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A human in our midst

Israel/Palestine
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Yes, one must come out and condemn the attacks on civilians. It doesn’t matter who perpetrates them and for what reason. Murdering civilians is not a solution for anyone. It will not hasten an end to the occupation. Israel’s policy is to collectively punish ALL Palestinians after any kind of terror attack, and that is what is happening now. 83,000 Palestinians have now been denied access into Israel during Ramadan to visit their families or pray at Al-Aqsa. Working permits have been suspended and access of the infirm or elderly to medical care within Israel is being denied or limited. Yatta is now under a complete siege by the Israeli Offense Forces and the homes of the culprit’s families (that is to say their parents’ homes) will now be demolished. And there will very possibly be even more collective punishment to come. There are calls to revoke the residency of the perpetrators’ families by politicians and the offence establishment. And the list goes on. Revenge “Price Attacks” against Palestinians by the settlers has already begun and cars and property have been set fire to.

But this is not the only reason why one must condemn the attacks. Innocent people were killed. Civilians who were out to enjoy themselves, and it simply does not hold water to condemn them to death by the accusation that they are guilty by default because they live within and support the Zionist regime that is responsible for the occupation and the cruel, heartless and often sadistic oppression of an entire people. No one has the right to be judge, jury and executioner all at once. We condemn the extrajudicial executions that take place of subdued attackers or those not posing any imminent danger, and rightly so. Those who take the law into their own hands and murder the subdued or suspected attackers are murderers in every sense of the word and they deserve to be punished as such (even though the system normally exonerates them). True, most Israelis are indeed brainwashed under the totalitarian mindset of the nationalist Zionist enterprise and the world must oppose such blind and instrumental madness that is bringing so much misery and injustice into the world, and in particular against an entire nation. BDS is certainly one of the most admirable ways of doing this. But these brainwashed civilians who support the supremacist vision of a Jewish messianic state built upon the lands, aspirations and dreams of another people are to be pitied for their ignorance and opposed by the mechanisms that we have at our disposal. They are not to be murdered. Admittedly, they are, in the main, deluded, but who is not deluded in one way or another in this insane world of ours? If we murdered every deluded person, the planet would be bare of mankind. One of the four people murdered at Sarona was a sociology lecturer at Ben Gurion University, Dr. Michael Feige, a peace-loving man who had investigated in depth the settler movement and the growing extremism in Israeli society. I don’t know about the bios of the others. But is it relevant? We can’t murder people because of their delusions, but we can try to oppose them and maybe even influence them, and certainly oppose the regimes that they are a part of. But no-one has the right to take another life, however mislead the miscreant. For are we not all miscreants at the end of the day?

And so I condemn Mohammed Ahmad Mahamra and Khaled Mahamra for their acts and yet I weep for them no less than I weep for the victims of the shooting which they perpetrated. I look at the photo of Mohammed with his turquoise open-neck tee-shirt, his long, black wavy hair, his wide mischievous smile full of life and passion, and I see before me a well-adjusted, affable youth with all his life in front of him, and I lament the fact that a whole life’s trajectory was destroyed by the oppression, the hopelessness, the anger and the hatred that had fomented within him and his cousin as a result of the merciless and grotesque evil of the occupation that they were victims of. Yes they were weak and undisciplined enough to allow their hatred to get the better of them and overcome the moral steadfastness that ought to be the guiding framework for all of us in our lives. But how am I to judge such weakness in the face of such monstrous evil that they and their people are subjected to on a daily basis, week after week, month after month, year after year? No outside to the darkness, to the daily humiliations, to the wounding and maiming and killing of their loved ones, to the extrajudicial executions that occur on a weekly basis with impunity, to the demolitions of their houses, to the uprooting of their orchards, to the blocking up of their wells, to their enforced lack of infrastructure and water, to the beatings and curses that they endure at the checkpoints, to their utter lack of identity and hope which has been so cruelly removed from their milieu. Who am I to judge the resilience and steadfastness of such broken and wretched spirits under the yoke of such an inhuman oppression? It is this acknowledgement that allows me to focus my condemnation most pointedly at its cause – which is most decidedly the occupation in all its inhuman brutality. An occupation that has all too conveniently allowed the supremacists to see the downtrodden other, not as humans but as some utterly indefinable and invisible subspecies that deserves no rights, no recognition and no compassion.

