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Seeing the forest of occupation through the trees of Nabi Saleh

A recent episode of Israel’s premier political talk show illustrates how so many Israelis are unable — or unwilling — to see the structural nature of the injustices borne of occupation.

By Libby Lenkinski

Members of the Tamimi family prevent from an Israeli solider from arresting Mohammed Tamimi, 11, during the weekly protest against the occupation in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, August 28, 2015. (photo: Muhannad Saleem / Activestills.org)

Members of the Tamimi family prevent from an Israeli solider from arresting Mohammed Tamimi, 11, during the weekly protest against the occupation in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, August 28, 2015. (photo: Muhannad Saleem / Activestills.org)

My husband is a psychotherapist – he spends his life thinking about people’s individual psyche and inner worlds. I am a social activist trained to analyze structures that empower or oppress. Many of our conversations involve searching to understand which force is behind people’s behavior in any given situation – the individual or the structural.

Watching last week’s segment of liberal Israeli talk show “London et Kirschenbaum,” as panelists attempted to have a conversation about an incident in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, I was struck by their desire to individualize and personalize a situation that I believe to be fundamentally structural.

In the opening sequence, the host, Yaron London, shows video from this past week: a teenage girl in Nabi Saleh named Ahed Tamimi smacks an IDF soldier after he entered her home in the village. The panelists begin their discussion.

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    Or Heller, a military correspondent for Channel 10, makes a point to start the conversation by declaring that he was “overwhelmed with pride” watching the clip of the soldiers, who he says reacted with restraint. Yaron London, the left-leaning host of the show, explains that he has a grandson serving in a similar unit in the same area and that he thinks every day about how his grandson would behave in the same situation. Throughout the segment, the men focus their analysis on the motivation for and meaning of the soldiers’ individual actions.

    Though this whole story is just a small scene, a day in the life of a dynamic that’s gone on more than 50 years now, both men completely avoid mentioning the structures and systems that led to this incident. Their underlying assumption is that the individual soldier’s behavior is what matters here, and represents the most important reflection of Israeli society: if he behaves well, we’re ok; and if he behaves badly, then we are not.

    It is only when Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli activist with close ties to the village of Nabi Saleh, explains that there is a larger context that the conversation broadens. London questions Pollak repeatedly about the character of Nabi Saleh, the Tamimi family, family patriarch Bassem Tamimi, and his teenage daughter shown in the video, Ahed Tamimi. It’s reasonable to want to understand who the Tamimis are as people – humans are social creatures after all. But the subtext of the line of questioning (including, about Bassem, “Is he a farmer, a ‘fallah’?”) seems to be an attempt to determine whether they are “good Palestinians” who deserve our sympathy, or if something about their character makes them deserve the treatment they are getting. He is asking whether they, as people, deserve the occupation.

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    Pollak, a seasoned activist and confident speaker, shifts uncomfortably in the face of this strange implicit question about whether the Tamimi family are “good” or “bad” Palestinians. I have known Jonathan Pollak for many years; he’s used to being asked by other Israelis to speak for Palestinians, and he isn’t known for being fidgety or shrinking in the face of tough questions. He eventually answers (No, Bassem is a professional with a master’s degree) but his discomfort reveals the underlying question in his mind: Why does it matter? How is it relevant?

    Why did the men on last week’s “London et Kirschenbaum” spend this time on the individuals involved in the Nabi Saleh incident? Because the Israeli discourse about the occupation and its relationship to both the army and Palestinians remains comfortably in the realm of the individual, not the structural. Human rights organizations have challenged this notion for decades, as soldier after soldier testifies for Breaking the Silence with the same conclusion: when they joined the army, as individuals they hoped to bring consciousness and conscience to the role. But ultimately they found it is the structure of the occupation that corrupts even “good soldiers” with good intentions, and that bad incidents are the result of a rotten system, not a few bad apples.

    In this sense, the discussion of the Tamimi family is the Palestinian mirror image of the Israeli discourse of Elor Azaria, (the Israeli soldier who was filmed killing an immobilized Palestinian at close range last year): Israelis were supposed to think of him as either villain or a hero when in fact his act was a product of the system that put him there, at least as much as his individual action.

    Human rights are not earned through good behavior. They are universal. They apply to everyone; whether you’re a farmer or have a master’s degree is irrelevant.

    Ahed Tamimi and her father Bassem do not deserve to be occupied – not because they are nice people of upstanding character (which they are – I know them myself) but because nobody deserves to be occupied. And no soldier, not Yaron London’s grandson, not Elor Azaria, and not the soldiers filmed in Nabi Saleh last week can kindly enforce an occupation.

    Libby Lenkinski is Vice President for Public Engagement at the New Israel Fund (NIF).

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      1. JitKunDo

        The Palestinians deserve to be occupied because they continue to refuse the idea of living in peace next to a Jewish state. Until that changes them being occupied is the best outcome available at present for both sides. Until that changes the best that can be done is to carry out the occupation in the most humane way possible.

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        • Ben

          In one sentence you combine the quintessential Israeli overlord arrogance that Libby Lenkinksi just dismantled–“the Palestinians deserve to be occupied”–with the stock hasbara lie that “they continue to refuse the idea of living in peace” melded with the standard “Jewish state” distraction that itself contains an obfuscation about “security,” the whole thing shot through with the assumption that “human rights will be earned through what, we, the occupier, deem good behavior.” All of it oblivious to what Lenkinski writes. And then comes that little special touch, the dehumanizing cherry on top of the whole confection: “in the most humane way possible.” Really classic.

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      2. Ben

        Ahed Tammimi is teaching Palestinians, especially women, how to stop being submissive. More female resistance is needed. It seems to me that little noticed so far is that Ahed wears no head covering or traditional clothes, is by all appearances relatively liberated and strong and modern. She is an important role model for Palestinian and Israeli Society and all their women and men both. Israelis are discomfited by the fact that she looks Western and modern like they do, and can’t be denigrated as “one of those Muslims,” and is a girl (or young woman on the cusp of adulthood, at a critical age, “sixteen going on seventeen”) so can’t be as easily demonized as “a threat.” She is subversive. And there is a subversive feminist subtext here. Subversive of both Palestinian and Israeli attitudes towards women and Arabs. That her family is relatively modern, that her father calls to her from the courtroom gallery to “stay strong,” discomfits Israelis. It upsets the narrative and the rules of the game on a feminist level. And she won’t be intimidated. So the likes of Ben Caspit can go f himself instead of urging Israeli men to do bad things to teenage girls in the dark when there are no witnesses. Another element in the Israeli Hasbara Wall coming down.

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      3. Marc

        So much of what is said in the article is such ignorant horse crap. First it is important a soldier shows restraint and honor in performing his duty to country. Doesn’t matter country they must act in accordance to the rules governing mission.
        Entering home for search or arrest they must act a certain way. Having a child slap them because they are told you are a hero if you do this and they don’t strike back shows character. especially entering the home of a known activist(nice name for terrorist) who has repeated attacked soldiers without justification other than a 60 year old border agreement between three countries involving the land. I’m not saying occupation is right or wrong, or if the family is good or evil, what I’m saying is the fundamental view of your argument is flawed in so many ways and I don’t care if you are a masters or doctorate degree holder. Many groups have been fighting for the rights in government courts for a long time now striving to make progress for this area. The continued violence dishes out by this activist father and wife and training daughter into the life is not helping the case unless you look at the situations they are involved in with clouded glasses. Several incidents don’t paint them doing any good yet they are said to be in the right even when getting involved only contributed to an increase in level of aggression from both sides leaving people wounded or even dead when otherwise they would of been fine just locked up to be released later.

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