Crime and punishment: Fadi Qunbar, Elor Azaria and Israel’s occupation

First of all, I do not want to write about Elor Azaria. He is a cipher: a smirking, undersized bully who murdered a helpless Palestinian because the State of Israel put a rifle into his hands, corrupted him with a racist ideology, and hardened his conscience with a 50-year-long military occupation of the West Bank – to which Azaria added another victim last March.

Of such a man there’s nothing more to say.

But I do want to write a few words about Fadi Qunbar, the young Palestinian father of 4 who, on January 8, became yet another casualty of Israel’s occupation.

Yes, that Fadi Qunbar – the Fadi Qunbar whose life is now summed up in the media under the single word “terrorist,” because he used his truck to kill 4 soldiers of the enemy force occupying his land before their comrades gunned him down. The Fadi Qunbar whose death was not even counted in the headlines that screamed about “4 Killed in Jerusalem Attack” – four soldiers, that is – because a dead Palestinian cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Israelis, just as the newspapers that mourned his oppressors could not spare the ink to correctly identify the site of Qunbar’s death as “occupied East Jerusalem.”

Why write about a Palestinian who died killing Israeli soldiers? Not because I approve of his final act on earth; and not because I am insensible to the suffering it caused.

No, I write about Fadi Qunbar because he too was a victim of Israel’s bloody occupation; because, like the other inhabitants of Jabel Mukaber – the East Jerusalem village where he lived – he languished under armed guard from the moment of his birth until the moment he was shot to death by enemies; because he too had a family, whose mourning will not be noted in the Israeli or American or Jewish press.

And I write about Fadi Qunbar because if no one does, he will be forgotten – and I will have participated in the erasure of a human life no less than the soldiers who killed him (perhaps needlessly, even by Israeli standards) after what was, as far as I know, the one violent act of his life.

Who was Fadi Qunbar?

Fadi Qunbar was 28 years old, the father of 4 young children. If he had a criminal record, it has not been reported. He does not appear to have belonged to any nationalist Palestinian organization. (That much was conceded even by Israel’s Prime Minister, who nevertheless insinuated that Qunbar must somehow have been connected to ISIS.) Apparently Qunbar had simply reached a breaking point. According to family members, his attack on IDF officers was probably “a response to what is happening at Al-Aqsa,” where settler invasions and soldier attacks on Palestinians have increasingly become the norm.

Qunbar’s relatives were quoted in press accounts saying things like that, but the reporters didn’t write about their grief – though their counterparts in the press were careful to note every word of mourning and every tear shed for the slain Israeli soldiers. Nor will Qunbar’s family receive a compassionate phone call from the Prime Minister, as Azaria’s family did after his arrest, to assure them that Israel’s government understands their plight. The Israeli response to the suffering of Fadi Qunbar’s family members was to throw 5 of them into Israeli jails.

The press doesn’t ask what crime those mourners are supposed to have committed, or why the relatives of Israelis who kill Palestinians aren’t treated in similar fashion. After all, we know the answer, don’t we?

Meanwhile, Qunbar’s village of Jabel Mukaber is under collective punishment. Homes and cars are ransacked; entrances to the village are blocked with concrete slabs; Israeli soldiers “dismantled a mourning tent erected to receive visitors paying respects for Qunbar.” These things are duly noted in the media, but there’s no comment about them and no public outrage, as there would be if similar things happened to Israeli Jews. No one even protests the disruption of Palestinian mourning; occupied Palestinians are expected to live and die in silence.

Such events have a history, which we all know but which the media now pretend to forget. In October 2015, Jabel Mukaber’s mukhtar told the Times of Israel, “Al-Aqsa is not coexistence. It’s twenty red lines. Any damage to it kindles a blaze from Jenin to Rafiah. And I tell you: Stop with Jews going up to Al-Aqsa…. The day Netanyahu announces that, the violence will end.”

But the Israeli government did not stop it. On the contrary, it stepped up Jewish incursions into Al-Aqsa – located in what all 15 judges of the ICJ agreed, in 2004, is “occupied Palestinian territory.” Those invasions, and the assaults on Muslims that often accompany them, eventually prompted an act of desperate retaliation from a resident of occupied Jabel Mukaber – exactly as its mukhtar had warned. Yet Netanyahu calls Qunbar’s act “unprovoked” and hints darkly that ISIS must be involved. And the Israeli press says nothing.

What are pundits saying? When they discuss Qunbar at all – and that isn’t often – the only question that seems to interest them is whether the soft-pedaled prosecution of Elor Azaria somehow restrained IDF officers from gunning Qunbar down as fast as possible. They do not discuss how the sight of a prostrate, bleeding Palestinian having his brains blown out on a Hebron pavement – and the massive public support for that crime – might have affected Palestinians. No, mentioning such things might undermine the propaganda claim that all Palestinian resistance is “unprovoked” – even though, months before Azaria’s homicide, another resident of Jabel Mukaber told an Israeli reporter that it was precisely such acts that encourage a violent response from other Palestinians.

There’s nothing new about any of this. More than a year ago, one could easily locate “dozens of video clips” online showing “soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinians in the back, or from a roof, in the face… In 99 percent of the cases, the soldiers receive[d] either no punishment at all or a meaningless censure.” But the media still pretend that Elor Azaria was the first Israeli soldier in years to murder a West Bank Palestinian, and that Azaria’s watered-down conviction – for manslaughter, not murder – vindicates Israel’s military justice system.

And as for the insult Judge Maya Heller added to the injury of the inadequate conviction, by casually referring to Azaria’s victim as a “terrorist” – though apart from self-serving soldiers’ testimony the IDF has presented no real evidence that the slain man ever harmed anyone, and even though an attack on a uniformed soldier in occupied territory is not “terrorism” under international law – no, there isn’t a chance the media will mention that. Just as Palestinians under occupation have no right to be upset at being treated like cattle, just as they have no right to resist their persecutors, they have no right to be described in the same language that applies to the rest of us.

Which brings me back to Fadi Qunbar. Again, I do not approve of the violent act of revenge with which he ended his life. But I insist that if a Palestinian’s entire identity and history can be blotted out under the word “terrorist,” simply because he struck back against invading soldiers, exactly the same should be true of the Israelis he killed, each one of whom knowingly donned the uniform of an army dedicated to the occupation of Palestinian land – with all the violence against civilians such an occupation necessarily entails.

One of those soldiers, in fact, a resident of the illegal West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, pleaded to be accepted into the IDF because it was “his duty to serve” in the occupation. I do not see how such a man is morally superior to Fadi Qunbar. Yet he is lionized in the Israeli and the Jewish press, the same press that mentions Qunbar’s name only to bind it to a vicious epithet.

And right there, I insist, is the cynical double standard without which Israel’s occupation would be doomed. Israel could not torture Palestinian children if all Israelis (and Americans, and Jews) remembered those children’s names and faces the same way we remember the names and faces of Israeli victims. Israel could not demolish Palestinian homes if we all knew the people who lived in them, and knew what they lost when they lost everything. Israel could not kill Palestinians with impunity if those Palestinians were real to us; it could not breed more Azarias if it could not erase all the Fadi Qunbars from public consciousness.

That’s why those of us who make use in our writing of such selective memory, such willed ignorance of Palestinian suffering, are accomplices in the crimes of occupation. Once a people’s humanity is denied, there are no limits to what may be done to them — something Jews should know better than anyone. It is intolerable that Jewish journalists should now contribute to that same sinister process.

That is why I mourn Fadi Qunbar along with the other victims of the occupation’s violence – Palestinian and Israeli. And it’s why I grieve as well for journalism that has turned criminal by conflating propaganda with news, by inverting the roles of oppressor and oppressed, and by paving the way for the destruction of human bodies through the abuse of human language and the suppression of human memory.

About the Author
Michael Lesher is an author, lawyer and Orthodox Jew who lives in Passaic, NJ. His most recent book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014).
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