Two months ago, my hairdresser confessed to me that he was a sniper. During his last trip to downtown Jerusalem, Jake told me, he had seen sharpshooters on top of all the buildings.
“I had never noticed them,” I admitted. “How did you know they were there?”
“Well, if you really want to know,” he said haltingly, “I was a sniper during the first intifada. They used to put me on top of a building and say, ‘See that guy in the yellow shirt? Take him out.’ Now the Palestinians are doing the same thing in our cities, only using live bullets instead of rubber-coated ones.”
Jake’s observation notwithstanding, the snipers positioned atop apartments in Ramallah, Bethlehem and elsewhere during the reoccupation of the West Bank this March were overwhelmingly Israeli. His remarkable elision of this fact is symptomatic of everyday Jewish Israeli narrations of the second intifada. The conversations that circulate in taxis, on the streets and in private homes tend to recycle the same storyline: their violence is more deadly than ours, the army has to stop the terror and there is nothing we can do but wait until this nightmare ends.
The widespread public refusal to see the violent reality of the occupation and Israel’s responsibility for ending it is not a new phenomenon, but in the course of the last few months it has assumed new forms. Now that 35 years of colonial violence in Palestine have boomeranged — emerging with a vengeance on Israeli buses and in city streets — turning a blind eye for most Israelis is no longer as simple.
“I heard something on television the other day,” a 34 year-old reservist serving in reoccupied Bethlehem told the Observer on April 7. “Someone was saying that the Oslo peace agreement meant we should be able to have a cup of coffee in Baghdad. Instead it has turned out that we cannot even have a cup of coffee in Tel Aviv.”
A more poetic lament appeared on the front page of the liberal daily Ha’aretz the morning after the March 9 suicide bombing in a trendy West Jerusalem café: “Let’s not deceive ourselves… this is a war over the morning coffee and croissant. Over the evening beer. Over our very lives.”
In the weeks leading up to Operation Defensive Shield, the defense of leisure became a prominent theme in popular representations of the uprising. The threat to a cosmopolitan lifestyle came to be seen as an existential threat to the state itself, something to be quelled at all costs. Sections of the urban middle class declared their determination not to “give up,” and their decision to socialize in cafés and restaurants despite their fear was depicted as a defiant act of patriotism. In one yuppie Jerusalem neighborhood, reported the Jerusalem Post, local citizens initiated a campaign to “take back the cafés.”
On television, alongside real-time footage of soldiers on their nightly “anti-terrorist” raids in Gaza, newsmagazines featured the dilemmas of teenagers who can no longer safely go bar-hopping. Another program documented the national surge in weekend sing-alongs, where young and old gather in restaurants to recall the heady days of Zionist “pioneering.” Rather than a collective reappraisal of what they are fighting for, the mainstream cultural response to the grinding war of attrition has been to search for alternate paths to recreation and to assert that they will not be “beaten down.” As a ninth-grader from a north Jerusalem settlement explained to a Ha’aretz reporter, “The Arabs want us to be afraid, but we won’t give them that pleasure.”
Posing Israel’s security in terms of citizens’ access to leisure has become a powerful means of depoliticizing the occupation and ignoring why Palestinians resist it. But the growing militarization of Israeli society rests on more than an ethos of defense. A chilling revival of the 1950s rhetoric of “no choice” and “existential danger” is driving Israeli Jews to embrace a more aggressive stance toward not only the largely civilian population they occupy but also the dissenters within Israel itself. Popular support to expel Palestinians and “Israeli Arabs” soared in March to 46 and 31 percent, respectively; soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories continue to receive death threats on their website; six out of the nine Arab Knesset members in non-Zionist parties are under criminal investigation for their criticism of Israel’s suppression of the intifada; and police brutality against anti-occupation activists is becoming the norm.
On April 12, the national student union called for a ban of all Arab political activity on Israeli campuses. According to the union, the Arab students’ humanitarian aid drives for Palestinians under siege and their commemoration of the hundreds killed in Israeli attacks constituted “terror-supporting acts.” Similar fundraising drives led partly or exclusively by Jewish students were not included in the ban.
On May 15, this blanket assault on the freedom of expression for Palestinian citizens of Israel was stepped up with the passing of two new anti-incitement laws that target the political criticism of Arab parliament members. Increasing attacks on Palestinian citizens in the street, the growing acceptability of public discussions of “transfer,” and graffiti throughout Israel calling for the death and expulsion of all Arabs have provided the ripe social climate for this legislative assault.
Countless media interviews with schoolchildren, soldiers and citizens reproduce the sentiment that Israelis have “no choice” but to further arm themselves and crush the Palestinians. As a Ha’aretz interview with one man who joined the growing number of gun owners suggests, the resort to bearing arms is tied to a sensibility that rejects the possibility of working for a political solution: “I hate this moment. I really regret that I’m buying a gun…[It] isn’t so much for self-defense as for a sense of security…I don’t believe that, in a one-on-one confrontation with a terrorist, I’ll be better than him…It’s just that I’m not prepared to walk down the street feeling helpless anymore.”
Others are more confident about the rewards of using force. Hours after a fatal Tel Aviv restaurant shooting in early March, a taxi I was taking passed the site of the attack. Suddenly the middle-aged woman in the back began to speak: “The only way to stop them is simply to turn off the faucet in the territories: cut their gas, their electricity and their water. Only that will convince Palestinian mothers — who are just like us, who just want to raise their kids in peace and quiet — to tell their leader to stop spending American tax dollars on weapons.”
The “solution” casually proposed by my fellow passenger testifies to the success of Sharon’s ideological campaign to dismiss the Palestinian national struggle by demonizing Yasser Arafat. In elevating motherhood to a supreme national value, she uses the language of humanism to render savage collective punishment acceptable and Palestinian political freedom “irrelevant.” Given that the IDF has adopted even more deadly tactics during its recent invasions of Palestinian self-rule areas, it is impossible to dismiss this woman as an extremist. Her selective understanding of US aid aside, the widespread acceptance of her logic among Jewish citizens helps to explain their silence in the face of Israel’s war crimes in the West Bank.
The fear of anyone walking in Israeli streets these days is, to be sure, real and legitimate. This personal existential threat, though, has been manipulated and distorted by the political establishment, which has managed to convince the large majority of the population of the illusion that it is facing a national existential threat. Tracing the impact of this illusion in Israeli Jewish society helps to illustrate how the repressive practices of occupation are simultaneously translated into — and fueled by — a culture of militarism at home.
Jake the hairdresser-sniper concurs that Israel has “no choice” but to crush Palestinian resistance with force. “What about the reservists refusing to serve in the territories?” I probed. “They have no right to shirk their duty,” he retorted angrily. “There’s a democracy in Israel, and the only way to change things is through the vote. Just like you have to pay taxes, I have to go to the army.” But what if some citizens believe that the democracy here isn’t strong enough to register their opposition through elections, I suggested. What if they feel that their participation in the system would force them to act immorally? Jake disagreed: “If all the soldiers woke up tomorrow and refused to serve in the territories, Israel as a state would be wiped out in months.”
Our conversation trailed off. A few minutes later, he broke the awkward silence: “I guess hairstyling and militarism don’t go well together,” he said with a nervous smile. But the uncomfortable doubt in his voice spoke louder than his words.