Lack of Balance in Critiquing Israel vs. Hamas?
Over the last month, as I have posted my comments and thoughts about what is happening in Gaza on Facebook a number of people have accused me of taking a one sided position on Israel and Palestine and of not acknowledging Palestinian violence against Israelis. I want to address this briefly.
Everyone who has been involved in activism on this issue for an extended period of time has a particular moment that committed him or her to long-term activism. My transitional moment occurred when two Israeli soldiers were killed in Ramallah in October 2000.
I was on my way to catch a taxi to Jerusalem when the two soldiers were brought to the police station in Ramallah, which was located next to the taxi station. I stood outside the police station for the better part of an hour as a crowd gathered after having heard rumors that two undercover Israeli soldiers had been captured while on their way to assassinate someone. This was not the case, but it was not an unreasonable supposition given the situation and history.
As policemen started to ring the walls surrounding the police station I walked over to the taxi station to catch a ride to Jerusalem. As my taxi left the taxi station someone stopped it and yelled that the soldiers had been killed. I jumped out of the taxi at the Ramallah vegetable market and began making my way across the Manara and towards the Bir Zeit taxis that would bring me home. As I crossed the Manara a group of young men came into the square dragging the bodies of the two soldiers. One of these men grabbed me by the throat and threatened me as others kicked and brutalized the soldiers’ bodies. I was able to convince the man assaulting me to let me go and then made my way home. Hours later I watched as Israeli Apache Helicopters bombed the Ramallah Police Station.
This was a transformational moment for me because it was the first time I came face to face with brutal violence and anger. Coming from a privileged and sheltered background I could not comprehend how such violence could manifest itself so quickly. Before this I had seen people shot from a distance, but seeing someone you don’t know get shot from a distance is a surprisingly impersonal experience. It is shocking and brutal, but in a different way. The personal nature of this violence completely unsettled me. It left me questioning my understanding of everything that I was witnessing.
This was also the moment when I had to decide whether to stay and continue working on human rights issues or to leave. I chose to stay. The decision to stay exposed me to much more violence by both Palestinians and Israelis over the next several years.
Around the same time that the two soldiers were killed several car bombs were set off in West Jerusalem. One was set off on a road I normally walked down on my way to church. I heard that bomb explode when I was about two blocks from the bomb site. In May 2002 as I returned from Church a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up next to a bus in the French Hill Intersection in Jerusalem about 30 seconds before my taxi drove through the intersection. One day Palestinian gunmen shot two men accused of collaborating with Israel in the street in front of the restaurant where I was eating lunch. Another time in 2002 a Palestinian accused of collaboration was hung upside down on the Manara and had his throat slit. This was during an Israeli incursion. My colleague from Al-Haq and I grabbed a camera and made our way to the Manara through streets occupied by Palestinian gunmen. The body had been taken down by the time we arrived but blood still stained the ground. All of this left me with a clear understanding of Palestinian violence and some of the fear that Israelis feel.
However, during this same period I also saw incredible violence committed by Israelis. I saw people shot at demonstrations. I saw an execution site in Beit Rima, pieces of skull fragment, hair, and blood still remained on the ground and walls. I was in Ramallah throughout Operation Defensive Shield and was walked around my home with a gun against my head, hid on my bathroom floor as an armored personnel carrier shot up my neighbor’s home, received calls from a woman throughout one night as her diabetic mother slowly died due to a lack of medication and blocked medical access, and searched for my colleague who disappeared from our offices when it was raided by Israeli soldiers. I saw Palestinians at checkpoints with boot prints visible on their faces, a sign that Israeli soldiers had stood on their heads. I watched soldiers humiliate parents in front of their children and children beaten and terrified by these same soldiers.
Most importantly, for nearly three years at Al-Haq the first thing I did every morning was read through the field reports and information that had come in the previous day regarding killings and injuries. I carefully read reports detailing the circumstances of death for nearly every Palestinian killed during the Second Intifada as well as reports about how many more were injured. I visited the families of those killed and participated in field investigations into the killings. I also read about nearly every act of Palestinian violence, whether carried out against other Palestinians or Israelis.
Eventually the violence began to blend together. Individual acts of violence lost their meaning. This is not to say that they are insignificant for those impacted by the violence be they Israeli or Palestinian, but for me acts of violence stopped defining the conflict. It gradually became apparent to me that current acts of physical violence cannot be divorced from the history of the conflict, which is a history of colonialism and Palestinian dispossession. Equally, it became apparent that the acts of physical violence that I have witnessed cannot be divorced from the much more pernicious legal and structural violence that defines Israel’s occupation and its apartheid policies.
In short, it is my opinion that Israeli violence is the violence that must be exercised to maintain a neo-colonial military occupation and apartheid like inequality. Palestinian violence is the inevitable response to that occupation and apartheid like inequality. Violence therefore will only end when the occupation and Israeli apartheid end.
This also means that the situation is not one where violence can be balanced against violence. The power dynamics of the conflict are such that there is no balance. Both sides have harmed the other, but the overall power in Palestine and Israel rests with Israel, and its denial of Palestinian rights is at the core of the conflict.
It is not a history of Palestinian actions against Israelis that drives the conflict but rather the history of unresolved colonial dispossession of Palestinians and the continued denial of their rights that drives the conflict.
The history of Palestinian dispossession, the reality of occupation, and the reality of Israeli Apartheid are what I will continue to speak about – not individual acts of violence. To many this may appear unbalanced but there is no reality of balance.