A Stroll Down Israel-Bashing Lane

As the debate over the Goldstone report heats up, I am reminded of a story that happened over 20 years ago, when I was just a lad of 15 years of aSwitzerland UN Gaza War Crimesge.
This story tells of 5 Palestinians killed, one op-ed written, one letter-to-the-editor sent, one pundit’s response, and what’s changed since then.
On the 14th of April, 1989, deep into the first intifada, a unit of border policemen entered the village of Nahhalin in search of “suspects”. The unit was surprised by hundreds of Palestinian youth, who were waiting for them with stones in hand. Needless to say, the unit never got to the arrests “stage”, but it did “manage” to kill 5 and wound 12 more.
I was 15 back then and just came back to Israel after a year in upstate NY, on sabbatical with my parents at SUNY in Binghamton. The initifida had just started while we were in the States, and as a young teenager I couldn’t help but be extremely overwhelmed at how bad Israel was being portrayed in the media.
The events a year later in Nahalin triggered a lot of worldwide coverage. One person who took part was longtime New York Times pundit, Anthony Lewis. A few days after the event he wrote the following op-ed. I’m not just putting up a link for you to click on this time, because I’d really like you to read this, for two reasons. One, it gives amazing perspective on how things have changed – and haven’t changed at all. And second, it’s important for the storyline… ๐Ÿ™‚
So, be patient and read up! And remember: this is April, 1989.ย 
Occupation is the Causeย 

One day last week a spokesman for the Israeli army said it had struck a major blow against the Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It had brought charges in a military court against four Palestinians who he said were leaders of the uprising ”at the executive level.”

The next morning, before dawn, the army sent 30 border policemen to raid the village of Nahhalin, near Bethlehem. When the raid was over, five Palestinians were dead and 25 wounded.

Those two coincidental events, the military prosecution and the raid, define Israel’s policy toward the uprising. It is to suppress the Palestinians by force: by arrest, detention, beating, shooting.


Anthony Lewis

And those events make something else clear. The policy is bankrupt.

The idea that the intifada is something managed ”at the executive level” is a grotesque misunderstanding of its character. It is a popular uprising – one that started spontaneously, according to Israeli experts, and that is fed by the frustrations of life under occupation.

Nothing is more likely to feed the intifada than a brutal event like the raid on Nahhalin. The deaths naturally arouse the emotions of Palestinians right across the West Bank and Gaza.

How could such an incident happen? To relieve the pressure on the army and its reservists, Israel has recently been using border policemen for occupation duty. This paramilitary force includes many Arabic-speaking Israeli Druse. It has a reputation for harsh treatment of Arabs.

Border policemen began patrolling Nahhalin about a week before the raid, after youths threw stones at Jewish settlers using a nearby road. Villagers said the policemen had taunted them and shouted obscenities at women.

At 3:30 A.M. on April 13 the force of 30 border policemen raided the village. The army said their mission was to gather intelligence and arrest anyone suspected of stone-throwing. They went that early because it is Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims rise early to eat breakfast before the daylight fast.

The people of Nahhalin were already angry at the behavior of the border police in previous days. Youths began throwing stones. Then, somehow, the police began firing live ammunition.

The army appointed a committee of senior officers to investigate. Exactly what happened may never be certain. But the incident in Nahhalin underlines what 16 months of the intifada have shown: that trying to suppress Palestinian nationalism in the occupied territories brutalizes Israel – and does not work.

Prime Minister Shamir has said repeatedly, most recently on his visit to the United States, that the West Bank and Gaza must remain forever under Israel’s control. It is that premise that requires the policy of force – to suppress the Palestinians instead of negotiating with them.

Israel’s intelligence and military chiefs argue with increasing force that the policy will not work. ”There is no such thing as eradicating the intifada,” Gen. Dan Shomron, the Chief of Staff, said in February, ”because in its essence it expresses the struggle of nationalism.”

The policy damages one of Israel’s precious values, its reputation in the world. After Nahhalin the International Red Cross made a rare public protest against ”violation of fundamental humanitarian law,” saying its private appeals to Israel had gone unheeded. It said the border police had fired ”without discrimination and without restraint.”

