The Occupation Is….

Jonathan Deluty, Columbia University

In the winter of 2013, we were patrolling a poor Palestinian village, Deir al Asal, in the South Hebron Hills, just over the green line in Area A. The village was a small, charming agricultural community with modest houses and a lot of livestock. The mixing smells of burning garbage and animals were intense, but the place was pretty in its own way. I noticed an English sign on the side of the road informing me that the town’s water is supplied by a European Union-sponsored infrastructure project. Next to the sign was one of the largest and most ornate houses I’ve ever seen. Beautiful masonry ostentatiously overlaid with gold in a way my mother would only describe as ungepatched. The jarring asymmetry between these two things stopped me in my tracks. One rich government figure lives in that house. But, my officer informed me, he was away at the moment, probably on vacation.

We walked down the town’s main street, by an elderly woman directing her flock of goats in the direction opposite us. My friend tried to feed one a Pesek Zman chocolate bar, but the goat wasn’t very interested. We walked by many houses, occasionally waving and smiling at the Palestinians we passed on the street. Invariably, and to my surprise, they smiled and waved back. While I watched the goats walk away, contemplating the quiet life in this place, I suddenly heard a voice screaming in the distance.

As we approached a Cul de Sac of houses, a woman’s voice became louder and louder. She was screaming something in Arabic I could not understand. We walked down the road, and I saw one of the most chilling scenes I ever hope to see. A man holding his wife by the hair, pulling at it so hard that she screamed out in pain. He muttered something to her and I heard her scream, “La, La!” No, No! In broad daylight, in full view of the town, the infuriated man took her head, and smashed it into the doorframe three times. I watched the blood roll down her face, mixing with her tears.

Immediately, I said to my officer, “We need to help her! He’s beating his wife.” I was met with a strange look. “You think you can help? You’ll get a riot attacking you. That’s standard here. Look away and try not to think about it.” I took one last look at her. The helpless woman and I made eye contact, or at least I imagined we did. And then I turned my head and looked somewhere else, anywhere else. I walked away, shaken.

We continued our patrol into the afternoon when school ended. A gang of about twenty boys, no more than 14 years old, caught a glimpse of my platoon. They started following us and laughing to each other. My officer instructed us, “do not interact with them. We’ll circle around the road so they can walk straight home without encountering us.” But they followed. And then they started screaming. “Yullah, Allahu Akbar!” But it wasn’t malevolent. It was said in an almost joking tone. Almost. But then they picked up rocks and started throwing them at us. This prompted my officer to toss a tear gas grenade in their direction. The crowd of boys dispersed in a fit of coughs, and we continued walking until we left the village. No harm done, right?

***

It’s the summer of 2014, and we’ve just stormed into a Palestinian neighborhood. We need to frantically search through houses and the local mosque for tunnels, all the while avoiding any booby traps that could bring the whole building down on us. Later, though I don’t know it at the time, three Hamas fighters will emerge from a tunnel in the basement of the local mosque, killing two of our soldiers.

Hours before that particular firefight, we sit on the staircase of an unfurnished apartment. My officer stations me at a window looking out over a commercial street. There’s a candy shop, a hardware store, and a white-domed mosque down the road. “Listen,” my officer tells me. “There are no civilians here. We dropped leaflets, and intelligence has confirmed they all left. Hamas plants white flags among its ranks, but that does not mean the person holding it is a civilian. Treat any white flag as a potential threat.”

Five minutes go by, and I see a mob of maybe 100 men, women, and children running down the street. In one woman’s hand, a white bedsheet. “What do I do!?” I shout to my officer. “Be ready to shoot, I’m checking.” I watch the group between my sights.

Twenty seconds go by, and the mob is advancing on our position.

Then thirty seconds.

“Don’t shoot!! They’re civilians!” my officer screams to me. “Actually, wait. Okay, now shoot above them so they run away. We need them out of here.” I aim my automatic gun at the building behind the mob. I start firing, high enough to pose no danger to them, but close enough that they get the message. The mob panics and sprints away from us, and out of harm’s way.

“They think I was shooting at them…” I protest. “They think I wanted to kill a hundred civilians.”

“Who cares what they think?” my officer replies. “We don’t do this for a goddamn medal.”

***

American Jews have a serious problem with Israel. The problem is that a model can never replace reality. It can only simulate reality in a way that simplifies it for this or that purpose. Whatever the model does not factor in is eliminated from consideration.

Too often, the way we construct Israel in our minds is the way one constructs a model. How many times do we discuss Israel in one term? “The occupation is evil.” “The occupation is corroding Israel’s soul.” Even “the occupation is illegal/legal.” Whenever some activist uses one word to describe the occupation, they are automatically wrong, guilty of the crime of every foreign spectator: chronic oversimplification. Such gross oversimplification that it becomes malevolent distortion.

The occupation is many things to many people. But it is not one thing. And the solution to a complex problem is never univariate. So let us consider the occupation from a few angles.

***

While the occupation offends many, it is fundamentally defensive. If it were not in place, millions of Israelis would live in grave peril. One look at the list of casualties during the First and Second Intifadas will tell you that. Everyone there knows that beneath the nominal “calm,” there is a war going on. This is why there are checkpoints and night raids into Palestinian homes. Certain elements in this fight cannot be placated by anything other than total victory, and only American Jews seem to think that it is a lack of magnanimity on the part of Israel that is responsible for this. If you, an American Jew, want to lament the occupation’s ‘corrosive’ effect on your squeaky clean moral slate, you need to confront all of it, not just the bits that fit in your model.

But here is the caveat. The occupation is not only defensive. It is, in a way, a tepid assertion of Jewish aspirations to the land between the river and the sea. It is the bastard child of the stalemate between those who want to relinquish the Jewish historical claims to the land on which Zionism was founded, and those who want to pursue those claims to the very end. The result of this destructive interference is a wavelength that just slightly asserts those claims.

***

Then, of course, there is reality.

Read the stories above. That is this war. That is the occupation. Check out a StandWithUs ad or a Betselem video. That is not the occupation. It’s a narrow model designed to make you see only one thing. Neither of those two presents the true complexity of watching a man beat his wife and being able to do precisely nothing. None of those captures the words you wish you could say to a child who will grow up thinking you tried to kill him, when you were actually doing everything you could to save his life.

What does it mean to have power over another people? Well, maybe not much. Israel is powerful. Some would even say Israel is the blatant oppressor.

But it is not powerful enough to stop one rotten man from beating his wife.

It is not powerful enough to stop a few rebellious teenagers from pelting its soldiers with rocks.

And it is not powerful enough to fight an implacable enemy without civilians being hurt.

Whatever the occupation is, it is full of grotesque violence and gleaming virtue.