Nabi Saleh is where I lost my Zionism

by Lisa Goldman

A short video of 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi slapping an Israeli soldier has dominated the Israeli media for the past week, and received prominent coverage internationally as well. Ahed, a Palestinian girl from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, makes a big impression with her eye-catching mane of blonde hair, the fierce, intelligent expression in her blue eyes — and her fearlessness.

One of the most striking aspects of the immense discussion generated by the video is the near-binary contrast between what Israelis and their advocates see, and what everyone else sees.

For Israelis, one of their soldiers was provoked, almost unbearably, but still managed to rise above the situation. For almost everyone else, the video shows an unarmed adolescent — who could easily, based on her appearance, be an Israeli teenager shopping at the mall — bravely confronting an armed soldier in her own village. Even without knowing the circumstances, a fully-grown man in combat gear and carrying a powerful weapon refraining from hitting a much smaller, unarmed adolescent girl, seems not remarkably praiseworthy but rather a response predicated on basic humanity and ethics.

The Israeli media has, for the most part, promoted the army’s narrative about the incident — of a restrained and mature soldier who dealt admirably with a difficult and stressful situation involving enemy actors.

In the segment below, Yaron London, the host of an eponymously named primetime news magazine program on Channel 10, mirrors the perspective of the army. London’s guests are Or Heller, the station’s military affairs correspondent, and Jonathan (Yonatan) Pollak, a veteran anti-occupation activist:

The conversation between the three men is salutary because it provides real insight into the mentality of mainstream Israeli society. First we hear Or Heller, an experienced military affairs correspondent, repeating the army’s narrative. He expresses pride in the soldiers, makes the claim that the Tamimi family provoked the confrontation as a means of creating an anti-Israeli propaganda video, and asserts that the soldiers were only in the vicinity to prevent Palestinian residents from throwing rocks.

Yaron London, an intelligent and educated man who does, I am sure, identify as a liberal, fails to question Heller’s narrative. Both men are completely focused on the challenge those unarmed adolescent girls supposedly present to “their” soldiers, rather than on the actual violence that those soldiers visit upon the village week after week.

Jonathan Pollak was in Nabi Saleh when the incident occurred. Watch as he calmly provides the context, and note how shocked Heller and London are when Pollak refers to “your” army — rather than “our” army. (Pollak refused to serve, which is a radical act in Israel.)

This segment encapsulates the Achilles heel of the Israeli media — i.e., its willingness to report communiqués issued by the army as straight news, without any fact checking. Even though the Israeli security establishment has been caught lying on countless occasions, journalists who report for mainstream media outlets continue to accept without question the information they are given about events they neither witnessed nor verified independently.

Throughout the many months I attended Friday demonstrations in Nabi Saleh, I never saw a single reporter from an Israeli media outlet. And yet, during the drive home after those long and distressing days, the news presenter on Israel Radio would report that there had been “riots” in a West Bank village and that “our forces” responded with crowd control measures.

The Tamimi family has been demonstrating every Friday for about a decade, protesting the takeover of Nabi Saleh’s natural water spring by nearby settlers. As Bassem Tamimi once explained to me, in quite fluent Hebrew, the villagers said nothing when the army built the settlement of Halamish (originally Neve Tzuf) on their land. But when the settlers confiscated their spring, and the army then prevented the Tamimis from accessing it, Bassem and his extended family decided to draw a red line.

Every week they gather at the top of the hill inside their village, carrying flags and banners, and walk toward the road that separates them from the spring. The goal is simply to cross the road and walk to the spring. And every week, the army deploys security forces inside and around the village to stop the protesters from reaching their destination.

The way it works is this: at around noon, military vehicles enter the village and park at the bottom of its bisecting road. Security forces, heavily armed and wearing combat gear, descend from the vehicles, load their weapons, and wait. Sometimes they start shooting as soon as the demonstration begins, and sometimes they wait for a teenager to throw a stone in their direction before opening fire.

As Ben Ehrenreich notes in his New York Times Magazine article about Nabi Saleh, the army spokesperson told him there has never been a single case of a soldier being injured by a stone at those demonstrations. But over the past few years, soldiers have injured and killed several demonstrators.

In one now notorious incident, a soldier cracked open the rear door of his armored jeep as it was on its way out of the village, and shot a tear gas canister directly into the face of Ahed’s 21-year-old cousin Mustafa, killing him. No-one was ever censured or prosecuted for that act of murder.

These are just a few of the things I saw in Nabi Saleh.

Once, I was standing on the roof of a home with three teenage girls who lived there. We were watching the demonstration from a bit of a distance — maybe 150 meters. Suddenly one of the soldiers standing down the road pivoted in our direction, raised his weapon, aimed, and shot tear gas canisters directly at us. He shot another couple of canisters at the house, shattering the living room window. The older girl told me that her family had stopped replacing it every time the soldiers broke it; the glass had become too expensive.

