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Israel as Oppressor, Palestine as Oppressed: The ‘normalization’ of what is not normal

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The idea of “normalization” is invoked when talking about how the international community—and the Palestinians themselves—should handle relations with Israel on a day-to-day basis and in terms of long-term peace and reconciliation efforts. Critics of normalization argue that Israel should not be treated as a “normal” state because doing so disregards the unnatural military occupation and apartheid-like policies it imposes on the Palestinian population. In this context the Palestinians’ human, civil, and national rights, including the right of return, are daily abrogated by the Israeli authorities. Any meaningful discussion cannot start with the status quo but must address, up front, such issues as the abnormal practices of occupation, settlements on occupied territory, the separation wall, house demolitions, severe restrictions on movement, and military assaults. Nevertheless, most of the countries of the world seem to accept this status quo as “normal,” at best occasionally questioning Israel’s behavior, or at worst, serving as apologists for Tel Aviv’s unjust policies.

“Normalization” can be viewed on two connected levels: perceiving as customary and unexceptional the everyday—yet abnormal—policies of the Israeli occupation and treatment of Palestinians; and consenting to these policies and refraining from questioning them. Many individuals, organizations, communities, and countries accept Israel’s behavior as “normal” without understanding that another perspective actually exists. This is often the result of how the U.S. government and news media frame information—for example, they use nomenclature that waters down virulent Israeli policies, such as calling the illegal settlements neighborhoods or civilian communities. In addition, they continue to describe Israel as the victim, even as it is ranked as having the number one most powerful military in the Middle East.  The media also repeats the “terrorist” stereotype when reporting on any act of Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation, thus painting the Palestinians as inherently violent and acting ahistorically. The biblical approach to Israel’s legitimacy is another seemingly normalized understanding that pervades American society, especially among Evangelical Christians—that the Israelis have a God-given “right” to the land. This perspective is clearly summed up in a recent interview of Salman Abu Sitta, a Palestinian intellectual and cartographer, when he refers to the violent and catastrophic uprooting (the Nakba) of Palestinians during the 1948 war, the year Israel was established:

Nakba to me is an earthquake, not by the forces of nature, but by the powers of evil. It is not instantaneous but lasting for decades. I never could understand why Zionists destroyed my life and that of millions of other Palestinians or how this crime was portrayed as a victory of civilization and the fulfilment of divine will.

Political science professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt explain that in the United States, Israel’s backers make a moral case for unqualified US support because they claim that Israel is a democracy and it “is weak and surrounded by enemies,” that the Jewish people have suffered greatly in history and deserve special treatment, and that Israel has conducted itself in a more morally superior way that its enemies (“virtuous Israelis vs. evil Arabs”). Mearsheimer and Walt then deconstruct each of these claims and show that current realities actually undermine and do not support each of these carefully nurtured images. Nevertheless, decades of such biased social construction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have helped shape the anti-Palestinian attitudes of many Americans, and especially the perception and acceptance of Israel’s inhumane policies. Mearsheimer and Walt posit that one of the ways that the Israel lobby has been effective is because it “strives to ensure that public discourse about Israel portrays it in a positive light, by repeating myths about Israel and its founding….” Such repetition breeds a perception that Israel’s behavior falls within the norms of society and that its policies are acceptable and appropriate.

The Normalization of Deviance

Earlier this year, journalist/political analyst Philip Weiss published a piece about life and ideology in one of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. He wrote:

David [an Israeli settler] works as a security guard for Ahmed and other Palestinian contractors [who provide construction laborers for the Tekoa settlement], because all Palestinian workers must be accompanied by an armed Israeli. It is for the peace of mind of the Israeli mothers, perambulating their children, David explains. So he sits in a chair with a book and his gun all day as Ahmed’s workers set cinderblock and plaster walls. He makes 300 shekels a day, the same as a master craftsman. Sometimes the homeowner pays for him, but more often the contractor. David said to Ahmed: “Do you see how absurd this is? You pay me… To protect someone else… From you!”

