July 30, 2023
Here’s a story from three years ago that I took notice of when I read last week’s issue of +972. It is about one man’s tragedy at the hands of Israel’s police force. But it’s a story that has a deeper lesson to teach us about the awful price Palestinians are forced to pay when those who rule choose to build their system on an inherently biased view of the world.
“On May 30, 2020, Israeli police fatally shot Iyad al-Hallaq, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian man from the Wadi Joz neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Al-Hallaq had been approaching Lions’ Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City when police suspected that he was a potential threat; they began to chase him, shooting in his direction — and missing — as they ran behind him. Al-Hallaq ran into a small garbage room, followed by a police officer and his commander. The officer shot al-Hallaq in the leg, after which the commander shouted not to shoot. Then, after al-Hallaq, who was lying on the floor, moved his upper body, the officer shot him once more in the chest, killing him.”
Words matter. How we label people and how we categorize them too often becomes the reason behaviors that are criminal and brutal are normalized and even glorified. Whether a policeman or a soldier has used force justifiably or committed a crime depends on what box we put their target in. Who is the victim and who is the criminal depends on that starting point. Who is a terrorist and who is a defender is a matter of definition of who the victim is. The way we see others, and how we allow ourselves to categorize other people shapes the way we see events around us and, too often, justifies horrific outcomes.
That is what we can learn from the case of Iyad al-Hallaq. The fact that he was a Palestinian walking near the Temple Mount, the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall in Jerusalem was enough to label him as a threat and as a person without rights or legitimacy. It was enough for an Israeli policeman to take out his weapon and kill him even when he was lying on the ground wounded and unarmed. It was enough for the Israeli justice system to justify his killing as legal and proper.
Individuals justify their use of severe actions on flimsy distinctions and nations do as well. Yet we seem comfortable in allowing Israel to use such biased views as justifications for regular acts of violence and apartheid.
+972 contributor John Brown analyzed Jerusalem District Court Judge Hannah Miriam Lomp’s reasoning as she found the police officer not guilty. The Judge found the policeman had not committed a criminal act because, as a Palestinian, al-Hallaq, was not like you or me.To Judge Lomp, he was not an unarmed civilian walking down a street. In her ruling she agreed it was ok to see him as a terrorist who presented, by his very existence, a mortal threat to all who were near him and, thus, was worthy of being shot and killed.
As Brown observed, “In other words, since the policeman believed he was facing danger, he was only defending himself, even if shooting al-Hallaq was objectively wrong. But, of course, al-Hallaq was Palestinian, so this subjective assertion, the argument goes, is reasonable …”
This is the same story that we can find almost every day in whatever feed you tap in to learn the news from Israel/Palestine.
But on a larger scale, it is these biases that allow nations to commit horrific acts against entire groups of people who have been categorized as different and inherently dangerous. It is in-bred in the sinews of Israeli justice and provides cover for the ongoing abuse of millions of Palestinian lives. The Israeli Government’s justification for using overwhelming military force in the densely populated Jenin Refugee camp was not, from their perspective, an act of aggression, nor was it a criminal act because those living in the camp were not seen as civilians. They were categorized as terrorists or terrorist supporters. Here’s is how Prime Minister Netanyahu explained the use of great military force in Jenin, as reported by I24 TV:
“At this moment, our forces are taking strong and determined action in Jenin. Commando Brigade soldiers, the Border Police, special forces, the Air Force and others are now acting in the heart of the Jenin refugee camp. They are targeting and arresting terrorists, and destroying command centers and laboratories, There are no sanctuaries for terrorists… We are operating against the terrorists …We are determining a new equation against terrorism… Our guiding principle is simple: Whoever murders Israelis, whoever conspires to murder us, will be in either jail or the grave…”
In case you missed it, the Prime Minister needed to use the word terrorist four times in those brief comments. And by invoking that word, the Prime Minister relieved Israel of the need to provide any standard of civilian justice. There was no need for indictments, arrests, evidence, trials or verdicts. There was no need to direct their guns only at individuals whom they had reason to believe posed an imminent threat. The policemen who shot al-Hallaq was defined by the Judge as being a combatant in a war zone and so, entitled to shoot at al-Hallaq because he saw him as a terrorist and as a threat.
Consider what happens if you do not start, as Israel’s government does, with the assumption that every Palestinian is a terrorist until proven not to be. Then attacks on those who are not armed and those who are not fighting back become very questionable and potential violations of international law. Consider the words of human rights attorney and author of the book, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, Noura Erakat as she spoke with Jewish Currents editor Alex Kane. “To the extent that young Palestinian men have picked up arms in order to defend themselves, that is not tantamount to a ‘terrorist infrastructure.’ It is a people resisting a military occupation, settler colonialism, and an apartheid regime, which they have the legal right to do, according to Article 1(4) of the additional protocols of 1977 [to the Geneva Convention], which says that a people who are living under colonial domination, alien occupation, and a racist regime have the right to use force.”
Only by starting from a biased perspective that to be Palestinian is to be a terrorist can you attempt to justify the use of missiles and helicopters and drones, armored vehicles, and heavily armed soldiers in force as part of policing. Only by denying that Palestinian residents of the West Bank or of Gaza are not living on their own land, that they are de facto invaders who are being detained by the government of the land they have invaded can you avoid having to answer to charges of war crimes. Only by starting from an ahistorical description of this troubled place can you deny basic legal rights to the population and absolve the authorities of their violence and mayhem. Only by ignoring history can you deny this captive people the right to seek their freedom, as the Jewish residents of Israel did during the years of the British Mandate.
The logic of the Israeli Government and its supporters goes even more steps into this absurdity. They have taken their bias to the point that even non-violent protest by Palestinians and their supporters is invalid. To support efforts to place political and economic pressure on Israel through Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns are deemed to be aiding and abetting terrorists, and are acts of hate (antisemitic.).
The list of al-Hallaqs are long and will continue to grow as long as we do not challenge the blatant bias before our eyes. And this will only happen when we refuse to accept the rationale of Judge Lomp and Prime Minister Netanyahu for the crimes happening based on their orders and being justified in their court rooms.
We all have the responsibility to say this is not okay and that we will stand against it.