I also witnessed soldiers deliberately blanketing a small house in tear gas until its occupants, coughing and retching long streams of mucus, were forced to emerge. They were two elderly women, wrinkled and bent over, and a young woman in her twenties.

I’ve seen soldiers grab crying children and shove them into military vehicles, pushing aside their screaming mothers.

I’ve seen soldiers grab a young woman by her arms and drag her like a sack of potatoes for several meters along an asphalt road so hot that it melted the rubber soles of my running shoes, before tossing her into a military vehicle and driving away.

I’ve had my ankles singed black when a security officer looked me straight in the eyes and threw a stun grenade at my legs.

Israeli army sharp-shooters regularly shoot unarmed demonstrators in Nabi Saleh with both rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition. They break into houses and drag people out, arresting them on the claim that they allowed demonstrators to hide in their garden.

And then I would go back to Tel Aviv and be told by my friends that I could not have seen what I saw, because “our soldiers” do not behave that way. Soon, I had to distance myself from those friends in order to keep my own emotions in check.

I write these sordid descriptions of what I saw at the demonstrations as a means of explaining how and why that place radicalized me. After Nabi Saleh I was, in a way, broken. The impact of the violence on my psyche was exhausting and traumatic, with long-lasting effects that I still experience today.

By the time I began going to Nabi Saleh, I had spent about four years reporting on what I saw in Gaza and the West Bank, and watching detachedly as my politics moved ever leftward from the liberal place in which they started, as a consequence of what I saw on the ground. But it was in Nabi Saleh that I lost the last remnants of what I would call — for lack of a word to describe my nostalgia for the idea of a state for the Jews — my Zionism.

My radicalization was not only a consequence of witnessing brutal violence perpetrated right in front of my eyes, by soldiers of the army that was supposed to protect me. It was also a result of my seeing the Tamimi family endure that violence week after week, seeing their relatives injured, arrested and killed, and still not coming to the conclusion that the price of resistance was too high. They simply refuse to submit.

Week after week, they welcome strangers into their home with kindness and hospitality. No one in Nabi Saleh ever expressed an ideological political opinion to me. They didn’t have to. The situation is clear; the actions of the Israeli government and security forces there are impossible to defend, on any level. And of course that is the source of the Tamimis’ strength — the knowledge that their cause is just, and that they are fighting it with ethical, nonviolent means.

The Tamimis clearly understand the power of social media. But they don’t manufacture those confrontations. In fact, I have never seen a video that comes remotely close to conveying the true brutality I saw in Nabi Saleh. Maybe you need to smell the tear gas and feel the smallness of the place to see how outrageous it is for soldiers to act as they do there: to, with a sense of entitlement, enter a village and break up a gathering of unarmed demonstrators; to kick open the doors of homes and drag off to jail unarmed people who pose no threat; to break into a house at 4 a.m., to roust a teenage girl from her bed and drag her off to jail, denying her even the right to be accompanied by a guardian.

I am sure Ahed understands very well the effect of her striking appearance. I am sure that Bassem Tamimi knows his genuine warmth and hospitality go a lot further in winning over hearts and minds than didactic political lectures ever could. With no money, and by sacrificing their own bodies and emotional well being, the Tamimis are drawing world attention to the hundreds of Palestinian children sitting in jail, who don’t have blonde hair and a strong, supportive family. They are showing the world what the occupation means, in tangible terms, to real people. They taught me, purely by example, what grassroots resistance means.

Is Israel, with all the money and manpower it pours into sophisticated advocacy campaigns via social media, really in a position to criticize the Tamimis for understanding how to publicize their own cause? As Jonathan Pollak says to Yaron London, the reason those Nabi Saleh videos make Israel look bad is because Israel is doing bad things.

Lisa Goldman has been writing about the Middle East in general, Israel-Palestine specifically for well over a decade. Since moving from Jaffa to Brooklyn a couple of years ago, she also writes about the US-Israel bilateral relationship and about the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel. Republished, with permission, from +972 Magazine.

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  1. Regarding the media, parroting the government line is the norm in the U.S. also. The principal function of the mass media, after all, is to make money by linking readers and listeners up to their commercial supporters, their advertisers. Spouting the government line is the cheapest and simplest way to do that, so that’s what they do. Reporting the truth is seldom an option.

    The situation in the U.S. agrees with that in occupied Palestine, certainly not in domestic violence, but in principal at home and in reality abroad. We are funding a huge military which is wreaking havoc, death and destruction elsewhere. We must thank them for their service because they are keeping us free, the story goes, because that’s what the government says and it’s not questioned by the mass media, at all, even though it’s a lie.

    The Israeli soldier exhibits patience, and a US soldier hands out candy to the kiddies. It’s all for show to cover up the expensive (but profitable to some) atrocities.

  2. The government of Israel makes apartheid the People of Palestine,
    the media are deaf and blind to the inhuman Israeli apartheid.

