Creating people's geographies
Al-Ahram | 17-23 August 2006
Israel’s goals in Palestine and Lebanon are inherently irrational. They, argues Issa Khalaf*, represent a distorted rationalisation of power and create the conditions for consequences that Israel cannot control.
As we witness the unfolding spectacle of ferocious, indiscriminate violence, destruction, and brutality in Gaza and Lebanon, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that there is something terribly wrong with the Israeli state and society. It’s as though all moral and psychological constraints and boundaries have been breached, deviancy normalised. Not that state terrorism, deliberate aggression, extreme disproportionate force, and massive violations of international humanitarian law are new to the Israeli state: from 1948, the list is long, the evidence widely available. And anyway, in this case, disproportionality — a concept actually inapplicable to the evil being rained on defenceless Lebanon or the genocide in Palestine — implies that Israel is reacting to others’ provocations and acts of aggression, as if the Palestine problem began with Hamas and Hizbullah’s capture of Israeli soldiers, or as if only Israel has the right to use force to defend itself while its enemies do not, a concept apparently supported by the West, never mind the slavish idiocy of Bush administration pronouncements.
The Israeli self-image of rationality, self- confidence, restraint, pragmatism, and marshal moral superiority are delusions and myths, constructed to protect the Israeli psyche, manipulated by the state to keep alive the specter of existential terror in the Israeli public and to disguise the state’s raison d’être, expansion and ethnic cleansing in Palestine, and maintain the deeply sociologically and institutionally entrenched Israeli military nature, increasingly blurring the lines between a civilian and military state.
In the past five years, one can observe and feel a qualitative change for the worse in Israeli Jewish political psychosis, a turn to the acute. How does one explain the copiously routine, feral, violently racist and bigoted language of Israeli leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, settlers, rabbis, and even academics? The profoundly disturbing disregard for innocent “Arab” life, including children, among Israeli soldiers and the military? The polls that consistently, bizarrely reveal a majority of the Israeli Jewish citizens repelled at living next to or befriending “Arabs”? The rising voices advocating “transfer” of Israeli Arabs or expulsion of the Palestinians? The crazy, unpredictable military rage and terrorism directed at Arab populations? The extremist, self-destructive right-wing drift of Israeli politics?
The Zionist state of Israel seems to be in moral, political, and psychiatric free fall. Unfortunately, its self-imploding, overweening arrogance and terrifyingly dangerous actions are supported by an equally militant government in Washington and a Western world intent on accommodating its violent delusions, not to mention the growing extremism among the organised American Jewish community in support of Israel. This at a time when the principal Arab states and the Palestinians are seeking peace, stability and co-existence, the former’s feebleness and inability to defend their people leaving the door open to Islamo-nationalist non-state actors and terrorists.
Those without power increasingly revert to rationality while those with power increasingly rationalise it.
Rational people assume that Israel’s behaviour, its “strategy”, can be apprehended through reason and political analysis, though its actions in Gaza and Lebanon, apparently meant to cause maximum death and destruction, defy rationality, including when measured against Israel’s self-interest. Sure, its actions can be better understood in the context of Zionism’s grand design for a Palestinian-free Jewish state in control of maximum territory and its attendant goal (in concert with the Bush administration) of destroying all indigenous resistance and populist, democratic opposition to Israeli military hegemony in the region.
In Lebanon, the apparent objective is to directly destroy Hizbullah, or turn the Lebanese against them, or weaken and politically fragment Lebanon through civil war, or install a collaborative Lebanese government.
Israeli actions are wildly, characteristically disproportionate to the challenges, excluding the peaceful, rational, measured use of instruments for resolving disputes or crises. This has been the story since before 1948. The fury against Lebanon, as in the reaction in Gaza, lacks sensibility, strategic coherence or even calculated utilitarian self-interest, obvious to everyone except those who run the state of Israel, creating the conditions for consequences that Israel cannot control.