American friends of Israel are more and more aware of what the occupation is costing. Even the mainline leaders are speaking up. Two months ago Morris B. Abram, then chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said: ”The status quo is not indefinitely acceptable to American Jews. . . . The occupation is the cause of the disturbances.”

Exactly. Raids and repression cannot make the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza content with occupation. They want what Jews struggled so long to get for themselves: a place where they can control their own lives.

Passover, which begins this week, should be a time for reflection on the crisis of occupation. It celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people from captivity in Egypt – and the establishment of Jewish national identity. The survival of the Jewish state today requires recognition that another people is entitled to its identity, too.


An attack on Beit Lahia in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead

I happened to come across this op-ed (I don’t know why a 15-year-old was reading the Times op-ed page, but let’s not go there just yet). As a teenager, I wasn’t really listening to Lewis’ message. I was just tuned into what I thought was another piece of Israel-bashing, and I had had enough of it. I just couldn’t take it anymore! So, what does a teenage patriot do?ย He types a letter to the editor on his little computer (what was that in 1989, some kind of IBM compatible?), but of course!ย ย Here it is:

To the Editor:

(“Occupation is the Cause”, April 16), “The policy damages one of Israel’s precious values, it’s reputation in the world”. May I add – Mr. Lewis isn’t helping much either.

I am a 15 year old boy living in Haifa, Israel. I have much to say of the status quo in my “mischievous” little country, although a prestigious paper such as yours would obviously rather write “white lies” than print my insignificant letter, therefore I’ll try to make this brisk and harmless (May I add, I am a pure leftist, who would love to see the Palestinian people with a home of their own).

The article says that 30 border policemen were sent to raid the village of Nahalin, which cost the lives of 5 Palestinians and many wounded.

The real story: A) Border policemen are patrolling as usual through numerous villages, and arrive at Nahhalin. B) From the speakers of the mosque, calls for Jihad (Holy War) are heard. C) Hundreds of Arabs attack soldiers with sticks, axes and Molotov cocktails. D) Soldiers are forced to shoot large amounts of ammunition in the air. E) After finishing supplies of plastic bullets, soldiers are forced to use live ammunition to fight them off. F) Five killed.

What I’m trying to say here is this: Mr. Lewis is exaggerating just a bit by using the word “raid” and givng the reader a first impression that the border policemen went into the village with an intention to kill, which I’ve proved is wrong.

But the real point is that this humble exaggeration can give the reader the totally wrong impression he\she should be getting – the right one. I have noticed, since the beginning of the intifidada, that this technique is used not only by Mr. Lewis, but by many other reporters covering the happaenings in the occupied territotries. All this technique does is give some more juice to the article and the reporter’s paycheck. Wonderful, we all gain from it, but someone pays for it. Who pays? Israel. What’s the cost? As mentioned before – its reputation in the world.

This incident suddenly comes to mind. 300 civilians killed in Caracas, Venezuela in one day. Cause: rise of costs for bus fares. Now isn’t that droll? Not to me nor to anyone else. So why don’t reporters chew on that for a while? (Didn’t see any nice juicy headlines for that in this “prestigous” paper, whose motto is nonetheless – “All the News that’s Fit to Print”). I’ll never know. Do you reporters have something against us? If not, get off our case, OK?

