Great article, great man

I’ve kept this link open so I wouldn’t forget to write about it: Johann Hari’s profile in The Independent of Israeli journalist for Haaretz Gideon Levy. The title, catchy: “Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?”

Levy was interviewed in Scotland as he was visiting to promote his new book, The Punishment of Gaza.

Here are some excerpts of what he told Hari: “ ‘My biggest struggle’, he says, ‘is to rehumanize the Palestinians. There’s a whole machinery of brainwashing in Israel which really accompanies each of us from early childhood, and I’m a product of this machinery as much as anyone else. [We are taught] a few narratives that it’s very hard to break. That we Israelis are the ultimate and only victims. That the Palestinians are born to kill, and their hatred is irrational. That the Palestinians are not human beings like us, So you get a society without any moral doubts, without any questions marks, with hardly public debate. To raise your voice against all this is very hard’.”

“Levy uses a simple technique. He asks his fellow Israelis: how would we feel, if this was done to us by a vastly superior military power? Once, in Jenin, his car was stuck behind an ambulance at a checkpoint for an hour. He saw there was a sick woman in the back and asked the driver what was going on, and he was told the ambulances were always made to wait this long. Furious, he asked the Israeli soldiers how they would feel if it was their mother in the ambulance – and they looked bemused at first, then angry, pointing their guns at him and telling him to shut up. ‘I am amazed again and again at how little Israelis know of what’s going on fifteen minutes away from their homes’, he says. ‘The brainwashing machinery is so efficient that trying [to undo it is] almost like trying to turn an omelette back to an egg. It makes people so full of ignorance and cruelty.” He gives an example. During Operation Cast Lead, the Israel bombing of blockaded Gaza in 2008-9, “a dog – an Israeli dog – was killed by a Qassam rocket and it on the front page of the most popular news”paper in Israel. On the very same day, there were tens of Palestinians killed, they were on page 16, in two lines.”

“In the summer of 2003, he was travelling in a clearly marked Israeli taxi on the West Bank. He explains: 2At a certain stage the army stopped us and asked what we were doing there. We showed them our papers, which were all in order. They sent us up a road – and when we went onto this road, they shot us. They directed their fire to the centre of the front window. Straight at the head. No shooting in the air, no megaphone calling to stop, no shooting at the wheels. Shoot to kill immediately. If it hadn’t been bullet-proof, I wouldn’t be here now. I don’t think they knew who we were. They shot us like they would shoot anyone else. They were trigger-happy, as they always are. It was like having a cigarette. They didn’t shoot just one bullet. The whole car was full of bullets. Do they know who they are going to kill? No. They don’t know and don’t care’.”

“He was fourteen during the Six Day War, and soon after his parents took him to see the newly conquered Occupied Territories. “We were so proud going to see Rachel’s Tomb [in Bethlehem] and we just didn’t see the Palestinians. We looked right through them, like they were invisible,” he says. ‘It had always been like that. We were passing as children so many ruins [of Palestinian villages that had been ethnically cleansed in 1948]. We never asked: “Who lived in this house? Where is he now? He must be alive. He must be somewhere”. It was part of the landscape, like a tree, like a river’. Long into his twenties, I would see settlers cutting down olive trees and soldiers mistreating Palestinian women at the checkpoints, and I would think, “‘These are exceptions, not part of government policy”.’ Levy says he became different due to ‘an accident’. He carried out his military service with Israeli Army Radio and then continued working as a journalist, ‘so I started going to the Occupied Territories a lot, which most Israelis don’t do. And after a while, gradually, I came to see them as they really are’.”

“Then, slowly, Levy began to realise their tragedy seeped deeper still into his own life – into the ground beneath his feet and the very bricks of the Israeli town where he lives, Sheikh Munis. It is built on the wreckage of ‘one of the 416 Palestinian villages Israel wiped off the face of the earth in 1948’, he says. ‘The swimming pool where I swim every morning was the irrigation grove they used to water the village’s groves. My house stands on one of the groves. The land was “redeemed” by force, its 2,230 inhabitants were surrounded and threatened. They fled, never to return. Somewhere, perhaps in a refugee camp in terrible poverty, lives the family of the farmer who plowed the land where my house now stands’. He adds that it is ‘stupid and wrong’ to compare it to the Holocaust, but says that man is a traumatized refugee just as surely as Levy’s father – and even now, if he ended up in the territories, he and his children and grandchildren live under blockade, or violent military occupation. The historian Isaac Deutscher once offered an analogy for the creation of the state of Israel. A Jewish man jumps from a burning building, and he lands on a Palestinian, horribly injuring him. Can the jumping man be blamed? Levy’s father really was running for his life: it was Palestine, or a concentration camp. Yet Levy says that the analogy is imperfect – because now the jumping man is still, sixty years later, smashing the head of the man he landed on against the ground, and beating up his children and grandchildren too. ‘1948 is still here. 1948 is still in the refugee camps. 1948 is still calling for a solution,” he says. “Israel is doing the very same thing now… dehumanising the Palestinians where it can, and ethnic cleansing wherever it’s possible. 1948 is not over. Not by a long way’ … Any conversation about the region is now dominated by a string of propaganda myths, he says, and perhaps the most basic is the belief that Israel is a democracy. ‘Today we have three kinds of people living under Israeli rule’, he explains. ‘We have Jewish Israelis, who have full democracy and have full civil rights. We have the Israeli Arabs, who have Israeli citizenship but are severely discriminated against. And we have the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, who live without any civil rights, and without any human rights. Is that a democracy?’.”

