The usual regulatory mechanisms of the mainstream U.S. media (aim: exclusion of troubling or potentially disruptive information, narcosis of population) processed the turmoil in the occupied territories and in Israel itself with some initial difficulty, as beleaguered news editors yearned for the sanctuary of phrases such as “uneasy calm prevails,” or the more severely tranquil “return to normalcy.”
This schizoid outlook was tellingly revealed in Newsweek’s story of January 4. The report read as though two hands had struggled for mastery. Hand Number One produced an unusually frank description of conditions in the occupied territories, where “Arabs have no political rights and no citizenship,” and in Israel itself, where Arabs
were granted citizenship and the vote but were subjected to heavy-handed military rule until 1966. Jews took more than half their land, and industrial development was steered away from Arab areas. Most young Arabs still are not allowed to serve in the Israeli Army, a major avenue to civilian jobs. The government gives Arab towns less than 30 percent of the per capita subsidies paid to Jewish communities. Arab towns are short of hospitals, sewers, paved roads and schoolrooms.
Hand Number One plunged on: “Like the inhabitants of a South African Bantustan, Arabs commute to work in the factories of upper Nazareth. When few of them tried to find homes in the Jewish town, however, they were chased out by local residents.”
Hand Number Two took a more meditative approach:
The restless Arab family presents a challenge to the 3.5 million Israeli and a to their The 2.2 million Israeli Jews, and a threat to their democracy. The 2.2 million Arabs who live in Israel and the occupied territories are an oppressed and alienated underclass. The Arabs have much higher birthrate than the Jews, and demographers calculate that by the middle of the next century, they will outnumber the Jews between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, creating an Arab majority in an officially Jewish state.
Like the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White the words I have italicized bustle about their appointed tasks. “Restless,” but in what sense restless? the fecund motions of the Arab womb? or perhaps an inner spiritual agitation that, who knows, might prompt these Arab families voluntarily to wander across the Jordan and thus settle the problem. “Challenge” rings with the timbre of plucky defiance and, conversely, the morally exigent reality of a choice that cannot long be postponed. Those under challenge turn out to be custodians of “democracy,” whose beauty is only slightly marred by the monosyllable “their.”
The paragraph then hurries toward the unappetizing reality of demographic ratio. As in reporting in the late 1960s and early from Ulster, the fact that one ethnic or religious group may be procreating more rapidly than another can be made to carry an aroma of moral laxity and seditious concupiscence. Finally, there is the concept that such abandoned procreation amounts to a “time bomb,” a phrase without which no demographic alarum is complete. Newsweek complies in its headline “Israel’s Arab Time Bomb.”
What people do to time bombs—the people, that is, who do not want them to go off—is disarm them. But how? Newsweek sidled up to the issue: “It is an open question whether Israel will be able to meet the demographic challenge and preserve a democratic system.” In other words, Meir Kahane might turn out to be right after all. But now, with Kahanism (“They Must Go”) on the cusp between “extremist fantasy" and “conceivable option,” Newsweek quotes Yitzhak Shamir, who offers his own firm answer: “We have overcome such things in the past. There is no end to this war, and it is a war in which we must triumph, in each and every generation.” Not included in the story is any intimation that there might be another answer, such as a binational democratic secular state.
What’s an Army For?
Thomas L. Friedman, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, proposed to his readers on January 2 that Israel’s tough tactics appeared to be working, at least temporarily, “but at a price of turning the Israeli military increasingly into an internal police force.” This suggestion that the military is spiritually and physically apt only for engagements as straightforward as Agincourt or tank combat in the Sinai is an old one, confected to avoid the truth that armies—including Israel’s—mostly exist to quell internal subversion and to engage in what is nowadays called, repellently, low-intensity conflict or, accurately, punitive violence. What does Friedman imagine the I.D.F. has been doing in the occupied territories for twenty years if not performing the policing functions of detaining people without charge, closing universities, operating military courts where there is no chance of civilian appeal, confiscating books, posters and otherwise banning or circumscribing free expression, protecting illegal Jewish settlements and, overall, repressing the efforts of a people to be free?
Where was Friedman when, at a press conference in Jerusalem on September 9, three Palestinian boys told of their experiences of torture at the hands of the Israeli military? As recounted in the Palestinian weekly Al-Fajr, one of the boys, Riad Faraj, age 15, said of his three arrests:
Each time they arrested me they beat the other members of my family. This last time I was arrested, they broke two bones in my father’s chest and back. They also smashed furniture and threw things about. They handcuffed me and beat me during the journey to Fara’a [a military prison in Nablus]. Once we arrived, they took me to a “doctor” a “checkup.” I found out later that this “checkup” is to locate any physical weakness to concentrate on during torture. They paid particular attention to my leg, which once injured and was still sensitive. Before they began interrogation, asked me if I was ready to confess. They then hanged me by my wrists, naked, outside in the cold, and gave me hot and cold showers alternatively. A hood covered m manure was put over my head.