Clearly, the aberrant nature of this situation is not lost on the people who live it, yet they continue to do so as if it were normal. David and Ahmed both perceive this policy as absurd, yet they also consent to it—Ahmed clearly does so because he has no choice. We know that Israeli settlers look for cheap Palestinian labor, and that Palestinian laborers, with few options for work, ironically often end up providing the construction muscle for Israeli settlements. There is so much mistrust that the Palestinian contractor is actually required to hire an armed Israeli to “protect” the settlers from the Palestinian workers. And all this to buttress settlement activity and expansion—illegal according to international law—on Palestinian land in the West Bank. An external observer would be hard pressed to find logic in such an illogical morass.

Indeed, objectivity often seems to be absent in situations in which people have been accustomed to a longstanding status quo, even if it is unjust, inhumane, or illegal. Although sociologist Diane Vaughan’s theory of the “normalization of deviance” is usually applied to organizational dynamics, it can also shed light on behavior in larger communities and social groupings, such as Israelis and Palestinians. This theory posits that over time, people become so used to frequent “deviant” behavior that they stop considering it as such, and in fact start to regard it as “a normal occurrence.” There are many notorious examples of this theory; the one most frequently cited is the history of a design flaw (the infamous O-rings) in the space shuttle program that led to the Challenger’s explosion thirty years ago and the death of all the astronauts on board. Vaughan argued that it was NASA’s culture of dismissing what seemed to be inconsequential—though growing—problems, over time, which paved the way for the Challenger disaster. The back page of her book notes that, “history, power, and politics combined to create a disastrous mistake.”

A parallel situation can be seen at the highest levels of the Israeli government. The pernicious and public maligning of Palestinians by Israeli lawmakers has become so commonplace that it is hardly questioned or noticed anymore—inside Israel or by the world community. Historian and political analyst Vijay Prashad writes:

Netanyahu’s cabinet reeks of hate speech. His Deputy Defense Minister Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan said of Palestinians in 2013, “To me they are like animals; they aren’t human.” Last year, Israel’s Welfare Minister Haim Katz said, “The land of Israel is whole. There is no Palestine.” He said that the Palestinians should go off to Jordan. Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon denied the Palestinians the basic elements of humanity. Israelis mourn their dead, he said earlier this year, while Palestinians “seek death,” living in a “society that respects nothing.” Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked compared Palestinians to “snakes” and called for their destruction, “They have to die.” Neither has Netanyahu distanced himself from this hateful language, nor have the supporters of Israel been called to account for such talk. It passes as normal.

How is it that high level Israeli lawmakers can denigrate Palestinians to such extremes, and the international community accepts their statements? Vaughan’s theory is useful in that it takes into account history, power, and politics, but one could say that it does not go far enough in the Israel-Palestinian context because it suggests that decision makers are often subtly influenced by each other and may realize their mistakes only in hindsight. In fact, it is evident that Israeli government officials make purposeful and clear-cut statements, decisions, and laws that dehumanize and oppress Palestinians living both in the occupied territories and in Israel. These are calculated choices.

The principal concept of the normalization of deviant practices (which can also be termed unjust, undemocratic, and colonial practices) applies very well in the Palestinian case, as Israel’s goal is to be treated as a “normal” state despite its objectively aberrant treatment of the Palestinians. Clearly, therefore, its oppressive practices in the occupied territories, entrenched military occupation, and apartheid-like policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and inside Israel should make the international community constantly vigilant and critical of Israel’s modus operandi.

Normalizing the Abnormal

Efforts at reconciling the two sides of the conflict have been criticized for using the present and seemingly “normalized” state of affairs as a starting point, and for not recognizing Israel’s historically unjust and harmful policies. Last year, for example, Palestinian activists protested a conference to discuss an initiative called “Two States, One Homeland,” saying that it implicitly legitimizes West Bank settlements, which is a form of normalization. (It is interesting to note that the conference group of speakers and discussants also included settlers.) A member of the popular struggle committee opposing the initiative, Mahmoud Zuwara, explained, “I am in contact with hundreds of Israelis, and very much support our cooperation with them. But the way to do this is through a joint effort, through a joint popular struggle. Israelis need to work out in the open, under the sun, against the crimes of the army and the settlers….” To Zuwara, the initial nexus for cooperation has to include the questioning of the status quo. It has to involve, from the start, efforts to resist and dismantle the accepted paradigm of military occupation and settlements.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) describes the idea of Israel’s exceptionalism—calling it “normalizing the abnormal”—as extending to three different contexts: 1) the occupied Palestinian territories and the Arab world; 2) the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and, 3) the international arena. The first cautions against engaging in projects or initiatives that bring Palestinians and/or Arabs together with Israelis under the current situation of occupation. During the first Palestinian conference in Ramallah in 2007 to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, political theorist and feminist Islah Jad noted that joint projects between Israeli and Palestinian civil society “have undermined Palestinian identity and struggle for freedom by giving the false impression of ‘balance’ and of the possibility of reaching a ‘middle-ground’ between the oppressor and the oppressed, rather than ending oppression altogether.” Human rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab echoes this sentiment, writing that “dialogue between occupier and occupied is asymmetrical, fails to acknowledge entrenched divisions, perpetuates the status quo, frequently replaces action and is often used by oppressors to co-opt and divide the occupied.” In other words, not only does normalization give a false sense of reality, it actually undermines the Palestinians’ situation and allows the Israelis to deepen their hegemonic control over it.

