Searching for the Realm of Freedom

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No more than a month ago I sat with a friend drinking coffee at the Hillel Cafe in Jerusalem. Today it is a shattered edifice, with bloodstains on the floor.

Indeed, this was the first thought that crossed my mind after hearing the news about the horrific suicide attack that left another seven Israelis dead and 45 wounded. 'I could have been there,' I said to myself.

It is a frightening thought, one that has crossed the mind of many an Israeli, particularly since the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000 - a period in which 244 suicide attacks have been carried out. Just as disturbing, though, is the thought that this bloody reality has been accepted by the Israeli public as part of their daily routine - so much so that the same people who are terrified to leave their homes now consider Israel's gory mode of existence as their karma, as if the political realm were in some odd way predetermined.

But politics, as the great Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt repeatedly stated, is the realm of freedom, where humans actually have the opportunity to begin something new through speech and deed. Even 'in the epochs of petrifaction and foreordained doom', she claimed, the faculty of freedom, 'which animates and inspires all human activities and is the hidden source of production of all great and beautiful things' usually remains intact.

What Israelis and Palestinians have been witnessing in the past few weeks is a concerted effort to destroy the road that might have led the two peoples out of a foreordained doom and into a new beginning. Notwithstanding the impression some people might have, this myopic effort has been led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, not only by Hamas. His strategy is one of pre-emptive strikes.

Approximately two months ago the different Palestinian factions decided to implement a houdna (ceasefire in Arabic) and to stop attacking Israeli targets. Despite the fact that numerous militant groups operate without a central command in the Occupied Territories, for almost a month and a half the houdna managed to hold up. While one assault was perpetrated in the West Bank by a small splinter group, the violence had subsided and it appeared as if serious negotiations would resume.

Then, as if out of the blue, the Israeli military invaded Askar refugee camp, killing four Palestinians, including two members of Izzeddin Al-Qassam, Hamas's military wing. The operation was a pre-emptive strike, the Israeli spokesman explained.

The Palestinians decided not to retaliate.

Less than a week later, on 14 August, Israeli troops entered Hebron and killed a member of Islamic Jihad. Another pre-emptive attack. Only this time the Palestinians did respond, and on 19 August a suicide bomber exploded inside a public bus. Israel, in turn, used its forces to carry out a series of extrajudicial executions, and now a month after the pre-emptive assault on Askar camp, the streets between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea are once again covered with blood.

Not unlike the settlement project, the Lebanon war, and extrajudicial executions, the separation wall should also be conceived as a pre-emptive attack. While Sharon declares that the wall is being built solely for security reasons, he neglects to say that it is not being erected on the 1967 borders, and is actually being used as an extremely effective mechanism to expropriate Palestinian land and create facts on the ground so as to pre-empt any future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Its effect is not less violent than the assassinations and suicide bombings. Already in this early stage, the wall has infringed on the rights of more than 210,000 Palestinians, some of whom now live in ghettos between the wall and Israel.

The crux of the matter is that Sharon's pre-emptive logic undercuts all form of dialogue and negotiations. Its rule of thumb is violence, and then more violence, whether it manifests itself as a military attack or as an aggressive act of dispossession. So while it may seem that the bloody routine is in some way preordained, it is actually Sharon's pre-emptive zeal alongside Hamas's and Islamic Jihad's fundamentalism that has clouded the horizon and concealed, as Arendt might have said, the possibility for a better future.

Neve Gordon
Beer-Sheva