Nowhere did this totalising capacity for dehumanisation of the “other” come across more poignantly than immediately after the terror attack itself. It is still not clear from the reports which of the two, but following the attack in Sarona, one of the assailants continued to Carlibach Street and towards the Cinemateque, weapon in hand, and was there shot and immobilised by a policeman. The other assailant had disposed of his weapon, which appeared to have jammed, at the Max Brenner restaurant, and merged with the fleeing crowd towards the vicinity of the Cinemateque. He was freshly shaven, wearing a smart black suit and tie, and there was no reason for the crowd to have suspected him of anything more than being part of the panicking screaming crowd fleeing from the sounds of gunfire and bloodshed. As irony would have it, he positioned himself close to a fleeing family which consisted of an off-duty policeman, his wife, mother-in-law and her partner, who scampered to the direction of their nearby flat. What they saw before them was the figure of a smartly-dressed, young, good-looking man, evidently shaken, out of breath, and eaten up with fear and panic, who somehow fled into the flat together with the family, looking for shelter from the lurking danger outside.

Israelis are good at coming together at times of crisis. I suppose it is a natural tendency for all peoples to behave in such a way; but never have I observed such a sense of unity and thick cohesiveness as I have in Israel during these times. This is most evident in wartime, when nationalistic chants fill the streets and advertising billboards flood the city displaying massive posters informing all and sundry how “We are all together”, “We are all one”, “Together we will win”. It is as if this collective voice is part of the establishment’s plan in order to eliminate even the thought of dissent, even it’s very possibility. (During the last Gaza offensive, for instance, huge billboards of this nature went up all over Israel sponsored by the national banks, insurance companies and other institutions, while buses were covered with posters both on the inside and outside. An ubiquitous and monotonous tone was set by the establishment and the media, and all the civilians had to do was to adopt it.) This cajoled unity is quite spectacular to witness. It is also quite frightening if you are lucky enough to maintain some independent perspective upon it all and have the opportunity to observe it from without. As part of this “unity”, there is also an almost exaggerated sense of camaraderie and people with whom one would not have normally exchanged a word, let alone a smile, become suddenly treated as the most warm and intimate of beings with whom one shares everything. Well, this wasn’t an offensive war, it was a nasty and frightening terror attack in the heart of Tel Aviv, but for a small, measured time, whilst the panic took hold and all were caught up in the fray of fear and pandemonium and victimhood, one can imagine something similar taking place in a more concentrated and intense time frame.

Understanding this quite peculiar and distinct phenomenon then, does not make it appear so strange that the man in the suit, breathless, and with an expression of utter petrification, would be ushered into the house with the others and, pleading for a glass of water, be presented gladly with a cold, glass of mineral water to quench his unbearable thirst. (Haaretz’s account). I can picture the scene quite clearly. The policeman fumbling for the keys to open the apartment door as quickly as possible to secure his family against the external danger, the breathless, panting, sweaty bodies rushing through the doorway (and none more breathless, panting and sweaty than that of the good-looking young stranger with the suit and tie and dark complexion and petrified expression who kept pleading for some water), the exchange of deep sighs of relief as they sat around the kitchen table whilst the wife put on the kettle for the family, opened the fridge and took out a bottle of cold mineral water which she poured into a glass, her hands still trembling slightly from the ordeal, and which she then offered with a sincere and compassionate smile to the stranger. Yes, they were all in this together. They had all survived. They were all now safely gathered in the secure confines of the flat. And how welcoming it was to bring in a taciturn stranger obviously so traumatised by the ordeal and show him warmth and compassion as well. This is what society should be like. This was what humanity should be like. No discrimination towards the stranger, towards the unknown other. Rather, a show of solidarity. For after all, are we not all human beings set afloat in this topsy-turvy world together? Should we not join hands and help one another as much as is humanly possible? And then after a few minutes, when the panic amongst them is abating and a calm is settling in, all the more emphasised because of its contrast to the recent commotion and upheaval, the policeman informs his family that he is going out again to assist his comrades in searching for the escaped terrorist. He pecks his wife lovingly on the cheek, takes his leave of his mother-in-law and her partner, and politely and warmly says goodbye to the stranger in their midst that he silently and proudly congratulates himself on being able to help, and then disappears into the street, closing the apartment door and warm and convivial scene behind him.