Ami Kaufman

Haifa, Israel,

April 18, 1989ย ย ย 

Now, if we put aside my bad grammar and poor writing skills, you’ll notice that this letter has a lot more flaws than you think. Turns out Mr. Lewis was a much better journalist than I was back then. First of all, I totally distorted the Caracas riots. They weren’t all killed in one day, and the bus fares weren’t the only cause.
In fact, Lewis told the story in Nahhalin quite the way it happened. And this was even before the IDF investigated the events. Later on in the month, the IDF reprimanded a top ranking colonel, and removed two other officers from the their posts. Theย probe also found out that the soldiers used their weapons incorrectly, beat a handcuffed Palestinian, lied to their superiors and more.
The conclusions of this report were published in early May, 1989. As far as I remember, Nahhalin was history to me, I don’t think I even knew then that the army had reached conclusions concerning its actions.ย 
Of course, until, my mother told me one day that I had letter from the NYTimes. I’m writing these lines just after having returned from my parent’s house in Haifa, searching in vain for this letter, which I’m pretty sure I kept – but seemed to have lost. But I remember exactly what it looked like. It was of a cream-ish color, and the logo of the paper was embossed on the front. On the back was Anthony Lewis’ name. He wrote back.
I remember the excitement reading the letter, but also the disappointment from it. I can’t remember the exact wording of it, but I do remember it was a dry reasoning of his op-ed, that in fact it was I who had my facts wrong and so on. I think he also wrote something about editorial decision making and so forth. Darn,ย I wish I could find that letter! Anyway, I think I read that letter a zillion times over the next two weeks.
Looking back on this incident, I wonder if this may have had some kind of effect on me going in to journalism later on in life, and eventually working for the Israeli NYTimes, Ha’aretz. But whatever the reason, one thing is for sure – I owe Lewis an apology. So Anthony, if you’re out there reading blogs on Israel… I’m sorry!
But back to the reason for this post. Although I got the Caracas story all wrong, the REASON I put it there was spot on. I do believe that Israel is held to higher standards in many cases, and that the media singles Israel out in an almost automatic way. I also believe that some of it is due to anti-Semitism and simple hatred.ย 
Confused? A lefty like me saying we’re being singled out? Yup. It’s true. I do believe we’re singled out. But I also believe the occupation is one of the most horrendous crimes taking place these days, and I want it over and done with.
But even if we are singled out, that gives us no right to yell “victims!” after the Goldstone report. Instead of claiming that others around the world commit atrocities too (as if two wrongs make a right – how childish is that?), and that they should be accountable as well, this report should be a chance to ask ourselves how we acted in operation Cast Lead, and investigate seriously any wrongdoings that might have taken place.
20 years have passed since Lewis’ op-ed, and I’m no longer the uber-patriot I was. I’m also no longer the “have-you-hugged-your-Palestinian-today” peacenik. I’m extremely critical and dissapointedย with both sides.
But if I’ve taken anything from this stroll down memory lane, it’s that both sides should be ashamed. Ashamed that nothing has changed since the first intifada. Ashamed that we actually think we’re still victims and that occupation is legitimate. Ashamed that thinking violence is the only way to go and that fundamentalism and religion will solve all problems. And most of all, ashamed that a 20-year-old op-ed can look like it was written just yesterday.ย 

24 Responses to “A Stroll Down Israel-Bashing Lane”

  1. 1 Branko
    October 17, 2009 at 10:27

    Two thoughts that arise from reading your post:

    1. It is truly amazing how ill informed we are here in Israel. Yet we never fail to accuse the critics from abroad that they don’t have all the facts and thus their criticism is misguided. The army and the government’s control over the press here skews the reality for us much more than any anti-Israel bias or missing facts do for foreign journalists.

    2. The current opposition to the Goldstone Report has a major logic flaw – I have not seen a single remark about the content of the report. It is always about the reasons why the investigation was initiated, about the lack of balance in the conclusions, about the pre-formulated opinions that the members of the committee had, about the fact that the Judge Goldstone is Jewish and therefore felt the need to prove his impartiality by slamming Israel, about how the Report has potentially negative effect on the Afghanistan war and war on terror etc. Not a single criticism I’ve heard dealt with whether the Report conclusions were wrong or based on lies. And that tells a lot. I mean, either Israel did use phosphorus ammunition in civilian areas or it didn’t. Either it used human shields and shot at unarmed, white flag waving civilians or it didn’t. By refusing to deal with the (potentially) factual claims, Israel is creating an impression that it is not able to prove otherwise.

