In 2002, Israeli army chief Moshe Yaalon declared: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people”.
More than any other quote from any other Israeli official, this statement reveals the heart of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
The levels of obscene violence directed at Palestinian protesters in Gaza over the last month attest to Israel’s intentions. To quash aspirations for a homeland, for a future, even for water and food, Israel must enact daily and spectacular violence against the Palestinian population.
Destroying Palestinian self-respect, national aspirations and identity is important for the Israeli state in two ways. To fulfil its expansionist aims, it must conquer land – this means Palestinian territory. And to maintain itself as a “democratic” ethno state, it must maintain a Jewish majority. This means ensuring that as few Palestinians as possible are granted rights under Israeli occupation.
They take the land, but expel the people.
So, when unarmed protesters in Gaza, in their tens of thousands, call for the right of return to their traditional lands, Israel considers this democratic demand an existential threat.
Protesters are shot with live ammunition. Bullets blast into the bodies of teenage boys, the skulls of fathers and the backs of women running. Tear gas canisters explode near protesters and babies choke on the fumes.
This spectacular violence is almost routine. Israel was built on brutal dispossession and ethnic cleansing.
During the process of state formation and land clearance, Zionist paramilitary organisations were given free rein to terrorise the Palestinian population.
In one example, in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, the Irgun (“The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel”) massacred hundreds.
“They ran like cats”, Yehoshua Zettler, the commander of the operation, said, describing Palestinians fleeing from their homes. “I won’t tell you that we were there with kid gloves on. House after house ... we’re putting in explosives and they are running away. An explosion and move on, an explosion and move on and within a few hours, half the village isn’t there anymore.”
Palestinians who resisted were tied to trees and shot. Their bodies were burnt. Yair Tsaban, a former government minister and member of one of the Zionist youth brigades tasked with “cleaning up the village”, described the scene:
“I saw a fair number of corpses. I don’t remember encountering the corpse of a fighting man. Not at all. I remember mostly women and old men.
“An old man and a woman, sitting in the corner of a room with their faces to the wall, and they are shot in the back. That cannot have been in the heat of battle. No way.”
Moderate elements of the nascent Israeli state criticised some actions, but this spectacular violence served its purpose: it sent a clear signal that resistance would be obliterated. As Zionist militias entered other Palestinian towns, they reported locals fleeing, yelling “Deir Yassin!”
Menachem Begin, prime minister from 1977 to 1983, had been a leading member of the Irgun. What he began in 1948, he continued in the 1980s. Begin and defence minister Ariel Sharon presided over the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, another expansionist adventure.
They oversaw massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The Israeli military facilitated and encouraged the killing of up to 3,500 Palestinians by members of the Kataeb, also known as the Phalange, a Lebanese Christian party. US journalist Robert Fisk was one of the first on the scene. He described what he saw in horrifying detail:
“[T]here were women lying in houses with their skirts torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies – blackened babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24 hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition – tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.”
Again, this violence had its intended effect. It sent a signal to Palestinian resistance movements: stand down or you will be slaughtered.
Israel’s spectacular violence toward the Palestinians has come with what the Australian journalist John Pilger has called “creeping genocide”. This is the everyday violence that Israel enacts on the Palestinian population. This is the violence that rarely elicits global press, violence that is all the more shocking for the silence that surrounds it.
Take the Gaza Strip. The territory is suffering an Israeli-imposed economic blockade slowly killing the 2.5 million inhabitants. Between 2007 and 2010, Israeli authorities devised mathematical formulae to determine how much food to allow into the strip, based on a count of how many calories were needed to allow the population barely to survive.
The siege of Gaza results in the strip having only four hours of electricity a day. Running essential services is extremely difficult. Gaza’s hospitals rely on generators that often fail. Death rates in hospitals are high. Ninety-seven percent of Gaza’s drinking water is contaminated. Sara Roy from Harvard’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies recently said: “Innocent people, most of them young, are slowly being poisoned by the water they drink”.
In the occupied West Bank, daily indignities humiliate Palestinians. To get to work, visit family or go shopping, many thousands of Palestinians are forced to walk through armed checkpoints. These checkpoints resemble cages and are opened or shut at seemingly random intervals. So Palestinians are made to wait, held at gunpoint, sometimes for hours, before they can get to their destination. This is daily violence, largely unquestioned by the world.
Many people were shocked by the contrast between the images of the bloodshed in Gaza and those of Netanyahu, Ivanka Trump and diplomats celebrating the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.
While protesters were weeping over lost friends or family, some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet were drinking champagne and nibbling on expensive canapés.
This callous disregard for Palestinian life is shocking. But it is standard. Violence, spectacular and mundane, is part and parcel of the Israeli project. It always has been.