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The great wall of denial
Gila Svirsky, Israel
February 28, 2003
A few nights ago, I was awakened at 11 pm by the sound of a loudspeaker
blaring from a police car in the street near my home in Jerusalem. I
thought I heard a demand for someone to come out of the house and into the
street. I wondered if a terrorist was loose in the neighborhood, as had
happened more than once in various parts of Israel. I kept the light off,
and ran to confirm that the front door was locked. Then I turned on the
radio to hear if anything newsworthy was happening in my neighborhood.
When I heard nothing, I crept back into bed, and lay there waiting for the
next thing to happen. After a while, I thought of how many perfectly
normal and law-abiding Palestinians are awakened in the middle of the
night by loudspeakers from army vehicles, lie in bed waiting for events to
unfold, and end up hearing the sounds of a neighbor being arrested and
taken away . . . or being taken away themselves. A few weeks ago, a
loudspeaker in the village of Beit Lahiya called residents out of their
homes in the middle of the night, and 200 neighbors—including small
children and two women who had given birth 2 days earlier—were forced to
huddle together for hours in the cold winter night until the army let them
return to their homes. This is not uncommon in Palestinian neighborhoods,
though the information rarely reaches the newspapers of Israel. In my
neighborhood, it turned out to be the police searching for a missing
child. In the Palestinian neighborhood, it can be a search for someone on
the 'wanted list' . . . or just plain harassment.
The lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories have been thoroughly
disrupted since Sharon came to power, far more than under any preceding
Israeli prime minister. The mystery, however, is not the reign of
terror—this is no mystery under Sharon—but the indifference of Israeli
citizens to that behavior. How is it possible that through two and a half
years of the increasingly cruel conduct of our army, the Israeli public has
had almost nothing to say about soldiers . . .
*** urinating on school computers and defecating on the rugs of homes they have garrisoned for use;
*** accidentally demolishing the homes of innocent people that happen to
be near the homes deliberately destroyed;
*** preventing the residents of entire cities from leaving their houses
for weeks on end (no exceptions—not for chemo, dialysis, childbirth,
buying food, attending school, or visiting your sick mother);
*** damaging 27 Palestinian ambulances beyond repair and wounding 187
medical personnel [see Palestinian Red Crescent Society]; and
*** assassinating people without the niceties of trial and due
process, not to mention reckless shootings in which 126 innocent children
aged 13 or younger (including 19 toddlers and infants aged 5 or younger!)
have lost their lives [see B’Tselem].
Why, I am trying to understand, are we Israelis so blind to this
brutality? Where are the expressions of revulsion by decent Israelis?
Why don't the major newspapers report these heart-wrenching stories (not
just the liberal and much smaller-circulation Ha'aretz)? Why didn't a
single Jewish political party in the recent election criticize the
government for its policy of collective punishment? Why are the brave
young men and women who refuse to carry out these crimes disparaged in the
media, while even Peace Now and the Meretz party don't come to their
support? Why are only a handful of people willing to apply the label 'war
crime' to the deeds of the army—deeds that merit this designation under
any objective reading of the international instruments of law?
The lack of outrage and compassion in Israel is difficult to understand.
Is it a reflection of the fact that Israelis are uninformed? Or are they
aware and indifferent?
I believe that Israelis do know the truth. They know because some
stories—the most poignant—do reach the media. A month ago, they saw a scene on Israeli TV of a young boy on crutches forced everyday to scale a muddy checkpoint wall to get to school. They know because they do reserve duty in the territories— or their family and friends do —and some even brag
about the dirty tricks they saw or did. They know because some watch CNN,
the BBC, or other foreign media, even when they dismiss these reports as
anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. But enough stories do get through for
Israelis to know what is happening, to understand the brutal reality.
So the question is, why is there indifference? Here are three reasons,
though I'm sure there are more:
First, the media gets some of the blame. Although facts and figures are
reported, the media fail to convey the human suffering behind the iron
fist policies. Journalist Gideon Levy points out [Ha'aretz, 2 Feb 03]
that when 15 Palestinians were killed in Gaza in one blood-drenched day
last week (February 19th), the Israeli newspapers were wrapped up in the
story of the Qassam shells that landed in Sderot, wounding one.
