This piece was published on Mondoweiss on 3rd November.

Last Monday morning, I awoke to the grim news that 17 year-old Dania Arsheid had been executed at an Israeli checkpoint in Hebron the previous day. It wasn’t on the BBC of course, nor in any of the UK newspapers. For them, she was just another dead Palestinian. But the news immediately brought to mind my stepson who’s the same age as Dania. Each day he makes his way to the college where he’s studying, in a quick and comfy train. On a good day, he gets a family table to himself and the 4G is seamless. On a bad day, he won’t get a seat and mobile reception is patchy.

I learned through the International Solidarity Mission (ISM), the group with which Rachel Corrie was an activist, that Dania was on her way to an English class wearing her school uniform and carrying her schoolbag when she went through the checkpoint. When an Israeli occupation soldier shot at her feet, eyewitnesses say Dania put her hands in the air and said ‘I don’t have a knife’. I imagine she’d heard about the checkpoint murder of Hadeel Salah al-Hashlamon and guessed the protocol. As soon as she’d spoken, however, Dania was shot 8-10 times and died a short time later.

Turns out Israeli cops are as quick with their Twitter fingers as its soldiers are with their triggers. On Mondoweiss, I read that before noon the Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld had tweeted ‘Female Arab terrorist attempted to stab border policeman with knife in the Hebron area. Officer responded at scene & shot the terrorist.’ Call it a targeted character assassination: smearing the victim to feed the narrative.

Someone got their wish

Reports also claim that an Israeli soldier was overheard on her radio that morning expressing a desire to ‘kill a Palestinian today’. I don’t know if she’s the shooter, but someone got their wish. And note the off-the-record use of ‘Palestinian’. In public statements, Israeli authorities use ‘Arab’ with military discipline, as part of their PR campaign to deny the existence of Palestinians – other than the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, of course.

‘Who’s innocent? If you see the person is less than 1.4 meters tall, or if you see it’s a lady. You can tell from far away. If it’s a man you shoot.

Just a few days before this latest murder failed to make headlines, I had attended a Caabu (Council for Arab-British Understanding) briefing by Yehuda Shaul, Foreign Relations Director of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group founded by ex-soldiers on a mission to expose the savage mechanics of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

You might recall that Breaking the Silence garnered international media attention (not to mention denunciation as traitors and liars) in May when it released ‘This is How We Fought in Gaza’, a report comprising testimony from more than 60 IDF soldiers about the conduct of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 which resulted in the mass destruction of civilian property (18,000 apartments alone) and more than 2200 civilian deaths. The quotation above comes from Testimony 56 of the report.

Notwithstanding the grounds for his group’s short-lived stint in the spotlight, Shaul was clear during his talk that for him the 2014 Gaza siege was merely a chapter – albeit an ‘unprecedented’ one – in a broader and increasingly grisly narrative. ‘This is a story of occupation,’ he said.

Of the 111 Gaza soldiers’ reflections, many bear chillingly oblique titles: ‘No one spoke about that at all’, ‘I really, really wanted to shoot her in the knees’ and ‘This was one very stubborn family.’ Perhaps J.K. Rowling will find some inspiration here.

Uncertainty is the only certainty

Although Shaul’s talk focused mostly on the relentless deterioration of Israel’s military conduct over the course of a decade’s worth of biennial attacks on Gaza, it was his illustration of how Israeli occupation soldiers ‘make their presence felt’ among ordinary, indigenous Palestinians by continuously and deliberately disrupting their daily routines that has continued to haunt me. The goal is to ‘create a sense of being persecuted inside the Palestinian population’, said Shaul, and its essential strategy is to make uncertainty the only certainty. A key tactic is to burst into randomly selected family homes (five are required per shift), rouse everyone from sleep, ransack the place on an unspecified ‘search’ and then leave, closing the door on traumatised, bed-wetting children, and parents humiliated by their own fear and their inability to protect their kids from this terrifying ordeal.