  2. 3 ื™ื•ืื‘
    October 17, 2009 at 13:34

    ืขืžื™, ืื—ืœื” ืคื•ืกื˜
    ืœื“ืขืชื™ ื™ืฉ ื‘ืคื•ืกื˜ ื”ื–ื” ื‘ื“ื™ื•ืง ืžื” ืฉื—ืกืจ ืœืžื“ื™ื ื”- ืคืจืกืคืงื˜ื™ื‘ื”
    ื‘ืœืขื“ื™ื” ื”ื™ื ืชืžืฉื™ืš ืœื”ื™ื•ืช ื””ื‘ืขืœ ื‘ื™ืช ื”ืฉืชื’ืข” ื‘ื™ื ื•ืืจ, ืœืฉืงืจ ืขืœ ื–ื” ื‘ืคื‘ืจื•ืืจ, ื•ืœื”ืชืคืชืœ ื‘ืžื‘ื•ื›ื” ื›ืฉืื™ื–ื” ื‘ืขืœ ื‘ื™ืช ืืžื™ืชื™ ืคืชืื•ื ื™ื’ื™ืข ื‘ืกืคื˜ืžื‘ืจ ื•ื™ืกื‘ื™ืจ ืœื” ืขืœ ืขืœ ื–ื›ื•ื™ื•ืช ื“ื™ื•ืจ

  3. October 17, 2009 at 15:41

    The op-ed you quoted says: “(…)that trying to suppress Palestinian nationalism in the occupied territories brutalizes Israel โ€“ and does not work.”

    I disagree. It does works very well. It did worked then and still works now: It brings lots of votes for those politicians that incites this kind of policy. Situation will only change in the moment this simple fact change – on both sides.

    • 6 shmookty
      October 17, 2009 at 16:05

      Hey Gabriel,
      I guess you could look at it that way. It is true, politicians are easy to blame for this – but maybe the people should try harder to hold them accountable for the situation they’re in?

  4. October 17, 2009 at 17:40

    Ami, you are quickly becoming one of my favorite bloggers. One request: please write more often.

    • 8 shmookty
      October 17, 2009 at 17:49

      Thank you very much, Roi! ๐Ÿ™‚
      I’ll try to pick up the pace again, but with my wife Karen due to give birth any day (any second!) now, I might have to put the blog on the back burner for a while… We’ll see!

  5. 9 Glenda
    October 17, 2009 at 18:23

    Brilliant … love your honesty, admire the way you admit how life and circumstances have changed your opinions, and appreciate the clear way you express your thoughts. I’m with Roi … I want to hear more from you!!

    All the best,

  6. October 17, 2009 at 18:34

    Jeez, you were quite a nerd at 15. ๐Ÿ™‚ At that age, I read James Bond, not the NYT…

    I must disagree with Lewis’ “American friends of Israel are more and more aware of what the occupation is costing.”

    I doubt they are. And that is one of the most important holdups about the conflict. ‘J-Street’ may be symptomatic of a better realisation of Israel (and America’s) interests, but i find their position to be a seriously minority one. Overall though, the ‘unlimited-support-to-Israel’ is king.

    As for Israel being held to higher standards – well, perhaps. Sure, compared to the Khmer Rouge, Israeli soldiers are choir boys.
    But perhaps because it’s an occupation situation, unusual as it is in today’s world, that gives the stories an edge.
    Palestinians tortured in Israeli jails get more coverage than Egyptians tortured in Egyptian jails (or, for that matter, Palestinians tortured by Palestinians).
    The is also an incredible world interest in everything Israel/Palestine. I recall reading somewhere that it’s 0.1% of the world population and something like 18% of the international news globally… (god knows how they got to that statistic, but the point comes across). And it’s a conflict where most everyone has an opinion about.

    There’s also the ‘accountability’ point – with 2.4 billion USD/year to Israel in military assistance – that’s 5.5 million dollars a day, just for the army – the US public should be allowed some ‘oversight’ regarding where their money goes.

    Finally, there is the fact that Israel loves to declare itself “the middle east’s only democracy”. Well, if democracy it is, it’s only fair that it be held to those standards… A main reason i personally hold Israel to certain standards, and criticise it accordingly.

