The Unbearable Easiness of KillingRoundup
tags: Israel, Palestine, violence, occupation, Middle East history
Arie M. Dubnov is an associate professor of history who holds the Max Ticktin Chair of Israel Studies and directs the Judaic Studies Program at the George Washington University. He is co-editor of Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-century Territorial Separatism (2019, co-edited with Laura Robson), tracing the genealogy of the idea of partition in the British interwar Imperial context and reconstructing the links connecting partition plans in Ireland, Palestine/Israel, and India/Pakistan.
"Last-minute negotiations in Israel have secured the agreement of rival ideological parties on a coalition that could finally oust Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister will now face a vote of confidence with a far-right replacement ready. Behind the recent escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians lies a history desperately in need of careful resolution."
‘It looks just like a lollipop,’ I vividly remember thinking to myself when looking at the military map, showing the long, ruler-straight paved road leading to the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza strip. It was January 2001, four months after the breakout of the Second Intifada. I was one among thousands of Israeli reservist soldiers hastily mobilized.
Out of all places, I was sent to Netzarim: a tiny but notorious religious settlement south of Gaza city, a Jewish enclave between Arab populations, sitting at the end of a single, heavily guarded road serving as its artery. ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ was the immediate question that followed. Back then, I considered myself a centre-left Israeli patriot, a secular ‘liberal Zionist’, as they tend to be called in the Western media.
I felt alienated by the settlers’ brand of Jewish radicalism. I was willing to join the moderate Israelis who publicly voiced their empathy for the plight of Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Yet refusal to serve was then still out of the question. There was something unfathomable about someone like me being sent to a ‘shithole’ like that. What was I thinking to myself? How did I try to rationalize it?
The recent outburst of violence took me back to those past quandaries, reminding me of my last deployment in the Occupied Territories; there were subsequent calls of duty, but I refused to show up. Political scientists, area specialists and security analysts alongside self-proclaimed conflict resolution experts and other pundits spill rivers of virtual ink to explain the causes and results of the last Israeli military operation in Gaza, codenamed Operation ‘Guardians of the Wall’. Some offer valuable insights by looking at the events from 20,000 feet; others cling to details, distractions that show the trees while overlooking the forest.
Not the rush of adrenalin
Where to begin the story remains a source of endless debate. Should it be Israel’s one-sided disengagement from Gaza in 2005? A couple of years after declaring that Netzarim was as important as Tel-Aviv, the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had no qualms ordering the removal of its residents. For obvious reasons, many return to the 1967 and 1948 wars instead. Some historians, including myself, turn back even further to pre-independence eras: the British mandatory period, World War I and even the late Ottoman period.
Sidelined in these discussions are the dynamics of popular sentiment that perpetuate systems of oppression: the intimate stories actors on the ground are told to make sense of violence and warrant it. Insufficient attention is given to the fact that the recent escalation of violence has followed a hideously familiar script.
My use of the word ‘script’ is intentional. A consistent feature of inflammable situations is that they function as a stage, with all the men and women merely as players. Violence is a potent emotional activator, running on the human desire for a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, on our innate and irrepressible desire to judge before we understand.
It is not the rush of adrenalin alone that is needed to switch into combat mode. It is the veiling of a highly patterned morphology of violence, the well-rehearsed routine with its timing, triggers, targets and precipitants.
It is the way that emotions are socially constructed, acquiring a social function and meaning within the framework of power and rule, which help produce and maintain what historians refer to as ‘emotional communities’ and ‘emotional regimes’. It is the uncompromising demand imposed on actors to play out their roles in a fabricated world where the binarisms of victim and perpetrator, friend and foe, civility and barbarity are never disputed, where one’s complicity and implication in systems of injustice are concealed, the steering of a plot so that responsibility and solidarity are only possible towards one’s community of blood.
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