Reaffirming the legality of the Occupation: Hanan Hever responds to David Grossman

Introduction by Ofer Neiman
Israeli Occupation Archive – 13 Aug 2012

Background news story [English]:
How Israeli negligence led to the death of a Palestinian car thief

David Grossman:  Why? Who died?
Hannan Hever: Reaffirming the Legality of the Occupation

Both commentaries, translated from Hebrew to English, appear below the introduction.

Introduction

Last month, an Israeli court convicted two Israeli policemen of dumping wounded Palestinian detainee, Omar Abu-Jariban, by the side of Highway 443 in the West Bank, on June 12, 2008. Abu-Jariban had undergone surgery and was in a precarious state of health. He had just been discharged from an Israeli hospital, and the policemen were instructed to return him to the West Bank. The two policemen were not the only culprits in the chain of events that led to his death. After hospital staff had issued a discharge letter stating he was in good condition, a nurse who oversaw his departure just half an hour later signed a form stating: “Orientation − off and on. Communication skills − off and on. Mobility − not stable when walking….Urinates via catheter. The patient is confused. Needs help eating and drinking.”

The two policemen were instructed to bring Abu-Jariban to one of the Israeli checkpoints along the highway. However, Israeli border police at these checkpoints refused to assume responsibility for a man in such condition. Therefore, the two decided to leave the patient at a well-lit junction, so that he would be “picked up by Palestinians”. He was left with no food or water, and after lying by the side of the road for several days, he died of dehydration.

The Abu-Jariban case has garnered a great deal of media attention, especially among Israel’s liberal elite. Indeed, Israeli novelist David Grossman was quick to address the case. On 24 February 2012, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published his sharp critique [Hebrew] of the policemen’s conduct and Israeli society at large, for its apathy towards the plight of Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation. For some reason, Haaretz did not include the English translation of the article on its English edition. Sol Salbe’s translation of Grossman’s article appears below. Grossman chose to address the issue with an invocation of Yizhar Smilansky‘s “The Prisoner”, a short story based on Smilansky’s experience as a soldier in the Israeli army during the 1948 war and the Nakba. Grossman’s scathing collective indictment is not without merit. However, it repeats a pattern of selective castigation, typical of his political circles. On 28 February 2012, Haaretz published a response by professor Hannan Hever of the Hebrew University to Grossman’s commentary, pointing out the significant blind spots in his analysis. According to Hever, Grossman has failed to address the fact that the entire edifice of Israel’s occupation is illegal. Hever’s response was not translated by Haaretz either.

Now that the criminal conviction provides partial closure in the case, the reading of Grossman’s commentary, and Hever’s response, shed light on “liberal” Israeli public opinion, and its limitations.

 ***

Why? Who died?
By David Grossman
Original article translated by Sol Salbe, The Middle East News Service, Melbourne Australia

Omar Abu-Jariban, a resident of the Gaza Strip, staying illegally in Israel, stole a car and was seriously injured while driving it. He was released from the Sheba Medical Centre while his treatment was still ongoing and handed over to the custody of the Rehovot Police station.  The police were unable to identify him. He himself was bewildered and confused. The Rehovot Police officers decided to get rid of him. According to Chaim Levinson’s account, they loaded him into a police van at night accompanied by three policemen. He was still attached to a catheter, was wearing an adult nappy and a hospital gown. Two days later he was found dead by the roadside.

It’s a minor story. We have already read some like it and others were even worse. And when all is said and done who is the subject of this story: an illegal infiltrator, from Rafah and a vehicle thief to boot. And at any rate it happened as long ago as 2008, there is a statute of limitation to consider. And we have other, fresher, more immediate matters which are more relevant for us to consider. (And besides all that, they started it, we offered them everything and they refused and don’t forget the terrorism.)

Ever since I read the story, I find it difficult to breathe the air here: I keep on thinking about that trip in the police van, as if some part of me had remained there, bonded with it permanently and impossible to prise out. How precisely did the incident pan out? What are the real, banal, tangible elements that coalesced to make up such an atrocity?

From the newspaper I gather that there were three cops there alongside Omar. Again and again I run the video clip mentally in my head: Was he sitting like them on the seat or was he lying on the floor of the van? Was he handcuffed or not? Did anybody talk to him? Did they offer him a drink? Did they share a laugh? Did they laugh at him? Did they poke fun at his adult nappy? Did they laugh at his confusion or at his catheter? Did they discuss what he was capable of while still attached to the catheter or once he would be separated from it? Did they say that he deserved what was coming? Did they kick him lightly like mates do, or maybe because the situation demanded a swift kick? Or did they just kick him for the heck of it, just because they could, and why not?

Besides, how can someone be discharged just like that from medical treatment at the Sheba Medical Centre? Who let him out in his condition? What possible explanation could they put down on the discharge papers which they signed off?