The fundamental Israeli goal in laying waste to, and socially and politically fragmenting, Palestine and Lebanon (now that Iraq has been taken care of) is to encourage Islamist extremism in the region and thereby gain Western support in the fight against Islamic terror. While an apparent strategic reason or rationale, it remains fundamentally self-defeating in the long run, contrary to a rational state’s calculations for peace, stability, and security for its citizens. Its logic ultimately leads to continual wars and the eventual destruction of Israel itself.
Thus Israel’s Palestine-Lebanon (and wider regional) goals are inherently irrational, representing a distorted rationalisation (or in the words of Israeli novelist David Grossman, “mutation”) of power — a distortion of rationality — the application of which has become a mechanism for its own, nihilistic ends, overturning the modern Western assumption that rationality is universal and constant. This state of affairs obscures, renders fuzzy and indistinct, the domains between reality and fantasy.
And that’s where Zionism resides, in states of fantasy, paranoia, denial, schizophrenia, displacement, underlain by absolute power gone amuck. For a time it was fashionable to delineate decades of war, continual states of emergency and existential fear as causes of hate and violence towards Palestinians and Arabs generally. No doubt this is so.
But the problems lie deeper, with a “mutated” power wielded by a narcissistic people with a keen historical sense of both specialness and victimhood, now inheritors of a powerful, exclusionary nation-state, founded through colonial means, predicated on eradication of another nation.
Israel is an ethnic state, with an ethno-religious- nationalist-messianic ideology, based on group identity, not individual rights, whose institutionalised preference is for Jewish superiority, disallowing the possibility of equality for a systematically and sophisticatedly excluded and discriminated against Arab minority. This is far from the system of majority rule based on the principle of moral individual equality, protected through minority rights, rule of law, and civil rights generally found in Western democracies.
Michel Warschawski suggests that these contradictions are dealt with through, one, “denial” leading to schizophrenia (Ilan Pappe also refers to the psychological “mechanism of denial” permeating Israeli society), manifested by the racism and violence and ethnic cleansing and torture and collective punishment of Palestinians and by their general invisibility within Israeli society itself; and, two, through “personalised legislation”, that is, the malleability, in the absence of a constitution, of easily changeable electoral and other laws in the absence of the concept of rights in Israel.
Power and its corollary, violence, both physical and psychological, are institutionalised in Israeli state and society. The military, that is, the distorting effect of a culture of militaristic nationalism and the cosy and symbiotic relationship between military and political institutions and leadership of state, has been pointed to by Uri Avnery, Ran HaCohen, Pappe, and Warschawski. A state cannot have apparently liberal minority rights while insisting on the separation of peoples and the institutionalised inferiority of one to the other, a condition similar to Jewish life in Russia of a century ago. Jewish schizophrenia has been transposed onto the Palestinians. Now Israeli Jews are white and European and civilised, keeping at bay genetically and culturally defective and shifty and violent dark skinned Arabs.
The pathological tension between absolute, unconstrained power, aggressiveness, defiance and victimhood, existential fear, and insecurity, produce the violence inherent in the Israeli state. On one level, the stubborn presence of the Palestinians challenges the denial mechanisms and leads to the drive to extirpate the cultural, political, and physical presence of the Other so as not to be reminded of oneself, one’s humanity. Israelis are conscious of the fact that their state was created at the original and continuing expense of the Palestinians, through force, but react to this psychosis by denial and violence. Haim Hanegbi expresses the Israeli condition this way:
“I am not a psychologist, but I think that everyone who lives with the contradictions of Zionism condemns himself to protracted madness. It’s impossible to live like this. It’s impossible to live with such a tremendous wrong. It’s impossible to live with such conflicting moral criteria. When I see not only the settlements and the occupation and the suppression, but now also the insane wall that the Israelis are trying to hide behind, I have to conclude that there is something very deep here in our attitude to the indigenous people of this land that drives us out of our minds.
“There is something gigantic here that doesn’t allow us truly to recognise the Palestinians, that doesn’t allow us to make peace with them. And that something has to do with the fact that even before the return of the land and the houses and the money, the settlers’ first act of expiation towards the natives of this land must be to restore to them their dignity, their memory, their justness.
