Middle Eastern Politics: Issues on the Israeli side

I spend a lot of time in this blog talking about Middle Eastern politics, often from the perspective of what terrorist group X is up to this week. A conversation with a friend of mine a few days ago reminded me that I’m really not giving enough attention to the (very severe) problems with Israeli activity as well. What’s particularly interesting about these is that they’re at least somewhat tractable, and many of these can be solved independently of solving the (much less tractable) problems on the Palestinian side.

  1. Checkpoints: Number and location The West Bank is a maze of security checkpoints, which make it in practice impossible for anyone to get from point A to point B. Apart from contributing to pervasive unemployment, lack of education, etc. (because people can’t get from where they live to where they work, farm, study, and so on) it’s the root of much higher social tensions. Consider the effect of waiting in a multi-hour traffic jam on your mood; then consider what it means if the traffic jam was put in intentionally to hamper you, but not other people who are allowed to pass by, and if at the front of this you’ll be subjected to an interrogation procedure whose principal purpose is to humiliate you.

    That last phrase was chosen carefully, and the reason I mention it is because these checkpoints aren’t quite what they seem at first glance. Some of them make good sense from a security checkpoint – ones along major roads or at the outer perimeter of the West Bank. But the large majority of these checkpoints are simply placed inside the West Bank, blocking off basically every inter-village road, or occasionally in a random (roving) location. These checkpoints make very marginal security sense; at the best, they may capture a single wanted man, but at such a social expense that it seems damned hard to justify it. Others don’t seem to make any sense at all. It seems to me that a very simple way to grossly reduce the tension level would be to cut back sharply on the number of marginal checkpoints. While this has a certain security cost – people would be travelling more freely, and one must assume bad ones as well as good – I believe this is an acceptable cost to pay.

    (And I say this in the full realization that it’s my life, and my family’s, that could be put at risk by this. But there are families on the other side of this too, and there is a point where we have to balance security versus the costs of totalitarianism.)

  2. Checkpoints: Conduct of soldiers There is a problem which is discussed within Israel, but not much: if you ask people, they will admit there is a problem and it’s probably worth examining, but on the whole people just haven’t internalized the sense of “wait, this is serious!” The problem is the conduct of the soldiers at these checkpoints.

    As with any group of people, you have to assume there will be good and bad apples, and that’s definitely the case here. However, we have an unusual situation that makes things worse: small groups of soldiers far out in the field, already feeling threatened, and with many of the officers joining in the bad behavior because of political reasons. This tends to give the worse elements in the field a sense of more free rein, and hamper the people with good moral sense.

    Let me give some examples, from my friend’s recent trip out there. (I sat with her and reviewed her documentation of this a few days ago, including pictures, interviews, etc. Publication forthcoming; I’ll post a reference when it’s out. I rate the credibility of all of the below as very high.) A very common behavior is systematic humiliation at the checkpoints: for instance, one checkpoint recently got upgraded to have a waiting area with a large turnstile to keep people going through one-at-a-time. On days when the turnstile was broken, the people crossing were made to wait standing outside in the rain, typically for a few hours, while the soldiers stood under the shelter. A common thing at this (and other) checkpoints was that, after a few hours, the order would be given that women and men above a certain age would be allowed to pass that day; everyone else wouldn’t. One incident (documented in photos) showed some men begging the soldiers for permission, and the soldiers finally telling them to go pick up trash in a nearby ditch, and if they did so for long enough, they would be allowed to pass.

    Not exactly something prompting good relations, or a stable social fabric. But there are much more serious cases.

    One (unfortunately not isolated) case involved a woman seven months pregnant with twins who began to go into labor at night. Her husband took her to the checkpoint between his village and the nearest hospital (in Ramallah), even though he knew that the checkpoints are closed at night. He woke the soldiers there, who were apologetic but told him that they had strict orders not to allow anyone through between 7:30 and 7:30. There was an observer on hand from Machsom Watch (an organization of Israeli women, mostly former soldiers, who do things like this – very respectable, btw) who interceded on their behalf, contacting their officer and up, finally waking a member of Parliament and getting authorization for an ambulance to come to the scene. The ambulance took over an hour to arrive (more security, this time on the Ramallah side), and when it arrived they transferred the woman from her husband’s car into the ambulance. She gave birth in the ambulance to two premature infants, but at this point the hospital was too far to be reached in time. Both infants died.

