What I’ve seen in 30 years of reporting on the Israeli occupation

The occupation has its own language: An Arab is a ‘terrorist,’ detention without trial is ‘administrative,’ the occupying power is forever the victim and writing about its crimes is treason

Two weeks ago on Saturday, a few dozen Israelis attended the opening of a new exhibition at the Ben Ami Gallery in south Tel Aviv. The artist, whose work was on show for the first time, sat on a chair. She is unable to stand, nor can she breathe unaided. In fact, she can’t move any part of her body, other than her face. She paints with her mouth.

The artist is a 15-year-old girl. She was extremely excited at her debut – as was her father, who’s been nursing her day and night for the past 11 years. By harrowing coincidence, the exhibition opened precisely on the 11th anniversary of her tragedy. A day when almost her entire family was annihilated; only she, her younger brother and their father survived the smart missile fired at them by Israel’s “moral” air force. She came out of it severely disabled, confined to a wheelchair, hooked up to a ventilator.

Maria Aman was four years old when the missile struck the family car, which had been purchased just that morning. She was standing on her grandmother’s knees in the back seat and dancing, her mother next to her, just before the projectile slammed into the vehicle and destroyed her chances for a normal life. The commander of the air force dissociated himself from the incident, which took place in 2006 in the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces never dreamed of apologizing, the pilot’s identity was never revealed and he never took responsibility, and Israelis were unmoved by one more missile that wiped out most of one more innocent family.

The firing of the missile that wounded Aman so severely is not considered an act of terrorism in Israel, and the pilot who fired it is not considered a terrorist – after all, he didn’t mean it. They never mean it. For 50 years Israel hasn’t been meaning it. Israel never meant it; the occupation was seemingly forced upon it, against its will. Fifty years: All have been well-meaning, with good, moral and ethical intentions, and only the cruel situation – or should we say the Palestinians – have forced all the badness on us.

The show includes a painting by Aman of three trees, evoking her family’s three survivors, along with a burned car. Also a self-portrait in a wheelchair and a painting of her mother in heaven. Her family was killed “by mistake.” Aman was paralyzed “by mistake.” Israel never meant to hurt an innocent girl. Or the more than 500 children it killed in the summer of 2014 during Operation Defensive Edge, in the Strip. Or the 250 women it killed that same summer, some of them next to their children, sometimes together with their whole family. The road to hell was always paved with Israel’s good intentions, at least in its own eyes.

On the day after the tragedy, I visited the Aman family’s home in the Tel al-Hawa refugee camp in Gaza. It was one of many visits I made to the homes of devastated families there, during the years in which Israel still allowed Israeli journalists to enter the Strip. At the time, Maria was hovering between life and death at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City; her father, Hamdi, didn’t want to talk to us. He limped around the sand-covered backyard – he too had been wounded in the missile attack – glaring furiously at us. His cousin spoke with us.

In all the years that I’ve covered the occupation, that was one of only a small handful of cases I recall in which a victim didn’t want to talk to us. Thirty years have brought us to hundreds of victims, usually not long after their tragedy struck, and they always opened their homes and their hearts to us, uninvited Israeli guests whom they’d never heard of. It’s not hard to guess what would happen in the opposite case – a Palestinian journalist visiting an Israeli victim of terrorism on the day after an attack. But that’s just one of the differences.

Daring to compare

I began to write about the occupation almost by chance, after many years during which, like all Israelis, I had been brainwashed, convinced of the justice of our cause, certain that we were David and they Goliath, knowing that Arabs don’t love their children the way we do (if at all) and that they, in contrast to us, were born to kill.

Dedi Zucker, then a Ratz MK, suggested that we go see a few olive trees that had been uprooted in the grove of an elderly Palestinian, who was living in the West Bank. We came, we saw, we lost. That was the beginning, gradual and not planned, of exactly three decades of coverage of the crimes of the occupation. Most Israelis didn’t want to hear about it and still don’t want to hear about it. In the eyes of many citizens, the very act of covering this subject in the media is a transgression.

Treating the Palestinians as victims and the crimes perpetrated against them as crimes is considered treasonous. Even the depiction of Palestinians as human beings is viewed as provocative in Israel. What a furor was generated in 1998 by Ehud Barak’s answer to the simple question of what he would have done if he’d been born a Palestinian (it’s likely he would have joined one of the resistance organizations, he said).

How can anyone even compare? I remember the soldiers who threatened me with cocked rifles at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Jenin, after I asked them what they would do if their father were dying and being evacuated in a Palestinian ambulance, while soldiers played backgammon in a nearby tent and held up the ambulance for hours. How dare I compare? How dare I compare their fathers to the Palestinian in the ambulance.

But my first visit to the occupied territories is one I’d like to forget. It was the summer of 1967, and a 14-year-old boy went with his parents to see the liberated areas of the homeland, just weeks after the end of a war before which he, like everyone, was certain the country was on the brink of destruction. Holocaust II. That’s what we were told, that’s what we were trained to think. And then, within a few days, we visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem (for some reason we had a copper model of Rachel’s Tomb in a cabinet at home).

I was thrilled. I didn’t see people at the time, only white sheets on balconies, and places that we were told were holy. I was participating in Israel’s vast religious-nationalist orgy, which began then and has never ended. My hangover took 20 years to arrive.

The majority of Israelis don’t want to know anything about the occupation. Few of them have any conception of what it is. They’ve never been there. We have no idea what’s meant when we say “occupation.” We have no idea how we would behave if we were under its regime. Maybe if Israelis had more information some of them would be shocked.

Only a minority of Israelis are happy about the existence of the occupation, but the majority aren’t perturbed by it in the least. There are people who ensure that things will remain as they are. There are those who protect the quiet, indifferent majority and allow them to feel good about themselves – untroubled by doubts or moral qualms, convinced that their army – and country – are the most moral in the world, believing that the whole world is only out to annihilate Israel. Even when in our backyard, so close to our own home, darkness hovers, under whose cover, all those horrors are perpetrated day and night – we’re still so beautiful, in our own eyes.

For not a day or a night goes by without crimes being committed just a short distance from Israeli homes. There’s not a day without them, there’s no such thing as a quiet night. And we haven’t yet said anything about the occupation as such, which is criminal by definition. It has undergone transmutations over the years, been less onerous and more onerous at times, but it has always remained an occupation. And it has always left Israelis unmoved.

To cover up its crimes, the occupation has needed a propaganda-driven media that betrays its honest mission, an education system that has been recruited for its purposes, a duplicitous security establishment, politicians lacking a conscience and a civil society that doesn’t have a clue. A new, occupation-adjusted system of values had to be developed in which the cult of security allows, justifies and whitewashes everything, in which messianism becomes valued by the secular population, too, a sense of victimization functions as a cover-up, and a feeling of “Thou hast chosen us” doesn’t hurt, either.

It was also necessary to come up with a language of newspeak, the language of the occupier. According to this newspeak, for example, arrest without trial is called “administrative detention” and the military government is known as the “Civil Administration.” In the occupier’s language, every child with a pair of scissors is a “terrorist,” every individual detained by the security forces is a “murderer,” and every desperate person who tries to provide for his family at any price is “illegally present” in Israel. Hence the creation of a language and a way of life in which every Palestinian is a suspicious object.

Without such assistance, which the security establishment has provided us by means of the pliant media, reality might have proved disturbing. Unfortunately, Israel possesses an abundance of assistance. The first 50 years have seen rapid improvements in brainwashing, denial, repression and self-deceit. Thanks to the media, the education system, the politicians, the generals and the immense army of propagandists abetted by apathy, ignorance and shutting of eyes – Israel is a society in denial, deliberately severed from reality, probably an unparalleled case in the world of a purposeful refusal to see things as they are.

Lost interest

The curtain has fallen. In the past 20 years the occupation has disappeared from the Israeli public agenda. Election campaigns come and go without any discussion of the most fateful issue for Israel’s future. The public has lost interest. The number of assistant teachers in kindergartens is a pressing issue; the occupation isn’t. At the outset, it was a topic at the table of almost every Sabbath-eve meal: In the 1970s bitter arguments were waged over what should be done with “the territories.”

Today an increasing number of Israelis deny the very existence of an occupation. “There’s no occupation” is the latest buzz, the offspring of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s declaration that “There are no Palestinians,” and just as ludicrous. When you claim that there is no occupation, or that there are no Palestinians, you effectively lose contact with reality in a way that can only be explained with recourse to terminology from the realm of pathology and mental health. And that’s where we are.