“But that is just what we are incapable of doing. Our past won’t allow us to do it…Even if Israel surrounds itself with a fence and a moat and a wall, it won’t help. Because… Israel as a Jewish state will not be able to exist.” (Ari Shavit interview, in Haaretz, with Haim Hanegbi and Meron Benvenisti, 28 August, 2003).
It’s as if there is no middle ground for Zionism, no doubt, no introspection: it’s our existence or theirs. This psychopathology is made all the more palpable because of the intense moral contradictions: while it has accomplished impressive things, including “Jewish democracy”, a place for some Jews to take refuge or to find pride, survival at all odds, and economic and technological development, Israel is a colonial settler society in origin as much as Zionism is also a variant of Jewish nationalism; it is both non-democratic in its exclusion of non-Jews and democratic for its Jewish majority.
Regardless of how one sees it, the end result is, as Israeli observers themselves have commented, a barbarisation, moral decline or debasement, of Israeli society. How could it be otherwise, what with a Zionist ideology that, from its origin, treated the Palestinians with cruelty, disdain, violence, and loathing, traits common to all colonial-settler societies. And with the state since 1948 having so thoroughly indoctrinated Israeli society, through wars and manipulation of existential fears, occupation and relentlessly violent oppression. And with a racist educational system — which portrays the “Arabs” as inferior, lazy, fatalistic, dirty, easily inflammable, violent and bloodthirsty — and socialisation of superiority and separation and alienation of Jews from non-Jews, in cities and neighbourhoods, on Jewish owned lands and public domains.
The pathological nature of this indoctrination is illustrated by the cold-blooded murder of the 13-year-old schoolgirl, Iman Al-Hams, by a “Captain R”, who was subsequently acquitted and promoted. After shooting her twice in the head, he walked away then turned around and emptied the entire magazine of his automatic rifle, 17 bullets, into her to “confirm the kill”. The captain, on tape, “clarifies” why he killed Al-Hams: “This is commander. Anything that’s mobile, that moves in the [security] zone, even if it’s a three-year-old, needs to be killed.”
Journalists and human rights organisations have documented countless cases of Israelis killing children, even for sports and game. Notice, here, the captain’s language: Anything that’s mobile…needs to be killed . Not anyone who is mobile. Palestinian children are like animals, like anything, like animals they are moving, like animals, not human, they, it, need(s) to be killed.
Captain R turns out to be a Druze, a powerful telling of the sick success of Israeli socialisation and indoctrination. This Druze, historically the marginal outsider in mainstream Islamic society, internalised Israel’s ethnic/racial pecking order — its colonially inherited psychopathology in which the indigenous become animals — therefore violently displacing his inferiority, as Mizrahi Jews do, onto the Palestinians. Dehumanising, hating and killing Palestinians is the ultimate, disturbed act of belonging and loyalty to a society accustomed to its influential members referring to Palestinians as beasts, two-legged animals, cockroaches and worms, unaware of their own degradation and dehumanisation in the process.
The possession of power fused with acute political and social psychosis, manifested by power’s irrational application and self-dehumanising behaviour, betrays a deep-seated fear: while Israel possesses unequalled power and its political/military class was historically confident of its ability to militarily prevail against Arab armies, the country is unceasingly, silently, troubled by the possibility of one day being abandoned by the United States. Without its patron, its power is as nothing, not necessarily militarily, but emotionally and psychologically.
Awesome military might and the myth of invincibility is a tenuous psychological condition, masking Israelis’ deepest existential fears that the millions they’ve dispossessed, killed, and continue to torment cannot ultimately be silenced and will come back to haunt them. But Israel’s current elites seem unable to transcend their psychological paralysis: they resist abandoning, even self-critically reflecting on, their worn-out ideological, expansionist aspirations yet fervently desire acceptance of the surrounding peoples, to whom they relate only in the language and logic of absolute violence.
The Israeli/Zionist condition, unchanged, is a sure recipe for widespread regional annihilation.
* The writer has a PhD in political science and Middle East studies from Oxford University.
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