    The fact is that the order to “not allow anyone through at night,” even in order to save a human life, is strictly against Israeli law and custom and would be strongly against public sympathy as well.1 But who gave this order? Why were they not examined and held accountable for it?

    The systematic and pervasive problem in the handling of these checkpoints, I believe, is a lack of transparency and accountability. Orders are given it’s not clear by whom, soldiers operate with a general sense of what is acceptable that they would never dare to admit to if it were known by the public, and in general people are behaving in the way that they would if they were allowed to give their worst impulses free rein and knowing that they will not be known for it.

    This is a problem for human life, obviously, but also a problem for security (it’s hard to imagine a more effective way of creating real, lasting animosity than what’s been happening at these checkpoints) and a problem for Israel on two fronts: first, because of the trouble it creates in the territories directly, but second because the soldiers who spend a few years doing this do not suddenly return to civilian life and become happy, well-adjusted people. There’s been a growing problem of soldiers returning with serious drug problems, becoming involved in criminal activity, and engaging in violent behavior in their daily lives – the symptoms of a failure of morale and creeping anomie. In a society that shapes itself so strongly around its moral underpinnings, (and I mean this – if you ask people what it means to be Israeli, you’ll hear about rules of moral conduct from them) it isn’t surprising that people that are asked to intentionally go against all of those for a long period of time are having serious issues and trouble turning into part of the society.

    I believe that this is actually one of the most critical issues and, simultaneously, one of the most tractable by means of the two standards of good governance, transparency and accountability, by a combination of official openness and routine presence of NGO’s and of the press. There is a potential cost in that a more humane checkpoint force may be more vulnerable to attack by a determined foe, but I’m willing to conjecture that this will reduce the number of attacks by less-determined foes who were prompted to attack them by this very behavior. Plus, it’s simply a moral issue: if people are doing things as a matter of policy that they would not be willing to admit to in public, not for secrecy reasons but simply because they know it would not be morally acceptable, something is deeply wrong. The basic strictures and construction of צה״ל are set up precisely to counter this.

  3. Behavior of settlers To discuss this, we need to partition the settlers into three categories: the extremists, the political strategists, and the economic settlers. These groups are behaving in very different ways, and the problems are different.

    First, the extremists. The worst case of this are people like the madman who opened fire on a bus with an automatic weapon a few days ago; they are terrorists and the lowest form of scum. But that is simply the extreme case of systematically unbelievable behavior by a group of people that believe, quite honestly, that they have a divine right to be there, and the Palestinians don’t. Typical (and I mean that literally) bits of behavior I’ve seen are: threatening Palestinian families with weapons (almost all of these settlers are heavily armed), spreading poison in places where Palestinians graze their sheep, dumping refuse and raw sewage into Palestinian villages (often these settlers take over hilltops to form outposts and camps, and intentionally route their dumps and sewers to pour down onto Palestinian towns), intentionally befouling wells and water supplies, and wanton destruction of orchards, farms, roads, and houses.

    These people have gone completely beyond any pretense of law; their routine behavior, if it were done in a place that had any rule of law in it, would land most of them in prison. But they have substantial political cover: they know how to operate the media, and have support from the political strategists (see below), and so the army knows that if they move to stop these people, there will be talk of Jews attacking Jews, and of the collapse of the foundation of the State of Israel, which (according to elements of the political right wing there) is ultimately to say that Israeli settlers, no matter how odious their behavior might be, have more rights than Palestinians.

    The fact that this is a serious problem is pretty obvious, and this one is harder to solve than the others because it has an intrinsically political dimension: the appropriate solution, in my mind, would be to simply enforce the rule of law on these people, arresting them and charging them with crimes. However, this would be damned difficult, both from a political perspective and a practical one, because they would resist with armed force if pressed enough, and to do this would undoubtedly trigger civil war. Not that I have any doubts as to who the victor would be, but the cost of this would be immense, and I don’t trust our neighbors quite enough to believe that they wouldn’t take civil war as an opportunity to invade. (Welcome to the Middle East. This isn’t just because it’s Israel, btw; any other country in the area would have the same calculus)

    But these people are no better than Hamas, and they deserve treatment no better than them. I have no personal objection to the use of armed force to remove them.

