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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
Fire and chaos in Israel/Palestine
Will Moshe Sliman's self-immolation force Israelis to finally ask themselves some tough questions?
Last Modified: 17 Jul 2012 12:21
Staff at Jenin's Freedom Theatre say they have been harassed by Israeli and Palestinian security forces [Reuters]

It remains to be seen what kind of narrative the self-immolation of Moshe Silman, a 57-year-old Israeli who set himself alight at the end of the Tel Aviv march for economic rights, will produce.

Will Israelis accept Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's argument that Silman's situation was a "personal tragedy" that doesn't reflect the larger dynamics of Israeli society? After all, how bad can things be in a country whose GDP growth has more than doubled in the last few years? Like so many traumatic events in Israel, will his act quickly fade into the background noise of a public sphere that, while built on an ethos of "Never Forget", has made national forgetting a cornerstone of its political culture?

Or will Israelis finally use this tragedy to ask the hard questions they have so successfully managed to avoid up until now - questions that go to the heart of their national project, its history, and its present and long-term sustainability?

The Sidi Bouzid test

"What made the revolutionary explosions in Tunisia and Egypt possible was precisely that a crucial share of the citizenry calculated that they no longer had to consent; resistance was no longer futile."

There are two reasons why Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation, which was in fact the third in Tunisia within the space of a few months, sparked a revolution. First, tens if not hundreds of thousands of young Tunisians understood precisely what he had gone through, and either were or could easily imagine themselves in similar straits. Bouazizi's anguish and desperation reflected that of an entire generation. A similar dynamic helped turn the "We're all Khaled Said" Facebook page into the kernel of Egypt's revolutionary movement.

Second, and perhaps more important, young Tunisians could at least imagine themselves doing what Bouazizi had done. When I spoke with his friends and other young people in Sidi Bouzid, I was struck by how many people told me that upon hearing the news the first thing they thought was, "Why didn't I have the courage to do that?" Most Tunisians wouldn't willingly burn themselves to death, but inspired - and challenged - by Bouazizi's example, they were no longer afraid to risk their lives to challenge the system that made his life miserable enough to end it so painfully.

How will Israelis react to Silman's act? That depends. As scholars such Gene Sharp and James Scott have long argued, a core reason for the long-term survival of authoritarian regimes is because at some basic level people continue to consent to the system, if only by not actively opposing it. Not surprisingly, what made the revolutionary explosions in Tunisia and Egypt possible was precisely that a crucial share of the citizenry calculated that they no longer had to consent; resistance was no longer futile.

The situation in Israel is of course much different. Zionism remains the hegemonic ideology for most Jewish Israelis; even ostensibly anti-Zionist ultra Orthodox Israeli Jews have become increasingly Zionised in the last two decades and part of the machinery of occupation. Whatever the social problems faced by Israelis, it's hard to imagine many thinking that they wished they'd had the courage to set themselves on fire before Silman did.

Indeed, all we need to do is look at the crowd at last week's anniversary protest - which were a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets last summer - to understand how depoliticised most Israelis remain even after the historic protests of last year. The reason for their unwillingness to challenge the system is simple, and is reflected in the note Silman left behind - or rather what was left out of his letter: Palestinians. They remain almost entirely absent from the social protest discourse in Israel, and most Israelis understand that allowing them in would force Israelis to face their complicity in the creation and perpetuation of a golem that, having digested huge swaths of Palestinian territory and economic life in the last half century, has turned on its masters, eating away at the economic and social foundations of Israeli society.

"The State of Israel has stolen from me and robbed me, left me with nothing," Silman began his letter. The Israeli court system has "blocked" him from getting justice, he continued, broke the law and disrupted his legal proceedings. The Ministry of Housing refused to help him keep his apartment.

Silman blamed "the State of Israel" and Prime Minister Netanyahu for the injustices he suffered. "Both [are] scum" in his view because of the "humiliation" and "disenfranchisement" they have imposed on citizens, leaving people like him with no money to pay for housing or health insurance, or even just survive.

If there is a better summary of the Palestinian experience I haven't read it. And yet Silman, like the social protest movement more broadly, cannot see how the plight of Israeli Jews who have suffered in the last generation of Oslo is inextricably tied the ever intensifying occupation.

Indeed, a year ago, when the protests in Israel first erupted, leaders of the nascent movement declared that they would refrain from bringing the occupation directly into their discourse for fear of alienating the broad spectrum of Israeli society that came out in support of the demonstrations. Even now, Daphni Leef, one of the progenitors of the movement, declared that the "activists' message hasn't changed" in the last year.