“ ‘The first twenty years of the occupation passed quietly, and we did not lift a finger to end it. Instead, under cover of the quiet, we built the enormous, criminal settlement enterprise’, where Palestinian land is seized by Jewish religious fundamentalists who claim it was given to them by God. Only then – after a long period of theft, and after their attempts at peaceful resistance were met with brutal violence – did the Palestinians become violent themselves. ‘What would happen if the Palestinians had not fired Qassams [the rockets shot at Southern Israel, including civilian towns]? Would Israel have lifted the economic siege? Nonsense. If the Gazans were sitting quietly, as Israel expects them to do, their case would disappear from the agenda. Nobody would give any thought to the fate of the people of Gaza if they had not behaved violently’. He unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Israeli civilians, but adds: ‘The Qassams have a context. They are almost always fired after an IDF assassination operation, and there have been many of these’. Yet the Israeli attitude is that ‘we are allowed to bomb anything we want but they are not allowed to launch Qassams’. It is a view summarised by Haim Ramon, the justice minister at time of Second Lebanon War: ‘We are allowed to destroy everything’.”

“Then he says, in a quieter voice: ‘The facts are clear. Israel has no real intention of quitting the territories or allowing the Palestinian people to exercise their rights. No change will come to pass in the complacent, belligerent, and condescending Israel of today. This is the time to come up with a rehabilitation programme for Israel’.”

“Look at the terror that happened in 2002 and 2003: life in Israel was really horrifying, the exploding buses, the suicide-bombers. But no Israeli made the connection between the occupation and the terror. For them, the terror was just the ‘proof’ that the Palestinians are monsters, that they were born to kill, that they are not human beings and that’s it. And if you just dare to make the connection, people will tell you ‘you justify terror’ and you are a traitor. I suspect it would be the same with sanctions. The condemnation after Cast Lead and the flotilla only made Israel more nationalistic. If [a boycott was] seen as the judgement of the world they would be effective. But Israelis are more likely to take them as ‘proof’ the world is anti-Semitic and will always hate us” .

“He refuses to cede Israel to people ‘who wave their Israeli flags made in China and dream of a Knesset cleansed of Arabs and an Israel with no [human rights organisation] B’Tselem’. He looks angry, indignant. ‘I will never leave. It’s my place on earth. It’s my language, it’s my culture. Even the criticism that I carry and the shame that I carry come from my deep belonging to the place. I will leave only if I be forced to leave. They would have to tear me out’. Does he think this is a real possibility – that his freedom could be taken from him, in Israel itself? ‘Oh, very easily’, he says. ‘It’s already taken from me by banning me from going to Gaza, and this is just a start. I have great freedom to write and to appear on television in Israel, and I have a very good life, but I don’t take my freedom for granted, not at all. If this current extreme nationalist atmosphere continues in Israel in one, two, three years time?’ He sighs. ‘There may be new restrictions, Ha’aretz may close down – God forbid – I don’t take anything for granted. I will not be surprised if Israeli Palestinian parties are criminalized at the next election, for example. Already they are going after the NGOs [Non-Government Organizations that campaign for Palestinian rights]. There is already a majority in the opinion polls who want to punish people who expose wrong-doing by the military and want to restrict the human rights groups’.”

“But then, as if it has been nagging at him, he returns abruptly to an earlier question. ‘I am very pessimistic, sure. Outside pressure can be effective if it’s an American one but I don’t see it happening. Other pressure from other parts of the world might be not effective. The Israeli society will not change on its own, and the Palestinians are too weak to change it. But having said this, I must say, if we had been sitting here in the late 1980s and you had told me that the Berlin wall will fall within months, that the Soviet Union will fall within months, that parts of the regime in South Africa will fall within months, I would have laughed at you. Perhaps the only hope I have is that this occupation regime hopefully is already so rotten that maybe it will fall by itself one day. You have to be realistic enough to believe in miracles’.”

This profile of Gideon Levy was published in The Independent last Friday 24 September here.

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