Israeli soldiers in front of the barrier between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Photo: Getty
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How we grew up: an Israeli veteran on the dehumanising power of military control

Yehuda Shaul writes of how he and his friends learned to glorify power, and lost their ability to see Palestinians as people whose lives are no less valuable. Now, he and hundreds of others are working to end the occupation.

The current round of violence in Gaza has come to an official close. In Israel we have begun to summarise the events of the past few weeks and question the future. As summaries reenter the public discourse, I am reminded of past rounds of summarisation.  I try to grasp what has changed from one summary to the next.  From Operation “Defensive Shield” (2002) in the West Bank, to “Summer Rains” (2006) in the Gaza Strip – from “Cast Lead” (2009) to “Pillar of Defense” (2012) to the most recent operation in Gaza.

In 2002 a fighter jet dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of Salah Shehade, the former head of Hamas’ military wing, in a residential neighborhood. The bomb killed him in addition to 14 other innocent people, 11 of whom were children. The incident didn’t blow over quietly. Reservist pilots heavily criticised this type of operational activity in an open letter. The Supreme Court encouraged an independent inquiry into the situation, and as a result the government appointed a committee to investigate the operation. Throughout the last month we bombed dozens of houses inhabited by Palestinians – some targeted by the Air Force and others using artillery and mortar fire. These bombs killed hundreds of men, women and children. The bombing of the homes of Hamas members, who do not pose an immediate security threat to Israel, has become an explicit Israeli policy – even when it is known that innocent civilians are inside.

When Shahade’s home was bombed, there were people who questioned the morality of the action. Throughout the last month, over a decade after the aforementioned bomb, hardly anyone in Israel and among its allies around the world criticises the policy of bombing the homes of Hamas members. The lone voices that are heard speaking out against it are hastily silenced. After a month of fighting, over 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza. According to the UN, at least 1,400 of the deceased were civilian casualties, 458 of which were children. Israeli society remains silent.

What has changed? My reply begins with a memory from the year 2004, two months after I was released from my service as a soldier and commander in the Occupied Territories. During that period, my friends and I reflected back on our years of service and understood that as soldiers in the Territories we had each gradually erased our moral red line. We understood that in order to carry out our routine activities as soldiers, whose role is to control the territories and the civilian Palestinian population – we needed to erase the humanity of Palestinians along with our own humanity. And that’s what we did. This understanding led us to produce an exhibition of photographs and video testimonies of soldiers from Hebron, the city in which we served for a year. Our goal was to share with the Israeli public the things that we did daily there, in their name.

One of the many attendees of the exhibition, was Lieutenant Colonel Chen Livni, the Deputy Commander of the Nahal Brigade. We were all veterans of the Nahal Brigade and he had come to see what all the fuss was about. After a tour of the gallery, Livni said that he agreed with the facts that we displayed regarding the process combatants undergo in the Territories. However, he noted that he disagreed with us on one point. “You call this process moral corruption, insensitivity, or intoxication of power,” he said. “I call it growing up.” In response to Livni’s statement, one of my friends replied, “You’re right. That’s how people grow up in Israel. Which is the reason why we created this exhibition and are breaking our silence.” My friend was right. Adolescents in Israel grow up when they learn to impose military control over another nation.

Livni might have been right in this sense, as I would be obliged to say that 47 years as an occupying power have taught Israeli society a similar lesson to the one learned by every soldier who serves in the Territories. We have learned to glorify power, and have lost our ability to see Palestinians as people whose lives are no less valuable than ours. We have learned to avert our gaze from the tears of the hundreds of children who were killed over the course of the past month in Gaza. In addition to the dozens of families that were erased when one-ton bombs were dropped on their homes. The destructive images give rise to feelings of pride, rather than questions about the people for whom the rubble was once a home. The abject poverty in Gaza arouses contempt, instead of questions regarding the roots of poverty in a region that remains under Israeli control.

From 2004 to this day, my activism is guided by a refusal to accept Livni’s reality. This is not “growing up”, but rather brutalisation. In order to grow up, we need to stop thinking like occupiers, and to start thinking like human beings. As human beings, we can’t avert our eyes and close our ears. Most important, we cannot stop asking questions. Questions about our moral red lines as a society; questions about the moral price that we’ve paid, and will continue to pay, for the ongoing occupation; questions that are related at their core to the recognition of the value of all human lives in this region – both Israeli and Palestinian.

Yehuda Shaul is a co-founder and member of Breaking the Silence, an organisation of almost 1,000 Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle