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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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