On ''punishment''
By Melkam Lidet for MIFTAH
December 19, 2012

Ever since the Palestinian status upgrade to a non-member observer in the UN, Israel has threatened to “punish” Palestinians for what it said was a “unilateral step” that impedes peace. As part of this “punishment” Israel is now going to build 3,000 settlement units in E1 - a Palestinian territory in the West Bank that would connect the settlement of Ma’ale Aduminm with Jerusalem while bisecting the West Bank. If it goes ahead with this plan, the north and south of the West Bank will be cut off from each other and with Jerusalem. The Israeli government has also withheld tax money worth $120 million it collected on behalf of the PA for the month of November and said it is using it to pay the PA’s debt to the Israeli electric company.

This is not the first time Israel has threatened to “punish” Palestinians for seeking international diplomatic redress and solutions amidst halted peace talks with Israel. Last year, it did the same when Palestine got full membership at UNESCO, and in 2006, when it refused to forward tax money after legislative elections in which Hamas won the majority of seats; this “punishment” game is a stale old game Israel likes to play. Yet it still surprises me how Israel publically announces that it will “punish” Palestinians. It might be just me but the word “punish” denotes either a paternalistic or a patronizing relationship; if neither, then it at least denotes a hierarchical one. Further, and especially when publically used without shame, “punishment” implies that this asymmetric relationship is one where not only mere capacity and power but also the right to use this power i.e authority, is given to one side over another. This is what I find problematic in the case of Israel: what gives it the authority to “punish” Palestinians?

Indeed, Israel has the military, diplomatic and economic upper hand both because it is an internationally recognized state and because it’s an ally to the sole global superpower, the United States of America. This is an undeniable fact but, the way I see it, it’s only a fact that gives Israel the mere capacity or power but not legitimacy or authority to “punish” anyone, much less the Palestinians. Power doesn’t always entail authority; neither does it come with the right to use that power. This is a point Israel continues to miss.

This is not about the linguistic appropriateness of the word “punishment” but about the meaning the word entails and the message it carries when looking at the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In other senses of the word, when parents “punish” their children, it’s because they are the primary caretakers of their children; they take responsibility for the child’s needs and also its actions until it becomes an adult. It’s because parents, as grownups, are more experienced and rational than their children who they punish. This is what gives parents the legitimate authority to punish their children not just their mere ability to. The same goes with relationships between people and animals; or between God and people, if you’re religious. All these examples show that punishment is only possible in asymmetrical relationships that are based on authority rather than capacity or power.

While these are examples of natural relationships, there are also socially-constructed systems that follow suit. Case in point is the relationship between people and their respective “laws”. Most societies wrote the laws they want to uphold as a society and agreed that every member of the society is below this law. They constructed the hierarchy in which the law would have a higher hand above the people. As a result, when someone is found to have violated the law, it is investigated and the person “punished” accordingly.

In the case of Israel and Palestine though, the power asymmetry exists based on constructed measures such as military, economic, and diplomatic power. But it doesn’t exist on natural moral grounds in a way that Israel has more authority over Palestine. At the end of the day, Palestinians and Israelis as individuals have the same value and so should the ‘states’ that these two people form.

Of course the fact that Israel is the occupier and Palestine the occupied naturally puts the two in an asymmetrical relationship. But it’s an asymmetry that is not justified in any way (natural or constructed); it in no way bestows authority on Israel to “punish” Palestinians. Israel’s military might doesn’t give justification to its occupation of Palestine. Neither does its membership at the UN nor its close ties with global powerhouses afford it authority to “punish” the Palestinians. If we have to talk about “punishing” then the punishment of both sides should come from a higher entity. Only legitimate international bodies such as the International Court of Justice, the ICC or even the UN (though it is not a judicial body) have the recognized right to “punish”. Israel does not represent the people it wants to “punish”; nor does it provide or take responsibility for them; nor does it have the natural or constructed higher ground to “punish”. It just does so because it can. And this is called arrogance not “punishment”.

So the next time Israel announces that it is going to “punish” Palestinians for this and that – please let’s take a moment to be reminded that it does not have the authority to “punish”. We should call a stick a stick, and clearly state that what Israel is committing is blatant oppression with impunity.