The assault and detention of an old friend in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is an act of normalised brutality in this contested territory. Andrew Rigby argues that challenging such violence is essential to ending impunity and has the potential to transform the conflict and liberate both oppressed and oppressors from such ‘routinisation of terror’.

The death of Queen Elizabeth, the Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russian occupying forces, the cost of living crisis in the UK as so many of our fellow citizens face a winter of fuel poverty and food insecurity – these have been the headlines the last few days.

But what has moved me most powerfully this past week was the news that someone I knew had been attacked by a group of vicious thugs armed with metal bars, they broke both his arms and inflicted other injuries. When the police arrived on the scene they arrested my friend, and after he had received medical treatment he was sent to a detention centre for interrogation, accused of attacking and injuring one of his assailants.

Where can such a travesty of basic justice and due process take place? In this case it was the occupied Palestinian territory of the South Hebron Hills (Masafer Yatta) in the southern West Bank. This area is home to around  4,000 Palestinians living in 32 villages and hamlets under constant threat of eviction. The region is one of the most rural areas in the West Bank, and most of its Palestinian residents are poor, living in temporary structures and subsisting on farming and grazing of flocks. In addition to a constant shortage of the most basic necessities, Palestinian residents of the area suffer from recurrent settler violence, as well as restrictions on movement, access to land and water resources, and home demolitions initiated by Israeli authorities.

The thugs were from a settler outpost (Havat Ma’on) planted on a hill-top site above the small village of Al-Tuwani. I have visited the village on a number of occasions for research purposes, including interviewing Hafez Huraini, a retired police-officer and community activist, now languishing in jail facing charges of assault.

At one level his experience was a mundane, everyday occurrence – the ‘routinisation of terror’ in the words of David Shulman. One more instance of the abuse of basic human rights that is an integral dimension of occupation – especially when the occupying power is intent on cleansing the territory of the South Hebron Hills of its Palestinian inhabitants.

But there is a wider significance to this beyond the pain and suffering inflicted upon someone who has made me welcome in their home. For me it illustrates what I would call the ‘contagion of impunity’ that is one of the dominant features of the deepening Israeli occupation.

The settler-thugs that broke the limbs of Hafez Huraini acted with complete impunity – confident they would face no legal sanctions for their acts of violence. Their mind-set is such that they are immune to any moral judgements based on universal values of fellowship and care. They are emboldened by the knowledge that the violence they perpetrate against Palestinians serves as a major informal tool of the Israeli state in its pursuance of its annexationist policies. In the words of a report by the Israeli human rights agency B’tselem, ‘settler violence is a form of government policy, aided and abetted by official state authorities with their active participation.’

The impunity the settlers enjoy reflects and is a consequence of the impunity with which the Israeli state pursues its expansionist project. Russia invades and occupies Ukrainian territory, and the states of the world coordinate a sanctions regime as a consequence. Israel continues its policies of ethnic cleansing in occupied territory such as the South Hebron Hills and suffers no international sanctions of any significance, beyond the efforts of the BDS movement.

In such an asymmetric struggle the local inhabitants have few resources of resistance beyond their own everyday courage, tenacity and stubborn steadfastness – sumud. To support them different Palestinian, Israeli and international agencies, organisations and groups have sought to offer various forms of accompaniment as agents of civilian protection, assisting the local Palestinian communities to create and sustain a level of ‘safe space’ within which to pursue their lives.

I am part of a team about to start a research project seeking to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of such nonviolent modes of intervention in the region. One of the challenges I face when engaged in such research – and I have been researching unarmed resistance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over four decades – is how to deal with my emotions when in the midst of such physical, social and cultural violence, It is not easy!

Surprisingly, perhaps, I find my pacifist convictions help me cope. One of the key insights that has informed my approach to nonviolent struggle is that whilst the focus might be on challenging violent practices and situations, by working to transform evil situations one is also working to liberate the oppressor from the evil for which they are responsible.

This is a view echoed  by David Shulman, an Israeli intellectual, scholar, writer and solidarity activist with Ta’ayush. He has expressed this conviction in words far more powerful than I could manage, so I will conclude with a quote from his book, Freedom and Despair:

Of one thing I am certain …. The price exacted by the Occupation from Israeli Jews is beyond reckoning. My life in Israel coincides exactly with the life of the Occupation; I have seen it mutate from harsh military rule at its inception to the inferno of violent theft and state terror that is in place today. It embodies wickedness of such intensity that it calls into question the legitimacy and viability of the state itself. Worse even than that, it has corroded the souls of thousands, possibly millions. Let me proclaim, again …. One cannot violate the inner being of an entire people without violating and impoverishing one’s own inner life. The universe has its laws. Israelis need to be liberated from the Occupation no less than the Palestinians need to become free.

David Shulman, Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills (2018, p.181)
Mustard seed plants in spring, South Hebron Hills. Creating Safer Spaces.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Banner image: Israeli occupation forces fire tear gas at protest against the forceful eviction of thousands of Palestinians in Masafer Yatta, 20 May 2022, Aryeh Miller, Shutterstock.

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