Monday, March 27, 2006

Wrong wrong wrong

A Mr. Rafi Nulman responded to my article on the Balata invasion with this:

Framing the Question of the Middle East

by Rafi Nulman

I am a left- wing Israeli. As such, Mrs. C's article concerning the invasion of the Balata refugee camp (Israel Attacks Balata Refugee Camp in West Bank, the Bard Free Press Feb. 28) would have pleased me greatly if I had read it in Israel. As a mater of fact, I might have written on a similar topic myself. But written in its current format, I take exception to the articles for two reasons. First, I find the implication that the Israeli army is arbitrarily and intentionally cruel, offensive. And second, the article, like many others of its kind, is not reflective of the full scale of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
Mrs. C’s article paints the details of Israel’s incursion into the refugee camp of Balata. The article highlights the cruelty of the Israeli army. Now granted, the IDF (Israel Defense Force) has many sins to atone for. From poor strategic planning to individual soldier’s cruelty, the IDF’s conscience is far from clean; but it crucial to remember that these are mistakes. When a soldier is caught acting cruelly, he is tried and put in jail. It is a perverted kind of wishful thinking to believe that Israeli soldiers are, as a rule, inhumane. The policy of the IDF has ever been to intentionally target only “ticking bombs” (proven terrorists with intentions) and people who already have blood on their hands. While accidents do occur, common sense can assure you that the IDF does not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the purpose of killing innocent civilians.
Mrs. C's article tells a tale of terrible suffering. And there is no doubt that the Palestinians are suffering. And yet, is there really a need to pile more rhetoric onto this already- charged situation? This conflict is not, and should not be, a competition to see who is suffering more; though we should not forget that Israeli victims of suicide bombings suffer as well. Moreover, how does Mrs. C expect the IDF to react? Palestinian ambulances have been used numerous times for the smuggling of weapons, for the transport of suicide bombers and as bomb- trucks in themselves. Female suicide bombers have disguised themselves as pregnant women to avoid suspicion. These cynical exploitations of human decency beg for the use of extreme measures.
While the IDF has killed many civilians accidentally, how does Mrs. C expect the IDF to react to a perceived enemy that intentionally kills civilians? It should be stressed that the IDF enters populated regions in reaction to the firing of rockets or the dispatch of suicide bombers from within those civilian areas; the Palestinian “freedom fighters” intentionally attack from within densely populated areas, so as to cynically use their own people as a human shield. Now these explanations might not satisfy you, they certainly don't fully satisfy me; but I implore the reader to seek beyond the implied equation that suffering necessitates inhumanity.
My second objection to Mrs. C's article is that it is does not encompass the full reality of a conflict. A conflict has two sides. Her article is written in a vacuum. Her article is insightful and probably fairly accurate, but unfortunately, it does not recognize the existence of a legitimate debate. I sincerely applaud her attempt to combat apathy, but there must be a balance. The portrayal of suffering, while deeply humbling, adds nothing to a highly emotional conflict. There has been great suffering on both sides, but only if we escape the race to victimhood will we be able to actually speak in the lexicon of solutions. We must reject the simplistic assumption that greater suffering inherently means greater justice. I would welcome Mrs. C's article if it would be written amid a reality of discussion; but until there is recognition of an actual conflict, articles such as hers will add nothing but more oil to the flames.

I responded to his article with my own. Here it is:

Mr. Nulman, Why are you afraid of the truth?

by Kate C

In the last issue of The Free Press, Bard student and self-declared ‘left-wing Israeli’ Rafi Nulman writes that my 28 February article on the Israeli invasion of the Balata refugee camp adds ‘more oil to the flames.’ He criticizes the news piece ‘for two reasons’: he first asserts that my ‘implication that the Israeli army is arbitrarily and intentionally cruel’ is ‘offensive’, and then that ‘the article, like many others of its kind, is not reflective of the full scale of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’ Nulman also, in a typical move, states seemingly without a hint of self-reflection or irony that, because he is a left-wing Israeli, the article ‘would have pleased [him] greatly’ had he ‘read it in Israel.’

Before systematically deconstructing his specific arguments, it must be said that the premise of his rebuttal to my news piece---and not, as he suggests, the journalism itself---is precisely the problem that continues to fuel the fires of violence in the Middle East. ‘There is no doubt that Palestinians are suffering,’ he writes. But according to Nulman, reporting on any of the particulars of this suffering is just ‘pil[ing] more rhetoric onto an already charged situation.’ Nulman here reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld, who ceaselessly demands that al-Jazeera cease publishing photos of US bombing victims on the grounds that they constitute incitement. (I wonder if Nulman would take his theory to the logical conclusion the Bush administration arrived at when they bombed an al-Jazeera camera crew in Iraq, killing a journalist who had covered the American bombing campaign from the ground.)

Though Nulman and Rumsfeld may rather that the dirty work of their militaries be concealed from the public, the problems in Palestine and Iraq have nothing to do with the existence of honest journalism reporting from the ground, up. In fact, they have more to do with its absence. The problem in Palestine can more accurately be identified as an Israeli-manufactured ideological and institutional shield from seeing the effects of their supposed ‘anti-terror’ policies on human beings---a problem Nulman manifests perfectly in his critique of my article.

The article I wrote on the Balata invasion was printed in the “News” section of the paper for a reason. It was not an opinion piece, though I will not deny that I have opinions or that my opinions influenced my decision to cover the invasion. No journalist reporting a specific story can ever describe the totality of socio-economic, political or historical narratives surrounding a given problem. This is not a journalist’s job.

The so-called ‘balance’ Nulman seeks is not demanded of articles written about specific military operations in other conflicts. My piece is, in a very fundamental sense, a simple article: Israel invaded, people were killed. I covered the invasion, just as many journalists covered the American invasion of Fallujah. In their descriptions of the latter event they were not expected to describe the field of historical and political circumstance that surrounded or produced it. Why the double standard that expects me to produce an Israeli narrative to cover for or explain away Israeli actions in Balata? The article was about the one invasion, not the history of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict.

The premise of Nulman’s article is problematic at best. What he is really saying is that he does not want people outside of Israel to read the details of what his state’s army does to Palestinians. The international and US media do not pay attention to the dignity or human rights of refugees in Balata, and so it must be shocking for him to read about their humanity in the pages of a Bard newspaper. Shocking and, clearly, disconcerting. But there is a way for him to address what he sees as biased journalism.

If Nulman seeks what he imagines is journalistic ‘balance,’ he should cease writing ill-informed and interested attack op-eds and instead write a news piece about how Israelis suffer from Palestinian repression. (I would, frankly, love to find out how he thinks that works. Is it all the American aid for building and expanding settlements? Is it the unwavering support for Israel in the UN that results in US vetoes of each and every resolution condemning Israeli atrocities in the territories? Or is it ‘shoot and cry’ syndrome, which sends young Israeli boys to India for a few months or years of opium and hashish smoking after they have ‘suffered’ so dreadfully killing Palestinian children and controlling Palestinian life at checkpoints and in watchtowers? Suicide bombings are indeed terrible and terroristic, but to compare or attempt to equate the stifling terror of life under colonization and occupation to Israeli experience goes far beyond chutzpah.)

Nulman’s specific criticisms of the article are equally difficult to digest. To support his first claim, that the Israeli army is not arbitrarily and intentionally cruel, he argues that Palestinian fighters ‘intentionally attack from within densely populated areas, so as to cynically use their own people as a human shield.’ I would ask Mr. Nulman, who obviously has no idea of what he speaks, where he would prefer the Palestinian fighter to attack from.

Would he prefer that the fighter attempt to leave his community while it is under full-scale attack by Israeli soldiers armed with jeeps, tanks and helicopters? He certainly does not support bringing the battle to his home turf, as he would most assuredly undergo shock and horror if Palestinian fighters were to begin shooting at soldiers in the streets of Yaffa---the now-Israeli town Balata refugees fled during the 1947-48 nakbe (catastrophe), never to return. Checkpoints, Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement, and surveillance make travel near impossible for Palestinians---and particularly so for fighters.

So where, Mr. Nulman, would you prefer the Palestinians fight their occupiers? Balata is an open-air prison, contained and surveilled by Israel. There is no other place for them to fight when Israel attacks their homes. The very fact of Balata’s forced isolation demolishes Nulman’s second objection to my article: that it is ‘written in a vacuum.’ The vacuum he perceptively identifies but misguidedly theorizes would not exist were it not for the occupation. It is a biting paradox that he find himself displeased with a report from within the Israeli-produced vacuum.

Nulman further defends the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) by citing the odious claim that Palestinians use ambulances for smuggling weapons and fighters. The Israeli army has said this numerous times, and numerous times has been found to have fabricated images and lied about it. (One example is the infamous ‘stretcher-as-rocket’ photograph.) Nulman also bemoans suicide bombers who disguise themselves as women. He writes that ‘these cynical exploitations of human decency beg for the use of extreme measures.’ ‘How,’ he writes, do I ‘expect the IDF to react?’ How Nulman can even approach writing about Palestinians exploiting the human decency of their relentless occupiers it is hard for me to imagine---or take seriously.

As the foreign, occupying power Israel is expected, under international law, to respect the rights of Palestinians as an occupied people. The state does not. The Palestinians have the legal right, enshrined in numerous international laws to which Israel is a signatory, to resist Israeli military occupation. The Israelis have deliberately and with great vigor crushed any Palestinian attempts to do so, even non-violently.

Do you remember, Mr. Nulman, the first Palesitnian intifada, back when you were a small boy? During this first mass uprising against Israeli occupation, Palestinians organized tax revolts and demonstrated non-violently, using stones and community gardens to fight against the American-bankrolled, Israeli war machine. In response to the largely non-violent resistance, then Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered his troops to use an ‘iron fist’ and to ‘break their bones.’

The command was not intended or interpreted as figurative language: Israeli soldiers systematically used rocks and the butts of their guns to break the bones of Palestinians who were caught throwing stones or participating in demonstrations. There is a generation of Palestinians who have deformed hands, arms and legs as a result of Rabin’s order and individual soldiers’ compliance. The Israeli army, as well as the larger Israeli society, have a highly developed culture that demands a dehumanization of the Palestinians in order to justify expelling, brutalizing and colonizing them. Nulman is practicing wishful thinking to suggest that such racist and dehumanizing treatment, this very culture of violence and humiliation, has faded in the Israeli military or society.

If he or anyone else needs further proof of this culture of arbitrary and indiscriminate violence against Palestinian civilians, he should read about how Palestinian political prisoners are treated in Israeli torture dens. Cathertine Cook’s book Stolen Youth: The Politics of Israel’s Detention of Palestinian Children makes for particularly disconcerting reading. There is, woefully, plenty more like it.

Finally, Nulman asserts that my article implied that Israel’s violence against Palestinians is arbitrary and indiscriminate. I did nothing but report what happened and what happens frequently in Balata. If such reportage suggests to Nulman that Israel’s policies in the territories are arbitrarily and indiscriminately violent, he should do more as a citizen of the offending state to stop them. He certainly needs to stop wasting his time chastising those on the outside who bother to pay attention to what Israel does with American money. The article I wrote on Balata was not meant to solve the conflict. I wrote it to inform Bard students about a particularly grotesque articulation of Israeli policy in the territories. I am sorry, Mr. Nulman, for you and for your nation, if you do not appreciate my airing the details.

Balata camp invaded

The Israeli army, backed with Apache attack helicopters, tanks and jeeps, invaded the Balata refugee camp at 1:00 am on February 19, 2006. The invasion was the largest and most serious the dense refugee camp has endured in the past two years. The attack began with Israeli soldiers announcing a curfew. In the occupied West Bank, ‘curfew’ means that no one can leave their home at all, not simply that they must stay inside after a given hour. Curfew is constant, and makes emergency medical work and other vital services, as well as simply living, difficult to impossible.

All entrances to Balata were immediately blocked by the army, on some streets by tanks or jeeps and on others by hastily constructed roadblocks, or mounds of earth and trash. One ambulance was trapped inside the camp, and it was able to bring wounded only to the edge of the camp, where people on stretchers were moved to another ambulance. The medical workers did not drive the ambulance out of the camp for fear that the army would prevent them from returning. According to an international volunteer press release, “normal ambulance traffic came to a complete halt.”

International volunteers worked with Palestinian medical personnel to get wounded civilians to an emergency field clinic set up inside the camp and to hospitals in Nablus and nearby cities. The following incidents were witnessed and reported by international volunteers working with the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS) and confirmed by the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). These incidents took place during the first day of the invasion; that first day, over 80 people were injured and four killed, most of them civilians and many of them youths.

Two young men were shot dead and over thirty injured in the first hours of the invasion. A group of young men and boys was gathered at the entrance to the camp, attempting to fight off the Israeli attack with rocks. Their rocks were opposing guns, tanks and helicopters. Medical volunteers were called to the site where Mohammed Ahmad Natur and Ibrahim Ahmad Sheikh Khalil had been shot. One had been shot in the neck and the other in the chest. They were later declared dead. The Israeli occupation forces later declared that the two had been planting bombs on Market street. The volunteers who witnessed the murders witnessed no explosions or bomb squads in the area, and the army continued to use the road in question throughout the day. It is thus highly unlikely that there was an actual bomb threat.

