Sometimes, possibly more often than we think, there is also good news.
Every person of conscience, especially Israelis, should rejoice at the decision, announced February 5th, by the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague that the court has authority to sit in judgment on cases involving Palestine and Israel—specifically, on matters of war crimes. The Gaza wars figure in the judgment, as do the settlements on the West Bank. This judgment has been long in coming, and it is too early to say if or when it will have practical consequences. Already the United States has issued a statement denouncing the ruling. Netanyahu, predictably, says the decision is proof that the ICC is anti-Semitic.
But for those of us working for human rights in the grassroots fields and grazing grounds of Palestine, the decision offers hope and much-needed relief.
Readers of this blog know that the entire project of settling hundreds of thousands of Israelis on stolen Palestinian land is a war crime under international law, a violation of the 1994 Rome Convention, from which Israel withdrew (after initially signing on), in an act of sheer moral cowardice, precisely because of this stipulation. Then there are the everyday wrongs, acts illegal even by the lax standards of Israeli law, that are committed by Israeli officers, ordinary soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats from the Civil Administration. Every time soldiers and police declare Palestinian agricultural lands a Closed Military Zone, thereby preventing access by farmers to their fields, they are violating a ruling of the Israel Supreme Court from 2004. An officer once said to me when we showed him the ruling, which we always carry with us: “Why do I need to read some paper from the Supreme Court? I have my gun.”
Yet the legal status of such acts is the least of our problems. No one has the right to inflict savage harm on innocents—to torture and terrorize them, to steal their possessions, to demolish their homes, to wound and kill them with impunity, to arrest them and keep them in prison without reason, sometimes indefinitely (this includes hundreds of Palestinian children). In the occupation, all of the above are routine. The list is very far from exhaustive. Its rationale is rooted in the fantasy of mass expulsion and in the harsh reality of absolute Jewish supremacy and domination.
The last few months have seen an escalation of such acts throughout the West Bank. Demolitions have increased many times over; villages and towns have been decimated by the army bulldozers; the entire village of Homsa in the Jordan Valley has been destroyed, and last week the soldiers came back to wreck the meager sheep pens and tents that the people of Homsa had somehow managed to rebuild. Marauding bands of armed settlers attack Palestinians at will, by night and by day, while the army and the police turn their eyes away or, even worse, join in the assaults. Unarmed demonstrators have been shot in demonstrations. At the destitute encampment of Al-Rakiz, a young man, about to be married, was shot in the neck and paralyzed for life by soldiers who came to steal a generator. There is no accountability whatsoever, and Palestinians are virtually without legal recourse when they are hurt, dispossessed, or brutally harassed.
We have to hope that the ICC will pass judgment on those who have, for decades, been perpetrators of such deeds. One sign of the panic that has taken hold of the Israeli establishment is the fact that, according to press reports, the government already has a list of some three hundred names of Israeli officers, bureaucrats, and politicians—from the Prime Minister on down– who are in danger of being arrested and handed over to the ICC if they set foot in Europe, in Australia, and in many other countries. I would like to think that this list, unbeknownst to those who compiled it, is itself evidence of a bad conscience. As Vladimir Jankélévitch has shown in a remarkable book, [The Bad Conscience, trans. Andrew Kelley (2015)] a bad conscience is a great human achievement; it may eventually lead to a healing remorse.
Pangloss, or his pupil Candide, would say that someday remorse must happen. It can no more be suppressed than the flow of rivers downstream to the sea. It takes time, usually lots of time, and in the meantime there is much suffering. No Pangloss, I may not live to see the change. I assume that much blood, not water, will flow. Still, sometimes there is good news.
We have documented hundreds of cruelties that we personally witnessed, over the last years; some were described in these pages. For now, here are some pictures that we’d like the judges—and all compassionate people– to see. It’s a small, representative sample. There are not a few men and women whom I’ve met in the field who, in my view, should stand in the dock in the Hague. I have seen what they did to innocents, and to us.
For the record, let me say that the vast majority of the soldiers and policemen I have encountered in the territories are not sadistic by nature. They are no worse than all the rest of us. They are caught up in a system that has sent them to do terrible things, and they don’t have the strength of character, or enough of an inner compass, to resist. Probably, in many cases, they don’t even understand the meaning of what they are doing. Most have been brainwashed by the prevalent nationalist demonology. Many of them readily say that they are only following their orders. Even better than the Hague would be to see these men and women finding within themselves the courage, and the wisdom, to acknowledge what they have done. Maybe one or two of them will someday say they are sorry. Does this sound like fiction, science fiction, wishful delusion, hallucination? All I can say is that I have seen it happen more than once.
text: David Shulman © 2021. photographs: Margaret Olin © 2021
Some of the photographs in this post were published in previous posts, where you can find out more about the incidents they portray, viz.: Waiting: Jinba, Out of Sight: Ein ar Rashshash, Zanuta and Rahwa, A Tractor in South Hebron, Hollywood Endings, Demolition, Liberation,