This strategy has clearly failed; miserably so, since sidelining the Palestinian question has done nothing to keep the vast majority of Israelis who participated in last year's protests involved in the movement. On the other hand, the oppression, injustice and violence against Palestinians continues unabated, with a daily log of abuse and human rights violations that shows, tragically, just how ordinary Mr. Silman's complaints are when placed in the context of Palestinian daily life.

Placing Silman's plight next to those of millions of Palestinians reminds us that the violence and injustices produced by neoliberal economic policies which have governed Israel for almost three decades. The driving logic behind the Oslo negotiating process is intimately connected to the structural violence of the occupation. The connections extend even deeper into Palestinian society. Corruption and concentration of wealth have been central dynamics in the consolidation of the Palestinian elite's economic and political power with regards to their citizenry.

Violence and chaos

Sew chaos and you will reap order. It might seem paradoxical, but Israel has managed to use what I call sponsored or managed chaos to great effect in the last dozen years in the West Bank and Gaza. Put simply, if you squeeze the colonised population hard enough through sieges, closures, constant attacks, and the marginalisation of local leadership, the social and political order will begin to break down and the "natives" will turn on each other. The resulting chaos is one of the most efficient means available to occupiers both to weaken the colonised society and help ensure its leaders have to focus their limited energy and power on reestablishing "security" and "stability" rather than on carrying out an effective resistance against the occupation.

This is precisely what happened in the West Bank and Gaza in the last decade. The structure of the various Oslo agreements was designed primarily to shift the burden of policing Palestinian resistance inside the Occupied Territories to the shoulders of the Palestinian Authority. Security cooperation between Israel and the PA, mediated by the various American and EU security and intelligence agencies, served effectively to disempower the Legislative Assembly, while much of civil society and the NGO sector was either coopted or marginalised.

Indeed, by the time the 1996 Palestinian elections were held, Palestinians were being tortured by Palestinians in the same prisons where, not long before, their jailors where themselves tortured by Israel.

With the eruption of the al-Aqsa intifada, Israel methodically dismantled much of the PA's governmental apparatus. Gradually, often in the wake of major Israeli attacks, West Bank cities like Nablus and even Ramallah fell into increasing social and political chaos, while the economy deteriorated. Sure enough, by the later 2000s a return to normalcy was the most important "domestic" imperative for the PA; but this depended on the good graces of Israel, which demanded even more cooperation against all opposition - peaceful as well as violent - to the ongoing occupation.

Since the late 2000s there have literally been thousands of coordinated security operations in the West Bank. They created the environment for the present crackdown against Palestinian activists by the PA, which in the words of one activist, has become little more than a Vichy-style government of collaboration.

Inside Story - What is driving Israeli dissent?

Collaboration is an accusation few would label against Hamas. But in fact its rule in Gaza has served Israel's interests almost as well as the PA's. It might not be actively collaborating with Israel, but it's failed spectacularly in its declared stated goal of liberating Palestine. Indeed, it's become Israel's de facto enforcer against more radical militant groups, while cracking down on internal political dissent with equal brutality and efficiency as its PA counterpart in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the US and EU continues to focus its energies on "strengthening" the PA's security apparatus while Egypt handles Hamas. Western governments also focus much energy on ensuring the continued "structural adjustment" of the PA-controlled economy, but even here the PA has been forced to ask Israel to help secure an IMF loan to prevent its financial collapse (the Israelis interceded but the Palestinians were turned down because the PA is not officially a "state", the same reason recently given by the International Criminal Court for refusing to accede to the PA's request to investigate Israeli crimes during the Gaza war).

For both the PA and Hamas, reestablishing "order" and maintaining power necessitated increasing violence and repression against the Palestinian citizens of the West Bank and Gaza. As several recent Al Jazeera articleshave documented, the PA has of late ramped up its violent repression against peaceful protesters. There is a clear recognition that such protests constitute a far graver threat both to its power and to the Israeli occupation than do the largely eviscerated violent opposition groups.

In Gaza, Hamas has harshly cracked down on groups like Gaza Youth Breaks Out, arresting activists, hacking into their emails and facebook accounts, and threatening them and their families to the point where some activists have had to escape Gaza through the tunnels into an uncertain exile in Egypt and, if they're lucky, Europe.

As one West Bank activist put it to me, "I grew up seeing how courageous young Palestinians could be, standing in front of Israeli tanks and heavily armed soldiers with nothing but rocks in the hands, willing to face death, imprisonment and torture. Imagine how brutal the security forces are if today most young people are too scared even to open their mouth against the PA."

