By now everyone has heard about Israeli military response to the Freedom Flotilla that was brining humanitarian aid to the besieged people of Gaza. While the Israeli actions are being condemned all over the world, let’s look closely, and somewhat objectively, at the Israeli government’s official position. In doing so, I am interested in finding out not what is false in the official position, which is easy enough to detect, but what is right in it. I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to take a consistently wrong position, to lie all the time. Even in the worst forms of falsehood, there is usually a kernel of truth somewhere, and it is always instructive to locate and examine that kernel of truth. The following quotes are from the online version of The Jerusalem Post (June 1, 2010).
Israeli Defense Minister believes that the responsibility for the deaths does not fall on the Israeli Defense Forces.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a press conference on Monday that while he was sorry for lives lost, the organizers of the Gaza-bound protest flotilla were solely responsible for the outcome of the fatal IDF raid earlier in the day.
An Israeli military chief agrees.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said Monday that the violence aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships of the Gaza-bound protest flotilla, was instigated by those aboard the ships and that soldiers who opened fire were defending themselves. Ashkenazi noted that the Mavi Marmara, the only ship on which violence took place, was different than the other five ships of the flotilla. He said that five ships carried humanitarians and peace activists but the Mavi Marmara was sponsored by the extremist organization the IHH and those aboard acted in “extreme violence.”
Another military leader makes the same point.
Israeli Navy commander Vice-Admiral Eliezer Marom said Monday that IDF soldiers that raided Mavi Marmara acted with “perseverance and bravery.” Marom said that the soldiers lives were in danger and that they fired their weapons in self defense. He added that given the situation, many more than ten people could have been killed if the soldiers had not acted with the proper sensitivity.
The basic position that emerges from all these statements is that Israeli actions were justified because they were based on the principle of “self-defense.” Each of the above quotes makes exactly the same point, though each emphasizes a slightly different aspect of the situation or uses a slightly different set of words. I am inclined to think that Israeli government’s spokespeople are, in fact, fully convinced that the deaths and injuries were justified in view of the fact that, like any other nation, Israel has a right to defend herself. I am also inclined to think that this belief is sincerely held, with no intention of deceiving or misleading anyone. As such, it can’t be a lie; a particular false statement is a lie only when the speaker is consciously aware of its falsehood. Since the spokespeople for the Israeli government actually believe that their government and its military acted only out of self-defense, their official position must be seen as an honest expression of truth–as they see it.
Incidentally, this is not a new position. If we go by official positions, it is clear that at no point in her history did Israel ever act out of malevolent or aggressive motives. The state of Israel was even created in defense of the Jewish people who were facing the threat of annihilation in much of Europe. Official positions, it seems, are self-serving by definition. Hence, whenever Israel used deadly force, it did so only because others left her with no other choice. And because self-defense is an inalienable right of every community, Israel cannot be blamed, charged with a crime, or made to pay reparations for any harm that may come about as a result of any military action it may take. In the present case as well as in all previous cases, Israel stands innocent according to its own official position. Unlike her enemies, Israel never resorts to the use of force except in self-defense. This seems to be the default position which is held a priori by the spokespeople for the Israeli government. As such, it constitutes a belief that cannot be challenged by facts, but facts have to conform themselves to this belief.
The appeal to self-defense is natural and expected; this is partly because the charter of the United Nations recognizes self-defense as the only legitimate reason for using deadly force without the approval of the Security Council. Article 51 of the charter recognizes the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” in case of “an armed attack.” This means that regardless of the actual motives behind an act of organized violence, the accused party has no recourse but to claim self-defense. Any other official position would constitute a public relations disaster. The only alternative to claiming self-defense, of course, is to admit one’s wrongdoing and guilt–but this is not a real option in politics. The idea of self-defense, however, cuts both ways. In any given conflict, both sides can and do claim that they were acting in nothing but self-defense. Since truth in these matters is rarely investigated and/or established in an impartial manner, it’s usually the side with greater public relations skills whose version enters into conventional wisdom. In the process, the concept of self-defense is made to stretch so far and in so many directions that it becomes practically unrecognizable. When it is abused like this, the very idea of self-defense loses its meaning and usefulness, having become one more tool in the hands of the powerful.
But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find another level of truth hidden underneath the official position. What does this emphasis on “self-defense” say about the community that constantly appeals to it? First, that community is obviously very concerned about maintaining the integrity of the “self,” so concerned, in fact, that it wants to live even at the cost of denying the right of life to “others.” The desire for self-preservation and survival is one of the most fundamental of biological instincts; it becomes problematic, however, whenever a “self” decides that it cannot guarantee its own survival except by reducing, restricting, harming, enslaving, or eliminating the “others.” The basic fear that animates such a strategy is the result of a scarcity mentality, the idea that there is “not enough” for everyone to enjoy. In this scenario, the “self” is only able to remember its own needs and is unable to see the needs of the “others.” In fact, it creates an artificial separation between “us” and “them,” forgetting that humankind is an interdependent ecology in which everyone’s needs ought to be the concern of everyone else. In the case of Israel, this creates the further illusion that Jewish and Palestinian needs are mutually exclusive.
