Civics Lesson at Kfar Maimon

Contrary to all the whining about the supposed damage to the rule of law, the police and the IDF have learned an important lesson on the subject of human dignity and freedom.

There is nothing bad without some good in it: The recent days have, in fact, strengthened Israeli democracy. Contrary to all the whining about the supposed damage to the rule of law, the police and the Israel Defense Forces have learned an important lesson on the subject of human dignity and freedom, more than in any of the barren pro forma symposia that these bodies have held in recent years.

For the first time in their history, they learned to use a foreign language: non-violence. Now it is only to be hoped that the thousands of soldiers and police, the new learners, will internalize what they studied in the fields of Kfar Maimon, at the Kissufim roadblock and on the roads of Israel: It is also possible without beatings, without "means for dispersing demonstrations" and, of course, without shooting. Not only is it possible, it turns out that these methods also harvest great success. Indeed, even when a soldier is run over by demonstrators, there is no need to open fire immediately. Henceforth, every Hebrew soldier and every member of the police force will know that there is also another way, and that it is possible to think twice before beating, kicking and shooting. Someone who did not hit anyone at Kfar Maimon will not shoot at Kissufim, and perhaps will not do so elsewhere either. It is an irony of fate that it has, in fact, been the Jewish settlers in the territories, the sector that has turned breaking the law into a way of life more than any other population group, are the ones who have, unintentionally, taught this stunning lesson in civics to the police and soldiers of Israel.

The Israel Police in recent years has made violence a routine element in its functioning. The patrol units' tough guys in their grey uniforms and the Border Police bullies in their green uniforms have slapped around anything that crosses their path. Ultra-Orthodox who demonstrated on Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem, in Sderot Warburg in Kiryat Motzkin or on the Trans-Israel Highway; workers who demanded fair pay and the right to organize; the workers of Military Industries and the Israel Aircraft Industries who went out to demonstrate; Ethiopians who revolted against discrimination and demanded the immigration of their relatives; representatives of Arab local councils who protested their deficit budgets; Druze who demonstrated against the merging of local councils, students and teachers from the ORT Kennedy School in Jerusalem who demonstrated against the merging of their school with another school and students from Camera Obscura, who protested the closing of their school, have all felt the police fist.

Students from Camera Obscura filmed a video a few weeks ago in the corridors of the Tel Aviv Municipality that documents the phenomenon in all its ugliness: The patrol unit police are seen mercilessly beating up students who had not acted aggressively. Offenders and foreign workers who arrive nearly every evening at the hospital emergency rooms are also silent testimony to this violence. The 13 who were killed in the October, 2000 demonstrations represent the height of this grave phenomenon.

The violence has crossed ethnic communities and nationalities: For a long time now, not only Arabs are being beaten up. It has also crossed the Green Line (pre-Six Day War border). There, in the occupied no-man's-land, violence has long been a legitimate norm not only against innocent Palestinians but also against Israeli and foreign leftist demonstrators and peace activists. The oft-heard accusation that the Palestinians have not chosen civil revolt instead of violence ignores the fact that they always encounter a violent reaction. At the edges of the separation fence there are now daily demonstrations - explicitly non-violent that are sucked into fatal violence because of the behavior of the soldiers and police. But the chapter in civics that has been learned in recent days does not stop at the non-violent option. The rhetoric, too, has suddenly changed. Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi is talking about "freedom of expression," about "proportionality" and about "the right to protest" as though he were a police commissioner in Scandinavia, and the commander of the Southern District, Uri Bar Lev, is quoting Mao Tse Tung. In a society that is responsible for imprisoning an entire people, all of a sudden everyone is talking about the value of the freedom of movement.

This should not be taken lightly. When the buses of leftist demonstrators were stopped once at a collection point in Tel Aviv, nobody uttered a peep - but better now than never. At the end of the week the police commissioner even promised that the police would repair the damage that its people caused at Kfar Maimon, and earlier the police offered to supply water and food to the demonstrators. Thus the concept of democracy has expanded and into the discourse has come the revolutionary idea that role of the security forces is not just to fight but also to be attentive to society's needs. The attitude toward refusal to serve in the military has also undergone an extensive change: All of a sudden the refusers are no longer traitors and enemies of the people, but rather a group whose arguments should be heard. The attitude toward them is indeed tough, but also considerate. This, too, is a welcome development.

What will remain of all this? It is hard to know. These changes have occurred because for the first time the police and the soldiers confronted a strong group, and not the weak, and therefore they did not dare to use the usual means against it. Even so, the result could be far-reaching, if the message is internalized. Who knows, maybe this disengagement, with the manipulative manifestations of protest against it, will yet make an important contribution to the character of the regime and the society in Israel. At Kfar Maimon a new language was born. Now it needs to be spread.