Fifty-three years ago this Sunday, Col. Mordechai Gur, commander of the 55th Reserve Paratroops Brigade, gave what one of his officers called decades later “the most reckless order I’ve ever heard.” Gur had finally been authorized to send his troops into the Old City of Jerusalem and wasn’t about to let another unit have the glory of liberating Judaism’s holiest site. “All forces to Lion’s Gate,” he called on the brigade radio, and ordered his driver to head for the narrow gateway, overtaking the tanks which were too wide to get through.
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“All it needed was one Jordanian soldier with an RPG to wipe out the brigade command,” the officer told me 40 years later, still angry with Gur’s vainglory. Luckily, nearly the entire Jordanian force occupying the Old City had already melted away, though Gur didn’t know that. The militarily sensible thing to do would have been to allow soldiers from the Jerusalem Brigade, who were better situated at Dung Gate to the south, to secure the approach first. But that would mean the first soldiers at the Western Wall wouldn’t be his. Gur gave the order and within 15 minutes had captured the Temple Mount. Three weeks later Israel annexed the Old City and East Jerusalem, but most of its Palestinian residents are still not Israeli citizens.
Gur entered the history books but the narrow alleyway leading off from Lion’s Gate, just by Via Dolorosa, remains unsettled, often a flashpoint between Israel’s paramilitary Border Police and Palestinian youths. A place of stupid orders and undisciplined action. Last Saturday, police officers stationed by the gate were told over their radios to be on the lookout for “a terrorist” running towards them. They cornered 32-year-old Eyad Hallaq, a terrified autistic man on the way to his day center. His teacher nearby tried to explain his situation to them, in Hebrew. But one of them saw a movement and fired at least seven bullets, killing Hallaq on the spot.
The shooting is under investigation. Unlike other similar killings in the past, the politicians in charge of the police couldn’t ascribe hostile motives to the dead Palestinian. Public Security Minister Amir Ohana expressed his “genuine condolences“ to the family, and said these were “unfortunate circumstances without a doubt.” He refused to condemn the officers involved, saying, “They have to make split-second decisions of life and death in the field, where they are at constant risk to their own lives.”
Ohana said he would launch a review of police procedures for suspects with disabilities, but he didn’t mention the one disability that, had Hallaq not suffered from it, he would still been alive – his being a stateless Palestinian. Or that the officers involved are unlikely to suffer any serious inconvenience.
What looks very much like racial profiling and police impunity of course puts most of us immediately in mind of a similar incident 10,000 kilometers away from Jerusalem – the suffocation of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, which has ignited a wave of violent protest across the United States. And if the similarities between the two cases are not totally obvious to all of us, then the online activists and real-life demonstrators on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will make the point for you by creating a “Palestinian Lives Matter,” to equal America’s “Black Lives Matter.”
But the comparison, while superficially similar, is wrong and unhelpful. First, on a moral level. The situation of 95 percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and all those in the West Bank is that they live under Israeli control without any citizenship rights. Furthermore, as 53 years of occupation will have passed next week, there’s little prospect of that changing. African-Americans still face institutional racism and obscene levels of police brutality, but they will still be able to vote to replace their president in six months. And run for office as well. As the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that Barack Obama had woven in a rug on the floor of the Oval Office, for them “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That hasn’t been the Palestinian experience, and to compare their current plight to the status of African-Americans today is disrespectful.
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But even if the Palestinian situation was similar to that of black Americans, to put the Israel-Palestine conflict in a racist context is misleading. There are racist undertones on both sides of the conflict which exacerbate matters, but it was and remains a contest between two national-religious groups for the same land. Racism is present, but it’s not a fundamental part of the conflict. Sectarianism is not necessarily racist. Most Israeli Jews are as dark or darker skinned than Palestinians. Take racism away from the Israel-Palestine conflict and you are not much closer to solving it. Insisting that it is about racism makes it much more difficult to seriously discuss any way towards a solution.
The same is true of the oft-made comparison to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It’s a shoddy argument, not because Pretoria was worse than Jerusalem. There are valid arguments to be made that the current Israeli regime is worse. But it’s also an entirely different system. Apartheid wasn’t just denying black South Africans the vote. It was a system of economic exploitation. Without cheap black labor, the white minority had no way of perpetuating its control and the prospect of losing its economic edge was a major factor in ending apartheid. While some Israelis do make a living out of exploiting Palestinians, they are a minority. Israel’s economy as a whole would be much better off without having to pay the heavy costs of the military occupation and of sustaining small settlements deep within Palestinian territory.
The false comparisons between Black Lives Matter or apartheid, and the Israel-Palestine conflict, are lazy and shallow when made by journalists or academics and silly posturing, virtue signaling and intersectionalizing when made by activists. Worst of all, they create an inflated expectation and fake narrative of how the conflict must be solved. As if all that’s necessary is for Israelis to treat Palestinians as human beings. Yes, that is necessary, but it doesn’t resolve the historic and religious and territorial disputes between the two nations. Fake narratives lead to fake solutions and campaigns.
The latest fake campaign is the one being waged now against “annexation.” Apparently, if Israel annexes parts of the West Bank it will be irrevocable apartheid. Putting aside the fact that Netanyahu is extremely unlikely to actually go ahead with annexation, for multiple reasons – if it was to happen, the basic situation whereby two groups live in the West Bank, one with full rights and the other with none, has existed now for nearly 53 years. When ultimately “annexation” does not happen, the inequality will not end.
It doesn’t need annexation to exist. And it wasn’t racism that brought inequality into existence either.
While Gur’s paratroopers were making their way through the Lion’s Gate, on June 7, the Jerusalem Brigade’s reservists were operating south of Bethlehem, recapturing the Etzion Bloc, the kibbutzim that had been lost to the Arab Legion in 1948. Three and a half months later, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was reestablished by the children of the kibbutnizks who had been massacred there 19 years earlier.
It was the first West Bank settlement. And there was nothing immoral about the settlers’ return to the village their parents had built, on land purchased legally in the 1920s. No Palestinian in the neighboring villages was displaced or inconvenienced by Kfar Etzion. No racist injustice had been directly caused by the first settlement, but nevertheless, it established an unjust situation where Jewish settlers had full rights and their Palestinian neighbors had none. A situation now about to enter its 54th year with no end in sight.
It is this enduring situation that led to the death of Eyad Hallaq on Saturday. His life didn’t matter, because of the occupation and the conflict and the lack of Palestinian rights. Pretending that his life didn’t matter because of black-and-white racism will not make it any more valuable and it certainly won’t help prevent more deaths.