Second, that community obviously feels very unsafe and insecure, so much so that it can even perceive unarmed ships in international waters as representing a mortal threat. This is a tricky issue, because there may be a good reason to feel concerned about one’s safety. The line between reality and fantasy, however, is easy to cross. One can inflate a small possibility of harm into an enormous threat simply by focusing one’s attention on it for a very long period. Paranoia is a psychological phenomenon, but it can have consequences in the objective world as well. If I see everyone as my enemy, I would act suspiciously towards them; I would even launch pre-emptive attacks just to make sure that no one is capable of causing me any harm. By acting as if everyone is my enemy, I am likely to turn potential friends into adversaries and mere rivals into mortal enemies. I would also miss–or deliberately reject–all possibilities and offers of reconciliation that may come my way. Furthermore, it is relatively easy to start believing in one’s own propaganda or diplomatic rhetoric, so much so that I may start seeing myself as a little kid surrounded by giant bullies, forgetting the uncomfortable reality that I am the only bully in the neighborhood.
Third, that community seems to have a relatively narrow understanding of the concept of “self.” The act of defining a “self” necessarily involves drawing a conceptual boundary that excludes a variable number of persons. Every time I draw such a boundary, I circumscribe a “self” in one way or another–a family, a tribe, a race, a nation–while also excluding everyone else. A “self” can be construed very narrowly, such as a tribe or race, or very broadly, such as the entire humanity, the entire biosphere, or the entire cosmos. Depending on how narrowly or broadly I define the “self,” my actions would result in different levels of harm to the excluded “others” every time I engage in “self-defense.” As my viewpoint matures, I may be able to increasingly extend my conceptual boundary of “self” and, accordingly, cause the zone of exclusion to shrink. If I reach a very high level of maturity, I may finally see everyone as simultaneously distinct as well as constituting a single and uninterrupted “self,” with no one left to be designated as the “other.” Short of that, I would be willing to sacrifice any and all “others” for the sake of preserving and protecting the “self.” The narrower my understanding of “us,” the wider will be the zone of “them” who can potentially become dispensable.
Continue digging, and you’ll discover a still deeper truth. The peculiar nature of the Israeli political and military establishment–including the brutal repression of Palestinians–constitutes a very interesting case of what is called a Domination System. When the Israeli spokespeople say that their government and its military has only acted in self-defense, they reveal a far greater truth than they consciously recognize. To appreciate that truth, all we need to do is understand the true meaning of “self” in their usage of “self-defense.” What is this “self” whose defense requires so much violence? It’s definitely not the Jewish people; it’s not even the state of Israel. The “self” in question is none other than the Domination System and its structural violence.
By definition, a Domination System hurts everyone; in this case, the victims include both Israelis and Palestinians. Even when it appears that one side has the upper hand, a Domination System never allows anyone to benefit in the long run. It only produces losers; there are no winners in this game. Furthermore, a Domination System is maintained only by large-scale violence or threat of violence. It also tends to elicit violent reactions from its victims, which the Domination System then seeks to suppress with even more violence; it does so, obviously, to defend itself.
What kind of threat did the Freedom Flottila represented? It was unarmed and carrying humanitarian aid. As such, it did not represent a threat to anyone’s life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. The self-defense allowed by the UN charter did not apply in this case, since there was no risk of “an armed attack.” However, it is obvious that the ships carrying humanitarian aid did represent a threat to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza. In other words, the Freedom Flottila represented a threat to the Domination System that maintains the brutal and unjust blockade. The military assault on these ships, then, could not have been aimed at defending the Israeli people, or even the sovereignty of Israel; it could only have been aimed at defending the Domination System that is punishing the people of Gaza for electing the “wrong” political party several years ago. There was nothing surprising here; that’s exactly how Domination Systems defend themselves.
Read the statements quoted above once again, and look for the specific features of a Domination System. Recall, for instance, that a Domination System instills the sense that people lack the freedom to choose and are therefore not responsible for their actions. In patriarchy, which is a form of Domination System, a man would say that he shouldn’t be held responsible for beating his wife, since “she made me do it.” This is also a frequent defense put forward by rapists, i.e., “she was asking for it.” Such a refusal to take responsibility is an inherent part of any Domination System. In the case of the assault on the Freedom Flotilla, it has been claimed that the heavily armed and combat-ready Israeli commandos who invaded the ship had no choice but to open fire–they were forced to do all these killings against their will because the unarmed aid workers and peace activists were using “extreme violence” against these helpless soldiers. The responsibility for the deaths and injuries falls on those who organized this initiative for delivering humanitarian aid; the soldiers, on the other hand, only acted with “proper sensitivity.”
The rhetoric itself reveals that what is being defended here is not a community of human beings; rather, it is an impersonal structure of oppression and violence, a Domination System.