    Next come the political strategists, mostly in the form of the right-wing parties.2 They are mostly interested in creating a “greater Israel,” which in practice means making the West Bank ultimately a part of Israel proper, and breaking the Palestinians as a political force completely before then. Optimally, they would like the Palestinians to emigrate, but failing that they’re willing to let them be around as second-class citizens. A lot of the bad policy referred to above is essentially produced by these groups, which still have nontrivial support in government. Likud is somewhat split by this; Arik Sharon seems to have come out in favor of peace (vide the Gaza pullout), while Netanyahu has decided to make his political hay by favoring the more hard-line side. (He resigned from government this morning in protest over said pullout)

    These are tied in with the economic settlers, who are simply people who are living in the West Bank because it’s cheap to live there. These people, by and large, have no strong political affiliation; demographically they’re mostly Russian immigrants. The problem here is that they really don’t care; if they’re told they can move in to an area, on condition that they treat the Palestinians like scum, that’s fine by them. And this is basically what happens.

    A good example is Ariel, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank. The political strategists are trying to encourage people to move there, especially from the economically depressed south of the country4; you can see billboards offering 100,000-shekel incentives (about $20k) for people who move there. The town is quite pretty, very nice especially given the low cost of living. It’s also built on a hilltop with its dump going right onto the roof of a nearby Palestinian town, is accessed by a high-speed, well-maintained road that only settlers are allowed on, running just in parallel to (and above) a poorly-maintained Palestinian dirt road that leads to a checkpoint, etc. etc. Basically, a lot of these economic immigrants are being brought in to establish demographic realities and enforce a political viewpoint in the process. (Remember that if political party X brings people into these settlements, and pays them bounties and so on, they can be pretty confident of those people’s votes in the next election – something which is not at all lost on anyone)

    Basically, this problem is a problem of politics: people believing that ultimately, driving the Palestinians out by making their daily life intolerable is the right thing to do.

    The real problem with this is that we have here a political movement that (apart from its most radical elements, who scare everyone) isn’t willing to publicly admit to its real motivations, because they would be considered morally odious. It’s just like the situation of the various pro-slavery and anti-immigrant parties in the US prior to the Civil War (e.g. the Know-Nothing Party), who publicly proclaimed certain political views while privately winking about their real objectives, and acted towards those real objectives at every opportunity. Again, I say: if a group involved in public policy is not willing to admit to its real ends and means in public, this is both a sign of unacceptable behavior and counter to any policy of good governance.

    The problem of the political and economic settler movement is thus one that’s best addressed by the light of publicity. These people need to be asked, exactly what solution do they want in the long term? If they want a greater Israel, where will these Palestinians go, and how specifically are they going to be convinced to do so? What policies are they encouraging at any given moment, in the field, and how are these playing out?

There are several other issues that I could approach in here, but I think that this essay has gone on long enough. The key summary point is that many of the problems on the Israeli side, which are just as damaging in the long term as the problems on the Palestinian side, are coming about because people are engaging in policies that they do not feel that they could justify in public, and trusting in social decorum to keep it from being discussed. The solution, in many of these cases, is simply to shine the lights of transparency and accountability on their activities, and make certain that they do nothing that they cannot explain.

I believe, very deeply, that the Israeli public is by and large very moral, and very actively concerned with moral issues: this is a language in which the public can be approached and a language in which these issues must be approached.

I’ll close this with a reminder from the Mishnah: The sword comes upon the world for the delay of justice, and for the perversion of justice. If we are complicit in allowing a perversion of justice to continue, we will pay for it in war later, and this cost cannot be averted by any claim of necessity, because injustice creates its own costs no matter why it is perpetrated. If there are things which we can fix, it is morally imperative for us to do so, even if the other side does not fix all that they can first, because our own moral conduct is not ever dependent on the moral conduct of others.


1 There is precedent for this sort of exception – I remember a few years ago, a girl who had been on the transplant list for a while had a heart come free in France on Yom Kippur. Another flurry of phone calls, including waking the Minister of the Interior in the middle of the night to open up Israeli airspace in order to let her get on an emergency flight. That level of access, and that level of emergency handling, is considered to be standard procedure in Israel in cases involving human life, and is considered a fairly important social value.

2 Remember when I say “left” and “right” here, I’m referring to the Israeli political left and right, which isn’t really on the same axis as the American left and right. The center-left party is Labor, the center-right Likud; further on the left the big parties are Meretz (mostly pro-peace) and Shinui (whose entire platform is being anti-Shas); on the right the biggest party is/was Shas (in favor of religion and corruption3). There are also more extremist parties, like the now-banned Kach party which believes in the extermination of the Palestinians altogether. Tapuach, the settlement from which the recent murderer came, is built up largely of Kachniks.

