Everyone is rushing to condemn the gruesome murder of a family in the illegal Israeli settlement of Itamar. Even President Barack Obama felt compelled to offer his “unequivocal condemnation” of the murders. For what it’s worth (very little), I offer my own denunciation of the killings. Murdering kids can not be justified on any human level. However, even if the motives of the killer seem obvious to everyone, journalists covering the incident must be reminded there is no hard evidence that a Palestinian terrorist committed the crime. No viable armed faction has taken credit, and Israeli police are even treating Thai workers as suspects.
Itamar is heavily guarded, surrounded by an electrified fence, and monitored 24/7 by a sophisticated system of video surveillance. Yet there is no video of the killer. Like it or not, until the identity of the killer is confirmed, the murder can only be described by journalists as an “alleged terror attack.” Legitimate outrage is no excuse to flout the basics of journalism 101.
Given the amount of violence visited upon local Palestinians by the residents of Itamar and nearby settlements, I will not be surprised if the killer turns out to be a rogue Palestinian bent on revenge. In one instance documented in 2007, settlers from Itamar stabbed a 52-year-old shepherd named Mohammad Hamdan Ibrahim Bani Jaber to death while he tended to his flock. Routine attacks from Itamar have prompted the near-total evacuation of the village Izbat Al Yanoon, while settlers from nearby Jewish colony of Yitzhar have staged homemade rocket attacks on local Palestinians and torched their mosques. As I have reported, Yitzhar is home to Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, author of the notorious “Torat Hamelech,” which uses rabbinical sources to justify the killing of non-Jewish civilians, including children, in combat situations.
A year ago in nearby Palestinian farming villages Awarta and Iraq Burin, Israeli soldiers were accused of executing local youths during riots against settlement expansion. As Jesse Rosenfeld reported, despite the clear evidence of execution style killings, none of the soldiers who held the Palestinians in custody at the time they were shot were convicted of any crimes. And to my knowledge, no official American response followed. Thus the besieged villages near Itamar have been left without any recourse or legal means to redress their harassment and murder.
Israel’s method of occupation and its military rules of engagement — which are supported by the US in spirit and through acts like the recent UN settlement resolution veto — openly skirt international law, eliminating any outside mechanism for mediating conflict or redressing the grievances of civilians harmed by war. Under these terms, where distinctions between civilians and combatants are deliberately blurred in order to deepen Israel’s control over land gained through military conquest, horrific attacks like the kind allegedly witnessed in Itamar become all the more possible.
To establish an ethical basis for military operations aimed at consolidating the occupation, the Israeli army has turned to Zionist academics like Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Asa Kasher. In the service of the army, Kasher churned out elaborate manifestoes justifying Israel’s tactics during Lebanon II and Operation Cast Lead. Kasher’s concepts of warfare are best defined by his explicit justifications for killing unarmed civilians in any instance when an Israeli soldier believed that they were in danger. Kasher strained his logic to the point that he highlighted the 2004 US invasion of Fallujah in Iraq, when American troops fired white phosphorous shells into the city center and demolished hundreds of homes, to justify Israeli actions in Gaza. “If it’s between the soldier and the terrorist’s neighbor, the priority is the soldier,” Kasher said. “Any country would do the same.”
Another academic with close ties to the Israeli military-intelligence apparatus, Professor Arnon “the Arab Counter” Soffer of Haifa University, urged the army to massacre Palestinian civilians after the withdrawal from the illegal settlement of Gush Katif in Gaza. Soffer, who devised the separation wall policy in order to confine the Palestinians of the West Bank to what he called “three sausages,” reasoned that mass murder was the only way to maintain the security of the Southern Israeli perimeter communities while avoiding political concessions to the Palestinians of Gaza.
“When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,” Soffer argued. “Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” And that is exactly what Israel did when it followed Soffer’s logic in Operation Cast Lead. (Note the use of the word “animal” in Soffer’s language and in the language of Israelis responding to the murders in Itamar; the word is essentially a signal to kill Palestinians indiscriminately).
