By Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka
The late Moshe Silman’s act of self-immolation rattled the entire country. Both the media and social protest activists have put out heartfelt pleas to try to dissuade others from following suit. But it seems that these calls have gone unheeded. Akiva Mafa’I’s attempted suicide by fire [He has since died – Ed.] joined dozens of other suicide threats that have been repeated in the last few days. It is reasonable to assume that we will see more attempts.
What happened to people in Israel that suddenly made them choose to follow the path laid out by Tunisian Tarek Bouazizi? Is the situation in Israel as ghastly as it is in Tunisia? After all, we do have a system of income support and disability benefits. People here do not die of hunger – and we do have a democratic government which permits less drastic forms of protest. Why, despite all that, did Silman choose to act in such an extreme way that brought forth such a wave of widespread public empathy?
The answer is that Silman understood what Bouazizi had understood. The state shows no respect for its citizens; its insensitive, impersonal and inhuman bureaucracy is indifferent to their problems. The result is a sense of humiliation, which at one point gets translated into a terrible act of desperation. Degradation and despair are universal feelings, which bear no relation to nationality, religion, color or gender. Nor are they related to the income level and political and economic situation of this country or another. In this way Israel has become comparable to Tunisia – it too makes many of its citizens feel humiliated. The combination of degradation and despair together with a troubled mental frame of mind can quickly lead to the extreme act of suicide.
Silman’s death and his suicide-note provide a serious indictment of the state. The indictment’s title ought to be: You failed! The State of the Jews is no longer a safe place for Jews, as was promised to them, for it has been sold out to the rich, and its citizens have been abandoned. It has abandoned those who served it, and even those who have become disabled in wars that were fought for its safety.
What is a new discovery for Jews has been a permanent reality for many of the country’s Arab citizens. Silman’s story is similar to many of the Arab population who have opted to become self-employed, in order to escape the drudgery of contract work for the minimum wage at a remote location, or risking their lives in the building trade. They soon fall victim to the authorities – the National Insurance Institute, the Tax Office, the banks etc. Procedures such as confiscation of property, suspension of driving licenses, and restrictions on financial conduct are used against them as a matter of course. They are forced to exist on the grey market’s loans, in a desperate attempt to maintain a minimal standard of living for their families.
We have not had any “Silmans” in the Arab community. Unlike their Jewish counterparts, Arab citizens have no expectations from the state, which by its self-definition tells them that it is not theirs. If we take the economic hardship and throw in racial incitement, adding national service, then it’s a reasonable assumption that we shall have an explosive mixture on our hands which could blow up any time soon.
An even more explosive situation is lurking just beyond the separation wall. The Palestinians will not continue to sit much longer on the fence, or more to the point behind it. The Occupation and discrimination impose an enormous social and economic price. Unemployment within the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority (PA) has crossed the 50 per cent mark. Poverty prevails even among those who work. Recently the PA has shown the signs of the financial strain that it is under, paying only 60 per cent of employees’ salaries. Donor countries will cease to finance the Authority: the Arab states have already failed to fulfill their financial commitments to the PA, and Europe is in deep crisis. All parties also acknowledge that there is no point in continuing to invest in the PA without a horizon for peace.
The Palestinian Spring is beginning to heat up, and there are clear signs that can be seen in the refugee camps in Syria. The time has expired for the Palestinian leadership in its myriad factions. Young people who want to participate in shaping their lives and future have already begun to take up their role within the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.
Israel cannot continue on its merry way. The ruling by Judge Edmund Levy’s commission that there is no Occupation and that the settlement enterprise can continue; Ehud Barak’s decision to demolish 20 Arab villages; the decision to spend 30 million shekels on the Migron settlement – these merry days are well and truly over.
If the PA collapses, Israel will have to resume direct rule, once again assuming responsibility for financing the Occupation out of its own budget, all while struggling with a third Intifada, which many believe is inevitable – it’s only a matter of time and a suitable spark.
Just as Silman revealed the economic failure, a Palestinian uprising will expose the failure of the political system. To prevent major catastrophes, the social protest may need to offer an alternative economic, social and political program to Binyamin Netanyahu’s rule. At the very least the movement needs to demand the removal of the failed Netanyahu government, which is leading Israeli society into oblivion. After Silman, everyone understands that we are not only dealing with the prices of apartments and cottage cheese, but with human lives as well.
– This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com. It was first published in Challenge Magazine – www.challenge-mag.com. Translated from the Hebrew by Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service, Melbourne Australia.