3 I’m not kidding. Aryeh Deri was re-elected to be leader of the party while he was serving 3 years for accepting bribes as Minister of the Interior. The whole party is like this.

4 Israel is shaped somewhat like a dagger; if you draw a horizontal line just below its widest point, everything south of that is basically uninhabitable desert. There are a handul of towns, some of them decent-sized, very spread out in there, but the few people who live there – mostly Russian immigrants who moved there because it was cheap – are trying to move out, because there isn’t a damned thing to do there. Not much industry, and agriculture in the middle of the desert isn’t exactly a growth industry. By and large this half of the country has a population density you’d normally associate with Wyoming. This also means that, when you hear about things like the West Bank being 22% of Israel’s surface, it’s really about 40% of the inhabitable surface – so this is a Big Deal, grade 1.

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Published in: on August 7, 2005 at 14:03  Comments (8)  
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8 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful post. Thank you SO MUCH. The problems of international are so tangled and overwhelming, the consequences so dire, and my old tools (protest, letter writing) rendered so (seemingly) useless — it gives me great hope to see even just an analysis. News media cannot be counted on to provide this from anyone whose braincells I trust.
    Now my question is do you have idea of tools we have at our disposal to start a movement, other than just wringing our hands?

  2. This is a wonderful post. Thank you SO MUCH. The problems of international are so tangled and overwhelming, the consequences so dire, and my old tools (protest, letter writing) rendered so (seemingly) useless — it gives me great hope to see even just an analysis. News media cannot be counted on to provide this from anyone whose braincells I trust.
    Now my question is do you have idea of tools we have at our disposal to start a movement, other than just wringing our hands?

  3. There are some things, at least on this front. I’m looking into the group I linked to above, Machsom Watch; (Machsom meaning checkpoint) I’ve heard a lot of good things about them from various sources, and they seem to be doing a good job of enforcing accountability and solving problems in the field. This is also a case where letter-writing has a chance to be useful; the Israeli media needs to be routinely kicked into asking these questions, and trying to turn them into issues.
    What makes this tricky is that fatigue over this subject is a lot worse there than it is here, and anything that sounds like it’s just going to make things more complicated is going to fall on irritated ears. A front-page exposé probably wouldn’t help too much because of this. But starting an active national conversation about why do we have so many checkpoints and what’s happening there might – especially if the conversation comes with ideas for a solution.
    As far as dealing with the extremists, most of the Israeli public is heartily in favor of doing so, but is proceeding with great care to avoid war. The Gaza pullout is part of this; it’s going to be a big political blow against them, creating a precedent for shutting down settlements, and they know it. (Which is why people are preparing for a lot of violence) Systematically weakening them politically will help. One thing that may help this indirectly is anything that creates better job and housing opportunities for Russian immigrants in Israel proper; that would deny them a major source of raw recruits.
    Ultimately, that one is going to have to be solved by something that involves a reexamination of what it means to be Israeli, which is gradually brewing but not yet coming up in force. Right now, the national identity is closely fused with ideas of “colonizing the countryside” etc., mostly because of the schoolbooks and ideals of the 1940’s-70’s. This makes it hard to say anything, because the response to “who the hell are these settlers, why should we be doing a damned thing to help a bunch of obvious criminals?” is that they’re Jews, and so we have an obvious duty to always help them, especially in Israel, and if we don’t then we’re implicitly abandoning them to the hands of anti-Semites, etc.
    It’s obvious nonsense, of course, and there are the raw materials of a more modern national identity in the society already – this notion of Jewish morality, ideals of being a very modern country, a very family-centered culture, and so on. I think that starting to package this more systematically, so that people could start to think of themselves as Israeli without an implicit obligation to look the other way when settlers act like criminals, would be a very important step forward.
    (Wow, this is so different from talking about problems with the Palestinians – there, everything seems completely intractable. Here at least there’s some hope, because there are a lot of people with sense and the capacity to do something.)

