Opinion |

Israel Is Using Technology to Avoid Facing What It's Doing to Palestinians

Palestinians aren’t people just like you, we’re told, they’re 'threatening motifs,' video-game monsters that must be eliminated in order to advance to the next stage

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Israeli soldiers are seen next to the border fence on the Israeli side of the border with the northern Gaza Strip, March 30, 2018.
Israeli soldiers are seen next to the border fence on the Israeli side of the border with the northern Gaza Strip, March 30, 2018.Credit: AMIR COHEN/Reuters
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

In the summer of 2017, Israeli news sites reported on a new technology developed in the labs of the Israel Defense Forces: software to combat post-traumatic stress disorder. The computer program was intended for initial use among combat soldiers at the front, training them to identify “threatening motifs” and boost their resistance to post-traumatic stress.

The development was publicized around the time it was reported that 143 soldiers who fought in the 2014 Gaza war had been officially recognized as suffering from PTSD. Israeli society had moved on quickly since then, leaving behind the bloody Gaza incursion to deal with countless other issues. But for the returning soldiers, the horror didn’t just fade away. The cries of terror, the shattered bodies and the feelings of helplessness return in flashbacks at unpredictable moments.

Jewish Israelis were almost universally convinced that the war in Gaza was just and necessary, and the highly motivated troops who raided Gaza neighborhoods were backed by expressions of encouragement, uplifting songs by top singers and the exhortations of military rabbis and television personalities. Still, it turns out that when you send Generation Y on military incursions into densely built areas, it leaves a certain mark on their souls.

How does Israel deal with the problem? It invents a new technology, of course. “Attention training” is what the head of the mental-health branch of the ground forces called it, explaining that it would improve performance and reduce the dropout rate from military service. And in the future there will reportedly be trauma treatment using virtual reality, and perhaps also the assistance of MDMA (aka ecstasy). These may well be important developments, but they also encapsulate modern Israel’s essential problem: the conviction that any difficulty has a technological solution.

Over his years as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to boost Israeli morale to unprecedented levels. Many Israelis feel an ongoing sense of euphoria – as if they lived in a utopia that has been realized. Columnist Israel Harel was actually quite right when he wrote in a column last week that Israel is currently at full blossom.

A formerly frightened and anxiety-ridden Israel has become a confident society reveling in its prosperous state. In the past couple of years, even the sort of paranoia that was once so characteristic of Israelis has been replaced by a new kind of attitude: Everything’s great, we’re strong, we’re popular, everyone loves us and we love ourselves.

Actually, Israel managed to overcome many of the problems that threatened it in the past with the help of technological solutions. The rockets that threatened Israel’s border areas are now intercepted by the Iron Dome system. The wave of refugees from Africa was stopped by a wall. A water crisis was contained by desalination plants. The demographic threat is countered by advances in infertility treatments. And BDS is countered by the efforts of trained teams of responders and propagandists on social media.

Even the “knife intifada” was neutralized by some sort of algorithm that enabled a potential attacker to be identified before he even knew that this is what he was. For nearly every threat, the country has come up with an appropriate technological solution. A patch has been fashioned for every security breach. This can be seen as quite impressive and admirable.

But in fact no political problem has been resolved. The Palestinians are still here and there is evidence that they are the majority in the area between the sea and the Jordan River. So the situation remains unchanged, solely thanks to means of brutal coercion.

The Jewish state has developed an amazing ability to manage human masses on a large scale. With the aid of walls, checkpoints, alliances, hormones, software programs and other sophisticated measures, it manages the Palestinian and Jewish populations so as to rein in the pressure exerted on the regime. Using history-stopping technology, it has been able to slow down historical processes that seemed unavoidable.

But over time, the tension entailed in the Zionist regime having subjects who don’t enjoy political rights is pushing the authorities to employ ever more desperate measures. Pleasure-loving Israel yearns to repress its consciousness of the Palestinians and is itching to get them out of its system, lest it be forced to acknowledge that there are other human beings here with legitimate aspirations. These aren’t people just like you, we’re told, they’re “threatening motifs,” video-game monsters that must be eliminated in order to advance to the next stage. And they keep popping up all the time.

At this stage, we’ve resorted to using technological manipulation on ourselves to put ourselves through some mental training so we’ll be able to cope with this challenge.

In this way, we’ve reached a situation in which hundreds of snipers fire at unarmed protesters and kill them at a rate of 10 a day – and no one refuses an order. In the first intifada, or even the second, such a situation would have been cause for shock and horror. But not anymore. We’ve trained ourselves – using ideology, religion, algorithms, mindfulness, whatever – to reach a state of consciousness that enables us to overcome the basic instinct of compassion that’s normally aroused in the face of human suffering.

These thousands of people on the other side of the fence are described by every type of label. Politicians and analysts depict them as rioters, inciters, terrorists, enemies, infiltrators, Islamists, anti-Semites, even homophobes. But as the television commentators like to say, let there be no mistake about it: These things – with arms and legs and heads – are also called “human beings.” And their refusal to accept a life in which they’re penned in is just what makes them human. Their main crime, for which they’re being sprayed with tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire, is having had the audacity to appear in our field of vision just when we were about to sit down and eat matza with haroset.

A year ago, Israel managed to nearly completely obscure the 50th anniversary of the occupation. Consequently, its arrogance grew, and it plans to stage its 70th birthday celebration this month as an orgy of self-pleasure. Empowered by Donald Trump’s declarations of love, Netanyahu and his government aim to bury the Palestinian project once and for all under 70 hours of hora dancing. But then somebody had to go and spoil the fun.

So in a way, the marches held by the Palestinians are cause for hope – because they force Israelis to remember that they live in this land alongside another people, with desires of its own. With or without Trump’s support, we’ll have to take this into account. Or we could always develop new technologies of self-deception and look for other ways to heal the psyches of the snipers who shoot at civilians on the border. Hallucinogenic mushrooms, perhaps.

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