In Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles, the newly appointed black sheriff of a Wild West township realizes that his welcome ceremony is about to turn into a lynch by the town’s all-white denizens. The black cowboy improvises an ingenious escape plan: he points his gun at his own head and pretends to be taken hostage. Speaking with two voices and playing the double role of kidnapper and hostage, he manages to drag himself away to safety. His subterfuge works by garnering sympathy from the previously hostile crowd.
Fans of Mel Brooks may appreciate the Israeli spectacle, cast in the same mold, which could be referred to as “blame the hand”. In the Israeli version of Blazing Saddles, one of the characters is a habitual wife beater. He does so year after year and gets away with it by employing a brilliant tactic: whenever the cops show at his door, he blames his hand for doing the beating. In front of their dumbstruck faces he then enacts an epic struggle with his hand, ending the performance by slapping it in punishment. The cops, not the most intelligent bunch, fall for this sleight time and time again. They leave his house, not before having expressed their sympathy for his battle with the wayward hand.
It has been the mainstay of the Zionist left and the so-called peace camp to blame Israel’s post-1967 territorial entanglement on settlers. According to this view, the settlers have violated the 1967 borders, the settlers are stealing Palestinian land, the settlers are engaged in violence and “price tag” attacks against Palestinians. The settlers are preventing peace. While these accusations certainly have merit, it is worth remembering that the hand does not operate by itself. It is the head that moves it. And the head is the Israeli government, representing Israel’s Jewish population.
Blame the Hand has been played since the early days of militant Zionism. While Ben Gurion’s forces ethnically cleansed Palestine, enacted the Absentees Laws to confiscate the refugees’ property, and shot those who attempted to return, the hand was blamed for Deir Yassin, Tantura and other relatively minor crimes. The big crime gets a pass while the small crime is pinned on “extremists”. It is obvious why: Zionism has always relied on the support of Western powers and that support relies on the projection of image. Violent settlers and Jewish terrorists simply don’t look good, even though their crimes amount to a fraction of the abuses committed by the Israeli government.
It is all too easy to point the finger at wild-eyed fundamentalist settlers, who have created their own version of a Biblical Wild West (Bank), terrorizing Palestinians, uprooting olive trees, vandalizing property and more recently, burning families. It is an easy target and many of us, including Palestinians, occasionally succumb to the temptation to lay the blame on Israel’s settler movement. But let’s not forget: the settlers are not there on their own design. Without the army’s protection, without their superior legal status granted by the Israeli judicial system, without the resources and government support, they would not be there. Without the predictable process of “legalization” of outposts, without the ideological edifice of Zionism – Israel’s state ideology – they would have as much ability and legitimization to settle in the West Bank as they would in Uzbekistan. It is a three card monte that everyone wittingly plays while Palestinians are herded into ever shrinking enclaves. By evacuating a few insignificant outposts, the Israeli government hopes to legitimize the ten-fold larger expansion of settlements and the “legalization” of others.
It is not the settlers who created Ariel, a city-settlement of 20,000 in the heart of the West Bank. It is the Israeli government. It is not the settlers who are denying Palestinians civil rights. It is not the settlers who are judaizing East Jerusalem – just ordinary Israelis who respond to government plans and incentives. It is not the settlers who are flouting international law – it is the Israeli government, left and right alike.
Blame the Hand proved itself a useful ploy once again with the murder of 18 months old Palestinian toddler Ali Dawabshe by settlers who set his family’s house on fire. It allows the Israeli government to present itself as a “moderate” that denounces violence, an arbiter in a conflict between extremist settlers and extremist Palestinians. It casts the occupation force that enables the colonization of the West Bank – the IDF – as a police force maintaining law and order. President Rivlin’s call for “tolerance” misses the point, perhaps deliberately: it is not possible to have a tolerant apartheid state and it is not possible to have normal relations between colonizer and colonized, between occupier and occupied. It is not even possible to have normal relations between citizen and citizen in a Jewish supremacist state.
Blaming the Hand helps the colonization project of Palestine to continue unabated. It is of course the wish of every colonist to colonize and take over a land without any violence at all – after all, he has the military might and the legislative system which makes the dispossession “legal”. In that context, Netanyahu (for once) is not lying when he denounces violence and expresses his desire for calm. The US State Department’s calls for “restraint on both sides”, like Rivlin’s gracious words about the need to fight “Jewish terror”, create the illusion that in the absence of violence, normalcy would prevail. But this abnormal normalcy and what people erroneously call the “status quo” is not a status quo at all – the occupation, creeping colonization and dispossession of Palestinians is an ongoing process that hasn’t stopped for one day since Israel’s establishment.
But don’t despair. There are signs that perceptions are slowly changing and Blame the Hand can no longer be relied upon. As I noted in my previous essay, the immolation murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir may have been a tipping point. Tipping points are many times seen in hindsight and the latest burning death of a Palestinian infant wakes up more and more Israelis – including on the right – to the reality of apartheid and the fact that different laws apply to different sets of people who reside on the same patch of land. The disappearance of the flimsy cover known as the “peace process” has hastened this slow process. Sensing the bad PR of settler violence and apartheid, instead of moving in the direction of granting Palestinians the same rights and protection of the law as their Jewish neighbors, Israel now proposes to punish its hand by imposing harsher measures on “extremist settlers” (but obviously, not as harsh as on Palestinians), including the draconian administrative detention, which allows to imprison a person for long periods of time without charges or trial – a “privilege” that had been so far reserved for Palestinians only. It is a slight narrowing of the gap, but in the wrong direction. Moreover, it is a sleight.
Sadly, it will probably take countless more lives, Jewish and Palestinian alike, before the inevitable conclusion is reached: there is no other solution than equal rights and one law for all. After that, if there is still demand for partition, let the negotiations resume.