And what happened when the van reached the Maccabim checkpoint I read in the newspaper that an argument ensued with the Israeli checkpoint commander, and that he refused to accept the patient. Did Omar hear the argument about him from within the van, or did they drag him out of the van and plonk him in front of the commander, replete with catheter, nappy and hospital gown for a rapid overall assessment by the latter? And the commander said no. And yalla! We are on our way again. So they returned to the van, and they kept on going. And now the guys in the van are perhaps not quite as nice before, because it is getting late and they want to get back and wonder what have they done to have deserved copping this sand nigger and what are they going to do with him now. If the Maccabim checkpoint rejected him, there was no way in which the Atarot checkpoint would take him. It is now pitch black outside and, by the by, while traveling on Route 45, between the Ofer military base and the Atarot checkpoint, a thought or a suggestion pops up. Perhaps someone said something and nobody argued against it, or perhaps someone did argue back but the one who came up with the original suggestion carried more weight. Or perhaps there was no argument, someone said something and someone else felt that this is precisely what needs to be done, and one of them says to the driver, pull over for a moment, not here, it’s too well lit, stop there. You, yes you, move it, get your arse into gear you piece of shit – thanks to you our van stinks; you ruined our evening, get going! What do you mean to where? Go there.

And what happens next? Does Omar remain steady on his feet, or are his legs unable to carry him? Do they leave him on the side of the road, or do they physically take him there, and how? Do they haul him? Do they drag him deeper into the field? You stay here! Do not follow us! Do not move! And then they return to the car, walking a little bit more briskly, glancing behind their shoulder to ensure that he is not pursuing them. As if he already has something infectious about him. No, not his injury. Something else is already beginning to exude from him, like bad tidings, or his court sentence. Come on, let’s get going, it’s all over.

And he, Omar Abu Jariban, what did he do then? Did he merely stand on his own feet or did he suddenly grasp what was happening, and start running and shouting that they should take him with them? And perhaps he did not realise anything, because as we said, he was confused and bewildered, and just stood there on the road or in the field, and saw a road, and a police van driving away. So what did he do? What did he really do? Started walking aimlessly, with some sort of a vague notion that somehow being a little further away would turn out somewhat better? Or maybe he just sat down and stared blankly in front of him and tried to figure it out, but it was clearly beyond his comprehension for he was in no position to understand anything? Or perhaps he lay down and curled up on the ground and waited? Why? And whom did he think about? Did he have someone, somewhere, to think about? Did the thought occur to any of those police officers, at any time during that whole night that there was someone, a man, a woman or a whole family for whom Omar was important? Someone who cared about him? Did it occur to them that it was possible, with a little bit more of an effort to locate this person and hand Omar to them?

Two days later they found his body. But I have no idea how much time had elapsed from the moment they dumped him by the roadside until he died. Who knows when it dawned on him that this was it; that his body did not have enough strength left to save itself. And even if could have summoned the energy, he was trapped in a situation from which there was no exit, that his short life was about to end here. His brother Mohammed, said by telephone from Gaza, “They simply threw him to the dogs”. And in the newspaper it says, “Horrible as it may sound, the brother accurately described what happened.” And I read it and the image turns into something real, and I try to wipe that image from my mind.

And in the police van, what happened there after they dumped Omar? Did they talk among themselves? About what? Did they fire each other up with hatred and disgust at him, to retrospectively justify what they did? To justify what in their heart of hearts they knew stood in contrast to something. Maybe that thing was the law (but the law, they probably imagined, they could handle). But maybe it was contrary to something deeper, some deeply ingrained memory in them which they found themselves in, many years ago. Maybe it was moral tale or a children’s story in which the good was good and the bad was bad. Perhaps one of them recalled something they learnt at school — they did pass through our education system, didn’t they? Let’s say it was S. Yizhar’s HaShavuy (the captive).

Or maybe the three of them pulled out their mobile phones and spoke to the wife, the girlfriend, the son. At such times you may want to talk to someone from the outside. Someone who wasn’t here who did not touch this thing. Or maybe they kept quiet. No, silence was perhaps a little bit too dangerous at that point. Still, something was beginning to creep up in the van’s interior; a sort of a viscous dark sensation, like a terrifying sin, for which there is no forgiveness. Maybe one of them yet did suggest softly, let’s go back. We’ll tell him that we were pulling his leg. We can’t go on like this, dumping a human being.

The paper says: “As a result of the police Internal Affairs investigation, negligent homicide charges were filed in March 2009 against only two of the officers who were involved in dumping and abandoning Abu Jariban. Evidence has yet to be submitted in a trial of the pair but in the meantime, one of the two accused has been promoted.”

