The activist Left must condemn the murder of the Itamar family

(updated below)

Late on Friday night, a Palestinian militant scaled the fence of the settlement of Itamar, south-east of Nablus. He made his way to one of the homes and climbed in through an open window. The first room he encountered was a nursery. He paced in and plunged a knife into a sleeping three-year-old toddler. Still unnoticed, he made his way to an adjacent bedroom, where he found and slayed an 11-year-old boy; then, finally arrived at the master bedroom, where he stabbed and killed the parents along with a four-month-old baby girl. The father’s body was found in bed, his arms still hugging his daughter; both of their throats have been slashed. The mother’s body was found on the floor, in a pool of blood; it would seem she was the only one who managed to resist the attacker, however briefly.

The murderer, who overlooked another bedroom where two more children slept, walked out of the house and left the settlement the way he came in. About an hour later, the sixth and oldest sibling of the now nearly-extinct family arrived home from a late activity at her youth movement. The twelve-year-old girl did not manage to open the door and called a neighbor for help; their joint yells finally woke up her four-year-old brother – one the two the murderer didn’t notice in the dark – and he opened the door, revealing the full scale of the horror inside. When the medics and police arrived, the toddler was still breathing, slipping away from them just as they commenced resuscitation efforts. It took the three-year-old more than an hour to slowly bleed to death.

The sheer viciousness of this cold-blooded butchery should have provoked furious condemnation from those unequivocally opposed to the targeting of civilians – Israel’s civil society,the Left and the activist (“radical”) Left. However, at the time of writing, only two organizations spoke out: B’tselem, which has done the most extensive work of documenting the opposite sort of violence – by settlers against Palestinians – led the way late Saturday morning, announcing on Facebook and on its website that it is “appalled by the attack in Itamar and strongly condemns it. Intentional killing of civilians is a war crime and is unjustifiable. The Israeli and Palestinian authorities must work to locate and bring to justice those responsible for the attack.” About an hour later, Physicians for Human Rights joined in, announcing that the organization “strongly condemns the appalling attack in Itamar and calls the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to act in order to bring those responsible individuals to trial. Once again we learn that fences and security systems are not a guarantee for security. Only brave steps towards peace agreement and putting end to the conflict will bring end to these murderous acts.”

Apart from these two voices, and a quite a few individual activists expressing shock and dismay at the killings, much of Israel’s famously vibrant, undoubtedly committed activist Left remained silent. To my knowledge, no protest or vigil had been called for tonight by the radical Left, as it is almost always done when innocent Palestinian civilians are victims. Some individuals pointed out that the murders were horrible, but: The parents should have been more careful in where they chose to live / Israel and the Occupation is really to blame / what about Israel killing Palestinian children / the settlers are not really civilians, as they serve as instruments of land-grab and military control. At the worst end of the spectrum was one activist, who shared on Facebook the following gem, referring to radical settlers’ infamous practice of exacting a “price tag” from Palestinian civilians for any clash with Palestinian militants or Israeli law: “The occupation also has a price tag – the settlers got what they wanted.”

The activist Left’s confused and muted response reveals a shameful double standard – one that is not necessarily thought-out and intentioned, but one that needs to be urgently confronted and weeded out. It demonstrates that despite political awareness and commitment to human rights and international law, our community has yielded to one of the most common afflictions of a conflict area, and dehumanized an entire community, consciously or subconsciously rendering it second-class, semi-legitimate target for brutal violence. I remember the same pattern of thought going back throughout the past decade of the second Intifada, certainly through less graphic and intimate attacks on civilians – right up to the road shooting some six months ago, when four settlers driving on a deserted road late at night were sprayed with gunfire, and then dragged out of the car and calmly executed; two of them were spouses who left nine orphans behind, but the radical Left’s silence was even more deafening than today.

I want address this silence here and confront some of the arguments that were raised today in its defense on my Facebook feed and in conversations with fellow activists.

