Seeing the forest of occupation through the trees of Nabi Saleh

A recent episode of Israel’s premier political talk show illustrates how so many Israelis are unable — or unwilling — to see the structural nature of the injustices borne of occupation.

By Libby Lenkinski

Members of the Tamimi family prevent from an Israeli solider from arresting Mohammed Tamimi, 11, during the weekly protest against the occupation in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, August 28, 2015. (photo: Muhannad Saleem /
Members of the Tamimi family prevent from an Israeli solider from arresting Mohammed Tamimi, 11, during the weekly protest against the occupation in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, August 28, 2015. (photo: Muhannad Saleem /

My husband is a psychotherapist – he spends his life thinking about people’s individual psyche and inner worlds. I am a social activist trained to analyze structures that empower or oppress. Many of our conversations involve searching to understand which force is behind people’s behavior in any given situation – the individual or the structural.

Watching last week’s segment of liberal Israeli talk show “London et Kirschenbaum,” as panelists attempted to have a conversation about an incident in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, I was struck by their desire to individualize and personalize a situation that I believe to be fundamentally structural.

In the opening sequence, the host, Yaron London, shows video from this past week: a teenage girl in Nabi Saleh named Ahed Tamimi smacks an IDF soldier after he entered her home in the village. The panelists begin their discussion.

Or Heller, a military correspondent for Channel 10, makes a point to start the conversation by declaring that he was “overwhelmed with pride” watching the clip of the soldiers, who he says reacted with restraint. Yaron London, the left-leaning host of the show, explains that he has a grandson serving in a similar unit in the same area and that he thinks every day about how his grandson would behave in the same situation. Throughout the segment, the men focus their analysis on the motivation for and meaning of the soldiers’ individual actions.

Though this whole story is just a small scene, a day in the life of a dynamic that’s gone on more than 50 years now, both men completely avoid mentioning the structures and systems that led to this incident. Their underlying assumption is that the individual soldier’s behavior is what matters here, and represents the most important reflection of Israeli society: if he behaves well, we’re ok; and if he behaves badly, then we are not.

It is only when Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli activist with close ties to the village of Nabi Saleh, explains that there is a larger context that the conversation broadens. London questions Pollak repeatedly about the character of Nabi Saleh, the Tamimi family, family patriarch Bassem Tamimi, and his teenage daughter shown in the video, Ahed Tamimi. It’s reasonable to want to understand who the Tamimis are as people – humans are social creatures after all. But the subtext of the line of questioning (including, about Bassem, “Is he a farmer, a ‘fallah’?”) seems to be an attempt to determine whether they are “good Palestinians” who deserve our sympathy, or if something about their character makes them deserve the treatment they are getting. He is asking whether they, as people, deserve the occupation.

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Pollak, a seasoned activist and confident speaker, shifts uncomfortably in the face of this strange implicit question about whether the Tamimi family are “good” or “bad” Palestinians. I have known Jonathan Pollak for many years; he’s used to being asked by other Israelis to speak for Palestinians, and he isn’t known for being fidgety or shrinking in the face of tough questions. He eventually answers (No, Bassem is a professional with a master’s degree) but his discomfort reveals the underlying question in his mind: Why does it matter? How is it relevant?

Why did the men on last week’s “London et Kirschenbaum” spend this time on the individuals involved in the Nabi Saleh incident? Because the Israeli discourse about the occupation and its relationship to both the army and Palestinians remains comfortably in the realm of the individual, not the structural. Human rights organizations have challenged this notion for decades, as soldier after soldier testifies for Breaking the Silence with the same conclusion: when they joined the army, as individuals they hoped to bring consciousness and conscience to the role. But ultimately they found it is the structure of the occupation that corrupts even “good soldiers” with good intentions, and that bad incidents are the result of a rotten system, not a few bad apples.

In this sense, the discussion of the Tamimi family is the Palestinian mirror image of the Israeli discourse of Elor Azaria, (the Israeli soldier who was filmed killing an immobilized Palestinian at close range last year): Israelis were supposed to think of him as either villain or a hero when in fact his act was a product of the system that put him there, at least as much as his individual action.

Human rights are not earned through good behavior. They are universal. They apply to everyone; whether you’re a farmer or have a master’s degree is irrelevant.

Ahed Tamimi and her father Bassem do not deserve to be occupied – not because they are nice people of upstanding character (which they are – I know them myself) but because nobody deserves to be occupied. And no soldier, not Yaron London’s grandson, not Elor Azaria, and not the soldiers filmed in Nabi Saleh last week can kindly enforce an occupation.

Libby Lenkinski is Vice President for Public Engagement at the New Israel Fund (NIF).