Ask an Israeli to describe a retired Soviet diplomat and he will. Ask an Israeli to describe a shy Bolivian schoolboy and, just like last time, he will. But ask him to describe an elderly Palestinian farmer and he’ll immediately provide you with a generic description of an armed militant wrapped in a kuffiyeh. ‘All Palestinians are like this’, he’ll say.
Since the birth of the Palestine-Israel impasse in 1948, the Israeli government has managed to criminalize the entire Palestinian population as a means of justifying its brutal occupation of Palestine. Embedded in the Israeli state of mind is the very crude and misinformed idea that all Palestinians are armed – if not with guns, with rocks, and if not with rocks, with death-wishing prayers. To eliminate them would be to guarantee security for Israel, even if it comes at the expense of innocent Palestinian lives.
Case in point: Operation Cast Lead. In twenty-two days of air strikes, ground raids, and tank shelling, Israel made a target out of every Palestinian caught within the Gaza Strip’s borders. But their crimes against humanity would not be left untold. Almost two years after the invasion, Israeli soldiers continue to come forward with witness testimonials detailing the army’s indiscriminate action against the Gazan population – civilian or not.
The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away.
Anonymous Israeli soldier
When asked if the sharpshooter felt any remorse for having killed an innocent mother and her two children, the soldier continued:
I don’t think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given… The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way.
Anonymous Israeli soldier
Ah, but they can’t.
A similar tragedy involved an elderly woman no more than 100 meters from the site of a recent house raid. An Israeli commander ordered his company to fire even though she posed no legitimate threat. One witnessing soldier said during an interview that Israeli soldiers were trained to believe they “should kill everyone there [in the center of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist.” No weapons were found on the woman’s body.
Although Operation Cast Lead is one of the more publicized situations glorifying Israel’s indiscriminate attitude towards Palestinians, sixty-two years’ worth of Operation-Cast-Leads exist. Earlier this week, an Israeli tank fired at three Palestinian men who were allegedly too close to the Gaza border. An internal investigation into their deaths published days later revealed that none of them were militants or had any past involvement in militant activity. Even though they hadn’t committed a crime, they were criminals by default. Ultimately, though, the families of the killed grandfather, his grandson, and his friend are left to pay the price for an unjust analogy between Palestinian and armed militant that grips the minds of Israeli soldiers and those they claim to defend.
But the Israeli army isn’t the only force using the guise of national security to label Palestinians as armed hostiles. For approving and funding at least 123 checkpoints densely dotting the West Bank and the Gaza Strip’s border, the Israeli government is just as guilty as the army. Each and every Palestinian attempting to travel through a border crossing or checkpoint is forced to endure physical searches, abuse, and humiliation while soldiers take every unnecessary and inhumane measure to confirm that a bomb isn’t concealed in a schoolgirl’s backpack or that a “Hamas operative” isn’t hiding underneath an elderly woman’s traditional falahi dress.
During these torturously long waits, some gave birth and many more died, including a 63-year-old man with severe heart conditions. All he needed was basic medical attention but soldiers needed to confirm his frail body wasn’t carrying a sixty pound rocket propeller.
And then there are the citizens of Israel. Since late 2000, ninety-six Palestinians were killed by the Israeli public. That means ninety-six funeral services, ninety-six lost sons and daughters, ninety-six civilians minding their own business, and ninety-six instances where ‘the only beacon of democracy in the Middle East’ failed to uphold humanitarian law.
Fourteen-year-old Nivin Jamjum was one of the first civilian casualties of 2002. During a lazy Sunday afternoon, Nivin and her older brother Marwan heard gunfire and riotous yelling outside of their house. Fearing for the safety of his family, Marwan rushed down to lock the iron gate. Nivin ran ahead of him to lead the way.
I suddenly heard two shots. Nivin fell down the stairs. She didn’t scream. Blood started flowing on the stairs and on her clothes.
Marwan Jamjum, B’Tselem
The same thing happened to Yehia except that he was a few years older than Nivin and had his back turned to the settlers chasing after him.
Ask any of the settlers why they attack unarmed civilians and they’ll regurgitate Israel’s national excuse: To be Palestinian means to threaten our existence. It’s either them or us.
But is it really? Is there really no difference between a schoolgirl carrying a sack of textbooks and an armed militant carrying a sack of grenades? Has it become impossible to tell the difference between a family beach-gathering and a militant debriefing? Is it that hard to spot the difference between an uncle holding his infant niece and a man holding a rifle? Is it no longer possible to tell the difference between an armed soldier and an unarmed civilian while peering through rifle scopes belonging to the world’s fourth strongest and most advanced army?
Palestine isn’t a country of criminals nor is Palestine a country of arms. Palestine isn’t a country of hostility nor is Palestine a country of rogue combatants. Palestine is actually a country of blooming youth and talented adults. It’s a country of devoted husbands and wives. It’s a country of competitive teenagers trying to invent the next generation of solar powered cars or a life-saving technology for the blind.
Palestine is a country of human beings – civilian, unarmed, and innocent human beings – whose lives are just as valuable as those surrounding them. Trying to ‘disappear them’ by pelting them and their families with bullets and phosphorous bombs isn’t going to bring security to Israel. Pretending they’re all threats will no longer justify an occupation that’s lasted way too long. The world must recognize that Palestinians are people and not weapon-wielding savages. Then, and only then, will there be progress towards peace and security.
This article is cross-posted on SJP Chicago’s website.