  4. There are some things, at least on this front. I’m looking into the group I linked to above, Machsom Watch; (Machsom meaning checkpoint) I’ve heard a lot of good things about them from various sources, and they seem to be doing a good job of enforcing accountability and solving problems in the field. This is also a case where letter-writing has a chance to be useful; the Israeli media needs to be routinely kicked into asking these questions, and trying to turn them into issues.
    What makes this tricky is that fatigue over this subject is a lot worse there than it is here, and anything that sounds like it’s just going to make things more complicated is going to fall on irritated ears. A front-page exposé probably wouldn’t help too much because of this. But starting an active national conversation about why do we have so many checkpoints and what’s happening there might – especially if the conversation comes with ideas for a solution.
    As far as dealing with the extremists, most of the Israeli public is heartily in favor of doing so, but is proceeding with great care to avoid war. The Gaza pullout is part of this; it’s going to be a big political blow against them, creating a precedent for shutting down settlements, and they know it. (Which is why people are preparing for a lot of violence) Systematically weakening them politically will help. One thing that may help this indirectly is anything that creates better job and housing opportunities for Russian immigrants in Israel proper; that would deny them a major source of raw recruits.
    Ultimately, that one is going to have to be solved by something that involves a reexamination of what it means to be Israeli, which is gradually brewing but not yet coming up in force. Right now, the national identity is closely fused with ideas of “colonizing the countryside” etc., mostly because of the schoolbooks and ideals of the 1940’s-70’s. This makes it hard to say anything, because the response to “who the hell are these settlers, why should we be doing a damned thing to help a bunch of obvious criminals?” is that they’re Jews, and so we have an obvious duty to always help them, especially in Israel, and if we don’t then we’re implicitly abandoning them to the hands of anti-Semites, etc.
    It’s obvious nonsense, of course, and there are the raw materials of a more modern national identity in the society already – this notion of Jewish morality, ideals of being a very modern country, a very family-centered culture, and so on. I think that starting to package this more systematically, so that people could start to think of themselves as Israeli without an implicit obligation to look the other way when settlers act like criminals, would be a very important step forward.
    (Wow, this is so different from talking about problems with the Palestinians – there, everything seems completely intractable. Here at least there’s some hope, because there are a lot of people with sense and the capacity to do something.)

  5. “The systematic and pervasive problem in the handling of these checkpoints, I believe, is a lack of transparency and accountability. Orders are given it’s not clear by whom, soldiers operate with a general sense of what is acceptable that they would never dare to admit to if it were known by the public, and in general people are behaving in the way that they would if they were allowed to give their worst impulses free rein and knowing that they will not be known for it.”
    The way you phrased this brings to mind the U.S.’s treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Is that where the checkpoints will end up if this trajectory continues?

  6. “The systematic and pervasive problem in the handling of these checkpoints, I believe, is a lack of transparency and accountability. Orders are given it’s not clear by whom, soldiers operate with a general sense of what is acceptable that they would never dare to admit to if it were known by the public, and in general people are behaving in the way that they would if they were allowed to give their worst impulses free rein and knowing that they will not be known for it.”
    The way you phrased this brings to mind the U.S.’s treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Is that where the checkpoints will end up if this trajectory continues?

  7. I very much doubt that. While the phenomena are similar, the circumstances are very different; the sort of misbehavior that happens in prisons is very different from the sort that happens in what’s ultimately an open place.
    There was an issue of torture (although a great deal milder than at AG) being used on Palestinian prisoners in “ticking bomb” scenarios, but I believe that this has at least partially been handled. A rule that makes this work a lot better is that in order to use any of these techniques, even in a ticking bomb scenario, the people need the specific authorization of the High Court, which may be rousted out of bed at any hour in such a case. This means there’s always civilian review of operations, and it helps. (There were, however, problems with this being used too broadly in the past. I believe that some court cases in the past few years have improved this significantly, but I’m also sure that if I were to make any categorical statements someone could immediately come up with bad cases to counter it.)
    But I don’t think that the two tracks are connected; they’re both logistically and psychologically very different.

  8. I very much doubt that. While the phenomena are similar, the circumstances are very different; the sort of misbehavior that happens in prisons is very different from the sort that happens in what’s ultimately an open place.
    There was an issue of torture (although a great deal milder than at AG) being used on Palestinian prisoners in “ticking bomb” scenarios, but I believe that this has at least partially been handled. A rule that makes this work a lot better is that in order to use any of these techniques, even in a ticking bomb scenario, the people need the specific authorization of the High Court, which may be rousted out of bed at any hour in such a case. This means there’s always civilian review of operations, and it helps. (There were, however, problems with this being used too broadly in the past. I believe that some court cases in the past few years have improved this significantly, but I’m also sure that if I were to make any categorical statements someone could immediately come up with bad cases to counter it.)
    But I don’t think that the two tracks are connected; they’re both logistically and psychologically very different.


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