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This Is not a Truck, by Micaela Sahhar

Misapprehending terror and recognising resistance in Palestine

The truck-ramming incident in Jerusalem that took place on 8 January 2017 is a reminder to anyone with a passing interest in Israel–Palestine that life remains in a state of abnormality across the geography of historic Palestine. Comparisons have been made in media coverage to the 2016 truck-ramming incidents in Nice and Berlin, which have led to theories of a copycat attack. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has perhaps unsurprisingly drawn a connection between these two European attacks, both claimed by Islamic State, and this most recent event in Jerusalem.[1] The truck attack is quickly being incorporated into a narrative of a ‘new wave of terrorism’ in which Western audiences are witnessing a transformation of the objects of everyday life into tools of unpredictable violence.

This is the sort of violence that attracts categorisation as terrorist violence, a violence freighted with a long history of colonialism, imperialism, the concomitant power differentials of these factors and their corollary impact on access to resources. It is for this reason that the truck-as-weapon ought not to be overestimated as a tactic of any greater significance than plane hijackings or suicide bombings: this is the tool of the moment, accessible and unremarkable, appealing because it may better evade apprehension. But, contrary to Israel’s successive attempts in every Gaza assault since 2008 to argue that Palestinian weaponry is increasingly problematic for its sophistication,[2] it is clear that such use of a truck does not herald an evolution in the technologies of terror.

Rather, categorising the truck-ramming in Jerusalem as terror—as a lone-wolf event or an act linked to a global network—indexes the relentless media and political construction of terror in the last two decades that has made it difficult to think about recent events in Jerusalem outside an idiom of terror. There is no doubt that terror is an element in this incident, but it is not represented by the Palestinian driver, Fadi Al-Qanbar, nor by the deadly appropriation of the truck. In the case of Israeli–Palestinian relations, this would be to replicate a misapprehension of context that has beleaguered Palestinians for decades, both before and after the advent of the State of Israel. Undifferentiated approaches to an idea of terror in the twenty-first century have made successive attacks, so termed, increasingly incomprehensible. It seems, for that reason, long past time to acknowledge the limitations of a discourse that not only continues to misapprehend the nature of terror but should itself constitute the present source of our alarm.

During the peak of Palestinian suicide bombing (PSB) in the Second Intifada, anthropologist Ghassan Hage sought to address what he describes as the ‘condemnation imperative’, which ‘operates as a mode of censoring attempts to provide a sociological explanation for why PSBs act the way they do’.[3] This is an impulse recognisable in the contemporary Western attitude to what it deems terrorist action, instantiated in widespread responses to 9/11, and appositely illustrated by the remark of Israeli diplomat Gideon Meir that ‘terror is terror is terror’.[4]

In the 19th Session of the Palestine National Council, held in Algiers in 1988 against the backdrop of the First Intifada, the council made a historic break from its liberationist aspirations, producing a series of resolutions that registered Palestinian acceptance of the international consensus.[5] One such resolution was ‘a rejection of terrorism in all its forms’. This was classified, in the absence of consensus (which remains to this day) on a definition of terrorism, as ‘indiscriminate violence whose aim is to terrorize civilians’, in contrast to affirming the carefully distinguished Palestinian right at international law, enshrined in the UN Charter, to resist Occupation.[6] It highlights, as Edward Said recounts, the adoption of ‘responsible and realistic positions’ and a ‘willingness to make sacrifices in the interests of peace’ on the Palestinian side.[7]

Notwithstanding such signals of Palestinian commitment to negotiation, the former UN special rapporteur on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Richard Falk, notes that, for years, such influential commentators as Thomas Friedland in The New York Times rhetorically urged Palestinians and their supporters to adopt non-violent strategies of resistance, arguing that this approach would find strong resonance in a democratic state such as Israel. One particularly well-publicised case of this is the weekly protests that occur in the village of Bil’in (made famous in the documentary Five Broken Cameras). The protests in Bil’in, which began in 2005, have increasingly received the support of international and Israeli solidarity groups and attracted international attention.[8] Indeed, Bil’in is characteristic of an era of non-violent resistance by Palestinians in the face of relentless and escalating onslaughts by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza and the weight of an instrumentalised Occupation that permanently disrupt the fabric of Palestinian life in the West Bank. However, Palestinian adoption of this approach has gone largely unacknowledged and commentators who urged the tactic on Palestinians have been, according to Falk, ‘absolutely silent’ about the shift. [9]

