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How Israel Lost its Way

Palestinian children detained by Israeli soliders in Hebron, West Bank, Febuary 2012

Editor's note: this essay is the first of three parts. Subsequent installments will assess the responsibility of the Palestinian people and their leaders and the actions both sides must take to avert catastrophe. 

Seventy-five years after its creation, Israel is now raising the fourth generation of warriors who are taught to view every Palestinian as a suspect or a would-be terrorist. Sadly, no Israeli government has considered how this direct and subtle indoctrination is poisoning the minds of its youth, with long-term dire consequences for the country.

Successive Israeli governments have been raising generations of warriors, poisoning their minds in the military and in schools. They are indoctrinated from a young age to view every Palestinian as a suspect or a would-be a terrorist—an irredeemable foe that ostensibly poses a real and present danger and must be reined in by whatever means, however brutal, to eliminate the threat they pose. Seventy percent of Jewish Israelis under the age of 25 identify as right-wing, and believe the Palestinians to be an arch enemy while psychologically preparing for the next violent confrontation. No Israeli government has seriously considered the dire psychological impact on the Israeli youth who are growing in an environment laden with such intense hatred toward a people with whom they must coexist indefinitely and under any circumstances.

The normalization of occupation has made the young Israelis increasingly numb to the Palestinians’ plight, and as a result of their schooling and training they have become impervious to the people who live in servitude with little or no hope for a better and promising future. But when this indifference to the pain and suffering of the Palestinians becomes a normal state of mind for Israeli youth, it robs them of their own humanity and dignity. They do not realize how they were psychologically inculcated to become so callous and apathetic towards their young Palestinian counterparts who live in fear and uncertainty while hatred, revenge, and retribution become their only way to maintain their resistance.

As Aldous Huxley eloquently stated, “The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free…his servitude is strictly objective.”

To be sure, for tens of thousands of Israeli youths, like their fathers and even grandfathers, the West Bank became an extension of Israel proper. They have been taught that this land was bequeathed to them exclusively by the Almighty for eternity and that the Jews have come back to simply reclaim what is inherently theirs. The Palestinians are portrayed as the perpetual enemy not to be trusted or reconciled with.

Last week, I had an opportunity to speak to a former Israeli soldier who served in a surveillance unit in the West Bank. I asked him about his experience with and feelings toward the Palestinians. At first, he demurred, but after a moment of hesitation he said: “You know, now that I am speaking to you, I can’t believe how I used to think of the Palestinians, any Palestinians at that. I was taught in class and trained in the field by the military to treat every Palestinian as a suspect or a would-be terrorist. That I should be vigilant, take no risk and not hesitate to shoot if I felt that I was even slightly in danger.”

“The fact that I could have easily pulled the trigger and killed a Palestinian of my age and rob him of his dreams and everything dear to him still sickens me to this day. Like thousands of other soldiers, I am still struggling with these feelings. I guess this what’s happens when the military and the political leadership indoctrinate, if not manipulate you through persistent public pronouncements to think and believe that the Palestinians are an irredeemable enemy and treating them as such is central to our national security.”

Generally, every person’s conscience limits or hinders, to a certain extent, their instinct to harm others. But when you become an integral part of a larger institutions, such as the military, and you are told what you must do to protect yourself, you unintentionally compromise your moral principles. You feel immune as long as you are operating within the larger authoritative framework. Thus, you become just another instrument within the military structure that makes you capable of killing a human being without hesitation, and you easily exempt yourself of any moral responsibility.

Given how the Israeli military indoctrinate the soldiers to treat the Palestinians, especially the young, as suspects—would-be terrorists—religious law (Halakha) which is codified in Tractate Sanhedrin 72a, (Habah l’hargecha hashkem l’hargo, “If someone is coming to kill you, rise against him and kill him first,”) allows Israeli soldiers, who are made familiar with this principle, to basically ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ because if you believe that the Palestinian intends to kill you if he can, you must rise and kill him first.

However, when a young Israeli soldier at the age of 18 or 19 kills a Palestinian, once he finishes his tour of duty and is out of the military infrastructure, he begins to experience, more often than not, agonizing trauma for having killed someone that he does not know. Still at a young age, he lives for years, haunted by that painful act that resulted in the death of another human being who was born and grew up under brutal occupation.

The following fatal incidents exemplify the terrifying psychological impact of this predisposed mental state of mind of the military forces serving in the West Bank. In 2014, a 64-year-old Palestinian man was sheltering in his basement with his family and neighbors when Israeli soldiers raided his home. The man was told by one of the soldiers not to take another step up the stairway. The man, holding a white flag, tried to explain in Hebrew that they were peaceful civilians as he unconsciously took one more step forward. The soldier shot him instantly in the heart and the man dropped dead in front of his children. In searching his body no weapon of any kind was found. Since then, the distrust and animosity between the two sides have become even progressively worse.

This January, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers and later died during a military raid in the Dheisheh refugee camp, during which Israeli forces allege that Palestinians were throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at soldiers. To be sure, the lives of the Palestinians in the occupied territories have become disposable and inconsequential. With every new generation that passes, the Israeli youth are becoming increasingly accustomed to a reality that further degrades their own humanity.

I challenge every right-wing Israeli leader like Netanyahu and his accomplices, who denies the Palestinian right to statehood, to tell me where Israel will be in ten to fifteen years under this environment that dehumanizes not only the Palestinians but also the Israeli youth who are trained to be their oppressors. They are deliberately instilling in the minds of young Israelis the belief that the Palestinians will never accept Israel’s right to exist, and hence Israel is left with no choice but to view them as a perpetual enemy that must be dealt with accordingly.

As such, Israeli right-wing leaders systematically mislead the Israeli youth to believe that the continuing occupation is central to Israel’s national security, when in fact the occupation itself is bolstering the Palestinians’ national aspiration, nurturing and ensuring the next generation’s resistance to the occupation.

It is nothing short of tragic that successive Israeli governments paid little, if any heed to what they have inflicted on Israeli youth. Short of annexing the West Bank, right-wing Israeli governments, like the current one led by Netanyahu, want to maintain the occupation; for that they need to prepare yet another generation of warriors to keep fighting and dehumanizing the Palestinians with whom they must co-exist. The question is, do they want to fight another 75 years or accept the unswerving reality of co-existence and live in peace?

This is how Israel lost its way as it raises one generation after another of warriors instead of peacemakers, robing millions of Israelis of their quest for peace. The Israeli public must now rise to restore the sanity that has eluded successive Israeli governments and save the country from its tragically misguided extremist leaders.