By James M. Dorsey
In death, Staff Sergeant Nissim Sean Carmeli, a 21-year old soccer fan, embodies the deep fears, distrust and dehumanization of the other that has exploded into massive bloodshed in Gaza, threatens to spark another uprising on the West Bank and makes achievement of even a temporary Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire an almost impossible task.
One of 13 members of the Golani Brigade, an elite Israeli military unit, killed in Gaza on July 20, Mr. Carmeli is to Israelis a hero. The vast majority of thousands of supporters of Maccabi Haifa FC, at the funeral of Mr. Carmeli, a dual Israeli and US citizen, didn’t know him personally even though he attended as many of the club’s games as possible. They were responding to a call on the fans’ Facebook page that has 20,000 followers not to leave ‘a lone soldier,’ the term the Israeli military uses for personnel whose families don’t live permanently in the country, alone as he was administered his last rites.
“I never knew him, but I don’t miss a game, so Sean and I must have been together in the stadium. So we shared something,“ a supporter wearing a Maccabi Haifa jersey told Ha’aretz newspaper. Maccabi fans are known for their emotional and unbending support for their team.
To Israelis the rallying around Mr. Carmeli represents Israel at its best, “a demonstration of Israeli solidarity at wartime,” as a friend said in an email. “This is the best example of what the people of Israel can be. In times of trouble, we bind together. This is our tradition, our narrative. A boy like Sean expresses values we all admire – loyalty, a willingness to give to his people, openness, warmth, caring. That’s why so many different people – religious and secular and Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), young and old – are all here,” Ha’aretz quoted an official of the Israeli immigrant absorption ministry as saying during the funeral.
The official, Yaakov Danon, head of the ministry’s unit for immigrant soldiers, reflected how heart wrenching Mr. Carmeli’s death is to both those who were close to him as well as to Israelis at large. That is to say Israeli Jews. Israeli Palestinians or Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and not residents of Israeli-occupied territories and account for 20 percent of the Israeli population did not figure in Mr. Danon’s definition of who and what Israelis are. Nor did the hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians, including four boys aged 9 to 12 playing soccer on a Gaza beach, who have died in the almost-three-week-old Israeli assault figure in the grief of the thousands of Israelis who did not know Mr. Carmeli but came to his funeral to pay him their last respects.
That is telling in a city like Haifa that prides itself as a model of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and home to persecuted Muslim minorities in the Middle East with its Bahai World Center on a hill overlooking the city and Ahmadiyya community. A city of 600,000 predominantly Jewish residents, Haifa’s population includes 60,000 mostly Christian Palestinians. At least seven of the 27 players of Maccabi Haifa, Israel’s most popular, club are Palestinians. A recent documentary, ‘Haifa’s Answer – Coexistence in Israel,’ projects Haifa, as “a unique example of coexistence in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although the ideal of a shared society still seems to be far.”
To Palestinians in the Gaza Strip under continuous assault as well as to those protesting on the streets of cities on the West Bank, Mr. Carmeli was an American who migrated to Israel to squat on what was once their land. He was part of a machine that has made life hell for them since the imposition seven years ago of a blockade of the densely populated territory and is now in their view indiscriminately seeking to exterminate them. In their minds, Palestinians have already surrendered much of their land to the Israel but in return Israel refuses to recognize their right to those lands the Jewish state occupied during the 1967 Middle East war.
At the root of the divergence of perception is a belief among Israelis that Palestinians refuse to recognize their rights and seek to exterminate them. Palestinians have no doubt that Israelis at best want to continue to subjugate them and at worst wipe them off the map. This divergence of perception is what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unique and engenders the kind of fear, distrust and dehumanization of the other that renders any meeting of the minds almost impossible. Unlike most other national conflicts, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is one in which both parties envision themselves as victims.
A Palestinian sociologist, one of the few to recognize this fundamental obstacle to any agreement with Israel, summed it up as he stood at the foot of a West Bank hill crowned by an Israeli settlement and pointed his finger at residential buildings: “See how small those windows are,” he said, “those are people who are afraid.” Said a middle-aged teacher at Mr. Carmeli’s funeral: “Being here is a way to express the fear that we all feel that it could be any one of our loved ones who could die, in the army or in a missile attack.“
Fear throws out the window notions of proportionality and that what applies to one party applies to the other. Israel, one of the world’s military powerhouses, is fighting a militia with overwhelming military superiority and apparent disregard for civilian life despite protests to the contrary in a false belief that only force and demonstrations of strength will ensure its security. The notion that death breeds more death and that security cannot be built on the exercise of military superiority alone is non-existent.
Israelis, certainly those resident in the south of the country, live in daily fear of ineffectual Palestinian rockets. Yet in each of the three wars that Israel and Hamas, the Islamist militia controlling Gaza, have fought in the last six years those missiles have become more sophisticated with the help of Syria, Iran and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah as Ahmed Jibril, the Damascus-based leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), admitted in a recent interview. Hamas moreover is proving its mettle in urban combat in Gazan towns.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not one that will be decided on the battlefield. If Israel’s wars in recent years have proven anything it is that Israel triumphs on the battlefield but is defeated politically. Hamas, the party Israel wants to cut down to size, is likely to emerge perhaps not liked but certainly in command of the kind of respect that Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas increasingly lacks on Palestinian streets.
Protests on the West Bank deliver a message to both Palestinian and Israeli leaders. The message to the Palestinian leadership is a demand for a unified leadership that can stand up for Palestinian rights. The message to Israel is that Hamas is as much part of their leadership as is Mr. Abbas. In other words a rejection of Israel’s hope that its assault on Gaza will undermine the recently formed nationality unity government that is supported by both Mr. Abbas and Hamas.
That message is reinforced by the daily pictures of innocent Palestinians dying in Gaza that will serve only to strengthen mounting international criticism of Israel – criticism that is shared privately in the highest circles of the Obama administration even if it continues to publicly support Israel.
Israelis and Palestinians will only be able to embrace compromise when they are able to overcome their fears and recognize that what they demand for themselves is what their opponent too demands. Palestinian aspirations are no different from those of the founders of the Jewish state. Israeli prioritization of security, feeding on perceptions of a Jewish history of victimhood and the horror of Palestinian suicide bombings more than a decade ago, is no different from the security that Palestinians, terrorized by repressive Israeli policies and perceived disregard for Palestinian lives, want.
Mr. Carmeli’s death and that of some 39 other Israelis and more than 800 Palestinians in the latest Gaza war will have been in vain as long as Israelis and Palestinians refuse to recognize that they are mirror images of one another.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.