The Israeli demolition of dozens of Palestinian homes in the West Bank town of Sur Bahir this Monday was a devastating and enraging event for many Palestinians. What added insult to the injury was that video of the Israeli army sapper posing for a selfie against the clouds of dust as he celebrated the explosion of a multi-story building with Border Police officers and others. “They celebrated, while we cried”, said Jehad Sous, an owner of one of the destroyed apartments.
WATCH the most moral army #IDF… INSANE
When a person celebrates the bombing of another person house … He loses his humanity… #Israeli soldiers rejoicing after the bombing of a #Palestinian house in #SurBahir near #Jerusalem. #IsraeliCrimes #BDS #ICC4Israel #StopArmingIsrael pic.twitter.com/fgqU4OiS3B
— Dr. Basem Naim (@basemn63) July 22, 2019
The Israeli army has downplayed the celebration, saying that “the video was shot in the context of satisfaction with the success of the mission after many hours of hard work on the ground that ended with no exceptional events”, nonetheless noting that “IDF soldiers and Israel Police officers are expected to act with restraint in operational situations. This point will be emphasized to officers by their commanders.”
So, there may be a little PR problem here, but so far the Western press is ignoring it. As Philip Weiss reflects: “Now imagine how much circulation this video would be getting here if it were of Russian soldiers in the Crimea or of Iranians in Syria or of Palestinians blowing up a building. It would be on the nightly news and all over official media in no time.”
This grotesque celebration is being treated as an aberration. But it is not marginal, and it is not incidental. In fact, there is a long history of Israelis celebrating the destruction of Palestine.
Celebrating the destruction of Palestine
Ever since Israel was established, the celebration of its establishment was directly intertwined with the destruction of Palestine. The logic is indelible: The establishment of the Jewish state required the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. As Israeli historian Benny Morris had put it: “Transfer was inevitable and inbuilt in Zionism – because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a Jewish state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population”.
Every time Israelis celebrate their Day of Independence, that event also marks the dispossession and destruction of Palestine and Palestinians known as the Nakba. Israel has sought to institutionally ban even the suggestion of such a nexus, and has passed the Nakba Law in 2011, outlawing the commemoration of the Nakba on Independence Day.
The literal celebrations of murderous Israeli policy appear once in a while. With the recent sapper-video we are reminded of that sniper-video from the Gaza fence, where the snipers celebrate the shooting from afar of an unarmed, motionless protester standing some dozens of meters the fence. “Yeah!!! What a clip!! Son of a bitch!!”, the sniper who shot the film through his scope shouts.
That clip was taken in December 2017 but first went viral in April 2018. Of course, the criminal act of shooting unarmed protesters who pose no direct threat with lethal ammunition was not condemned by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman – that patently illegal policy is mainstream in Israel and has been endorsed by the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis. In fact, Lieberman opined that the sniper who shot the Palestinian “deserves a medal”, while the sniper who shot the film “deserves a demerit”. In other words, we need to watch out about those films and celebrations. Shoot Palestinians, not videos – celebrate, but don’t film.
And let’s remember the crowd on the hilltop at the Israeli town of Sderot in 2014, overlooking Gaza. In the midst of that unprecedentedly murderous onslaught, which saw the death of 2,200 Palestinians in 51 days, two-thirds of whom were civilians and 551 of whom were children, these people were sitting there and cheering every bombing. Maybe not all Israelis were there – but remember, that this onslaught was supported by 95% of the Jewish Israeli public, throughout.
Every year, on what is called Jerusalem Day, the Muslim Quarter in the occupied East Jerusalem is basically shut down completely, for tens of thousands of nationalist Israeli marchers to roam the streets and alleys, regularly chanting “Muhammed is dead”, “Kahane lives” and “Death to Arabs”. They celebrate the conquering of East Jerusalem in order to make it the “united capital”. This “march of flags” is not really about a united Jerusalem – it is about a Jewish one. A petition was filed this year to the High Court for the march to be rerouted, so as to not harass the local population. It failed just as it did last year. “This is a provocative, racist and violent march whose sole purpose is to terrorize the Palestinian merchants of the Muslim Quarter”, said lawmaker Ahmed Jabareen of the Joint List. Last year, the court ordered police to show zero tolerance toward racist calls, particularly “death to Arabs”. The plaintiffs admitted that there was less “death to Arabs” shouts last year, but plenty of “Mohammed is dead”… Those chants were repeated this year too.
If that sapper was a medic, he could have been Elor Azarya, who murdered an incapacitated Palestinian suspect by a shot to the head at point blank in 2016. The major problem for Israel there wasn’t the act – it was that that it was filmed so clearly. As Azarya’s comrades testified, such “confirmations of a kill” happen “tons of times”. But it was enough to get one time on film in order to cause international outrage. So Azarya became a “victim” of what his supporters saw as “political correctness”, and thus he became a hero for many – the scapegoat that did what should have been done, what we do “tons of times” – but was so unfortunate as to be caught on tape. The calls for his immediate pardon came from across the Zionist political spectrum – even Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch was calling for it. In the immediate wake of the murder, 57% of the Israeli public actually opposed his very arrest. 42% saw his act as “responsible”. Only 5% even considered the act to be murder. While under custody, Azarya’s birthday was celebrated with freely distributed grocery bags featuring the likeness of Azarya with a gun, at a Rami Levy supermarket, a private initiative endorsed by the chain owner. The text on the bag said “Bag is free. ELOR PAYS FOR US ALL. Happy birthday. Love from the nation of Israel” (which means ‘Jews’). The emphasized “pays for us all” hints at the popular perception of him being a scapegoat. After being released from prison (after a mere 9 months) Azarya was even enlisted as a political asset for a Likud deputy minister in his primaries campaign. His return home from prison was a big celebration. These celebrations are not merely of Azarya the person – even if indirectly so, they are celebrations of what he did.
Some people will say that not everyone is overtly celebrating these things. But many are, and many are giving tacit approval to the acts, thereby tacitly supporting the celebrations, and so it’s always easy to go back and call these celebrations “aberrations”. This is where we should return to that sapper in Sur Bahir: it sure doesn’t look like a “bad apple” story. That sapper was celebrating together with the Border Police next to him, and shouts of joy were heard in the background from the other security forces around – this is not an aberration. And remember – that sapper is a Lieutenant, a commander from an elite engineering unit. No – you can’t get away with saying this is just one little misguided soldier.
Of course, these “missions” that the army speaks of are guided from above, and thus the army frames the celebration merely in “the context of satisfaction with the success of the mission”, in its desperate attempt to maintain the “most moral army” notion. But that mission, in the bigger, historical context, is the destruction of Palestine, and it’s not moral.
We never saw the face of that sapper – it’s hiding behind a black mask. One can easily assume he’s smiling and laughing, like the Border police officer next to him. The selfie that the two posed for is emblematic of Israel’s conundrum – on the one hand, it wants to rejoice in the “success of the mission”, where the Zionist mission involves the settler-colonialist destruction of Palestine; on the other hand, it sees a need to hide the smirking (if not laughing) face. Every so often, that sadistic celebration manages to find its way to the screens. It can’t not. And then Israel goes into damage control, and says we’re not happy about this, we just had to do it. Palestinians basically force us to do all this, because they happen to be here – living on our promised land which we covet.