Shaul deflected a question from a Jungian analyst who asked for his view about the effect of this behaviour on Israeli troops, saying ‘we are not victims, we are victimisers’. In the bitter contest for ownership of this narrative, I take his point. But I couldn’t help but wonder if those soldiers – many just teenagers – were able to close their own minds and not just these families’ doors to the question of who we become when such behaviour is normalised. What story must we tell ourselves in order to bear breaching the domestic intimacy of someone’s home, unwanted and uninvited, among their plates and glasses, books and toys, visiting this terror upon them? I recall reading once that the theory of restorative justice, where offenders must meet their victims face to face, is inspired in part by the phenomenon of burglars turning family photos face down before rifling through strangers’ possessions. Do the Israeli soldiers fulfilling their persecutory obligation look into their victims’ eyes? By what mechanism is their inhumanity calibrated, and then re-set? By what measure is their mission deemed accomplished?

Today is as unique as a fingerprint

These questions about the conduct of state terror campaigns against civilians have arisen throughout modern history, but curiously yesterday’s answer never seems to apply today. No, today is as unique as a fingerprint.

Indeed, storytelling emerged as a central theme of Shaul’s talk and of the Gaza operation itself. For instance, during Protective Edge the criterion of solid intelligence was dispensed with when ‘suspicious behaviour’ was perceived. Instead, he said, ‘it’s a story we’re telling ourselves…The story makes it legal.’ If that sounds vague, here’s a crystal clear snapshot from Testimony 35, about two Palestinian women shot dead while walking in an orchard:

‘They directed fire there, on those girls, and they were killed…

‘After that, the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies]. They check [sic] the bodies and it was two women, over age 30. The bodies of two women, and they were unarmed. He came back and we moved on, and they were listed as terrorists. They were fired at – so of course, they must have been terrorists…‘ (my emphasis)

In fact, over the past month the Israel-Palestine narrative has become a perverse echo chamber in which the means, intention and capacity that define a target’s ‘legitimacy’ are continously reformulated to post-rationalise the same savage outcome. Oftentimes, the ‘means’ only appear after the guns have stopped: as my children would say, knives are ‘magicked’ into the scene. Intention and capacity are givens, woven into the very fact of being Palestinian. So it was with Dania Arsheid, Fadi Alloun, Saad Muhammad Youssef al-Atrash, and many others, prompting Amnesty International to demand this week that Israel cease its ‘unlawful killings.’

Instead, the day after the rights group’s call, Israeli forces in Hebron shot dead 23 year-old Islam Abeidu. According to the ISM, ‘[m]inutes prior to the incident, a policewoman was overheard at the Shuhada Street checkpoint 56 saying on her radio “he looks like a good one, shoot him.”’ Eyewitnesses say the unarmed Palestinian had already cleared a checkpoint, and had his hands in the air when he was executed. Nonetheless, Micky Rosenfeld took to the airwaves with alacrity to report that another ‘terrorist’ had been ‘neutralised’.

The outcome drives the plot

In fact, whilst Israeli authorities pretend that the current surge of violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is unique and extraordinary, therefore requiring an extraordinary response, Yehuda Shaul reminded us that deconstructing and reconstructing the narrative has long been a characteristic of Israeli policy-making, providing a bountiful arsenal of talking points to the hasbarists who diligently patrol social media. For instance, he said, over the past decade ‘targeted assassinations have been turned upside down’ so that a detailed dossier is only compiled after the kill in order to justify it, rather than beforehand in order to seek approval for its undertaking. In Israel-Palestine, then, it is increasingly the outcome that drives the plot, often by any means necessary.

Speaking of plots, the other big news in the UK last week against this backdrop of summary executions was a controversial letter in The Guardian in which the likes of J.K. Rowling and Hilary Mantel join pro-Israel activists to denounce boycotts of Israel, instead advocating ‘cultural bridges’ between Israel and Palestine. The gesture prompted an incisive response from Artists for Palestine; here’s an excerpt:

We find the list [of signatories to the letter] thickly populated with the names of those who have consistently devoted their time and energy to protecting Israel from criticism and accountability. In some cases, such as that of Eric Pickles – former cabinet minister and chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel – they have shown their understanding of dialogue by intervening to suppress an academic conference on Israel earlier this year.

Although I was appalled when I read about it, over the past few days – and indeed through the writing of this essay – I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion about that letter. Whilst I’m still uncertain whether it was naivety, cynicism or ignorance that prompted writers of this stature to participate in this ink-washing exercise, the inclusion of Mantel and Rowling is actually rather apt. After all, they’re both renowned for spinning a terrific yarn.

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