Both sides of the knife: When we speak about Palestinian violence, we ought to do so in the context of “the ongoing and daily oppression faced by some 4 million people"

Stabbing innocent civilians is never justified, but without hope for a better tomorrow, the violence won't stop

Published November 15, 2015 2:00PM (EST)


Nine years ago, I spent my time 10 years in the future.

In 2006, after a year of commuting to work through a 30-foot-high unfinished segment of a concrete wall that was being constructed around Bethlehem, I began to imagine what resistance to Israel’s military occupation might look like 10 years on when the structure Palestinians refer to as the “apartheid wall” was complete. I knew it would have to look very different than the nationally led mass movement of the late 1980s during which I came of age, when there was no permit system or terminal-style checkpoints between the occupied territories, Israel and the major Palestinian urban centers.

In my forthcoming novel, I took this question about the nature of resistance within the fragmented landscape that is Palestine and set it against the backdrop of the end of the era of the Oslo Accords. In my novel, "Die Standing Like Trees," it is the young and disillusioned who engage in lone wolf attacks against the occupation, knowing as they do that their death is certain. The hope of the fictionalized young people in my novel is that through their singular desperate acts, international consciousness will be awakened.

As a human rights activist as well as an attorney, my view of a durable resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict is predicated on law and justice. But law and justice can only take you so far. I decided to write "Die Standing Like Trees" because until those observing events unfolding in Palestine/Israel can imagine the humanity in the very real stories of Palestinians and the context of their struggle for freedom and self-determination, the violence will continue and a diplomatic resolution will remain illusive. The technical pen of a lawyer, limited as it is to legal precepts and sterile facts, can’t tell the story that is Palestine. Days after Barack Obama met with Benjamin Netanyahu to smooth over U.S.-Israel relations, I am writing this article for the same reason.

The remarks of President Obama while sitting in the Oval Office with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu were emblematic of so much of what is wrong with the way those outside of Palestine/Israel view the conflict. While recognizing the deaths of Israelis and referring to Palestinian violence as if it occurred in a vacuum, the president spoke of the unwavering U.S.-Israel relationship.  Left unsaid was that Palestinians had also suffered greatly in the last month under Israel’s almost 50-year-old military occupation — more than 70 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,000 injured -- the vast majority unarmed civilians participating in protests against the occupation. Palestinian suffering and losses ought to have been recognized too. And why they so frequently aren’t ought to trouble everyone interested in peace between Palestine and Israel.

Those things that I feared when I picked up the novelist’s pen -- that fragmented randomness of collective hopelessness that I could see overtaking the youth of Palestine -- is being borne out today.

Following President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the opening of the 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in September, in which he announced the end of the Oslo peace process, reports of Palestinian lone wolf attacks have dominated each news cycle. Many of the attackers have been young people, unaffiliated with any political organization. Last month, a 13-year-old was alleged to have engaged in one of the first strings of stabbing attacks. When Ahmad purportedly tried to flee the scene, an Israeli settler ran him over with his car to stop him. While Ahmad, legs unnaturally contorted behind him flailed for help, Israeli settlers, police and emergency technicians stood by and watched. Precious minutes go by and no one moves to administer aid. In fact, when the boy tries to get up, he is kicked back down by one of the bystanders while at least one among them yells out again and again in Arabic so the boy would understand: “Die, Arab. Die, you son of a whore.” We know all this because it was captured on videotape by one of the bystanders who failed to help Ahmad.

What made the news in the U.S. was not the depravity of those standing around watching the injured boy cry for help. What made the news was whether Ahmad was guilty of the knife attack, whether the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas knew Ahmad was still alive when he announced his death on Palestinian TV, and how well Ahmad was treated once taken to an Israeli hospital for treatment.

Of course, stabbing innocent civilians is never justified. But neither is running over a child who is not posing an immediate threat or failing to administer aid when you are the police or an EMT. American mainstream media tends to focus its lens on violence perpetrated against, not by, Israelis and, even more infrequently, on the institutionalized violence that is Israel’s military occupation.  

According to Defense for Children International -- Palestine, nearly 2,000 Palestinian children uninvolved in any hostilities have been killed by the Israeli military or settlers in the last 15 years. Israeli human rights groups have expressed concern about the state-sanctioned use of lethal force against Palestinians. They note that when Jewish Israelis are suspected of attacks, they are arrested; none have been shot. True to their thesis, when on Oct. 18, 200 Israeli settlers from Kiryat Arba settlement descended upon two neighboring Palestinian villages with firebombs, the Israeli military response was to shoot and kill a Palestinian villager. No settlers were killed or wounded. Rather than calming the settlers, Israeli officials have entered Palestinian neighborhoods carrying assault rifles and have been inciting Israelis to commit extrajudicial killings while imposing collective punishment on Palestinians.

Further, because of the proximity of the Jewish settlements that ring around East Jerusalem and its approximately 390,000 Palestinian inhabitants, there is constant friction between the communities. Rather than protect Palestinians from settler terrorism, the Israeli government has been engaged in an effort to evict and dispossess Palestinians from Jerusalem. There have been more than 14,000 revocations of Palestinian residency permits in Jerusalem since 1967 and more than 48,000 Palestinian homes and structures have been demolished in favor of new Jewish settlements in the city. At the present time, around a third of all Palestinian housing in East Jerusalem is threatened with demolition.

Children in Jerusalem are especially affected. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 75 percent of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem lives below the poverty line, and 83 percent of those living in poverty are children. Though Palestinian students account for 40 percent of students in Jerusalem, less than half go to municipal schools because of the shortage of classrooms to serve them.

Again, these statistics are not meant to justify violence against civilians. But when we speak about Palestinian violence, we ought to do so in context. The root cause of the violence is “the ongoing and daily oppression faced by some four million people who live without hope of any change in the situation, without any horizon for the end of occupation, and without prospects for a life of liberty and dignity.” This, according to a statement signed by seven Israeli human rights organizations.

The type of violence an oppressed people employs tends to mirror that of the oppressor. It responds to the specific rights being deprived. So back in the late 1990s, when Palestinians understood that their right of return to their homes and property inside Israel would not be part of any agreement signed by Israel and a permit system and permanent checkpoints went up around the West Bank and Gaza, the type of violence visited upon Israel involved Palestinians crossing checkpoints to strike Israelis beyond the 1967 line, in places where Palestinians had been displaced. This violence, however, was controlled and managed by armed groups. As Palestinians feel themselves squeezed out of existence in a country whose leader would blame the Holocaust on a Palestinian, they also feel they have less to lose. And predictably, they will sometimes act out violently.

What we are seeing today is the democratization of violence. For Palestinians who are picking up slingshots, knives or screwdrivers, their targets are those in close proximity to them: they tend to be settlers, police and military troops. Unlike armed groups who understand the logic of violence and who will eventually negotiate a political solution when they have leveraged their position sufficiently, there is no negotiating with individuals seeking freedom. Without hope for a better tomorrow, the violence is likely to continue. And with each new Israeli reprisal, the violence is likely to get worse and become more widespread.

This truth isn’t making it into the news, or summits between heads of state. Or, when it does, it makes it in in such a way that it somehow seems passe. Israelis and Palestinians are still fighting. There is still violence in Israel-Palestine. And that is true. They are, and there is. But for those involved, it is not old news. It is life, and it is so easily death.

I don’t know that my novel will change any minds, any more than this piece will. But I do know that, at the very least, I hope it gets people to understand that there are real people on both ends of the knife.

Zaha Hassan is human rights attorney and a Middle East Fellow at New America.

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