Tel Aviv’s flag show can’t cover up Israel’s role in Lebanon’s crisis

After decades of war and occupation, Israelis should not act surprised when Lebanese and Palestinians refuse to gush over their gestures of solidarity.

An Israeli couple watches as the Tel Aviv City Hall lights up in the color of the Lebanese flag, following a devastating explosion at the port of Beirut, August 5, 2020. (Orly Noy)
An Israeli couple watches as the Tel Aviv City Hall lights up in the color of the Lebanese flag, following a devastating explosion at the port of Beirut, August 5, 2020. (Oren Ziv)

In what has been widely-touted as a rare moment of compassion between warring neighbors, the Tel Aviv Municipality lit up city hall on Wednesday night in the colors of the Lebanese flag, following a devastating explosion in Beirut allegedly caused by an accident at a chemical storage at the city’s port. Following the explosion, which killed over 100 and wounded thousands of others, the Israeli government declared that it is offering to send humanitarian aid to assist in the recovery.

The municipality’s gesture was met with backlash from many in Israel’s right-wing circles. Ayelet Shaked, a Knesset member of the Yamina party and former Justice Minister, chastised the move saying: “In a proper country, the color orange would be painted this evening on the Tel Aviv City Hall as a reminder of the [2005] withdrawal from Gush Katif [the Jewish settlements in Gaza; supporters of the settlements chose orange as a symbol against the disengagement]. Instead, we get the flag of an enemy state.”

But Shaked and her far-right allies were not the only ones upset by the municipality’s gesture. Many Palestinians — as well as many Lebanese on social media — were also angered by the move, describing it as a brazen act of Israeli hypocrisy.

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Some Jewish Israeli left wingers could not understand what was so enraging: yes, they say, Israel pursues an aggressive and hostile policy vis-à-vis the Arab world, but we need to start from somewhere, no? What’s the problem with a bit of human empathy for our neighbors up north?

Empathy is always welcome. The problem, however, lies with the fact that Israelis — and particularly an official body such as the Tel Aviv Municipality — are extracting Beirut’s human tragedy from its larger political context.

Aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosions, August 4, 2020. (Anchal Vohra/VOA via Wikimedia)
Aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosions, August 4, 2020. (Anchal Vohra/VOA via Wikimedia)

The most problematic aspect of this move is our shedding of responsibility. As decent people, the thinking goes, there is no reason to hold us accountable. After all, we are showering our neighbors with empathy.

But even if Israel played no part in the current disaster in Beirut, it plays a key role in the ongoing disaster in Lebanon. In fact, Israel — alongside states like Syria and Iran — has for decades been one of the central agents of the bloody chaos that has plagued its northern neighbor, and has helped to crush the delicate political and social fabric that has existed there for decades.

This includes, but is certainly not limited to, the refusal since 1948 to allow Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to return to their homes; a full-scale invasion of the country in 1982; the ensuing brutal occupation of southern Lebanon that lasted until 2000; and a destructive war with Hezbollah in 2006 that shattered a country still reeling from a bloody years-long civil war.

Had the Tel Aviv Municipality lit up the Lebanese flag on city hall every time Israel attacked Lebanon, Wednesday night’s act would have taken on a very different meaning. Had it waved a black flag every time Israeli soldiers committed a massacre in Gaza, its solidarity with Beirut wouldn’t seem so cynical.

But if you have supported or defended every one of Israel’s militant acts, along with every catastrophe it metes out to its occupied population or its neighbors, then don’t act surprised when those neighbors do not gush over and thank you for your gestures of “solidarity.”

Israeli soldiers cover their ears as a tank fires into Lebanon from Kiryat Shmona on July 20, 2006. (Guy Assayag/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers cover their ears as a tank fires into Lebanon from Kiryat Shmona on July 20, 2006. (Guy Assayag/Flash90)

Under the current circumstances, these gestures simply appear as attempts to “normalize” Israeli aggression while indulging in its own enlightened and democratic self-image. Those who are forced to pay the price for that self-image have always been Palestinians in the occupied territories and in refugee camps across the Middle East — including in Lebanon.

The Lebanese flag on the walls of the municipality is reminiscent of the way in which Iyad al-Hallaq, a Palestinian man with autism who was gunned down by Israeli police in East Jerusalem in late May, has turned into one of the symbols of the anti-Netanyahu protests in Jerusalem in recent months.

The murder of a helpless man rightfully shocked many people in Israel; and considering Israel’s ongoing dehumanization of Palestinians, expressions of shock and disbelief at al-Hallaq’s killing are nothing to scoff at. But if al-Hallaq is only entitled to our solidarity because of his autism, then here, too, Israelis have extracted his death from the context of a violent military occupation, and turned him into nothing more than a “humanitarian” case.

The decontextualization continues when we see al-Hallaq’s name on protest signs alongside that of Solomon Tekah, an Ethiopian Israeli teenager who was shot dead by an off-duty police officer in June 2019, as well as other victims of police violence.

Protesters carry a sign demanding justice for the police killings of Palestinian Iyad al-Hallaq and Ethiopian Israeli Solomon Tekah during an anti-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)
Protesters carry a sign demanding justice for the police killings of Palestinian Iyad al-Hallaq and Ethiopian Israeli Solomon Tekah during an anti-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

While the comparison is guided by a basic sense of justice, it is also misleading: al-Hallaq, a Palestinian resident with no rights in occupied territory, was killed by occupying forces whose very presence in East Jerusalem is meant to immiserate the lives of Palestinians. Al-Hallaq was murdered as a Palestinian, not as a person with a developmental disorder or as another victim of police violence.

Perhaps it would be wiser for the anti-Netanyahu protesters to mention Fadi Sarhan Samara, another Palestinian who was shot dead by soldiers near the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh the day before al-Hallaq was killed; or that of Ahmad Erekat, who was killed by Border Police officers at a checkpoint three weeks after al-Hallaq’s murder.

Unlike former Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, who celebrated the Beirut explosion on his Facebook page on Wednesday as a “spectacular pyrotechnics show,” I do believe that most Jewish Israelis stood aghast at the images coming out of Lebanon. A large portion of them, I assume, are not only moved by Tel Aviv’s symbolic gesture, but also by the Israeli government’s highly publicized proposal to send aid to Lebanon.

But if this move by the Tel Aviv Municipality is nothing more than a vapid form of self-congratulation, then the Israeli government’s proposal — whose initiators know full well has little chance of being accepted — is just as cynical. How many plans for military attacks on Lebanese soil were sitting on the government’s table as it offered to help?

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.