A basic black-and-white situation of occupier-occupied is presented to Israelis as a “complex reality.” Military despotism in the backyard is presented as part and parcel of the only democracy in the Middle East, the consequence of an unavoidable war of survival. And Israel’s refusal to end the occupation morphs in the hands of the propaganda machinery into a “no partner” situation. It’s a rare historical case: The occupier is the victim. Justice is on the side of the occupier only, and the ongoing war is being fought for his security and existence. Was there ever anything like it?

Above all this hovers the lie of the temporary. Israel has succeeded in deceiving itself and the world into thinking that the occupation is a transient phenomenon: In another minute, it’ll be gone. From its first day until its first jubilee, the occupation has worn a mask of transience. Just let the Palestinians behave nicely and the occupation will disappear. Its end is seemingly waiting around the corner. For 50 years, it’s been waiting there. There’s no greater lie. Israel has never considered ending the occupation, not for a minute. The proof: it has never stopped building settlements. Those who build a shack across the Green Line don’t intend to evacuate it. The occupation is here to stay.

What has changed during these 50 years? Everything – and nothing. Israel has changed, and so have the Palestinians. The occupation remains the same occupation, but it has become more brutal, as happens with every occupation. If in 1996, Israelis were slightly shocked at the story of the first Palestinian woman who lost her newborn when soldiers at three different checkpoints refused to allow her to get to a hospital, until the infant died, apparently of exposure – the subsequent cases hardly moved anyone.

“The Twilight Zone” has reported stories of other women in the throes of birth who lost their babies at checkpoints, and Israel yawned from a lack of interest. Some 30 years separate the first column from the latest one, and there’s no difference between them. “You keep repeating yourself,” we’re told, as though it’s not the occupation that repeats itself. It undergoes tempestuous, deadly periods, and other times that are calmer. There are months when the blood flows, and others in which we’ve dealt with groves of trees that were cut down, homes that were demolished, inhabitants who were deported and people detained without trial.

In the meantime, the land has filled with settlements, with hundreds of thousands of settlers who went on multiplying the longer the “peace process” continued. That’s the only result of the “process.” Every semblance of progress has always been accompanied by more and more settlers, in the best tradition of extortion and surrender. The Oslo Accords doubled and tripled the number of settlers. Ehud Barak, the fellow who almost, just about made peace, was the greatest of the builders in the territories. In Israel, even today, you can be in favor of two states and still build in the territories.

Israel has killed more than 10,000 Palestinians in these 50 years, and jailed about 800,000. These incomprehensible numbers are also accepted as a matter of routine, self-evident, unavoidable, and of course altogether just. The blame lies entirely with those killed and jailed. Israel believes with all its might in the IDF, in the Shin Bet security service and in the military justice system, all of which have always found an excuse for everything and have never admitted to anything, not even after all their twisted lies were exposed. Even to cast doubt on them is untenable. In most languages that’s called blindness.

Erased Green Line

In the center of the traffic circle at the Etzion Bloc junction, one of the busiest places in the West Bank, packed with Israeli and Palestinian vehicles, an Israeli flag flies. There are far more of these national flags visible in the West Bank than in Israel. And far more of those flags fly in the West Bank than the flag of the people that constitutes the absolute majority of that occupied area. There are hardly any road signs for Palestinian towns and villages, only for the settlements; those that are sign-posted are soon effaced with black paint. Yet, so pervasive is the insecurity that the settlers believe that by erasing the names of the Palestinian communities, they will make them disappear.

What has been erased is the Green Line. The only separation that exists in Israel is ethnic, not geographic. Israel is one state, stretching from the sea to the Jordan River, without borders and with two different regimes for two peoples. It’s been like that for the past 50 years, and there’s no plan to change it. The settlers are Israel and so, too, is the occupation: The two are no longer separable. The bank branch in Tel Aviv’s fancy Kikar Hamedina square has a twin in the urban West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. The clinic in Jerusalem’s ritzy Rehavia neighborhood has a mirror image in the settlement of Karnei Shomron. All Israelis are partners in this. The notion that there is Israel and there are occupied territories – as separate entities – is another one of the deceptions borne on a yellow wind. It allows people to love Israel and hate the occupation. But the separation is as fake as it is artificial.

