Moment of Clarity
By: Ori Nir
Every now and then, in the ugly routine of Israel’s 54-year occupation of the West Bank, comes a moment of clarity, an incident that underscores the perverse dynamic in Israeli-Palestinian relations which this prolonged travesty has spawned. Such was the event that started when the first of six Palestinian prisoners emerged from a narrow hole in the ground outside Israel’s top security prison.
So much of what happened during the week that followed can serve as a teachable moment regarding the state of affairs between two communities locked in a mutual chokehold.
A lot of it has to do with humiliation and honor. Obviously, the occupation humiliates Palestinians, but sustaining the occupation (“conflict management,” as many euphemistically refer to it) requires daily indignities and degradation. Hence the common talk about “branding into the Palestinians’ consciousness” the vast imbalance in power, the use of overwhelming force to impress upon them their utter powerlessness in the face of the occupation and compel them to comply. Examples abound.
It is only natural for Palestinians to yearn for even the fleeting moments when they can turn the tables and humiliate their occupiers no matter the cost. I’ve seen it time and again. Israelis and their friends overseas couldn’t fathom the Palestinian schadenfreude when Saddam Hussein sent Scud missiles to the heart of Israel thirty years ago. But if you are a Palestinian who has experienced extended Israeli military curfew – some West Bank communities were under curfew for a month at a time during the first intifada – or who had his home raided by Israeli soldiers numerous times, then, yes, you feel a certain sense of satisfaction and vindication when you see Israelis running into sealed rooms with awkward gas masks on their faces. Saddam is still idolized by many Palestinians, honored through memorials, streets and public squares named after him throughout the West Bank.
So, yes, Israel was humiliated by the colossal security failure. Palestinians celebrated it. The little hole in the ground became an icon, as did the spoons that the prisoners allegedly used to dig their way out. To intensify the embarrassment, Palestinian digital activists doctored the faces of the prisoners, exhausted, hungry and dehydrated when finally captured by Israeli law enforcement officials to show them triumphantly smiling.
But the online humiliation efforts were mutual. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official, who tweets in Arabic, mocked the prisoners writing: “months or years of grueling digging for a five-day ‘vacation’? what a pity.”
One of the four who were re-captured indeed told his lawyer that the digging operation lasted nine months. Yet when he and his friends stuck their heads out at the end of the tunnel, they were reminded that they were not re-born free. Not by a long shot. They dug for nine months, but they had no plan and no assistants on the outside. Through the small transistor radios that they were allowed to have in their prison cell and took with them on their adventure, they heard about the huge manhunt, the largest in Israel’s history.
They later told their lawyers that they knew there was little chance of crossing into the West Bank, to get a ride from someone and were too tired to walk toward the Green Line. So they roamed around the fields of the Jezreel Valley, foraging for fruit and vegetables and digging in trash cans for more substantial food. Not exactly a glorious getaway. Muhammad Aardeh, who apparently was the mastermind of the operation, reportedly told his lawyer: “I sought freedom. I wanted to see my mother and hug her, but that did not happen.”
Aardeh said he ate prickly pears – for the first time in 22 years – off the ubiquitous cacti in the area. A Palestinian cartoon that went viral on social media showed him hugging a cactus, thorns and all.
Palestinians often refer to the West Bank, the desired destination of the six fugitives, as “the big prison.” When a Palestinian prisoner is released from prison, he is often caustically congratulated for “moving from the small prison to the big prison.”
The four who ended up being caught did not even make it to the “big prison.” Their two other friends, who are still at large, may. One of them said that if their escape spawns a hunger strike among the 4,500 Palestinians held in Israeli prisoners, he will regard that as success. But this week we learned that the planned strike was canceled.
So what did the six prisoners achieve? Maybe a moment of clarity. Years ago, Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini told me that most Palestinian acts of resistance are acts of communication, attempts to communicate to the Israeli public that the occupation is wrong and must end. The prisoner escape stirred Israelis because of the security failure and the fear that the six were going to launch an attack. But in an awkward way, it also provided an opportunity to relate to the six as human beings and to be reminded of the fact that Israelis too are prisoners of the conflict. A Palestinian friend who befriended his Jewish prison guard after years in an Israeli prison once told me that when the two sat and talked for hours in prison, it did not matter who was on which side of the bars.
Moments of clarity like last week are not tipping points. Palestinians will go on to their bitter routine under occupation. Israelis will go on to their lives ignoring the Palestinians and the occupation. But such moments may get both Palestinians and Israelis – and whoever cares about them worldwide – to turn away from violence and enmity and toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict.