that holds back reality in order to stop the cracks from forming.
I think the starting point has to come from the outside. It is only the international community and supporters of both Israel and Palestine who have the possibility of changing the picture, at least in the first instance. After all the suffering and the normalisation of killing, those on the ground cannot be expected to have it within themselves to make the changes. They don’t have a choice as to what side they are on, but the rest of us do. We have the ability to reject the idea that we must be forced to take sides. It is sad that there have been two rallies in London recently: one in support of Israel calling for a return of the hostages and one in support of the Palestinians calling for a ceasefire. Could we not have one rally calling for both of these things?
We need to create a new picture: one that isn’t simply employed to normalise killing or suppress a collective trauma, but one that refuses to tolerate that trauma and demands an end to the suffering. It’s not about calling for peace and reconciliation: that is an easy soundbite. It is about recognising that the real trauma is not something being inflicted by ‘the other side’. It is a trauma – a form of abuse in fact – that is being inflicted by leaders on their own people. Blaming the other side is actually a distraction. We can only make progress when people on both sides turn on their leaders and say “Enough: you will do this to us no more.” That is what both Hamas and Netanyahu fear the most.