A few minutes pass. The women try to make polite conversation with the young, smart, good-looking stranger who is still sweating profusely and remains with an intense look of fear upon his face. But he remains without words, sipping his water, eying them warily with occasional glances and a failed attempt to smile. They both feel sorry for the poor, terrified man and extend towards him a look of tenderness and compassion. God knows what he must have been through out there, they say to themselves. God knows what he must have experienced. He seems so traumatised. So lost. They both want to bring him to their chest and hug him, as a mother would do to their son, but they know they cannot do so. Protocol will not allow it. They just smile at him compassionately and then begin making small talk amongst themselves and with the older man, the mother’s partner. And then, quite suddenly, and without any warning whatsoever, there is a lunge at the door from the outside, the door is flung open, and there stands the policeman, loaded gun in hand, arm extended towards the table, in fact towards the stranger, right at his head, and he is shouting, screaming, at one and the same time, both to the stranger, “Hands in the air! Get down on the floor, now! Down!” and to his family, “Get away from him! Away! Get away!” And the family, at first, not understanding at all. Why is he behaving like this, so aggressively, so horribly, so violently, to this lovely, young man, who is still so scared and so traumatised by the events of the evening. That is until the policeman shouts out “He is the terrorist! He is the terrorist!”, and then it all becomes clear. No-one is under any misapprehension. There is no longer a young, good-looking, taciturn man with a dark complexion and a terrified expression upon his face that all were drawn to and felt immense compassion and tenderness for, there is now a terrorist. And that is all. That one word served with utter effectiveness to drive any sense of the human out of the room, out of the vicinity, out of the entire world, and substitute in its place something that has no other description or comprehension than that which is entailed by that one word alone. The wife immediately comes to her senses. She opens the window and shouts out vociferously to the other policemen in the street. “The terrorist is here. Come up and get him. He has been apprehended.” And indeed at the edge of the kitchen table where a taciturn human being with a terrified expression had previously been seated, gratefully sipping his glass of cold mineral water on a wooden chair pressing his sweaty back against its upright padded back, now lay a handcuffed terrorist, with a gun pressed against his head, which was now forced down onto the tabletop, the flesh from his face squashed onto the wet pine surface, the glass of water having fallen over and spilt its contents in the commotion.

About Howard Cohen

Howard Cohen is a writer in Israel.

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2 Responses

  1. klm90046
    klm90046
    June 11, 2016, 8:44 pm

    “During war there are no civilians,” that’s what “Yossi,” an Israeli military (IDF) training unit leader simply stated during a round of questioning on day two of the Rachel Corrie trials, held in Haifa’s District Court earlier this week. “When you write a [protocol] manual, that manual is for war,” he added.

  2. Another Dave
    Another Dave
    June 14, 2016, 10:58 am

    Innocent? A lovely word, but not one that really applies to any of us humans. A defence attorney that I know is fond of telling me, and others, that we’re all guilty of some crime/sin or another.

    It’s not a nice concept, but that’s why the courts declare a person ‘not-guilty’ of a crime, rather than ‘innocent’ of a crime.

    I suppose a very young child can be considered innocent, and usually is.

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