In fact, many activists say they'd rather be captured by Israeli than Palestinian forces. The new governor of Jenin District, Talal Dweikat, offered the best explanation of why this is so when he declared that the "rules have changed" and that "those who enter the circle of chaos" - that is, oppose the PA by any means - will be severely punished.

Art in the chaos?

In the beginning of July, security forces in Jenin arrested dozens of people for supposed weapons violations, allegedly in response to an attempted coup plot against the PA leadership. Among the high-profile detainees is Zakarya Zubeidi, once the leader of the local al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade who as I have discussed in previous columns traded in his gun for the stage, co-founding the Jenin Freedom Theatre with Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was assassinated in April 2011 outside the theatre's headquarters. A few weeks later, Nabil Ra'ee, its artistic director, was arrested in a 3 AM raid by Israeli occupation forces. After an international outcry, Ra'ee was released last week, but Zubeidi remains in a Palestinian prison, and family members and supporters fear he will not be released soon. His position as one of Jenin's most respected fighters makes his outspoken criticism of the PA, and belief in the power of art-as-resistance, too big a threat to leave unchecked.

Both al-Ra'ee and Zubeidi's arrests, while ostensibly linked to the murder of Mer-Khamis and weapons violations, are clearly tied to the increasing public prominance of the Freedom Theatre, which has just completed a highly successful European tour of its production of Waiting for Godot. Indeed, in a troubling twist to the normal security relationship, some local activists believe that rather than the Israelis demanding PA security forces arrest Zubeidi, it was the PA that requested Israel abduct al-Ra'ee. Among the accusations by Israeli prosecutors against al-Ra'ee was sharing car rides and cigarettes with a "wanted person" - namely Zubeidi and this fact lends credence to activists' claims.

The constant harassment and arrests of the Freedom Theatre members are certainly taking their toll. Some members, as well as experienced local activists, are afraid to talk about their situation in public places or even on the phone, fearing they're being monitored. A "playback theatre" that would have addressed PA abuses was also postponed because of fears of potential retaliation by security forces against the actors. This sense of fear is like a kidney punch in boxing. It won't knock the Theatre out of operation, but they force it to spending precious energy and resources on the defence that could be used training students and developing new projects. "They are trying to suffocate us slowly," is how Managing Director Jonatan Stanczak explained it.

"It is precisely the inability of Israeli Jewish society to envision a different future - or rather, the lack of will and courage to work towards the possibilities that are already there - which drove Moshe Silman to emulate the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor less than half his age."

And yet, like any great fighter, even with the tragedy of Mer-Khamis's murder and the constant attacks by both Israeli and Palestinian forces, the Theatre refuses to go down. In fact, it continues to thrive, with each arrest bringing more attention to its artistic project and social and political vision, which as Zubeidi explained to me last year, is rooted in the concept that art has the power both to spearhead resistance while promoting new visions for the future.

Israeli auteur and theatre director Udi Aloni, who staged the Freedom Theatre's recent tour of Godot, believes that it is precisely the relative weakness of the Theatre vis-a-vis Israeli or Palestinian security forces that is a source of strength. "The role role of art won't change... The more art is weak, the more powerful it is," he told me as he prepared to go from Tel Aviv to Ramleh, for a demonstration against the eviction of almost a dozen Palestinian citizens of Israel from their homes (for Aloni, standing up for the rights of Palestinian citizens in Ramleh would be a good first step to recognising the equality of Palestinians more broadly).

A few minutes after I finished speaking with Aloni I reached al-Ra'ee, who though still recovering from his ordeal was working with colleagues to win the release of Zubeidi (whose detention conditions are, according to people familiar with the situation, worse than those suffered by his friend). Despite what they and other members of the Theatre have gone through, there is no thought of softening the Theatre's political vision or performances.

It is precisely the inability of Israeli Jewish society to envision a different future - or rather, the lack of will and courage to work towards the possibilities that are already there - which drove Moshe Silman to emulate the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor less than half his age. Yet the same forces that drove Silman to such desperation have trapped Palestinians behind ever higher walls during the last twenty years, and among the many responses this national imprisonment generated, led to the establishment of the Freedom Theatre as a space where new forms of resistance and reimagining could be developed and shared with the wider Palestinian, and ultimately Israeli, publics.

Judging by how much effort Israeli and Palestinian leaders are putting into destroying the Freedom Theatre, it's clear that both fear that part of the answer to the political myopia that has entrapped both peoples sits at the edge of the Jenin Refugee Camp less than 100km away from where Silman set himself alight. As one member of the Theatre put it, the repression is intensifying, but at the same time it almost feels like East Germany before its wall came tumbling down. Or, more to the point, like Tunis or Cairo in the months before their revolutions exploded seemingly out of nowhere.

Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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