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When will Israel seek forgiveness for its crimes against Palestinians?

Over the weekend, Israel marked Yom Kippur when it is supposed to atone for its collective sins. Yet Israel never thinks to ask for forgiveness from its biggest victims: the Palestinians
A relative of Palestinian Youssef Radwan, who was killed by Israeli forces during a protest at the Israeli-Gaza border fence, reacts during his funeral in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on 20 September, 2023 (Reuters)

These lines are being written in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

This time around, the day is overshadowed by the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war known as the Yom Kippur War. Of all of Israel's wars, this was the most traumatic for Israelis, and the old Israel is searching for its soul now under that shadow.

The broader religious and traditional meaning of Yom Kippur and the days leading up to it are always a time of soul-searching, and above all a time when we seek forgiveness for sins we have committed. 

The ceremonial rituals are saturated with cliches, including the blessing of wishing others that they be "inscribed for a good year" - which is how people greet one another on the street, instead of saying "shalom" (peace) as the holiday approaches. 

Israel is supposed to atone for its collective sins on Yom Kippur and Jewish Israelis are supposed to atone for their individual sins - yet this has never properly happened in any year, and this year less so than ever.

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It has never occurred to Israel to ask for the most significant forgiveness of all the kinds it ought to be seeking: that is, asking forgiveness from the Palestinian people. Israel has never asked forgiveness for its sins towards the Palestinians committed in 1948, nor for those committed against them continuously since 1948, nor even for the sins it has committed against them during this past year, as demanded by Jewish law and tradition every year.

Moreover, this past year was a very hard one for Israel and the Palestinians, a year in which Israel has been ruled by the most extreme right-wing government in its history. 

All shame lost

This is the year when not only is there nothing to be said about asking forgiveness from the Palestinians, but it is also the year in which Israel has lost all shame for the crimes it has committed against them.

This is the year when government ministers, referring to a Jewish criminal convicted of burning a Palestinian family alive as they slept in their home, have called the perpetrator a saint and a victim. The campaign demanding the release of Amiram Ben-Uliel went viral in Israel and in a matter of days raised more than $400,000 through crowdfunding to support action on his behalf.

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This is the forgiveness many Israelis are seeking - for a man who willfully set a house on fire in the middle of the night and was convicted in a court of law, itself a rarity in the Israel of 2023 where Jews are almost never brought to justice, whether soldiers or civilians, for their crimes against Palestinians.

Some Israelis have already moved ahead a notch and are seeking forgiveness from the murderer rather than his victims. They not only deny that he is a murderer; some believe that, because the Palestinians he killed were innocents, including an infant, he is made holy by this act. This is what happens when all shame is lost.

A real spiritual self-examination for every Israeli, as Yom Kippur entails, or at any other time of the year, would necessarily involve an accounting for actions vis-a-vis the Palestinian people. On the national level, such an accounting has not even begun.

Even when Israel was signing agreements like the Oslo Accords, exactly 30 years ago now, there was no question of taking responsibility nor any request for forgiveness: these things were not even on the table.

A truth and reconciliation commission in the post-apartheid South African mode is completely far-fetched in Israel's case; no more than a fantasy, completely detached from reality. It is not difficult to imagine the potential positive impact on relations between Israel and the Palestinian people of a move on Israel's part to take responsibility for its crimes.

Cruel, discriminatory regime

After over 100 years of Zionism, which for the Palestinians has meant 100 years of dispossession, oppression, killing, destruction, humiliation, loss of rights and loss of dignity, in Israel there is no whisper of a thought about taking responsibility and seeking to atone, as Jews are bound to do by Jewish law on the holy day of atonement when these lines are being written.

On the contrary, just as the killer Ben-Uliel is the victim in the eyes of extremist Israelis, most Israelis see themselves as the victim, and only as the victim, in the context of their relations with their real victims, the Palestinians.

Only by falsely positioning themselves as the victims can Israelis cope with their past, denying and repressing it as few nations have managed to deny their past along with their present. A nation of immigrants took control of a land already inhabited for hundreds of years, suppressed its inhabitants, deprived them of their land and possessions, expelled some of them and oppressed the rest, seized control of the land and established a state which is by definition a state where Jewish supremacy exists

This year, Israel also lost any shame over defining Zionism as Jewish supremacy. As Israel is pushed into a corner by an extreme right-wing government, an impressive protest movement has taken to the streets month after month to fight for democracy.

Yet this impressive protest ignores the question of the society's inherent Jewish supremacy, and demands only a return to the status quo ante, meaning democracy for the Jews in the Jewish state controlling a land in which two nations of equal size are living.

One nation lives under a democratic regime that is currently in danger, and the other nation lives under one of the worst military dictatorships in the world. Few nations anywhere live under such a cruel, predatory and discriminatory regime. Yet this is ignored by the democratic protest movement so admired by nearly everyone.

Entire nation in denial

For more than 100 years we have been depriving the Palestinians of their land, their property, their way of life, their culture and their dignity. While the methods of operation have changed over the years, the intention remains constant. The aim was and continues to be to try to arrange for as few Palestinians as possible to stay here, if any at all.

This is the true meaning of a "Jewish and democratic" state. This is the only way to settle the contradiction between Jewishness and democracy in the reality of a binational state. In 1948, Israel expelled hundreds of thousands of people, and even if some of them technically fled in terror, in either case, they were never given an opportunity to return. Israel then imposed military rule on the remaining Palestinians residing within its domain, terming them "Israeli Arabs".

War crimes are perpetrated hourly in cooperation with armed settler militias. And Israelis view all of that with denial and repression

A few months after the military regime within Israel came to an end, in 1966, it was replaced by a military occupation of the Palestinian territories that has continued ever since. Nearly seven million Palestinians live under Israeli control in various ways, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Conditions of deprivation in all areas of life for Palestinian citizens of the state; military tyranny for the stateless Palestinian subjects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and prison conditions for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the world's largest cage for human beings.

Brutality is the only means of preserving all of that. There is no nonviolent way to preserve such a violent reality.

The military regime employs cruel violence on a daily basis. War crimes are perpetrated hourly in cooperation with armed settler militias. And Israelis view all of that with denial and repression. They lie to themselves and remain complacent, or morbidly indifferent. Most do not know and especially do not want to know the reality, while most of the Israeli media does their part by not disturbing Israelis with a true portrayal of the reigning immorality they are refusing to see.

This is how we reached this state of affairs, in which an entire nation is living in denial. This is how we have ended up where we are now, so that when the day of atonement approaches, no one thinks about asking forgiveness from Israel's greatest victim.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Gideon Levy is a Haaretz columnist and a member of the newspaper's editorial board. Levy joined Haaretz in 1982, and spent four years as the newspaper's deputy editor. He was the recipient of the Euro-Med Journalist Prize for 2008; the Leipzig Freedom Prize in 2001; the Israeli Journalists’ Union Prize in 1997; and The Association of Human Rights in Israel Award for 1996. His new book, The Punishment of Gaza, has just been published by Verso.
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