Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Zola in the West Bank

I've already inflicted on you my post for the week, so I'll try to make this one relatively brief.  I felt the need, however, to draw some further attention to a story from Israel's Occupied Territories that is not likely to gain much notice in the Western media, but that I find very difficult to get out of my mind.  It is the story of the families of the two people suspected of killing three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.  Human rights watchdog B'Tselem reported on Monday that the Israeli military has proceeded with the demolition of the homes of both families, as it had been threatening to do for weeks, in retaliation for the murder of the three Israeli youths.  This means that two entire families, 13 children and 10 adults, according to B'Tselem, have been rendered homeless, because two of their members are suspected of murder.

Why focus on this story? The news this morning, after all, brought with it a lot of other causes for despair and outrage, some of them more apparently noteworthy and appalling.  Not least among these are the brutal murder by Islamic State militants of American journalist James Foley -- a man, it is clear, of tremendous moral courage and humanitarian feeling -- and the resumption of hostilities in the Gaza war, with still more civilian deaths already being reported in the conflict.  "It is a terrible world; that truism demands no demonstration," to quote Ernesto Sabato (Peden trans.).

Yet there is something particularly unsettling, to me, about the demolitions in the West Bank -- something particularly grotesque about the thought of those 23 people having to watch as their homes are bulldozed so they can return and extract possessions from the rubble.  I think it is the pretense of legality under which this crime is being perpetrated, and its premeditated character, that make it uniquely disturbing.  One does not expect the Islamic State, by contrast, to abide by the rule of law-- one simply hopes for its rapid destruction as an organized body.  As to Gaza, horrible and unlawful things are being done there, but wartime at least brings with it the excuse of immediacy (unsatisfactory as it may be).  Missiles and rockets involve, by their nature, the making of sudden and irreversible decisions.

There is something altogether different, though, about the sight of an ostensibly democratic society carrying out the planned, scripted destruction of two families' homes as a form of collective punishment.  What paralyzes me in contemplating the demolition is the thought that, at every stage of its infliction, from the moment the army conceived it as punishment to the moment the last wall was knocked through, the whole thing could have been stopped.  An armed conflict is different-- there, decisions tend to be made swiftly and without time for caution.  But this sort of military "justice" in the West Bank is carried through with a chilling -- almost plodding -- relentlessness. At each stage, one thinks: "Surely someone can, surely someone will, reverse this."  But we watch, and wait, and no one does.

This is the same horror that the death penalty inspires in me-- the horror that comes from seeing something so wrong carried out in such faltering slow motion.  This is what places the death penalty on an altogether different moral level from, say, killing on a battlefield.  One can at least say this much for the death penalty, however: it only kills the convicted person, in most societies, not that person's friends and families.  Israel's demolitions can't even claim this small redeeming feature.

From B'Tselem's description, it does not sound as if Israel is offering any defense of its actions on grounds of legality or justice.  There has been no attempt to indict other family members on the same charges as the two suspects, still less any attempt to grapple with the question of why 13 children should be made homeless due to crimes they did not commit, still less any attempt to explain how the destruction of family homes is ever an acceptable form of punishment, for any crime.

Rather, Israel's justification is instrumental.  In the crudest way, it is economic.  The thought, I take it, is that if you raise the collective costs of violence against Israelis, then Palestinians in the West Bank will turn against such violence and the people who perpetrate it.  This "economic reasoning" is what Bruce Schneier describes as the "strategic model" of fighting terrorism (though the model, in ideal terms, would presumably not allow costs to be inflicted on anyone other than the actual combatants within the terrorist cells).

Applied to civilians, however, and meted out as collective punishment, this model of "fighting terrorism" becomes itself terrorism, in the strictest sense of the term.  The purpose of terrorism, after all, is to inflict arbitrary and collective suffering on a civilian population, so that the latter accede to the terrorists' political demands, or compel their leaders to do so.  And this seems to be what Israel is openly aiming to achieve, by demolishing homes in the West Bank.  The fact that the 23 people displaced by these demolitions are innocent of the original crime is deemed irrelevant.  Innocence carries no weight in the logic of terrorism.

Not only is this bad morality, it turns out-- it is bad economics too.

Reading about this incident, I was reminded of a scene in Emile Zola's epic novel, Germinal, about the mining industry in 19th century France.  Much of that book's plot is concerned with a strike in a French mining town, and the efforts made by the company and police to put it down.  It follows a central family of miners, the Maheus, who take in a man named Étienne as their lodger.  Though this family suffers greatly in the mines, its matriarch, Maheude, is at first highly resistant to the idea of the strike (which is partly instigated by Étienne), thinking that it will do more harm than good, and that it could not possibly result in victory.

In the later portions of the book, after the miners' resistance has been utterly exhausted and their resources depleted, the Maheus have been reduced to starvation.  One of their children has died, and several other members of the family have absconded for various reasons.  At the worst extreme of their suffering, Étienne, the lodger, finally suggests to the Maheus that they should surrender, return to the mines, and agree to work on the company's terms.

In reading the scene, I expected at first that the character of Maheude would eagerly accede to this option, as it is in line with what she had been saying from the outset.  But Zola had a more penetrating grasp of human psychology that I do.  In his telling, Maheaude, far from embracing Étienne's solution, screams at him in rage, and threatens to strangle any member of her family who dares take his advice and return to the mines.  She says she absolutely refuses to have sacrificed so much without winning some victory in return.

There is an economic logic to Maheude's choice-- crudely put, she expects to get something in return for the price she has paid.  Less crudely put, it is precisely because Maheude has suffered so much, precisely because the costs of resistance were so high, that she refuses to give up in the worst extremity of her grief without receiving justice from the company.

This is why, ultimately, the model of simply crushing people into submission never works.  It is easy, perhaps, to threaten and buy off relatively comfortable people, who have a lot to lose.  But when people, by contrast, have already been deprived of so many of the things that matter to them most deeply, when they have lost family members and family homes to an occupying army, as the people of the West Bank have, they will begin to see that they have nothing further to fear from that army, and everything still to gain-- "a world to win," as Marx put it.

Thus, people -- especially desperate people -- cannot ultimately be ground into the dirt.  At some point they fight back.  And their decision to do so is every bit as "economically rational" (to use some of our impoverished social scientific language) as the decision to surrender.

I hope that such resistance will be carried out in nonviolent ways.  I'm afraid, however, that nonviolence is the exception in human history.  It seems to me quite likely that many Palestinian armed groups will go on applying the same logic of collective punishment to Israeli civilians that has been so often applied to their families.

And along the way, many more innocents-- much like the three murdered Israeli teenagers and the 23 homeless people at the center of this story-- will be made to suffer for the deeds of others.

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