The morning of the nineteenth also brought tragedy to a Palestinian family-to-be when an ambulance carrying a woman in complicated labor was attacked by two Israeli army jeeps. The jeeps drove into both sides of the ambulance, preventing it from moving, and then shot at it. The soldiers forced the ambulance to stand still for half an hour, using it as a shield against youth throwing stones. Using ambulances as human shields contravenes numerous international laws.

At 11:15 am, the military attempted to close the UN medical clinic by shooting
warning shots and percussion grenades at it. They also prevented patients
from entering the clinic. The army also closed the UN girls school in the camp, turning it into a temporary military base and bringing in generators and large quantities of water and food.

According to the IWPS press release, at 1:00 pm, “two ambulances were held up by several jeeps. According to the ambulance team they were detained for 30 minutes and someone with a bullet wound in the shoulder was beaten inside one of the ambulance.
The soldiers forced the ambulance personnel to undress his wound, which had just stopped bleeding. The ambulance was held until the family, with the help of the ambulance team and the IWPS volunteers, brought his ID card. After his ID was checked, the ambulance continued its way, only to be stopped by the next jeep on the road.”

The Israeli army’s official spokespeople did not publicly explain the terror inflicted on the people of Balata camp. The army website does not contain any information or even a press release about the invasion, and it has been completely absent from the international media. The invasion would be bad press for Israel were anyone to pay attention. Though one high level al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade activist was arrested during the operation, and three low-level fighters were killed, the most serious impact it had was to remind Balata residents of who has the upper hand in the conflict when it comes to brute violence.

Intimidation and humiliation constitute a large part of Israeli strategy in this regard. The IWPS report further states that “in several instances, soldiers drove through the camps cursing the residents' mothers and sisters in Arabic in what seemed to be an attempt to provoke the youth to throw stones. The volunteers have witnessed no armed resistance, only youth throwing stones and building barricades.”

It seems, too, as if Israel has gotten over its fear of wounding or murdering international peace volunteers. The murders of American activist Rachel Corrie and British photographer Tom Hurndall in 2003 braced the Israeli state and garnered the army significant negative media attention throughout Europe and other parts of the world outside of the United States. Israel’s renewed arrogance and fearlessness may be a result of the media spotlight on the recent Hamas electoral victory, and the resulting obfuscation of Israel’s acts on the ground in occupied territory.

What emerges in the shadows of this media spotlight is horrifying. A Dutch medical volunteer was one of four injured volunters, two Palestinian and two international, who were attacked by Israeli soldiers as they stood trapped between a building and a military jeep at the height of the reinvasion’s intensity on February 23rd during one of many inexplicable attacks. The building they were standing in front of had been set afire by the Israeli army, and the army prevented fire rescue teams from approaching it because they said they intended to set off more bombs inside it.

The press release describes the scene: “ At 2:00 without any warning shots [the medical volunteers] were fired at and a grenade was thrown at them from around the corner. According to the volunteers the shooting came from the direction of the alleyway where the Israeli soldiers were. A twenty two year old American student was wounded by shrapnel in the hand a twenty nine year old Dutch volunteer was wounded by shrapnel in the thigh and shoulder, Jirar Candola an ambulance driver with the UPMRC was shot in the arm and leg and Ihab Mansour, a medical volunteer working with the Palestinian scientific society, was shot in the head and taken away by the Israeli soldiers.”

"We were standing in the alley way, everything was quite when suddenly without warning we heard a big explosion and heard gun shots. I then saw Jarar and Ihab liying on the floor. Ihab wasn't moving,” said the wounded Dutch volunteer.

The rest of the day witnessed the deaths of more innocents. “19 year-old Ibrahim Saadi was shot dead while throwing a stone at the Israeli armored jeeps. 20 year-old Naim Abu Sarif was shot dead by a sniper while standing on the roof of his house.” Five camp residents were wounded on the 23rd, including a 36 year-old taxi driver who nearly died due to bullet wounds to his head and shoulder.

After blowing up the house that they had lit aflame, Israeli soldiers withdrew from the camp in the early evening, leaving behind them a trail of destruction, trash, damaged water and electricity infrastructure and indescribable human suffering.

An International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteer wrote of the funeral of two of the young men who were shot dead by Israeli forces, “That morning we watched the funeral procession of Ibrahim and Naim from a roof and when I saw those kid’s faces it was time for a long overdue cry. They were so young, so beautiful and I can’t get their faces out of my head.”

In the hours following the invasion, a local Palestinian ISM coordinator was kidnapped by the Israeli secret service. He was tortured in his three hour interrogation, during which he was accused of having connections to ‘terrorists’. The ISM is committed to non-violence in word and deed.

For more information on the Balata invasion, see