While Soffer and Kasher have both served as outside consultants for Israeli governments and the army, another advocate for slaughtering Palestinian civilians, Yaakov Amidror, has been appointed to serve as Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor. “That’s a totally illegal order,” Amidror once snapped at Israeli news anchor Haim Yavin, who had said that Israeli soldiers were instructed to avoid civilian casualties in Lebanon. “What should be said is ‘kill more of the bastards on the other side, so that we’ll win.’ Period.” Amidror has criticized Kasher for formalizing the army’s ethical code — “I said this should remain unwritten, so there wouldn’t be anything written, as [then] it would become technical,” he declared — and even called for the on-site execution of Israeli soldiers who refused to advance in battle. (Amidror also happens to be a religious settler who lives in the West Bank.)
Kasher, Soffer, and Amidror’s arguments relating to the killing of civilians are eerily similar to those advanced in a halakhic context by religious nationalist rabbis. Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira of Yitzar, a settlement that neighbors Itamar, has written in his book “Torat Hamelech” that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and should be killed in order to “curb their evil inclinations.” A guide for anyone pondering when killing goyim is permissible, the book has been described by Rabbi Dov Lior of the settlement Kiryat Arba as “very relevant, especially in this time.” Lior, who has said that “gentile sperm leads to barbaric offspring,” is also a firm advocate of slaughtering Palestinian civilians. In 2008, when the IDF’s chief rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Ronski, brought a group of military intelligence officers to Hebron for a special tour, he concluded the day with a private meeting with Lior, who reveled the officers with his views on modern warfare: “no such thing as civilians in wartime.” (For his part, Ronski has urged Israeli troops to show Palestinian civilians “no mercy.”)
So what is the difference between rabbis like Lior and Shapira and secular academics like Kasher and Soffer? I put this question to a 20-something settler (he is the last guy I interviewed in this video) during a rally in defense of the publication of “Torat Hamelech.” “Well, the difference is that someone like Kasher is speaking from his kishkes [guts],” the settler told me. “But Yitzhak Shapira is speaking from Torah; he’s speaking from Hashem.” In other words, the philosopher and the rabbi share a philosophy that justifies killing non-Jewish civilians, but the ethicist uses rational arguments rooted in secular Enlightenment thought, while the rabbi claims to be translating for God from ancient documents. In the end, both are working to cultivate an environment in which legal and moral protections for civilians are discarded in order to advance the maximalist goals of Jewish nationalism.
During his opening statement in his debate against Judge Richard Goldstone at Brandeis University on November 5, 2009, former Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold claimed that the Goldstone Report was in fact an attack on Israeli society. In a section entitled “Maligning Israeli Society,” Gold and Lt. Col. Jonathan Dahoah Halevi wrote: “The language used by the UN Gaza report — and the gravity of its allegations about “deliberate” Israeli attacks on civilians — maligns Israeli society as a whole, for the Israel Defense Forces is a citizen’s army, an army which is made up of the people of Israel.”
In Gold’s own words, there is no difference between Israeli civilians and soldiers — the army is society. Without knowing it, Gold deployed the very same argument Palestinian militant factions have used to justify suicide attacks inside Israel and the murder of the children of settlers in the West Bank. Thus Gold revealed the extent to which the process of comprehensively militarizing Jewish Israeli society — a central goal of Zionism since the days of Joseph Trumpeldor — had obliterated the distinction between civilian and combatant, transforming every human being into a possible target.
In such an environment, horrific violence against the innocent is not only possible, but inevitable. Of course, most of the violence will be meted out against the Palestinians, who live under a seemingly permanent occupation with negligible deterrent capacity and no political rights. But Israelis must also live in this moral wasteland and face the depressing consequences. Having to someday accept that they were responsible for its creation might be the cruelest fate of all.