    Oh yeah, and in 1989, it was probably a good 286/386 DX, I reckon… When the cursor was no longer green, but white.
    Ah, the Pacman days..:)

    • 12 shmookty
      October 17, 2009 at 18:50

      Mo, I agree (as usual) with everything.
      Especially the part about American friends of Israel. How many times have we heard that Obama will have more support to put pressure on Israel, because even “Israel’s friends in Congress” are fed up? Yeah, a lot of good that did him with the settlement freeze…

  7. October 17, 2009 at 20:38

    Really interesting, thanks for this insight. 20 years ago, I scarcely understood the Intifada, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc. Now I’m much more informed, but still as much in the dark.

  8. October 17, 2009 at 20:39

    Great post, Ami. Funny enough, do you know I was an uber-patriot at this age as well? In 1988 I even volunteered for the Likud on election day.

    As for our “Americans friends”, I agree with Mohamed. Yes, they were surprised by the Intifada, but they grew to accept the occupation, and their support of Israel didn’t change much โ€“ no matter what we did. In fact, I think that without them, Israel couldn’t have maintained its control over the WB.

    As for the “double standards” argument, I agree with what Yossi Gurevitch wrote a> about it in his blog: it’s one of the most immoral rationalization we could have come up with

  9. 18 Anna
    October 18, 2009 at 00:07

    Here’s some correspondence about the Goldstone Report you might find interesting and perhaps enlightening also: http://maurice-ostroff.tripod.com/id220.html

    • 19 shmookty
      October 18, 2009 at 07:39

      Hi Anna,
      Quite interesting stuff. Nonetheless, nothing that I read for or against the Goldstone report since it was published would ever change my mind that Israel needs to independently investigate itself on the events of Cast Lead. We owe that to ourselves, even if only 1% of his report is based on fact. I want answers to very simple questions Anna, such as: Did we illegally use white phosphorous, or not? Did we use the illegal “neighbor policy”, or not? And so on. This is MY army, that I support financially and in other ways. I have a right to know. I would have much preferred if we had checked ourselves first, before a judge from the UN, Jewish or not, had to do it for us first.

      • 20 Anna
        October 18, 2009 at 19:32

        Here’s an interesting video you may have already seen… but just in case you haven’t, take a look.

  10. 21 shmookty
    October 18, 2009 at 19:51

    Sorry Anna, with all due respect to the Colonel, I still want an investigation. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. 23 Shelly
    October 23, 2009 at 18:25

    Have been wanting to comment on this post and the need for self-examination for a while but I couldn’t put my thoughts into words. Thankfully, today, someone else did it for me in an article appearing in the Ha’Aretz weekend magazine. The article was about a rather unknown, unshowy Israeli “gazillionaire”, a renassaince man who dabbles in money, art, even writing music. And this is what he had to say about Israel and Israelis,

    “We are very sensitive if foreign politicians, such as Joerge Haider or Jean-Marie Le Pen make anti-Semetic remarks, but our cabinent ministers allow themselves to say publicly things that are far worse.”

    But the continuation of this quote is really the jewel:

    “We have become desensitized to our own body odor and we don’t grasp the intensity of the stench we give off.”

    So yes, I agree, we should do some serious self-examination. But it wouldn’t be the first time. And unfortunately it wouldn’t do any good.
    How many “Vad Hakiras” have we been through? How have they changed our behavior? How many leaders who have flagrantly abused the law, specifically the laws of war, have been punished?
    After Sabra and Shatilla didn’t Sharon become Prime Minister? (A prime example.)

    How can we have effective self-examination if we have become desensitized to ourselves?

    • 24 shmookty
      October 23, 2009 at 21:19

      Those quotes are excellent.
      But your last question is a very good one. Afraid I have no answer for it. And you’re right that there has always been a bit of a knee jerk response of “let’s appoint a committee” to various events throughout the history of the country. But let’s face it, at least there seems to be an attempt to investigate, to question. I would think that the Agranat commission somehow prevented the army from being surprised again like it was on Yom Kippur, or that the Shamgar commission hopefully made prime ministers a bit safer, and so forth.
      And although the results aren’t always what we wish for, surely it’s better than living in a place that doesn’t investigate anything, anytime.
      I also believe that the public in Israel is finally becoming less patient for crime committing officials, as we’ve seen with Hirschso, Benizri, and hopefully Katsav and Olmert.

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October 2009

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