The other night, when I was coming back to Tel Aviv after spending nearly two weeks in Occupied Palestine, I fell asleep on the bus. When I woke up I was underneath the overpass next to Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. In my exhausted state, I thought that the column of the overpass was the base of one of the many watchtower throughout the Occupied West Bank — I was carrying the occupation into Tel Aviv.
While some of the most active human rights activists and Palestinian supporters live in Tel Aviv, the majority of people live isolated intellectually as well as physically from the situation in Occupied Palestine — that is the point of Tel Aviv — to feel normal, to be isolated, to enjoy human rights like art and culture, drink and dance. I myself did this for a number of years, due to a desire to know a “normal” Israel. However, since I started engaging the occupation and traveling to the occupied Palestinian Territories three months ago, I’ve found it very challenging to move between the near ghetto that we have created in the West Bank and Tel Aviv without saying something.
When I come back, I feel a responsibility to engage my Tel Avivian friends, who rarely think about or discuss the conflict — I must bring the occupation to Tel Aviv, confront the Tel Avivians. At the same time, I know that it has to be done gently to be effective. In order to have an open constructive dialogue, I have to be thoughtful about how I engage my friends and neighbors. One example of this, is using art.
In this post, I want to share with you a photograph recently taken by Ben Kelmer, an Israeli photojournalist, in al-Arakib (August 4, 2010), the day the Israeli Land Administration, came to the village for the second time in a week and destroyed the temporary homes (why? read here) — which were built in solidarity with Jewish – Israelis (If you don’t know about this issue, you can view this video which was released the same day that the re-demolition happened).
In order to create an opportunity to discuss the occupation and Israel’s racist policies with a friend of mine from Tel Aviv, I shared this photograph with him. In a short analysis of our chat conversation, I try to show how a structure created and reinforced by politicians, the media and other powerful actors creates and uses fear — typically attributed to Hamas — to justify violence and make the population compliant with the occupation.
This conversation, like many others I’ve had, reveals how perceived threats and fear result in disengagement with the conflict and compliance with the occupation. The photograph, which can be interpreted in many ways, creates a space for us to have dialogue about violence indirectly.
After my friend agrees to have a conversation with me about the photograph, he looks at the photograph and immediately connects to the human struggle. He says, “It shows the hell and heaven living together in this woman’s life”. Knowing that this woman has just seen her home demolished by the Israeli government a second time, he tries to ease his pain and guilt by saying, “It seems she is happy at this point when the pic was shot, because she knows this is how it goes, it’s a hard life.” Thus, in order to affirm his lack of responsibility, he frames her life as a victim of a force that cannot be changed, she becomes a bi-standard in a life that is predetermined to be horrific or “hard” as he puts it.
In order to blame someone for the pain he sees, he starts arguing that I am biased and demonizing Israel. ”What bothers me is that you only show the weak side, which is the Palestinians…[Israel] has to sacrifice in this situation and prove to the world that its not its fault.” I remind him that this woman is a Bedouin, who lives in the Negev (not a Palestinian) and ask him, “Who is responsible for this?”
Even though I provide him with an answer, the Israeli Land Administration — the Israeli government — he continues to evade my question and starts to de legitimize my choice to write about the oppressed. He does this in two ways that journalists will be familiar with: one by telling me that a good journalist doesn’t take sides — a good journalist is “balanced,” “objective” and must remain neutral (or silent), two because I haven’t lived here long enough.
When we start to go into the history of the conflict, using the “facts” that he so desired, he tries to use the “let’s agree to disagree” card to end the conversation. I ask him as a friend to continue in dialogue with me, and to know that this conversation is framed to be a win-win situation for us both — it’s about listening to each other not about solving or conquering.
Once we regain common ground, he engages again in dialogue and admits that sometimes Israel is wrong. He also opens up and speaks about how he personally did not want to go to the army “to kill people” but justifies this act because he needed to protect his home. This thinking shows how Israelis view service in the army as a the solution to their fears — a way to feel secure.
However, the army and the army spokespeople are responsible for creating a perceived connection between fear and military service — protection and “legitimate” violence. Hence, I ask him what is the connection between protecting your family, home and the army? “Is it possible that you could protect your home better by listening to people, forgiving and building trust with your enemy?”
And then we arrive at the most common site of legitimate fear Israelis can articulate — Hamas. ”As long as the Hamas is there, Israel will never help [the Palestinians],” he says. According to him, Israel wants to talk to Hamas, they are just waiting for Hamas to change. This puts the responsibility in the hands of Hamas — not in the European Union, the United States or Israel which declared Hamas a terrorist organization and ended all dialogue with the organization. While my friend acknowledges that the seige is created to communicate how strong Israel is, he isn’t able to acknowledge that Israel doesn’t want to open dialogue with Hamas. Instead, as I try to explain to him, Hamas is used as a legitimate excuse to keep people scared, to keep them complicit and continue accepting of the seige and the occupation.
This is the end of our conversation, which starts with a photograph of physical violence and ends in a discussion about the subtle violence of politics and rhetoric — the violence that is created and amplified in order to make the population fearful and compliant with further human rights violations and violent acts (Lisa Wedeen, “Ambiguities of Domination”). In addition to traveling to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and demonstrating amongst supporters, we must also struggle against the occupation in our minds — we must speak with people that we don’t agree with and bring our anti-Occupation work to the Tel Avivians if we ever hope to see the end of it.