It's a familiar scene: Israel has donesomething. An Israeli spokesperson is called upon to address allegations of using excessive force. Generally, the spokesperson frames the discussion with a distinction: Israel is a civilized country merely and justifiably defending itself, while Palestinians are terrorists motivated by nothing but anti-Semitism, blood-thirst and the teachings of radical Islam.
This distinction lies at the heart of Israeli "hasbara": Israel is a sane democratic country with Western values, an island of liberalism in a sea of religious fanatics, pitted against “psychotic” forces of Islamic barbarians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spelled it out in his latest speech to the United Nations General Assembly. “Israel is civilization’s front line in the battle against barbarism,” he said.
In the eyes of many Israelis, “they”, the Palestinians (or Arabs in general, or Iranians) are blood-thirsty, and hate us blindly. “They” believe in terror - “we” don’t. “They” send their children to die - “we” don’t. “They” lynch - “we” don’t.
After the events in Be’er Sheva on Monday, though, where following a terror attack, an innocent Eritrean asylum seeker fleeing the scene (like everybody else) was shot, then lynched (he later died of his injuries) - this distinction feels more false than ever. The horrifying videos in which an angry mob is shown hurling benches and chairs and kicking Haftom Zarhum in the head, assuming he was a terrorist just because he was dark-skinned, all the while screaming things like "Death to Arabs!" have once again tarnished Israel’s enlightened image of itself.
“We”, it appears, are not that much better than our enemies. “We” too have angry mobs driven by fear and blind hate and despair who take the law into their own hands.
Can’t reason with psychopaths
Contrasting their own moral enlightenment with the barbarism of enemy nations, of course, is what countries do when they’re at war. Nothing new there.
In Israel, though, the sense that "they" are not the same, that “they” are utterly consumed by irrational hatred to the point they’re impossible to reason with, seems to have become entrenched in a way that has turned the popular perception of Palestinians into something almost other than human.
In 2013, for instance, MK Eli Ben-Dahan, a member of the Habayit Yayehudi party, caused a stir when he said of the Palestinians that they “are not people, they’re hayot-adam” (“man-beasts".) Two weeks ago, after the murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin by Palestinian terrorists near the settlement of Itamar, Yesh Atid leader and former finance minister Yair Lapid used the exact same term, writing on Facebook: “The world needs to know what kind of hayot-adam we’re dealing with”.
Ever since the disintegration of the Oslo process and the lingering trauma of the Second Intifada, the traditional contrast between “us” and “them” has become more than just prejudice: It has become a policy recipe, a way for right-wing governments to justify non-action. Palestinians are so hate-filled and anti-Semitic they can’t sit down to negotiate like normal people - so there’s no point to peace negotiations. And if Palestinians are driven by blind, psychotic bloodlust, the only solutions available are harsh military actions and draconian, semi-apartheid “anti-terror” bills.
Throughout the last decade, which featured brutal military operations in Gaza, the rise of Jewish terrorism in the West Bank, and an increasingly-racist political sphere,Israelis’ perceived notion of themselves as more enlightened remained intact. But it has been getting harder and harder for Israelis to claim moral superiority. Their self-image suffered a huge blow with the kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, in July 2014 by Jewish extremists.
Their claim diminished as political violence erupted within Israel during the 2014 war in Gaza: ad-hoc militias of right-wing extremists prowled the streets looking for Arabs and leftist Jews to beat up.
It continued to suffer with the murder of the Dawabsheh family, including 18-month-old Ali Saad, who burned to death in July in an arson attack by Jewish settlers.
It crumbled a bit further in the past few weeks, with a wave of revenge attacks against Palestinians and Arab Israelis and outbursts of racism and intolerance. The lynch of Haftom Zarhum is a new low point, but there have been a number of near-lynchings and desecration of bodies in recent weeks.
“Civilization’s front line against barbarism”, as Netanyahu said? Israel seems unable to even rein in the barbarism of its own.
Right-wingers might say: That’s not fair. We are different. When a horrible event like a lynching or the attack on the Dawabshes happens, Israelis unanimously denounce it. Palestinians do not.
Israeli politicians, to be fair, did denounce the lynching of Zarhum, although a great many of the right-wing’s most outspoken firebrands, like Miri Regev, remained conspicuously silent. Some denouncements were so weak that they can hardly even be considered as such. Take this paradoxical condemnation by Habayit Hayehudi MK Yinon Magal: “Let me be clear: I am against lynching a person who’s already been neutralized. If a person was captured alive and not killed, he must not be harmed. But in a war we must strive for contact and kill the terrorist. Neutralizing a terrorist must end with his death”.
No, no, the right-wing might insist - we are better than the Palestinians. Unlike them, we bring our terrorists to justice.
Whether the perpetrators of Zarhum's lynching will be indicted or not remains to be seen, but if the Dawabsheh murders are any indication, they can rest easy. The Jewish terrorists responsible for the deaths in the village of Duma remain at large, although a month ago defense minister Moshe Ya’alon admitted that authorities know who they are.
In any case, Zarhum's lynch on Monday shows the sickness has gone mainstream. The murder of the Dawabshes was carried out by a handful of ideological extremists; mainstream Israelis could claim no affiliation. A bus station lynching is another story.
Israelis, just like Palestinians, can be consumed by fear and despair to the point they succumb to barbarism. When push comes to shove, "we" are capable of doing things no less horrifying than "them".