What Can Be Learned From a Lone Wolf in Chains?

Israeli military interviews with Palestinian attackers were conducted within an unequal power relationship that is unethical and of dubious value.

Amira Hass
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Border Police troops secure the location of a 'lone wolf' stabbing in East Jerusalem, May 20, 2015.Credit: Tali Meyer
Amira Hass

Prison wardens were dispatched to conduct applied, goal-oriented scientific research on their prisoners. That was one of the interesting news reports last week. We first read about it in Amos Harel’s column in Haaretz on January 15: “Senior IDF officers visit Palestinian terrorists in jail in effort to understand their motives,” after which other journalists reported on it.

IDF commanders and intelligence officers, as well as officers from the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, met in prison with Palestinians who had carried out lone-wolf attacks and survived. (According to the IDF Spokesman in the West Bank, 88 such attackers have been killed and 40 arrested during the current wave of violence. The police spokesman’s office said it did not have the parallel data regarding the fate of attackers in Israel and East Jerusalem.)

The reports show impressive willingness on the part of the investigators to give up their prior assumptions. (They found, for example, that neither religiosity nor incitement on social networks motivated the young people, though broadcasts by Hamas and Islamic Jihad did have an influence on them.)

An Army Radio report presented, among others, the following findings: The young men feel a deep alienation from sources of authority. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not mentioned in the conversations. They have no organizational affiliation, but they share a feeling of national unity. They are alienated from their parents, with stories of violence within the family. They come from normative families and they are not marginal youths. Their ideology is abbreviated, like headlines, and shallow. The majority don’t even know what Israel is. Their only contact with Israelis is with soldiers at checkpoints.

This profile of young Palestinians is not made up. Indeed, one doesn’t need to travel as far as a prison to sketch it. But, according to the media reports, something basic is missing from the officers’ analysis.

The reports did not tell us how many of the detainees met with the investigators, how many of them were wounded during capture, where the meetings were held - in cells or prison administration offices. And, if in offices, were the detainees led to them with chains on their legs? The reports don’t say if there were detainees who refused to speak, and if so how many. Nor what happened when they refused, whether the investigators came wearing uniforms and identified themselves by their full names or whether the prisoners were wearing Israel Prisons Service uniforms.

These details remind us that the research was conducted within a double framework of unequal power relations - inside both the envelope of prison and the envelope of enforced Israeli rule.

Research under unequal power relations is unethical, even if it leads to conclusions that are not incorrect. Palestinian political prisoners have always been an enticing target for official researchers – psychologists in the service of the security services and ex-Mossad employees who smoothly landed at university security research institutes.

A Palestinian legal expert assumes that the detainees viewed the talks with the officers of COGAT and the army as a continuation of the Shin Bet and police investigations and it never occurred to them that they could refuse. But the truth is that even prisoners with a high level of political awareness have agreed in the past to be interviewed by Israeli researchers and journalists.

An oxymoron

The combination of “ethics” and “Israeli” in any case sounds like an oxymoron to them, so they assumed the investigators would not understand their opposition to being interviewed. Maybe they wanted to break their prison routine, maybe they were flattered that they were being listened to, or maybe they were promised lenient treatment. Maybe they hoped that this time they would succeed in convincing an establishment researcher that the problem is in him and the regime he represents.

From the press reports on the findings of the research, it appears that the investigator-warders ignored the fact that all Palestinians are prisoners in one type of Israeli prison or another - Ofer and Nafha, the giant concentration camp that is the Gaza Strip, the enclaves of the West Bank, intentionally neglected neighborhoods in Jerusalem, unrecognized villages. What is certain is that the researchers do not recognize that they are jailers.

And according to the reports in the press, the investigators avoided the reason of all reasons. Yes, the occupation. Fathers smack their sons in every society, but the young man who lives in choked-off and crowded Isawiyah and passes through the green, spacious French Hill receives a daily slap in the face from the Israeli authorities, who tell him he is inferior.

True, the family is falling apart as a source of authority. Which is not surprising, given that Israel steals the land, water and homes of Palestinian families, puts limitations on movement that cause fathers to lose their jobs, hits and arrests adults in front of their children. Ideological shallowness is common these days. But the steadfastness in the face of oppression, banishment and humiliation enriches the observational and cognitive abilities of every Palestinian. Their words are not polished and their thoughts are phrased as slogans, but the depth is there, and there is wisdom in the depths of desperation. Whoever embarked on such applied research, knowing in advance that the essence could not be touched, is a prisoner and not just a jailer.

Israelis in official and unofficial institutions are obsessed with gathering information on Palestinians. It is bureaucratic voyeurism, the goal of which is to enhance and perpetuate domination over the Palestinians. The investigators enjoying the wide knowledge they have accumulated on the Palestinians are prisoners of their salaries, careers and ranks; of ‘what the family will say’ and their lovely suburban villas; or they are captives of the ideology of Jewish superiority and security mythology - or of all of them together. We need applied psychological and sociological research on them, to explain why the bleeding snowball continues to roll.

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