  3. Interesting vid in this piece . . . tho the Anchor is obviously pro govt, the interview is reasonably civil, and Pollack doesn’t need to “self-censor” himself to tell the truth about the occupation, etc. As Don Bacon (above) points out, American MSMedia rigidly and constantly touts the “official” Washington Consensus line. As a result, it’s way too hidebound to deal with material like this . . . you have to go to alternative news sources/shows (like RealNews Network, etc.) to get “on the ground” reporting and info about what’s “really” happening in the occupied territories or places like Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, etc.

  4. Congratulations to Ms Goldman, but such acts of brutishness and cowardly behavior are not new. Israel has become to much of the world a pariah nation. It certainly is to me. The incredibly thuggish behavior of IDF soldiers gives a vivid picture of Israeli morality, or rather lack thereof. I have seen pictures of IDF soldiers mistreating and humiliating old men and women, pictures of IDF soldiers or Israeli “settlers” burning olive trees of Palestinians farmers, pictures of illegegal settlements discharging their sewage on Palestinian farms and villages, polluting their wells. And I have seen pictures of Israeli soldiers terrifying Palestinian children with their guns and tear gas before arresting these children. And I have seen the picture of an IDF soldier putting a Palestinian boy in a choke hold, a boy whose are was in a cast. Choke holds are for men if they are for anybody, not children. And I say to that soldier, whose picture was printed all over the world, they he is a coward and a bully, a base born, degenerate whose parents probably took pride in his courage in defending the “holy” land of Israel from its vicious enemies, including children. To this soldiers mother I say, “Aren’t you proud of your boy, your brave soldier son, who is not afraid to put children in choke holds in order to protect Israel. Oh how brave you are, you pustule on civilization, you brave fighter who has all the most modern weapons at his disposal that an idiotic, cowardly, craven, lying U.S. congress is able to provide. The Palestinian boys are also armed, of course. They throw rocks at patriotic soldiers. These boys and girls even pick up tear gas canisters and
    actually throw them back at soldiers bravely putting their lives on the line while protecting their pernicious little country. It takes a lot of courage to arrest girls and small boys.
    And I say to every Israeli soldier that nothing in this world remains unchanged. Who knows? A time may come when you live to regret your cowardice and the slime clinging to your uniform.

  5. Israelis and Palestinians are of the homo-sapiens tribe trapped by birth in the same land, like millions of other people in other unhospitable lands. Few are at this time the Palestinians and Israelis NOT born there. Can there be any doubt that this girl knew that he, the soldier, wouldn’t hit her back, or was she to be sacrificed to the conflict by the parents who gave her birth and raised her to that day….she is only a child, acting impulsively, and the officer is, AND ACTED LIKE, an adult. Why would anyone take credit for either act or non-act: the exploitation of a child or the covering up of violent reaction by an occupation of desperate people? Nevertheless, the laudable humanity of a soldier and maturity of an officer, like many other events, cries out testimony to the fact that on all sides of disputes within our species there are still many true humans who refrain from acting like lower primates. But are there enough and how much to they influence events?
    Israel and Palestine are abstractions that cannot take away from the fact that, three generations later, people born on and of the same land are fighting eachother rather than acquiring solutions that make life livable for both on that harsh terrain?
    In a way, Israelis are like people in a desert watering their manicured lawns with endless sprays of water while the Palestinians are neighbors dying of thirst next door. But then, what do the children of the desiccating neighbor getting from the girl sent to slap the uncaring neighbor spraying his lawn?
    Zionism is a fading sentiment amongst Diaspora Jews and the best and brightest of Israelis and Palestinians move to the West for great futures. But those stuck in that piece of desert suffer, suffer, suffer, however right and sincere the original cause of their ancestors. Here Ben Franklin’s words once more apply: HANG TOGETHER OR HANG SEPARATELY. No faith on Earth demands that its adherents kill their neighbors for God. On the contrary, all agree that humans are one family before God. So, given that the claim to that barren land by BOTH sides is based on a common Abrahamic faith which called on humanity between humans towards eachother, what we so often see and sometimes marvel at NOT seeing: God’s children killing eachother, tit-for-tat, maybe it behooves us to think of that those whom restrain themselves, either as initiators or avengers, are God’s angels that come to us to remind us of what we are being tested to do: unite in the social ethic common to all faiths. Until that happens, we will only destroy eachother better while less able to survive the tests of our ability to coordinate the struggle for survival of our species. Looking at the Israelis and Palestinians, I see a land of dinosaurs ever devouring eachother and engaging in intra-familial territorial fights, until God has had enough and sends an asteroid to form the Gulf of Mexico and destroy ALL the dinosaurs. Perhaps the paleontological lesson here, as for Franklin, is that survival will not be when a species devours itself. Can it be that the Israelis and Palestinians stuck in that barren land with no other place to go inch forward and backwards, sliding in their own blood pooling on the ground, but will remain helpless and hopeless like the dumb dinosaurs when survival of the remaining is impossible because their focus on killing eachother has made them helpless when faced with the test of their humanity is imposed on them by God and they fail because they did ambush instead of science?

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