The Empty Square

The occupation has disappeared from the Israeli agenda and the Palestinians are not present as long as they don't perpetrate terrorism. Every day of quiet in Israel is another day of crass disregard of what is going on in our backyard. If there's no terrorism, there are no Palestinians.

Are there not at least 100,000 Israelis who are shocked by what Israel is doing to the Palestinians these days? Isn't there at least a tiny minority of a few tens of thousands who are losing sleep over the targeted assassinations? Or over the separation wall that is tearing Palestinians from their land? Or over the mass imprisonment that an entire nation has been living in for almost three years? Or over the abuse and humiliation an entire nation is being subjected to? Aren't there at least 10,000 Israelis who are not willing to remain silent? Does nothing that happens to our neighbors under the occupation have anything to do with us?

Judging by the conventional criteria of public mood and public readiness to act, the answer to all these questions is a resounding no.

The occupation has disappeared from the Israeli agenda and the Palestinians are not present as long as they don't perpetrate terrorism. Every day of quiet in Israel is another day of crass disregard of what is going on in our backyard. If there's no terrorism, there are no Palestinians.

For them, however, quiet is an unknown commodity. There, dozens of people are arrested every day, thousands are beaten and humiliated, are held up for hours at useless checkpoints that have nothing to do with security, and are locked up like cattle in pounds. Not a day goes by there without defoliation, uprooting of trees, arrests, demolitions, shooting and killing. There is no need to elaborate any longer about what goes on at the checkpoints, and now the separation barrier is compounding their troubles. An entire nation is imprisoned, and beside it another nation carries on in total disregard, living from "We Won't Stop Singing" to "Take Me, Sharon."

A future historian who will examine the recordings and videos of the period's radio and television programs will have no idea that there was such a thing as an occupation here. But the fact that the great majority of the media is oblivious to what's going on does not absolve Israeli citizens of responsibility. Every Israeli knows something about the occupation. There is no Israeli who doesn't know that the past three years were the cruelest the Palestinian nation has known. Yet, amazingly, and depressingly, Rabin Square, the country's protest site, is empty. It's almost impossible to grasp the fact that more than a year has gone by without one mass demonstration against the occupation in the midst of such an outrageous reality. Visitors to major cities in Europe, where the lives of the residents are far more placid and where the governments are tainted with far fewer wrongs, almost always encounter mass demonstrations against some injustice. But here? Nothing.

As it happens, last Wednesday was a rare day of protest: at three sites in Tel Aviv, and at almost the same time, people protested against three gross wrongs. The largest demonstration, of a few hundred people, was against cruelty to animals. Shortly before, some 200 people marched in the area of the old Central Bus Station against the deportation of foreign workers. At the same time, a few dozen activists of the Gush Shalom peace movement demonstrated outside the Defense Ministry against the targeted assassinations.

This, according to the scale of political correctness, though not according to the criterion of injustice and importance, is the order of Israeli protest: cruelty to animals ahead of deportation of foreign workers and both of those ahead of liquidations, and all three together able to attract a bare handful of people. And it's not that the Israelis are refusing to venture out of their homes: a few days before that, 200,000 showed up for the Love Parade in Tel Aviv. Morbidly, we can say that the livers of force-fed geese are of greater concern to Israelis than the Palestinians with liver ailments who are unable to get to a physician or a hospital for medical treatment.

MK Yossi Sarid (Meretz), the only politician who showed up for the demonstrations (the foreign workers and the animals), noted that cruelty is cruelty, and no matter against whom. But it's impossible to ignore the fact that the protest against the greatest iniquity is the smallest in scale here.

The performing arts, too, have removed the occupation from their agenda. Instead of being the avant-garde of the protest movement, as in other countries, artists are accompanying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to serve him as a bizarre decoration in his visit to India this week. The Acre fringe theater festival next month will not stage even one play about the occupation. The exhibition of photographs by the graduates of Camera Obscura, the photography school, which opened last week, contains not one photo from the occupied territories. Only a few artists were present at last week's demonstrations - notably, of course, in the one against cruelty to animals (the singer Hava Alberstein and the actress Gila Almagor were conspicuously present in the demonstration against the expulsion of foreign workers).

In less than two weeks, the Israel Air Force has liquidated 11 Hamas activists in Gaza without a trial, and along with it have killed and maimed innocent passersby. No one knows for sure who the liquidated people are and why they had to die, and no one asks why this criminal policy is continuing even after it has proved ineffective. The Palestinians, and the international community, conclude - and rightly so - that all Israelis support the occupation policy of their government.

This indifference is not new, of course - it has gone on from the start of the intifada. Since former prime minister Ehud Barak succeeded in convincing the majority of Israelis that there is no partner for peace, and since the onset of the large-scale terrorist attacks, the Israelis have turned their gaze away from the territories and are not protesting against anything, believing that the terrorism gives Israel the right to do whatever it pleases. Now the indifference and the blindness are intensifying. It's not only a question of the distorted moral visage of a society that takes this attitude toward suffering and injustice - it's also a question of the society's inner resilience. In the long term, this apathy is an ominous portent, even more than the assassinations, deportations and force-feeding of geese.