False Frontier

In the first days of October 2000, with the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, 13 Arabs were shot to death in northern Israel. But in those same days, many other Arabs were shot to death in the center and south of the country. Since then, nearly 2,500 Arabs have been shot to death.

Few countries in the world - so said a television newscaster in a surge of patriotism on Monday - would carry out such an exhaustive and painful investigation against itself as Israel has with the Or Commission. Unintentionally, the newscaster seems to have touched on the deep-seated motives, buried in the collective soul, which help to explain the frenzy of self-flagellation and media-hyped masochistic ecstasy that has swept the country since the publication of the commission's findings this week.

On the face of it, the sequence of events borders on the grotesque. In the first days of October 2000, with the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, 13 Arabs (among them one visitor from Gaza) were shot to death in northern Israel. But in those same days, many other Arabs were shot to death in the center and south of the country. Since then, nearly 2,500 Arabs have been shot to death.

For all these, there was no commission; there was no rumbling of the earth; there was no parading of sins in a mock Atonement Day. But the 13 dead in the north have had an 800-page report by an official commission of inquiry, countless newspaper columns, and hours of television coverage, living room debates and erudite commentary devoted to them. All this, without even mentioning the 850 Jews who have been killed in that same intifada, whose deaths also deserve to be probed and investigated.

The explanation, as it were, is that these 13 were citizens of the state who were shot by the police, whereas the other 2,500 were residents of the territories. Israel is a democratic state, and everyone knows that the police in a democratic state do not shoot demonstrating citizens. In doing so, the Israel Police rocked the democratic foundations of the state. Doing so was a signal for the whole country, institutions and citizens, regardless of political views, to rise up as one and defend Israel's imperiled democracy.

What a wonderful feeling that was! What a rare opportunity to return as a unified nation to the days of yore, to embrace the innocence and values of old, to pride ourselves on being, as everyone knows, the only democracy in the Middle East.

We insisted on the establishment of a commission. We hypnotically followed every session. We waited impatiently for its conclusions. We lapped them up thirstily. Finally, we could luxuriate in the sweet pleasure of collective catharsis. If we could cast stones on a delicate dove like Shlomo Ben-Ami, this was surely a sign that our camp was pure and holy.

As for the 2,500, and also the 850, thanks to the Or Commission and the halo surrounding it, they can stay in the shadows. The commission has given us the sanction not to ignore them, God forbid, but to erect a virtual separation fence between these dead - victims of the conflict - and the 13, who, in their deaths, commanded us to strengthen and fortify Israeli democracy, our pride and joy.

Actually, why not? If we are running a military occupation regime in the territories that denies 3.5 million people their basic rights, bringing upon ourselves a bloody war of terrorism, at least let democracy shine inside Israel's borders. At the end of the day, isn't that the lesser of two evils?

Except that this logic, the logic of the Or Commission, which ostensibly reinforces Israeli democracy, is really furthering the process of Israel's descent from a democratic society into an oppressive society. This logic only validates our moral hypocrisy and political blindness, perpetuating the illusion that the bloodshed in the territories is different in some way from the killing of these 13 Israeli Arabs. It denies that which is self-evident: A state that oppresses half of another nation cannot wrap itself in a cloak of democracy in its dealings with the other half. Democracy cannot be halved, and neither can the other nation.

The 13 Arabs were killed, ultimately, because in those insane days in October 2000, it seemed that the intifada was spreading all over the country, also into Israel proper. They were shot because the police treated them like the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces were treating Arab rioters in the West Bank at the time. The lethal methods castigated by the Or Commission are the same methods that serve the IDF in the territories to this day.

And the truth is, that in those days, the intifada was spreading throughout the country. The conclusion - the one that begs to be reached but is absent from the long itemized list of the Or Commission - is that if it could happen then, it can happen today or tomorrow. As long as occupation of the territories continues, the danger of Arab irredentism will continue to loom over the Jewish state. And if it does happen, then the thin veneer of democracy will again be torn away again, the veneer that Israel claims, in its hypocrisy and blindness, separates it from its conquests.

The Or Commission has accused the Arab politicians, Sheikh Ra'ed Salah and others, of blurring "the distinction between Arab citizens of the state and their legitimate battle for rights in Israel, and the armed struggle against the state being waged by organizations and individuals in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip." Here, again, the commission is being evasive rather than looking soberly at the tragic reality. It is not radical politicians who are blurring these distinctions, but reality itself. The politicians are merely accelerating the process, and exploiting it.

As long as the occupation continues, Israel is in a double bind. The obfuscation of the Green Line, accelerated by radical Arabs and extremist Jews, deepens the disaster we are in. But so does the artificial and sanctimonious glorification of the Line as a purported bulwark of democracy, blocking out of our minds the oppression on the other side.