How ordinary Israeli citizens live with the knowledge of their country's occupation of Palestine is a question that vexes Gideon Levy on most days.
Levy is an Israeli journalist who has served in the IDF as a writer and editor for the Israel Army radio and as an aide to Shimon Peres, when the latter was leader of the country's Labour Party. He now writes for the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz.
On Tuesday (24 August) he was in conversation with Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow in London, at a meeting organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
He attempted to answer his own question: ‘We [Israelis] have been trained to think that we're very moral and we uphold human rights, but to also think that the Palestinians aren't human beings - at least, not human beings like us. This dehumanisation of Palestinians is the only way that enables us to maintain the Occupation and even feel good about ourselves.'
The Israeli media, he said, are culpable in this process of dehumanisation. He cited an example of two dogs killed in rocket fire on two separate days in Israel during the time of Operation Cast Lead. ‘The dogs got front page coverage in Israeli newspapers, with pictures of their funerals and interviews with their owners,' Levy told the packed audience. ‘Tens of Palestinians were killed on those same days, but there was only a brief mention on page 15 or 16, with no names and no pictures.'
The message, said Levy, was clear: ‘The lives of two Israeli dogs are worth more than the lives of 100s of Palestinians. This is just one example of the systematic brainwashing that teaches us again and again that we are moral, that not only are we victims, but we are the only victims, and that what we are doing to other people is acceptable and can be done by the most moral army in the world.'
He added: ‘This is the first occupation in history where the occupier claims to be the victim. It's unprecedented in history.'
Levy's latest book, The Punishment of Gaza, has just been published by Verso. Like all other Israeli journalists, Levy has been banned from entering Gaza since October 2006.
He described Israel's three week attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) in 2008/9, as ‘probably the most brutal assault launched by Israel'. However, he declared the three week massacre, which killed 1,400 Palestinians, ‘backfired' on Israel, acting as a turning point in Europe and possibly the United States.
‘After Cast Lead, the world became less tolerant about Israeli violence and aggression,' said Levy. ‘The [Gaza Freedom] Flotilla became a huge international story because part of the world is sick and tired. Israel demonstrated with the flotilla that it hadn't learned anything from Cast Lead. It just played the same game - its belief that force is the first option, the feeling that it has the right to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, while defining any opposition as anti-Semitic.'
But he claims this attitude is harming, not benefiting Israelis. He recalls one Saturday during Cast Lead: ‘I couldn't enter Gaza to report on what was happening there, so I drove into the country. I saw lots of families taking their children to the hills to see the bombs falling on Gaza, the black and white smoke, and at this point I realised that there's something very sick about this society, a society that takes its children to see Gaza burning.'
He compared Israel to a junkie, needing to be forcibly led away from occupation, refusing to go, but thanking you for it later. ‘Israel is occupation-addicted,' he said. ‘It needs someone to shake it, and this someone unfortunately has to come from the outside. It won't come from the inside.'
Change can't come from within Israel, according to Levy, because Israeli society has ‘gone into a coma'. It is like ‘a baby with glazed eyes, who has stopped crying and needs to be taken to A&E...In 1982, 4,000 people came out in Tel Aviv to protest against the massacres in Sabra and Shatilla,' said Levy. ‘Today, there wouldn't be 400.'
Levy also spoke of the systematic discrimination practiced against Israeli Palestinians, who are ‘less separatist than the Basques and have yet to boycott the state', who are treated as second-class citizens and cannot even call themselves Palestinian. They are presented as a demographic threat, said Levy, unable to even mention their past - the Nakba - and made to feel uncom fortable if they speak their own language.