Journalist Amira Hass speaks of the 'routine of calamity' [Ha'aretz, 26
Feb 03] in Palestine as disasters spiral, which I believe has also
routinized the reporting of them and our response. When 25 homes were
destroyed in Gaza last month, making 200 Palestinians homeless, not a
single TV or radio clip conveyed the story of these people with anything
Second, Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians provides the cover
for Israelis to focus on our own pain and fear, and to frame the pain of
the Palestinians as ‘just desserts' or an inevitable byproduct of our ‘war
on terrorism'. Furthermore, innocent bystanders have been killed on our
side, too, making it harder for Israelis to feel compassion for those they
regard as supportive of the attacks. Nevertheless, the completely
lopsided balance of power and suffering has not penetrated the
consciousness of the Israeli public as a whole. The violence on both
sides is reprehensible, but most Israelis behave as if only our people are
its victims, while the other side, all of them, are the perpetrators of
Third, much blame goes to our political and rabbinical leaders who engage
in fear mongering and dehumanization of the other. Racism is rampant in
Israel, from popular Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who called all Arabs 'snakes', to
President Katsav who told a group of bar-mitzvah boys, "The Palestinians
don't behave as if they come from the same planet as we do." The National
Union Party, a member of Sharon's new government, openly advocates ethnic
cleansing —the 'transfer', as they call it, of all Arabs from Israel and
the territories. Is it any wonder that so few pay attention to the
suffering of those who have been devalued and dehumanized? Meanwhile, our
military leaders repeat the mantra that "the IDF is the most moral army in
There may be many more reasons for Israeli indifference. Eitan Felner,
former Director of the B'Tselem human rights organization, referred to
Israel's behavior as typical of an adult who has been abused as a child
and consequently becomes an abusive adult, just as Jews were abused in
Europe and now take it out on others. Many Israelis
believe they hold exclusive rights to the category 'Suffering Victims',
and are unable to view themselves as having inflicted suffering and
victimhood on others.
But the important question is, ‘How do we penetrate the numbness of
Israelis, soldiers and civilians alike, about the wrongness of our
actions—wrong morally and stupid strategically. As virtually everyone has
recognized by now, the brutal policies only create more bitterness and
desire for revenge. How do we get the message across to Israelis that the
government is undermining our security in the territories with each act of
humiliation and cruelty? How do we convey to Israelis that we are
behaving in some ways like the persecutors of Jews have behaved from time
Israeli peace and human rights activists have been wracking our brains
over how to accomplish this. The young men and women who refuse to serve
in the army have done more than their share to raise awareness about the
army's cruel deeds, though they face court martial and prison as a result.
Led by the New Profile organization, many peace activists will be holding
a rally in April to express our pride in these young people. Ta'ayush and
Rabbis for Human Rights lead groups of Israelis into the territories to
see the appalling conditions. Machsom Watch takes visitors to the
checkpoints to observe the military vise-grip on Palestinians who try to
use the roads. Gush Shalom has led the drive to place the "war crime"
label on unlawful army behavior, to the wrath of the generals and the
Attorney General. The Coalition of Women for Peace placed an ad in the
Arabic-language newspapers, letting Palestinians know that some Israelis
are aware of their suffering, do care, and are trying to stop it. And a
new campaign is shaping up among a coalition of groups under the slogan,
"Don't say you didn't know . . ." in reference to the claims of ignorance by
Germans during the Nazi regime. And yet with all this effort, will we be
able to break through the Great Wall of Denial?
Something different works for each person. What caught at my own heart
was a scene captured on video by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights
organization in the territories. It showed a simple conversation between
the B'Tselem fieldworker and a well-dressed Palestinian man, standing
forlornly beside his car parked at a checkpoint:
"Why aren't you driving through?" asks the B'Tselem worker.
"I don't really know," answers the man.
"What do you mean, you don't know? Aren't you waiting to get through the
"Yes, I'm trying to get to Hebron. But the soldiers told me to wait
"How long have you been waiting?"
"Since 7 o'clock this morning."
"Since 7 o'clock? But it's 5 pm! Why are they keeping you?"
"I really don't know. I was just driving through and they told me to stop
and get out of my car and wait on the side. I really don't know. I'm
just waiting for them to let me through."
After a pause. "Did you eat anything yet today?"
"No, I left home early and planned to eat in Hebron . . ." His voice starts
to break and he turns away as he struggles to keep himself from crying.
After a pause. "Did you call your family? Do they know where you are?"
"Yes, I called several times, the last time around 3 o'clock, but now my
battery is dead."
"Would you like to use my cell phone?"
"No, no thank you, I told them at 3 I'd be home in a couple hours. It's 5
now. I don't want to worry them." He turns his head and tries to fight
There is random violence, there are arrests in the middle of the night,
and there are the countless ways to make a person feel powerless, fearful,
not knowing if he'll get home today or still be standing by his car
tomorrow, waiting for the young soldier to let him through.
Indifference is not felt by everyone. For those who do care, the only
answer is to stand witness to this reality. To share the information with
others. To speak truth to power. And, thereby, to break the cycle of
helplessness and despair, and create a better place for us all.
Gila Svirsky is an Israeli human rights and peace activist.