‘This American Life’ shines some light on that Palestinian life and Nabi Saleh

by Henry Norr, 24 April 2013, Mondoweiss

Israeli soldiers in the village of Nabi Saleh arresting a Palestinian (Photo: Nariman Tamimi via Haaretz)

Last week’s episode of “This American Life,” the popular public-radio show hosted by Ira Glass, included a striking 23-minute segment about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The piece was reported by Nancy Updike, an award-winning producer who’s been with the show since it began in 1995.

Titled “Photo Op” (audio here; transcript here – scroll down to “Act One”), it begins with Updike describing a video taken by Bilal Tamimi, a resident of the village of Nabi Saleh, as Israeli soldiers invaded his home at 1:00 a.m., woke up his children, wrote down their names and ID numbers, and took their pictures – then proceeded to do the same at a dozen other homes in the village.

Although Nabi Saleh, even more than other West Bank villages that frequently host protests, is well known for army violence, on this occasion there’s “no violence, no yelling, no confrontation.” But Updike, who mentions that she’s “been coming to the West Bank reporting on and off for 15 years” (and has also reported from Gaza, Iraq, and Egypt), perceptively suggests that the kind of quiet, routinized harassment the video depicts is also a big part of the answer to a fundamental question: “Israel went into the West Bank 46 years ago. What does it take to control so many people so effectively for so long?”

The villagers tell Updike that the Israelis use the photos of the children they take in the middle of the night to help them identify and then arrest stonethrowers they videotape during Nabi Saleh’s weekly demonstrations. But – and this is the most interesting part of the segment – she gets a different answer when she starts asking former Israeli soldiers who have taken part is such nighttime operations, which they call “mapping,” about their purpose. Yehuda Shaul, the heroic co-founder of Breaking the Silence, and several other vets explain to her that their superiors actually had no interest in the notes and photos they collected during such exercises – in fact, they routinely directed the soldiers simply to discard everything.

The real goal of these operations, the former soldiers explain, is to “make your presence felt,” to convince every Palestinian that “We’re breathing behind you. We’re always there. We’re always watching. You never know where we’re going to be, when we’re going to show up, how it’s going to look like, what we’re going to do, when it’s going to start, when it’s going to end, right?”

The vets go on to explain another type of operation they routinely carried out, the mock arrest:

Nadav Weiman, former intelligence chief for a special forces unit: And we’d go in the middle of the night, and we surround the house. And we shout, come out with your hands in the air. And we throw stun grenades, or we fire bullets at the walls of the house. Or we throw smoke grenades.

And then somebody comes out and is afraid, and he doesn’t know what is happening. And we arrest him. And we shout a lot in Hebrew and Arabic. We arrest him. We put him inside a Jeep. And then we do like two or three rounds–

Updike: Driving around the village.

Weiman: Driving around the village. And then after, like, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe the whole night, we put him back inside his house and drove away from there. And the goal in that operation, the goal is creating the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population.

Updike: To create the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population was an explicit goal that Nadav says he saw many times typed out in the PowerPoint presentation his team would be shown before a mission, right there along with all the other official information.

One telling touch: the soldiers explain that before they could carry out one of these mock arrests, they were required to check first with the Shabak, the Israeli internal intelligence agency, and get confirmation that “everybody in the house is innocent and not connected to terror.”

Predictably, the piece includes several passages clearly intended to provide “balance”: “For sure, there are people in the West Bank who want to kill Israelis,” and some army operations are actually directed against such targets. A Palestinian was recently convicted of throwing stones that caused an accident that killed an Israeli father and his baby. “You could argue that creating the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population has worked, that mapping is important to Israel’s security. And it doesn’t matter whether data is kept or not.” And of course there’s the obligatory acknowledgment that some Israelis are troubled about what their sons and daughters do across the Green Line: Tamimi’s video of the nighttime operation in Nabi Saleh even aired on Israel’s Channel 10 and generated a flurry of discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

I suppose Updike could also be accused of glossing over the worst of the occupation: after all, real arrests occur every day, and they’re obviously worse than mock ones; violent raids are probably more common than the quiet ones in the video she focuses on.

Still, her report offers an unvarnished look at at least some of the routine abuses that underpin the occupation, and that’s still rare enough in American media to be worth celebrating. “This American Life” has an enormous and devoted audience, and it’s hard to see how anyone except hardcore Zionists could sit through last week’s episode and not come away appalled by what Updike describes.

Now if Ira Glass himself would produce something similar…