Last week, veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass stirred up a controversy in the media here with an op-ed in Haaretz that opens: “Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule.” Hass, who has been living and reporting from the occupied Palestinian territories for 20 years, goes on to suggest that Palestinians should develop an educational curriculum on resistance to Israeli occupation that, for example, teaches to distinguish between soldiers as legitimate targets vs. civilians.
It was published just days after an Israeli court convicted a Palestinian of murder for throwing stones at a car in 2011, resulting in the death of the driver and his baby – and was the main argument of those who condemned her and the paper. Some went as far as to accuse her of inciting to violence.
Regardless of what one concludes about the article, or one’s stance on what constitutes legitimate resistance to Israel’s violent and protracted occupation, Hass is an example — albeit somewhat extreme — of an Israeli who has “crossed the line.” She has chosen to be exposed to life under occupation first hand, and thus capable of empathy with the Palestinians. Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean agreement or support, but it does mean having the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This is something practically impossible for the average Israeli to do, whose only experience in the West Bank, if at all, is either as a soldier, a settler, or maybe a tourist to a historical site.
Most Jewish Israelis will admit the “occupation” is bad, but few have ever gotten a taste of what it feels like to be anywhere near the receiving end of it. To do that you’d have to choose to experience it as a civilian alongside the Palestinian population, confronted with Israeli soldiers or settlers, which almost no Israelis do. No matter how liberal an Israeli you are, if you have not experienced it in some way, first hand, the concept of Israeli occupation has an entirely different meaning to you than someone who has.
This fact separates the majority of Israelis from the tiny minority of activists, journalists and NGO workers who have experienced it. I remember the first time I was in a West Bank village when the IDF entered and started shooting live gunfire. I remember the first time I saw little children in settlements no older than 8 or 9 throwing stones at Palestinians and myself and other Israeli activists; the first time an IDF soldier laid his hands on me and pushed me and repressed my right to protest. I remember being in the Bedouin village Al-Arakib (demolished over 40 times) when dozens of special army forces showed up at dawn in tanks, fully armed, to dismantle the homes of these citizens of Israel.
I remember when IDF soldiers stood and monitored Palestinian youths trying set up a little soccer field in the South Hebron Hills, just to make their presence known. I remember being arrested and watching countless other Palestinians and Israelis being arrested over and over again, for breaking absolutely no laws and causing no one harm.
These are incidents I had to see to believe. Once I experienced the plausibility of incidents that seem so implausible, they became a part of my working assumptions and impacted how I read every news item in the media about life here. I was an anti-occupation leftist before these experiences, but after them, I actually had a cognitive and physical understanding of just a bit of what it is like to be a Palestinian living under Israeli control.
An American journalist friend highly critical of Israel who recently visited the region for the first time told me that until he actually spent time in the West Bank, he found some reports he read back home showing Israel in a bad light so far-fetched that they were hard to believe. For example, a Palestinian detained after being assaulted in Hebron by a settler, who was not detained because, as the policeman explained, it was already the Sabbath. (Yes this happens, it just happened recently).
Most Jewish Israelis either don’t know what the government and army are capable of, or more likely are in denial about what the Israeli occupation is. Without actually spending time in the West Bank, it is impossible to comprehend how much violence Israel inflicts against Palestinians on a daily basis.
Hass’s empathy with the Palestinians’ right to resist Israeli control is deeply rooted in her exposure to and knowledge of the implications of that control, which she has been writing about for two decades. Her article addresses all those Israelis who have not crossed the geographic, ethnic, national, political and cognizant lines to see Israeli occupation with their own eyes. Out of sight really is out of mind, even in this tiny place. This is what ultimately separates the majority of Israeli society from the paucity of citizens who can see her article as an honest depiction of Palestinian life under Israeli rule. Jewish Israelis may have forms of resistance they prefer but it is ultimately not up to us as the occupier to decide how the occupied can resist.
Mairav Zonszein is a writer and editor based in Israel. She blogs at +972mag.com.