But if these aspects of Palestinian resistance and diplomacy and the response they are met with by Israel are not well known, it is only recently that more serious mainstream attempts—largely witnessed in the context of the Israeli response to unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state by Western governments following Operation Protective Edge (2014)—have been made to debunk the fatuous notion that it is Israel that finds itself at the negotiating table without a genuine partner. On the contrary, Israeli governments, chief among them the current prime minister, have for decades sought to configure Palestinian resistance as terrorism, a project that did not originate with the plane hijackings of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington. Prior to this, Netanyahu had, for example, authored several books characterising Palestinian nationalism, resistance and aspirations to self-determination as terrorism.[10] But the arrival of terrorism in the West, and at the symbolic heart of freedom and liberal democracy on American soil, created the opportunity for Israel to argue the symmetry of the American experience.[11] Netanyahu expressed precisely this when asked what he thought 9/11 would do for Israeli–American relations. After stating ‘It’s very good’, he explained: ‘Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy [and] strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we’ve experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive haemorrhaging of terror’.[12] Journalist Ali Abunimah writes that the event set the tone for what has since been Israel’s basic narrative: ‘We are under attack not because Palestinians are aggrieved at specific material injustices that can be remedied by among other things withdrawal from territory and respect for their human rights. Rather, we are the first victims of, and the vanguard of Western civilisation against a global Islamofascist threat’.[13]

This is the view that needs to be acknowledged as false and then rejected, strenuously and without apology. If the recent truck-ramming incident has any relationship to terror, then it is as a response to the systemic and institutional terror to which Palestinians have been unrelentingly subjected for close to seventy years at the hands of the State of Israel. Already the Palestinian driver, Al-Qanbar, has been executed and his family members arrested. His neighbourhood has been shut down by the IDF, and his family home will be demolished or sealed. But, as Amira Hass writes, ‘Al-Qanbar knew all the consequences of his actions—he’d seen it many times before’.[14] According to Hass, ‘Palestinians see Israeli retaliations as a natural part of the general policy toward them, not as a response’.[15] Israel defends such actions as deterrence, and both the government and Israel’s Supreme Court have for decades viewed such forms of collective punishment as legitimate.

Apparently as a result of the fact that the ‘targets’ of the incident were IDF soldiers, Israeli and Jewish friends with leftist persuasions registered on social media that they considered the event a legitimate expression of Palestinian resistance. I think this is an interesting technicality at one level, given that the document governing Israeli military conduct, the Kasher-Yadlin doctrine, in fact deems soldiers to be ‘civilians in uniform’ and in almost all instances preferences their lives in combat situations over those of the Palestinian civilian population.[16] It is not that I find this expression of solidarity arbitrary, because solidarity and recognition are essential in moments that threaten to provoke new waves of anti-Palestinian and Palestinian-as-terrorist sentiment. But at a certain level I find the detail of this situation, contra the doctrine applied to Gaza over the last decade, to be arbitrary indeed. Since the focus is always on Palestinian actions, debates over their legitimacy or illegitimacy, and the obscure authorities that make them so, are no more than a triviality in the face of so much else.

When Netanyahu can impose another predictable round of collective punishment on Al-Qanbar’s family and neighbours but back the notion of a pardon for Sergeant Elor Azaria, who was recently found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter for killing a ‘Palestinian attacker’ in Hebron,[17] it seems that the only thing worth talking about is: what does terror really look like in this forsaken place?

Terror is the no end in sight to Occupation and a Knesset that has no interest in Palestinian autonomy, much less a resolution, but rather anticipates the Trump presidency as an era in which two-states will be abandoned altogether to make way for the annexing of ‘Judea and Samaria’.[18] It looks like the cantonisation of Palestinians throughout the West Bank such that the creep of neoliberalism has, in Ramallah, decimated the social fabric of resistance that once initiated the heroism of the intifadas.[19] It is Palestinians who are accused of things they do not do (for example, the bizarre spate of ‘knife attacks’ in 2015 when IDF soldiers forced children as young as fourteen to pick up a knife, at gunpoint, to provide the ruse for their summary execution).[20] It is the Palestinians who lose their lives daily, whose names we will never learn. Internationally, it is the moves to criminalise Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), the only really useful movement that Palestinian civil society has produced in the twenty-first century and one that is increasingly outlawed precisely because it is having some effect.[21] It is the farce of the recent UN Resolution on Settlements, which the United States consented to abstain on, breaking with its long history of vetoing anything that might have signalled to Israel that its actions were far beyond the pale. Because it is too late to care very much about settlements now, and because, in the long history of settlements, the recent death of their architect, Shimon Peres, saw him lauded as a ‘man of peace’. Because Peres and his kind are enabled to reinvent themselves, but Palestinians never are. Because Palestinians still are so rarely enabled to narrate themselves in the spaces that matter and because, notwithstanding the fact that they are the best-educated diaspora in the world, they have not managed to devise a strategy of sufficient power and impact to counteract the years of misinformation and untruths that have attached to their predicament.[22] This is terror. This is the unmitigated terror under which all Palestinians labour but particularly the Palestinians in occupied Palestine.

A Palestinian delivering a paper at Birzeit University to a mixed-language audience in 2015 began by saying, ‘I am speaking in Arabic because if you don’t understand it you can’t hear’. A friend remarked later that, in his interactions with the media, he too chooses Arabic. When I asked him what satisfaction he derives from this opacity, he responded, ‘They don’t hear me, whatever the language’. This is hardly arrogance in ‘reverse’, as it is often called today. This is how it feels to be a Palestinian. And no last-minute resolution (which, incidentally, is of little practical effect regardless of aspiration) in Obama’s lame-duck presidency can make the slightest difference to that.