The founding fathers were from the Labor movement – no one bears greater blame than them for the occupation. Moshe Dayan is more to blame for the occupation than Avigdor Lieberman, Yigal Allon is responsible for more settlements than Gilad Erdan. Golda Meir, Israel Galili, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin established more settlements than Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked combined. The Gush Emunim movement lit the flame and the Labor Party devotedly supplied the fuel, together with deceit and a protective umbrella. The pretext offered by Shimon Peres for building the settlement of Ofra was the need for an antenna at the site, and everyone pretended to believe the lie.

Never has a single Israeli prime minister seen the Palestinians as human beings or as a nation with equal rights, nor has there ever been one who seriously wanted to end the occupation. Not one. The talk about two states made it possible to play for time, the peace process provided the world with a cover for remaining silent and to underwrite the occupation. All the peace plans now gathering dust in drawers bear an amazing resemblance to one another, and they all have shared a similar fate: rejection by Israel. In this, too, Israel has thus intentionally kept lying to itself, by saying it wants peace. The list of occupation lies keeps getting longer.

Walking dead

The bereaved parents have aged, the young people participating in the first intifada are the middle-aged population of 2017 and those of the second intifada are walking dead. Some of the heroes featured in this column have been forgotten, others not. Images crowd the memory now, during the jubilee festival.

Here’s a row of amputee youths in their wheelchairs, having a cigarette next to the window in the corridor of Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, victims of the appalling shelling of strawberry fields in Beit Lahia, which wiped out a family. And the child survivors of the attack in which Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh was assassinated– the IDF initially claimed that he was liquidated in an “uninhabited lean-to.” Here’s the young woman from Gaza on the first and last visit of her life a few years ago to the Ramat Gan Safari, Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv and to that city’s beach, on the eve of her death – she died of cancer after arriving fatefully late for medical treatment in Israel. And the boy from Bethlehem who was sentenced to six months in prison – one month for every stone he threw, though they hit no one and caused no damage.

There was the visit to the administrative detainee in a military prison who smuggled out his letters in dense, Shakespearean English. The bridegroom who was killed on his wedding day; the father from the Qalandiyah refugee camp who lost two sons within 40 days, while another son was killed a few years later when the commander of the IDF Binyamin Brigade shot him in the back as he fled; the paralyzed single mother whose only daughter was killed by a missile that struck their home in Gaza as she held her in her arms. And the children of the Indira Gandhi Kindergarten who saw their teacher killed before their eyes, whom we wrote about after our last trip to Gaza, more than 10 years ago; the head of the architecture department at Bir Zeit University, who was tortured by the Shin Bet; the physician from Tul Karm who was assassinated.

There was the father who was missing one hand and both legs, in room 602 at Shifa Hospital, in Gaza City, in June 1994, who was trying to feed his dying son; Lulu, the girl from the Shabura camp outside Rafah in the Gaza Strip, who died 10 years after soldiers shot her in the head; the three men from the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem who lost their eyes; the amputee boy from the al-Fawwar refugee camp south of Hebron who was arrested and beaten; the boys of the knives and the girls of the scissors who were needlessly shot to death at checkpoints in recent months; and the stone-throwing demonstrator described on these pages last week who suffered a night of abuse at the hands of soldiers, in which he was beaten, humiliated and had patches of his hair cut off. What happened to Bara Kana’an, the young carpenter from Beit Rima, near Ramallah, happened two, three and four decades ago to many Palestinians.

The IDF, the Border Police and the Civil Administration always justified, supported, found excuses for, whitewashed and often plain lied when providing their automatic responses. Nor did they ever apologize, admit mistakes. They rarely expressed regret, and certainly never offered compensation. As far as they – and most Israelis – are concerned, everything was conducted properly.

Work of art

At the opening of Maria Aman’s exhibition two weeks ago, you could see for yourself just how properly everything has been conducted in the past 50 years. Here’s Aman, paralyzed and on a ventilator – who lost her mother, grandmother, toddler brother and her aunt during an innocent drive on a busy Gaza City street, in the midst of the assassinations season. In a rare instance, Israel departed from custom and, after a stubborn struggle by Aman’s family and others, agreed to allow her to undergo rehab in Israel. What she shows is life and death as a painting. Aman has an exhibition in Tel Aviv. Thousands of other victims, who suffered a similar fate to hers, never had that chance. Maria became a symbol; her handicapped mates remain anonymous, their fate unknown in Israel.

The few dozen Israelis who attended the opening, some of whom have accompanied this girl and her amazing father for years, are among the few in Israel who know that not everything was conducted properly between 1967 and 2017. The first 50 years of the occupation were one long atrocity.