To those among us citing the illegality and illegitimacy of the settler enterprise: The community of Itamar is in and of itself a violation of international law. It was established to deepen Israeli hold on an the occupied territory; and over the years, the settlers of Itamar became almost equally well known for their violent attacks on Palestinian farmers as for the attacks that they themselves sustained – the community of 1,000 lost 15 of its members to attacks like last night’s over the past ten years. Needless to say, the occupation of the West Bank, the establishment of the settlement, and the individual settlers attack against their Palestinian neighbors are all illegal under international law; the latter are not only particularly brutish and wrong, but are also illegal under Israeli law.

But none of this justifies retaliatory violation of the very same laws, just like being robbed does not justify walking into the robber’s house and butchering him and his entire family. More generally, international law clearly allows armed resistance by occupied population to the armed forces of the occupier, but just as clearly bans targeting the occupier’s civilian population. The power of the law, certainly of international law, is in its totality and universality. We cannot call for selective application of the law against one party, and completely ignore the same law being broken by another; our legal argument loses any and all merit if we do that.

To those among us trying to blame the victim, claiming the murdered parents of the murdered children should have known better where to build their home: On the larger scale, the settlers are not only beneficiaries, but instruments and, crucially, human shields of a cynical state policy running through all the governments, left, right and “center.” Dumping the entire responsibility for the military, diplomatic and especially economic policy designed to drive as many Israelis as possible to the Occupied Territories on the shoulders of two young parents and their six children is absurd and, considering the horrific penance for this alleged responsibility, pretty much morally untenable.

Blaming the victims becomes even more untenable in this particular case. The parents did not take their children on a stroll through a minefield or a battle zone; They were sleeping at their home. We must also keep focus on the question of intent: If parents let their children play by the roadside and the children get run over, sure, they share some responsibility with the driver. But if they let their children play by the roadside and a driver deliberately swerves from the road, running over the children once or twice for good measure, and then speeding and running over the parents, there is just no reasonable way to keep the onus of the blame upon the parents. Simply none.

To those of us saying that no Israeli has the right to criticize any political violence by Palestinians, no matter how abhorrent:  This is a subject for an entire separate post, but let me just say this – the inability to formulate your own opinion or criticize the party you generally support wins you no respect on either side of the conflict; the manifest double-standard used to apply supposedly universal principals completely undermines your argument; you afford Palestinian resistance fighters no dignity when you paint them as imbeciles completely deprived and excused of the human duty of distinguishing good and evil; and finally, you do your Palestinian comrades no service when you imply by your silence that the brutal murder of a family of five is just as legitimate as engaging in combat with occupation troops or holding mass protests of civil disobedience in Bilin, Nialin and Nebi Salach.

To those among us saying settlers serve an aggressive policy and that such violence, while regrettable, is aimed at the legitimate goal of driving “invaders” out (yes, I heard today the term “invaders” used to describe the murdered children): Watch your step. You’re wading deep into legitimizing one of the acts of war most despised and hated by all decent human beings, especially by progressives. It’s one thing if you support partitioning Israel-Palestine once again, and believe that populations should be moved to make this partition possible and to redress the illegal acts of occupation and land grab incremental to the establishment of the settlement enterprise in the first place. But killing innocent members of a civilian community in order to get the rest of the community to leave has one name and one name only – ethnic cleansing. In fact, this is exactly the method used, to everlasting shame, by Israel to ethnically cleanse many of the Palestinian communities in the Nakba of 1948. You don’t’ want to be justifying the Nakba, or the crime of ethnic cleansing, do you?

Finally, a word about the perpetrator. It’s tempting and comforting to denounce him as lunatic, or to say, as I was told this morning, that the insult to the Palestinian cause is not the act itself but our association between the two. But while it seems plausible to believe that a person or persons involved in such an act would need to be at least a little unhinged, this isn’t the point. It’s safe to assume that neither this person, nor dozens of others who committed unjustifiable atrocities in the name of Palestinian freedom, nor many dozens of others who committed unjustifiable atrocities for what they believed was Israel’s defense, would have considered bathing their hands elbow-deep in innocent blood if it wasn’t for the situation of conflict.

