After spending one week in Jerusalem from July 14-19, one day in the West Bank, and one afternoon being harassed by Israeli security in Ben Gurion airport, I must say that the ubiquity of the Israeli security complex has left a lasting impression on me.
Everywhere you turn in West and East Jerusalem, police penetrate society. The banality of their presence is startling. At night you see young security officers going out on dates, flirting, having coffee, and generally blending in with the night life on Jaffa Street in West Jerusalem. Except, of course, they are in uniform and carrying lethal weapons.
As I toured the Old City in East Jerusalem, I kept hearing about how everyone felt so “safe,” everyone being of course tourists and Jewish Israelis—when you ask Christian and Muslim Palestinians living in the holy city about their sense of well-being, you hear a very different story.
The Israeli security forces are so omnipresent you feel the need to whisper everywhere you go. I had a few friends studying Arabic in Jerusalem, and every time we spoke about the conflict it was typically in hushed voices. I made the “mistake” of using Arabic in some parts of the Old City; the annoyed reaction I received from people surprised me since the overwhelming majority of this area is Arab and Muslim.
As I walked down toward the bottom of the Old City, I found a police barricade blocking off parts of the Muslim quarter where protests had taken place in response to Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. I was able to talk to a few vendors selling jewelry and small items featuring an approximation of the Palestinian flag. One vendor said they were forbidden to sell Palestinian flags, and could only display small key chains and necklaces with the Palestinian national colors of red, white, and green.
Another vendor selling Armenian colored ceramics was watching the Al-Quds station and spoke to me about the sadness of Israel’s on-going siege of Gaza. It was one of the few times in Jerusalem I heard someone mention the conflict, which flared up on July 8. Granted, I was staying in hostels with tourists and young people on Israel’s birth right program; it was still infuriating to witness the smothering of the Palestinian narrative and the related denial of the humanity and existence of the Palestinian people and nation.
One of the key benefits of traveling to other countries is seeing communities and countries for what they really are, groups of people who are diverse and communities with layered understandings of state and society. The hegemony and implications of existential nationalism represents an affront to this rich pluralism, and nowhere is this more present than in Israel.
The Modern Israeli State Is a Panopticon
More than anything, it seems that Israel has chosen to hermetically seal itself off from the vibrancy and diversity that marks the region, its languages, and religions. Israel is a prison in and of itself—not only because of its suppression of the Palestinians, blockade of Gaza, and construction of the Apartheid Wall—but also because of its insidious combination of Zionist propaganda and banal security apparatus.
Michel Foucault’s notion of the panopticon as a framework for understanding the invasive power of the modern state’s security and surveillance system is especially palpable in Jerusalem. It is not just the security forces that create this effect, but also the t-shirts sold in shops with machine guns on them, the bumper stickers that say “Fight terrorism, support Israel,” “I support the IDF,” “America don’t worry, Israel is behind you,” and “Israel does it best,” with yet another image of a machine gun. It is the struggle to find alternative voices and opinions. It is the tour guide pointing out that the Western Wall is so calm and peaceful while protests engulf the al-Aqsa mosque right above, without giving any explanation as to why this might be. As soon as you mention potential alternatives to her mainstream Israeli narrative, you are met with two hands in the air and the statement, “I don’t like to get into politics and share my opinion,” even though she has been doing just that for the first hour of the tour by failing to ever mention the Occupation or the word “Palestinians.”
When I was leaving Israel, I was questioned for an extra hour in Ben Gurion Airport because I had purchased a variety of religious paraphernalia, including a copy of the Quran. The security official found the Quran and a newspaper clipping in Arabic (God forbid I try to learn and read Arabic), and looked at his colleague, showing off the Quran as if it was a bomb ready to go off. I was led away and questioned about my religious and political convictions, while the official made sure to remind me that Israel was at war.
