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Saturday, August 1, 2015
Jonathan Freedland - Israel’s hawks can't dodge blame for this day of violence
The condemnations are striking but still they ring hollow. Binyamin Netanyahu denounced the arson attack by Jewish settlers on the West Bank home of the Dawabsha family, in which Ali Saad, a baby just 18 months old, was burned to death, as an “act of terrorism in every respect”. Netanyahu was joined by Naftali Bennett, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, which is close to being the political wing of the settlers’ movement. Bennett described the murder as a “horrendous act of terror”. The defence minister, the army, they all condemned this heinous crime.
Which is welcome, of course. It’s good that there were no ifs or buts, no attempts to excuse the inexcusable. But still it rings hollow. The words sound empty partly because, while this act is extreme in its cruelty, it is not a freak event. Talk to the Israeli human right groups that monitor their country’s 48-year occupation of the West Bank and they are clear that the masked men who broke into the Dawabsha family home in the early hours and set it alight committed a crime exceptional only in its consequences. “Violence by settlers against Palestinians is part of the daily routine of the occupation,” Hagai El-Ad, director of the B’tselem organisation, told me.
Indeed, El-Ad says this attack was the eighth time since 2012 that settlers have torched inhabited buildings. There have been dozens of assaults on property, too: mosques, agricultural land, businesses. “In most of these cases, they didn’t find the perpetrators, despite having the best intelligence agencies on the planet.” He is referring to the culture of impunity that has always protected the settlers.
That charge can be directed at past Israeli governments of the centre-left as well as the hawkish right: while the latter actively sponsored the settlement that followed the 1967 war, the former indulged it. But the right’s guilt runs deeper, which is why its tearful words of regret now sound so false.
Take Bennett. Put aside his repeated insistence that there will never be a Palestinian state, thereby crushing the dreams of an independent life for all those living under Israeli rule. Focus only on his conduct this week. Today’s murderous arson attack is assumed to be an act of revenge for the court-ordered dismantling on Wednesday of two buildings in the West Bank settlement of Bet El. The buildings were unfinished and empty. Israel’s supreme court ruled them illegal and ordered the army to demolish them. The settlers raged at the decision, demonstrating violently against the soldiers and police who were there to enforce it. And guess who stood on a roof at Bet El, egging the protesters on, stirring them to ever greater heights of fury? Why, it was Naftali Bennett.
Netanyahu himself is not much better. You don’t have to recall his own disavowal of Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution on the eve of March’s election, or his racist warning that Arab citizens of Israel were heading to the polls “in droves”. Look only at his actions in recent days. Stung by the protests at Bet El, he announced construction of another 300 units in Bet El and 504 in East Jerusalem. In other words, he did not punish the settlers for their lawless behaviour: he rewarded it.
There is a pattern here. The hawks of the Israeli right pump ever more air into the ultra-nationalist balloon – only to feign shock when it explodes. A small, but telling example: yesterday an ultra-orthodox Jewish fanatic went on the rampage at the Jerusalem Pride march, stabbing wildly at anyone his knife could reach. He injured six, one critically. Among those who condemned his actions was Jewish Home Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich. Yet Smotrich calls himself a “proud homophobe”: in 2006 he helped organise “the beast parade” which saw demonstrators mock Pride by walking through Jerusalem with donkeys and goats, as if to equate homosexuality with bestiality.
The prime example of turning on the tap – only to be appalled by the flood – is Netanyahu himself. Twenty years ago he stirred up crowds livid at then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s apparent concessions to the Palestinians. They waved placards depicting Rabin as a Palestinian terrorist, even as an SS officer – but Netanyahu said nothing. They carried a mocked-up coffin of Rabin and still Netanyahu said nothing. But when a far rightist assassinated Rabin, Netanyahu was of course among the first to be shocked, shocked, by such wickedness.
It’s true too that each “price tag” attack like yesterday’s – designed to show that even the slightest brake on the settlement venture will come at a price – helps entrench the position that territorial compromise is impossible, that the evacuation of settlements will trigger civil war. That is a conclusion that can only boost support for the Bibi-Bennett hostility to a two-state accord with the Palestinians. And yet, for all that, it would be wrong to see the Israeli right as a monolith – and even more wrong to see Israel itself that way. There are distinctions and they matter. This week’s men of violence illustrate them.
The graffiti left by the murderers of baby Ali Saad offered a clue. “Long live the messiah,” said one. I’ve seen slogans like that before, in the radical settler enclave of Hebron: they point to a strand of settler extremism that denounces the actual state of Israel, and especially its army, as godless institutions of secular democracy, demanding in their place the creation of a “Judean kingdom”. To them, Netanyahu is a traitor and apostate.
Similarly, the would-be assassin of the Pride rally, Yishai Schlissel, told the Jerusalem court where he appeared today that he did not recognise its authority because it “does not follow the rules of the holy Torah” (as if he does). That suggests he belongs to the strand of anti-Zionist ultra-orthodoxy that regards the modern, secular state of Israel as a blasphemous pre-empting of the divine plan for the Jews.
It can be baffling, but such are the deep divisions within Israeli society, often missed by those looking on from afar. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin – who, though a hawk on territorial issues, has emerged as the country’s most urgent voice against bigotry and intolerance – spoke in June of Israel’s four tribes: the strictly orthodox, the secular, the national-religious and the Arab minority.
Back when we used to speak of the “Middle East peace process” there was an assumption, contained in that very phrase, that if only Palestinians and Israelis could reach an accord, peace would come to the entire region. Now we surely know that even if there were such a pact, it would not end the killing in Yemen, the slaughter in Syria or the carnage in Iraq. Even if Palestinians and Israelis embraced, Isis would keep on beheading those it deems the wrong kind of Muslim.
But something else is true too. If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were solved tomorrow, there are no guarantees it would bring tranquillity to Israel or indeed to the divided Palestinians. It might simply unleash the internal conflicts that the external clash has bottled up and contained for so long.
As the Dawabsha family mourns, and as Israelis and Palestinians hold their breath, trembling at the prospect of yet another dread cycle of retaliation and escalation, it is worth remembering that this conflict involves enmity piled upon enmity, hatred upon hatred, within and without – making it harder to solve with each passing day.
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