Israeli inability to conceive of Palestinians as fully human

by Yaniv Reich on January 3, 2010

Do Israelis give Palestinians the same human impulses they give themselves? In the Israeli mind, can Palestinians formulate the same obvious questions that would emerge from an Israeli facing the same situation?

Is there any possible level of Palestinian suffering that would cause Israelis to empathize substantially with them?

In a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Larry Derfner explores this line of thought by posing the following “taboo” question:

If anybody treated us like we’re treating the people in Gaza, what would we do?

This question is not about the legitimation of violence. Indeed, the point that must be made is precisely the opposite: By disallowing Palestinians the basic thoughts that we hold so dearly and naturally, we make possible our immeasurable violence against them.

Derfner continues:

“We make it our business not to see, hear or think about how, indeed, we are treating the people in Gaza.

All these shocked dignitaries, all these reports, these details, these numbers – thousands of destroyed this and tens of thousands of destroyed that. Rubble, sewage, malnutrition, crying babies, humanitarian crises – who can keep up? Who cares? They did it to themselves. Where to for lunch?

It’s not that we can’t imagine life in Gaza. It’s that we are determined not to try to imagine. If we did, we might not stop there. Next we might try to imagine what it would be like if our country were in the condition in which we left Gaza. And sooner or later we might try to imagine what we would do if we were living over here like they’re living over there.

Or not even what we would do, just what we would think – about the people, about the country, that did that to us and that wouldn’t even allow us to begin to recover after the war was over. That blockaded our borders and allowed in only enough supplies to keep us at subsistence level, to prevent starvation and mass epidemics.

What would we think, what would we do, if somebody, some country, did that to us?
But is that how we would react? Is that what Israelis would do if a foreign army did to this country what the IDF did to that one a year ago? If another country sent F-16s, Apache helicopters, white phosphorous, drones, tanks and battalions into Israel, if any nation bombed and killed over here like we bombed and killed in Gaza, then rubbed our noses in it afterward, would we want to make peace with them?
Aside from choking the flow of goods to Gaza by land, we blockade their entire coast. We don’t allow ships to sail into Gaza or out. Does anyone stop ships from coming and going at the ports of Eilat, Ashdod or Haifa? What would Israel do if anyone tried? (Think of what Israel did two weeks after Egypt blockaded the port of Eilat in May 1967. Author’s note: Israel launched strikes that were the opening military actions of the Six Day War.)

We also blockade Gaza’s airspace, preventing planes from flying in or out. Does anybody stop planes from flying in and out of Israel? Would we stand for it if someone did?

For 37 years, between 1967 and 2005, our soldiers and settlers were the overlords of the Gaza Strip. If foreign soldiers and settlers tried to come in and take over Israel, what would we do?
We have to dare to put ourselves in those people’s place. And we have to stop doing to them what we would never allow anyone to do to us. Otherwise, we Israelis have no conscience, and little by little we become capable of anything.

Collectively, we are already so far down this path that its almost certainly too late to shift Israeli opinion away from the inevitable next massacre. Even my typically sane if not hawkish, security-minded aunt, who I have always considered a prototypical Israeli median voter, recently alleged in an email to me that there is no siege on Gaza. This argument is, of course, not only (easily) demonstrably false but also substantially to the right of Netanyahu’s siege policy statement of “no development, no prosperity, no humanitarian crisis”. In my mini-polling world, then, the median voter is now ideologically aligned with the settler freaks Women in Green.

This shift can be occurring only because of a relentless dehumanization of Palestinians. Once Israelis—as opposed to all humans—are taken to be the psychological anchor point, then anything becomes justified in the name of Israeli security, even killing over 1000 civilians.

And it will be used in the same way in Cast Lead II.

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