So how should we look at the truck-ramming incident and how do we discard the layers of prejudice that encourage us to read these events as events they are not? The alternative must surely be in the apprehension of resistance. I am heartened by the response of my Israeli and Jewish friends on social media, whatever my reservations, and whatever the confirmation bias in the algorithm of Facebook’s curated news feed. While I do not wholly agree, it is a rare surprise to see that Palestinian violence is not always read as terror. Amira Hass concludes her recent analysis on the ramming, and why deterrence hasn’t worked, as follows: ‘Despite geographical and social dispersion, and weak, quarreling leaders, there is the political maturity of the Palestinian public, which knows that an uprising is inevitable but that it must wait for a more appropriate time’.[23] No, it is not time, but it is a flicker of the resistance by which the issue of Palestine remains alive today.

At another time of great sadness, in the relinquishing of Palestinian liberation for realpolitik at the 1988 Palestinian National Council (PNC), Said wrote, ‘Struggles are always won by details, by inches, by specifics, not only by big generalizations, large ideas, abstract concepts’.[24] He urges, and it is something we must hold luminous before us, ‘We cannot neglect to register and attest to the suffering and the greatness of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation’.[25] Al-Qanbar knew this and it is our obligation to champion it, on behalf of him, and of the others who came before. A blighted inheritance, maybe, but this is the spirit of resistance.

[1] Nir Hasson, ‘ISIS Attack Theory Suits Netanyahu Well, but Jerusalem Is not Berlin’, Haaretz, 9 January 2017.

[2] Steven Erlanger, ‘A Gaza War Full of Traps and Trickery’, New York Times, 11 January 2009.

[3] Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society, Annandale, NSW, Pluto Press, 2003, p. 122.

[4] IMFA then Deputy Director-General for Media and Public Affairs Gideon Meir during Operation Defensive Shield, and IDF assault on the West Bank in 2002, quoted in C. J. Chivers, ‘Palestinian Militant Group Says it Will Limit Bombings’, New York Times, 23 April 2002.

[5] Edward Said, ‘Intifada and Independence’, Social Text No. 22, 1989, p. 36.

[6] Said, p. 35.

[7] Said, p. 36.

[8] Haggai Mattar, ‘New Books Document 10 Years of Protest in Bil’in’, +972 Magazine, 3 April 2015.

[9] Richard Falk, ‘Human Rights in the Occupied Palestine Territories’, lecture, State Library of Victoria, 16 September 2013.

[10] See Benjamin Netanyahu, A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World, New York, Bantam Books, 1993; Benjamin Netanyahu, Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. Additionally, Netanyahu has published two edited books: Benjamin Netanyahu (ed.), International Terrorism, Challenge and Response: Proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism, Jerusalem, Jonathan Institute, 1981, and Benjamin Netanyahu (ed.), Terrorism: How the West Can Win, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986.

[11] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers, London, Verso, 2002, p. 42.

[12] James Bennet, ‘Spilled Blood Is Seen as Bond that Draws 2 Nations Closer’, New York Times, 12 September 2001.

[13] Ali Abunimah, ‘Gaza, Goldstone, and the Movement for Israeli Accountability’, in The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict, Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, and Philip Weiss (eds), New York, Nation Books, 2011, pp. 391–2.

[14] Amira Hass, ‘Why the Latest Palestinian Attacker in Jerusalem Was not Deterred’, Haaretz, 9 January 2017.

[15] Hass.

[16] Asa Kasher and Amos Yadlin, ‘Military Ethics of Fighting Terror: An Israeli Perspective’, Journal of Military Ethics 4, No. 1, 2005, doi: 10.1080/15027570510014642.

[17] Peter Beaumont, ‘Netanyahu Backs Calls for Convicted Israeli Soldier to be Pardoned’, Guardian, 5 January 2017.

[18] ‘Israeli Right Hails Trump: “The Era of a Palestinian State Is Over”’, New Nationalist, 10 November 2016.

[19] Lisa Taraki, ‘Enclave Micropolis: The Paradoxical Case of Ramallah/Al-Bireh’, Journal of Palestine Studies XXXVII 4, 2008, pp. 7–8.

[20] Ali Abunimah, ‘Israeli Soldier Forces Knife on Palestinian Girl’, Electronic Intifada, 2 December 2015.

[21] See for example Andrew Cuomo, ‘If You Boycott Israel, New York State Will Boycott You,’ Washington Post, 10 June 2016; and comments of Victorian premier Daniel Andrews in Peter Kohn, ‘Leaders Toast Israel’, Australia Jewish News, 17 June 2016.

[22] Rashid Khalidi, ‘Palestinian Dispossession and the U.S. Public Sphere’, in The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict, Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, and Philip Weiss (eds), New York, Nation Books, 2011.

[23] Hass.

[24] Said, p. 39.

[25] Said, p. 39.