“Are you Muslim or what?” “Are you religious?” “Are you a convert?” “Why do you need a copy of the Quran?” “Why don’t you have any Jewish things with you?” These questions were incredibly insulting to me. I cannot even fathom how much this questioning must infuriate Muslims and Arabs who face an even greater assault and profiling of their identity by Israeli security officials.
Manifestations of racism inherent in many kinds of nationalism are not necessarily unique to Israel, although the twenty-first century apartheid system Zionism legitimizes is. In a post-9/11 context, fighting terrorism has become synonymous with nationalism and patriotism. In countries like the United States and regions like Western Europe this has tended to turn into an attack on Arabs and Muslims in particular. Supporting critical dialogue about the modern state’s security apparatus, whether it is the NSA and PRISM programs in the United States or the proliferation of intelligence services throughout the world, is often portrayed as suspicious and threatening the preservation of national existence and so-called democratic values.
Asymmetries of Power
It is the complete blindness to asymmetries of power in the Israel-Palestinian conflict that is so acute in Jerusalem. Suppressing this defining element is integral to the Zionist panopticon and the prison mentality it creates throughout Israel. It is symbolized by the citizens of Gaza who are currently on the run for their lives, with nowhere to hide, whilst Israel’s Iron Dome turns much of the rocket fire toward Israel into dust.
This is not a reproach of Israel’s general right of self-defense. But, who is primarily responsible for violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories? Given Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, continued occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, and flagrant settlement expansion, all of which are illegal under international law, I would tend to hold Israel responsible. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not hide his hostility toward the peace process (a view reflected by much of Israeli society). Altogether these issues symbolize Israel’s commitment to the colonial status-quo and its utter lack of interest in a balanced peace deal with Palestinians.
As the Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza, I was walking along the beaches of Tel Aviv when sirens went off, signaling incoming rocket fire from the Strip. It is scary to witness deadly projectiles fired indiscriminately at civilians. But, in Israel, the presence of bomb shelters, the Iron Dome, and almost nonexistent likelihood that Israelis will be physically hurt by Hamas’ crude, imprecise rockets make those fears hypothetical at best. And Israelis are aware of this: As I was hiding with some people under a large bridge in the Israeli capital, I heard someone say in English to a tourist, “don’t worry, you are more likely to get hit by a car than a rocket.” When the sirens stopped, people returned to walking along Tel Aviv’s coastline.
However ineffective the rocket fire, neither Hamas’ tactics nor the fear they create can be excused. But, criticism must also be tempered by the blatant imbalance of power in this so-called “war.” The death toll in Gaza is the most important testament to this catastrophe. Israel prides itself on its so-called “knock on the roof” missile warning system, which gives people anywhere between 58 seconds to about three minutes to leave a building before it is bombed. Unsurprisingly, given this cynical, wholly ineffective, and ludicrous attempt to minimize “collateral damage,” it is little surprise that more than 80 percent of civilian causalities in Gaza have been civilians.
This current conflict did not break out in a vacuum; arguing it began with Hamas rocket fire ignores Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in the West Bank which followed the kidnapping of three Israeli teens, which itself came after Israel’s killing of two Palestinian teens in early May. Most importantly, claiming Hamas rocket fire is to blame for the latest round of violence ignores the entire context of an illegal military occupation, which has lasted nearly fifty years, and the blockade of 1.8 million people in Gaza, who have now experienced three separate, brutal onslaughts by the Israeli military. The blockade “officially” began in 2007, as punishment for Hamas’s victory in free and fair democratic elections.
Somehow the Zionist panopticon manages to effect denial quite well. It feeds off the narrative of paranoia, security, and hierarchy of human life because Israelis, and many others in the West, are convinced it is necessary for the survival of the Jewish state. With the rise of international pressure on Israel, the progressive voices of both Jewish and non-Jewish groups, the peace protests throughout Israel, and the amazing show of solidarity with the people of Gaza through worldwide protests, we can only hope the world and a greater majority of Israeli citizens will see their country for what it really is: a colonial society.