My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
X Gaza Beach 1991
In this chapter Ari focuses on Gaza in 1991, before the intifada broke out just a few years after I and my oldest son crossed from Egypt into Gaza en route to Israel with a first stop a visit to Jeremy’s old girlfriend when he lived on a kibbutz for a year. They had remained friends and she had married and had a child by this time. She now lived on a kibbutz on the border of Gaza. To our surprise – which perhaps showed our naiveté – not one person we met on that kibbutz had ever visited Gaza.
Our introduction to Gaza was very shocking. When we entered from Egypt we were shunted off to one line for foreigners while Palestinians went into another line. We were treated with what then passed for Israeli civility while we watched Palestinians not simply being questioned but questioned in the most demeaning and humiliating way. I could not tell whether this was because the officer was originally from South Africa but I could not keep my mouth shut and reprimanded the officer for his incivility, which helped the Palestinians not one whit. It is to the credit of the Israelis that I was simply told to mind my own business.
Ari describes the successful systematic and determined use of oppression to put down the intifada, but it is possible that the same oppression could have been a factor in the break out of the intifada. Ari was sent there as part of his miluim service (reserve duty) and decided to report on what he saw rather than refuse to participate. He served as a prison guard for the detainees who were mostly “not terrorists but demonstrators and rock throwers”. many of them teenagers. For Ari, the officers were generally decent men trying to do their job. Our observations had been different. There were many different kinds of officers, some very considerate, kind and fair and others just bullies. Ari actually saw the same – some indifferent, some wishing all Arabs were dead and others considerate and humane.
What made my spine tingle was his listening to the beatings of prisoners in the interrogation room. It reminded me of the screams I used to hear from the Police Station at the corner of Markham St. one block north of Bloor at London St.. We lived one block away on Palmerston Ave and we could hear the screams in the late forties when the cops beat up prisoners, a practice which seemed to be standard at the time and comes back every time I watch a film noire movie. Ari is correct. “A person who has heard the screams of another is a transformed person. Whether he does something about it or not, he is transformed.” And all the screams of the past re-echo whether watching just a replica or hearing the real thing when visiting philosopher friends in a Tito jail in former Yugoslavia in Slovenia in the late sixties or listening to Tamils being “questioned” in a military base in Elephant Pass in Sri Lanka in 1982 when I myself was under arrest there by the Sri Lankan army.
As Ari writes, “The interrogation ward becomes part of routine service, as if this is the way of the world.” (my italics) (233) Ari asks, “Are we the soldiers of evil? Are we agents of cruelty? Are we the heartless gatekeepers of oppression?” (234) Ari seems to answer yes but adds that these soldiers doing their duty are victims too. So he asks how all these non-evil people manage together to produce a result that is evil? For, in Ari’s eyes, Israelis were evil in Gaza. Israelis were evil in denying Palestinians human rights and civil rights and national rights. In doing so, the process corroded the souls of the Israelis forced into that situation. .
The question is, forced by the Israeli government or forced by circumstances? Or by both? Ari gets to the heart of the matter when he writes that, “Only our willingness to use force is what keeps us alive here.” (335) This is the real way of the world. The Palestinians have forced Israelis to be evil by rising up against the Israeli oppression. And Ari ends with a variation of his tragic fix. “we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat.” (236) “The tragedy never ends.” (238)
It does. It always has. And it always will.
If some humans make the laws and agree to be governed by the laws they make and through lawful activity express themselves and their thought, there are others ruled by law not of their making. Those are not subject to the rule of law but the rule of force. Life is organized so that the lives of those who live through and under the law can be preserved. Thereby those individuals have freedom and independence. Those governed by the law who cannot live through it completely lack freedom and independence. But the spirit of a people is preserved and enhanced by its pursuit of the freedom and independence of each of its members. It is only when that spirit can be preserved for both peoples in contention and the independence and freedom of the individuals in each can be enhanced can that spirit be a universal and not just a particular spirit.
Until the movement of forces in contention can become universally acknowledged through a peace between the two peoples, only then will every individual in both societies have freedom. Only then will force not simply be externalized but will be recognized for the coercion that it is by both peoples.. Freedom and living under and through the law will become owned and embraced by the contending peoples and forces. Then the tragedy will become a comedy.
Until then we will experience and observe the way of the world.