I know that they do not represent the police. Nor do they represent our society or the state. It’s only a handful of bad apples, or unwelcome weeds. But then I think about a people which has dumped a whole other nation on the side of the road and has backed the process to the hilt over 45 years, all the while having not a bad life at all, thank you. I think about a people which has been engaging in a brilliant genius-like denial of its own responsibility for the situation. I think of a people, which has managed to ignore the warping and distorting of its own society and the madness that the process has had on its own national values. Why should such a people get all excited over a single such Omar?

***

Reaffirming the Legality of the Occupation
By Hannan Hever
Original article translated by Ofer Neiman

David Grossman’s article in Haaretz is gut-wrenching, and one can hardly find peace of mind after reading it. Grossman has proven his public courage and his moral sensitivity yet again, by not hesitating to cry out the cry of the Israeli occupation’s victims. Grossman has shoved the facts about the intolerable crimes which are being committed in our name and on our behalf straight in our face.

The bitter fate of Omar Abu-Jariban, who had been injured in a traffic accident and imprisoned, and later dumped, still wounded, on the side of a road by Israeli policemen, cries to the heaven. Grossman has redeemed this tale, one of many, from apathy and oblivion and placed it in front of us, on the front page of Haaretz.
Grossman has written about a flagrantly illegal act, and he also states that the authorities have taken action on this matter, albeit slowly. However, Grossman does not draw the conclusion which should follow from his own argument: While blaming the Israeli public’s callous approach towards the occupation, as the culprit in the specific case of the crime allegedly committed by those who dumped Abu-Jariban, he fails to project the status of illegality onto the state of affairs which has made the act possible: he does not draw the necessary conclusion regarding the illegality of the occupation in its entirety.

It is obvious, and Grossman states this explicitly, that his article draws inspiration from Yizhar Smilansky’s famous story ‘The Prisoner’, which depicts the deliberations of an Israeli soldier during the war of independence in 1948. The protagonist hesitates as to whether he should release an Arab prisoner of war. Grossman’s language in his article is the very language of Smilansky’s story, the language of emotional turmoil, deliberations and profound statements.

However, Grossman’s story differs from Yizhar’s with respect to one key aspect: Yizhar raises the question of personal responsibility in the context of a situation which is clearly legal, since his story deals with a prisoner of war. The prisoner may not have been taken captive for compelling military reasons, but the act [of taking him captive] is legal according to the military laws which apply during a state of warfare. Therefore, unlike Grossman, who cries out against the violation of the law and demands that it be upheld – the moral demand which Yizhar makes from his protagonist is translated into the demand that the latter break the law. Indeed, Yizhar’s protagonist shirks his responsibility, but this responsibility, which he is expected to accept, transcends universal moral jurisdiction, and turns towards the domain of the legal act, which Yizhar’s story challenges and defies.

Unlike Yizhar, Grossman narrows the question of responsibility down to the issue of protest against violation of the law, which results from moral opacity and psychological repression. However, in doing so, Grossman reaffirms the legality of the occupation. Therefore, he also fails to connect his generalization from the horrendous incident, regarding Israeli moral insensitivity, to the illegality of the occupation in its entirety and to the fact that it is a war crime from its very foundations.

Grossman also accepts the occupation’s terminology at face value, by referring to Abu-Jariban as a “Shabah” (the Hebrew term for illegal alien) – thereby reaffirming the legality of the occupation. This is probably the reason why Grossman reduces his demand, that the Israeli collective assume responsibility, to the moral opacity brought about by the occupation, without addressing the illegality which has rendered it possible: “But then I think about a people which has dumped a whole other nation on the side of the road and has backed the process to the hilt over 45 years, all the while having not a bad life at all, thank you. I think about a people which has been engaging in a brilliant genius-like denial of its own responsibility for the situation. I think of a people, which has managed to ignore the warping and distorting of its own society and the madness that the process has had on its own national values. Why should such a people get all excited over a single such Omar?”

One can conclude from Grossman’s article, probably contrary to his intent, that in theory things could have been different. In theory the occupation could have been sustained with the upholding of the law – that is, in an enlightened and democratic manner, without dumping an entire people by the side of the road. Furthermore, one can also conclude that if and when we annul the corrupting occupation we will be able to continue the enlightened existence of the small and just State of Israel of the pre-1967 era. But in this respect too, the article differs from Yizhar’s story, whose author did not hesitate to challenge the legality of the 1948 war as well.

It is true that eventually Yizhar’s answers evaded the issue of responsibility towards the law. Yizhar, as a member of Knesset, also voted against the annulment of the military rule imposed on Israel’s Palestinian citizens until 1966. But the questions he had raised reach far beyond those raised by Grossman, whose moral protest, important and profound as it is, regarding the horrific acts which stem from violations of the law, ends up reaffirming the legality of the flagrantly illegal: the illegality of the occupation in its entirety.

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