Faraj was put in detention for eight months, after a soldier testified that he saw the boy throwing stones. His experiences and those of sixteen other youths are recorded in a report titled “Children of Palestinian Refugees vs. The Israeli Military: Personal Accounts of Arrest, Detention and Torture,” by Dina Lawrence and Kameel Nasr. The report, distributed by the Palestinian Human Rights Campaign (Suite 1308, 220 State Street, Chicago, IL 60604), went unremarked by The Times; an account of the press conference was buried in The Washington Post, under the ho-hum headline “Pro-Palestinian Group Accuses Israel.”
Friedman’s perspective was perhaps best exhibited in a truly revolting article on January 5, in which he wrote benignly: “The soldiers do not view themselves as occupiers. They view themselves essentially as police officers trying to preserve order against a few Palestinian agitators who want to stir up a population that is basically ready to live with the status quo.” With equal sympathy he relayed a soldier’s remark about the looks he gets from Arab girls: “They want us. They are very interested.”
A final commentary on the absurd army-unschooled-in-policing myth came in an article in the international edition of The Jerusalem Post for September 19, titled “ ‘Big Brother’ in the West Bank,” a reference to an $8.5 million data bank project of the Israeli Defense Ministry to keep tabs on the property, political attitudes and family ties of Palestinians under occupation. The information is used by the military authorities, euphemistically called the Civil Administration, in granting permits, licenses and travel documents. In his report of developments in the West Bank during 1986 and early 1987 Meron Benvenisti, prominent Israeli critic of the occupation, said the army’s new computer system “may prove to be a milestone in the institutionalization of the ultimate police state in the territories.” He then catalogued the casualties (before the recent uprisings) of this police state: a record twenty-two Palestinians killed and sixty-seven injured, nine deported, ninety-nine put in administrative detention, 102 put under town arrest, seventy houses demolished or sealed.
Those Outside Agitators
Some hardened Likud lobbyists like William Safire chose to detect the root of the problem in the P.L.O. manipulating from afar, in the time-honored fashion of the Bolsheviks, the Fenians, the Zealots and even earlier sons of the Serpent disrupting an otherwise contented Eden. There is something plaintively pathetic in this invocation of the P.L.O., since one of Israel’s achievements in the past decade has been to contrive the replacement of the secular, politically accommodating program of the P.L.O. with the indubitably uncompromising stance of the fundamentalists, who were central to the rebellion. Nor was the uprising a singular, contrived outburst. From April 1986 to May 1987, Benvenisti reports, 3,150 violent demonstrations occurred in the occupied territories. The Jerusalem Post reporter Joel Greenberg noted that “a growth in the number of disturbances relative to terror attacks indicates a trend toward increasingly spontaneous, locally initiated resistance,” and quoted Benvenisti’s report as saying, “The problem [for the I.D.F.] is no longer limited to breaking up organized terrorist cells, but has evolved into population control.”
Safire wails that Israel is under unfair scrutiny when it comes its actions in the occupied territories, claiming the press ignores “the heaving of a Molotov cocktail” and concentrates on the “subduing of the bomb thrower.” In fact, images of insurgent Arabs dominate, in marked contrast to the tactful treatment accorded the Israeli response, from a soldier’s shooting of a Palestinian woman who interrupted her laundry work to call out that he not harm a fleeing boy, to the air force’s murder of twenty-one civilians in its terror bombing of southern Lebanon on January 3—though the aftermath of the latter attack was sufficiently photogenic for some television coverage. What the press has long ignored is the growing Palestinian defiance and the accelerated Israeli attempts to suppress it. More common than the incisive report from the front has been the drone from the distracted publicist: A.M. Rosenthal writing on July 12 that “political freedom may be gaining in the rest of the world but has passed the Middle East by except for Israel,” and defining Israel’s major problems as “the antagonism of the Arab states that never let her put down the gun, and the psychological and political burden of being an occupation force in the West Bank and Gaza.” Thus does Zionism meet Kipling.
Like the two characters in Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall, forever arguing whether things are getting better or worse, the pundits circle the kraal of Israel’s “troubled democracy” and “tragic occupation.” Safire, as befits a chorister of free-market optimism, suggests that economic rather than demographic growth will assuage the situation, and prosperous Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will come to love autonomy without sovereignty.
And against Safire there is the armchair catastrophist Amos Kenan, writing here in The Nation with luxurious dolor about the recent “round of violence,” for which everyone must bear some blame, meaning that no blame need be attributed to anyone in particular.
This is the acrobatic maneuver known as fake balance. Kenan the acrobat mops his eyes and abdicates any responsible assessment of the situation, thus betraying considerably less conviction than the British Foreign Minister, David Mellor, who upon visiting a refugee camp in Gaza on January 4 publicly stated: “Conditions here are an affront to civilized values; and it is appalling that a few miles up the coast from here there is prosperity, while here there is misery on a scale that rivals anything in the world.… Israel cannot duck its responsibilities…. To write them [the uprisings] off as externally inspired or caused by the P.L.O. is to totally underestimate the misery of the occupation.” It is a measure of the moral and political failure of the U.S. press that a Conservative Foreign Minister can address the situation with more vigor than the correspondent for a journal supposedly on the cutting edge of U.S. progressive opinion.