The murderer of the settlers in Itamar is part of a bigger picture of violent strife, in which people do appallingly brutish things to each other; and he also bears personal responsibility for the act he had chosen to commit. If there is ever a peace agreement, in whatever format, between Israelis and Palestinians, the rehabilitation of perpetrators on all sides can and must be a part of it, and difficult though it may be to accept, the person who carried out last night’s atrocity should be included, along with military and paramilitary perpetrators on all sides. But he must not be exempt from paying some sort of price for his individual responsibility – whether through looking into the eyes of the families of his victims at a truth and reconciliation committee years from now, or by serving a lengthy prison term, or both.

Until then, we on the Left – especially the activist Left – must find a way of loudly and unreservedly condemning atrocities committed in the names of causes we believe in. We owe it to ourselves, to our struggle and to our comrades – as progressives and as human beings.


Update: I’m pleased to report that two more left-wing organizations have condemned the killings:  Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah, one of the most important activist Left movement operating today; and New Family, Israel’s pre-eminent organization for equality in marriage and family rights.  The full quote from Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah:

The Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah Movement condemns with utter disgust the murder of the five family members in Itamar. Such acts contradict the ideology that guides us and undermine the chances of a shared and better future.

Well done.

Update II Another key organisation of the struggle against the occupation has condemned the killings:  The Bilin Popular Committee Against the Wall, the flagship group of the non-violent struggle against the separation barrier  cutting Palestinians away from their land and livelihood. Here is the response in full:

Palestinian Popular Committees Against the Wall and Israeli Settlements express their deep sadness and sorrow concerning the killing incident in the Itamar colonial settlement. The Popular Committees view the killing incidence as a part of the escalation generated and mobilized by the policies and actions of the Israeli occupation. These policies created the circumstances for committing these heinous actions. Therefore, we believe that the Israeli government bears full responsibility for the occupation and its consequences. The Popular Committees are committed to nonviolence and civil disobedience in our struggle to end the Israeli occupation. Though the crime was committed on colonized land, we see the killing of children as a despicable crime regardless of their nationality, gender, color, race or religion.

Yet more proof that you can condemn an atrocity designed to hijack your cause without compromising the cause itself one inch.

Condemnations also came in from Zionist Left organisations, like J-Street and Peace Now; Human Rights Watch released a particularly refined and nuanced statement. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted to the murder in the most cynical way imaginable – by blaming the Palestinian Authority as a whole, and by authorising hundreds of more housing units to be built in the occupied West Bank. The settlement movements more radical elements have launched a series of revenge attack, targeting the nearest available Palestinian civil population.

Obviously, both responses are morally and politically beneath contempt, and should be condemned unreservedly. Moreover, they play into the same dynamic the attackers wanted to create. The purpose of such actions, whether in Israel-Palestine, in Northern Ireland or in Algiers, is to get the state or stronger party to violently crack down on dissent, thereby radicalising the attackers’ home constituency; this radicalisation is then used to recruit activists for further attacks, which will draw more retaliation, more radicalisation and more recruits; and so on, until the pendulum of violent conflict is swinging again with ever-escalating force.

I’d also like to use this update to address two criticisms of the article I’ve heard from a number of valued fellow activists: That I’m being too apologetic and that I haven’t offered a constructive solution to the issue I’ve raised.

Regarding the first: I am absolutely not apologising for anything or for anyone. I do not feel the tiniest shred of personal guilt or responsibility for the murders, and I don’t think either the Israeli or activist left Palestinian activists should  feel anything like that either. I’m also not doing that to have a stronger moral basis in arguments with political opponents. Atrocities can and should be condemned for their own sake, even as we acknowledge and highlight their context. My article merely attempts to highlight a flaw in how we on the activist left have been addressing a certain  atrocity recurring in this conflict, and to suggest how we might fine-tune our moral and political consistency to address it.

As for practical suggestions: A few fellow activists and I propose holding a vigil in Tel Aviv next week, condemning both the Occupation and the murder of civilians, especially children, in the name of the struggle against the Occupation. Details will be published on Facebook and on this page later tonight.

Update III: Rabbis for Human Rights, whose activists are routinely attacked by violent settler thugs in the West Bank, also have no qualms in condemning the murder in Itamar:

Rabbis For Human Rights strongly condemns the terrible murders in Itamar. They were of course a violation of the most basic human right, the right to life. We send our condolences to the family.

I’m hopeful that by tonight, the gist of my post in relation to this particular case will have become irrelevant.