Regarding the Palestinian citizens of Israel, normalization connotes the acceptance of institutionalized discrimination that includes “coercive relations” such as those in everyday life—jobs, school, etc.—over which the Palestinians have no choice. Indeed, there are currently over fifty laws on the books in Israel that discriminate directly or indirectly against the Palestinian citizens there.

Another example is when Palestinians and Israelis are encouraged to listen to each other’s narratives, as if they emanate from equal places of power. Of course each person’s story is legitimate, but the argument is that the historical context is then disconnected from the current reality. Author Samah Sabawi explains that, “Subscribing to this idea of ‘narrative’ requires that we erase our collective memory and close our eyes to our present reality. It requires that we forget history, forget dates, numbers, UN documents, human rights reports, sights of destroyed villages, camps filled with the internally displaced and camps filled with the refugees from 1949. It requires that we forget all concrete evidence because it all comes down to story telling and narratives.” In other words, the “dialogue” that is often suggested is like applying a small bandage to a festering wound, contributing nothing to solving the fundamental problem nor to its healing. This also points to Israeli and international forums in which Palestinians can choose not to participate. Palestinians who engage in such efforts could purposefully or inadvertently contribute “to a deceptive appearance of tolerance, democracy, and normal life in Israel for an international audience who may not know better…The absence of vigilance in this matter has the effect of telling the Palestinian public that they can live with and accept apartheid, should engage Israelis on their own terms, and forgo any act of resistance.”

Similarly, for the international context, PACBI explains that Palestinian civil society actors should not participate in an “event that morally or politically equates the oppressor and the oppressed, and presents the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis as symmetrical. Such an event should be boycotted because it normalizes Israel’s colonial domination over Palestinians and ignores the power structures and relations embedded in the oppression.” Examples are international projects, often generously funded, which strive to forge a “partnership” or “peace initiative” between Israelis and Palestinians while disregarding Israel’s continuing subjugation of the Palestinian population and expropriation of their land.

In 2005, Palestinian civil society rose to the challenge of normalization and issued a call for specific ways—boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS—to isolate Israel internationally, in the same way that South Africa was marginalized during the apartheid era to press it to comply with international law. This Palestinian-led global campaign aims to pressure Israel to recognize Palestinian rights to freedom, equality, and self-determination by ending the occupation since June 1967 of Palestinian and Arab land, dismantling the separation wall, granting full and equal rights to the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and implementing the right of return articulated in UN Resolution 194. The nonviolent rights-based movement, which has grown exponentially in the last eleven years, points to a number of successes, from famous musicians canceling concerts in Israel, to churches divesting their holdings from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, to Israeli companies losing major contracts in countries throughout the world.

The Mirage of Normalization

Like the Challenger disaster, there are many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian situation that are too late to undo, like the thousands of Palestinians who have been killed in wars, the decimation of Gaza and countless additional destruction, and the Palestinians’ historic and profound loss of home and homeland. The reality of Israel’s occupation and apartheid, however, is ongoing; it is not “normal,” and the horrific consequences continue to unfold and worsen daily. As long as Israeli policymakers and citizens continue to perceive the status quo as “normalized,” then like the story of the ill-fated space shuttle, deviant and volatile perspectives will keep on building until an explosion—or perhaps a series of explosions—will greatly harm everyone involved and set the efforts back irreconcilably.

Zeina Azzam

Zeina Azzam is publications editor for Arab Center Washington, DC. The views expressed here are her own.

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