The Monster and the State

It’s easier to condemn a hate crime than a war crime, especially on occupied land.

In the wake of the horrific arson attack in Duma at the end of last month, during which 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe was burned to death, a seemingly unlikely group gathered for a prayer vigil at the Gush Etzion junction outside the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut. With the exception of a pair of Palestinian speakers, all of the participants were Israeli. Many if not most were settlers from Gush Etzion, a dense bloc of settlements in the hotly contested area around Bethlehem.

Despite the almost exclusively Jewish makeup of the participants, the event was hailed as a moment of coexistence in the midst of unspeakable violence. The arson attack was carried out by settlers only hours after an ultra-Orthodox man had stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, including a sixteen-year-old girl named Shira Banki who later succumbed to her injuries. Israelis reacted to these events with due outrage, expressing shock at the death of children at the hands of violent Jewish extremists. Yair Lapid, the adamantly secular former finance minister, spoke at the prayer vigil in Gush Etzion, pronouncing, “It is the ultimate evil to burn a child and we will not be silent in the face of this evil.”

But despite the shockwaves that supposedly have rocked the Jewish Israeli public, this story is no newer than the violence it seeks to describe. Secular Israelis are consistently being shocked and horrified by the actions of their religious counterparts. It is part of how they understand who they are as secular, rational moderates. Surely Lapid’s remarks ring true, but if a child being burned is evil, what is it to crush a child beneath the weight of her apartment building? What is it to murder over one hundred babies—that is, three-year-olds and younger—in the course of seven weeks? What, in short, happened one year ago in Gaza?

It’s not an accident that Israelis, who overwhelmingly supported last year’s war in Gaza, leaving 490 children dead and approximately 3,000 more wounded, have developed the ability to recognize Palestinian suffering just in time to condemn this attack. It’s an established way of understanding certain kinds of violence: the unwarranted, irrational, radical violence of the religious terrorist (Jew or Muslim), as opposed to the unavoidable, rational violence of a state tasked with protecting its citizens. It is not only that it costs so little for secular Israelis to condemn the violence of settlers, but that by doing so, they shape themselves in the negative image of this sort of violence, while at the same time legitimating state-sponsored killing not only of civilians, but of hundreds of children.

Children die just as easily—or perhaps even more so—at the hands of the state as they do in those of religious extremists. But whereas secular members of a privileged class—whether in Israel-Palestine or in the United States—may fail to recognize themselves in the zealot with a knife or a can of gasoline, the state, they are to understand, is there to protect them. In fact, in times like this, the power of the state is reinforced with the demand for justice for the innocent, through arrests, trials, imprisonment. The state that kills children with all the calculation of a couponer is now asked to exact justice for the victims of religious violence. But what about the victims of the secular? When earlier this summer a U.N. commission found that both Israel and Palestinian militants had violated international law during the 2014 war, Lapid pre-empted the findings’ release with claims that they were evidence of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy—no surprise, given Lapid’s own support of and involvement in the military campaign.

Hate crimes are easier to condemn, somehow, than war crimes. Ali Dawabshe and Shira Banki, besides being children, have names and faces. Their deaths are unquestionably unjust; their assailants, monsters. But these monsters don’t just represent hiccups in state power, which is to be resumed with their arrest. Understanding this kind of violence as separate and opposed to that of the state obscures the important role of the latter even in these extreme acts by individuals and small groups.

Beyond the state’s tacit support of ongoing, well-documented settler violence in the West Bank, Yishai Shlissel, the assailant at Jerusalem’s Pride Parade, was well known to state authorities. At the time of the parade, Shlissel was just three weeks out of prison for perpetrating the same crime at a Pride Parade ten years earlier. In a surveillance state like Israel, it is unfathomable that someone like this could get within ten miles of this year’s parade—it goes beyond negligence, approaching collusion.

And this is only to address these terrible, exceptional acts, without placing them in the context of the banal, day-to-day violence and indignities of the management of the occupation. Following the brutal attack, as the dead child’s family was being treated for severe burn injuries in Israel, the Israeli press corps was invited to Tel Hashomer Hospital for press conferences with the Israeli prime minister and president, who seized the opportunity to condemn terrorism on both sides. But five nights later, residents of Duma, still reeling from the child’s death, were subjected to the all-too-well-known ritual in West Bank villages of a 2:00 A.M. military incursion, during which over 100 Israeli soldiers removed members of the Dawabshe family from their homes and searched the buildings for two and a half hours. At the time, Saad Dawabshe, the late Ali’s father and a construction worker on settlements, still lay in the hospital. He passed away on August 8.

Even the prayer vigil held by settlers—besides the obvious contradictions—was held in an area of restricted Palestinian movement. This means that even if Palestinians wanted to attend the vigil (which frankly, seems unlikely, for the same obvious reasons), they may not have been able to travel to that location in the West Bank without the proper, scarce paperwork. This is what coexistence looks like under military occupation: a site of mourning, where only those closest to the perpetrators are even allowed entry.