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Before 7th October

Introduction by CAMPAIN


In this remarkable article, Bernard Spiegal discusses the Oscar-winning film Zone of Interest in the context of Palestine/Israel.


A shot of Hedwig Höss and child in Zone of Interest film
Hedwig Höss and child enjoying the garden

The film follows the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, as they live a dream family life in their house and garden next to the camp. The Höss family, their friends and work colleagues lived within a self-contained, mutually reinforcing, moral universe, such that no questioning of its basic premises could arise. For the Höss family and friends, Auschwitz next door was unremarkable.


The article, apart from offering penetrating insights into human behaviour, provides valuable context to the events of October 7, a kind often missing in mainstream reports that treat the Israel-Gaza conflict as if it started on that date.


You will doubtless recall the director of the film, Jonathan Glazer, causing a massive outcry with his Oscar acceptance speech of March 10th.  In it, he spoke of the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation. This had in Glazer’s view led to conflict for so many innocent people – whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza – all the victims of this dehumanisation …..


Spiegal does not discuss the outcry but suggests that the film itself doubles as a metaphor for Israel’s relationship with Palestinians, even before October 7th.  While the circumstances are very different, he finds some disturbing similarities.   


Before 7th October - by Bernard Spiegal


Zone of Interest is a depressing, fascinating British film, performed entirely in German. It charts the life of Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz’s Nazi commandant who, along with his family – wife, five children – lived in the family home. That home, along with its extensive, walled and well-tended garden, abutted Auschwitz concentration camp such that it was out of sight to the family. But not out of hearing.


The sounds of the camp were ever-present, the high wall no barrier to the dark, eliminatory symphony of industrialised killing being played out barely yards from the Hoss family home. But, somehow, the sounds did not disturb the equilibrium of the Hoss’ well-ordered, domesticated family.


We watched as the Commandant – husband and daddy – donned his uniform, much as anyone would don their workaday clothes, and head off to work to consider how Auschwitz could be made more efficient. Meanwhile, the family at home – mother and children – devoted themselves to the ordinary, daily domestic tasks and distractions of a normal household.


What comes over in the film is that the Hoss family, their friends and work colleagues, lived within a self-contained, mutually reinforcing, moral universe, such that no questioning of its basic premises could arise.


One way to cope with potential moral dissonance is to develop a distorted perceptual framework. To cultivate a willed self-deception to the extent that the reality loudly banging on the door of one’s consciousness is neutralised, quietened.


I don’t know whether director and scriptwriter – either or both – had in mind that their film doubles as a metaphor for Israel’s relationship with Palestinians, those within and those without the ‘48 border. But there are disturbing in principle similarities between Hoss’ hermetically-sealed mind, and that of too many Israelis. This is only too well represented by the composition of the present Israeli government and its racist – plausibly genocidal – supporters.


Gaza


Israeli kibbutzim, towns and cities that surround Gaza are built on stolen Palestinian land, their original inhabitants either forced to flee by Israeli forces; or who fled for fear of what might befall them.


About 80% of Gaza’s population are from families Israel violently expelled from their homes and livelihoods, caged now for over 75 years in one small corner of their original land. Here you can hear the testimony of Michael (Mickey) Cohen born 1930 in Tel Aviv. He joined the Palmach Negev Brigade (12th Brigade), 7th Battalion on February 1948 at the age of 18. 

On the 6th October and before, Israeli kibbutzim and cities surrounding the Gaza Strip – for example, Sderot, Kfar Azza, Be’eri, Erez, Nahal Oz – were variously described as paradise and idyllic. But each of those places was initially named differently. Named for and by the Palestinian communities that historically lived on that land for generations – until they were removed.


But physical removal was not enough, somehow the history of the area needed to be cancelled, pushed into forgetfulness, for how can one bear to live in a ‘paradise’ that is ever reminding you that it is built on the back of broken lives.


Thus, lest remembrance should noisily intrude into the ‘idyllic’ lives of the settler-colonialists the names and traces of the original Palestinian habitats had to be erased.  To make the lived history of Palestinians a non-history. To create a void in space and time to be filled with an authorised Zionist mythistory.


Forget me not?


Beneath the ‘idyllic’ ‘paradise’ lies a stark, obliterated history.


Be’eri is approximately three miles from the Gaza Strip. It is built on the Palestinian tribal land of the Wuhaitat al Tarabin, of the Palestinian Tarabin clan.


Sderot, founded in 1951, is approximately 20 miles from the Gaza strip. It is built on the depopulated Palestinian villages of Huj and Najd. Prior to Siderot’s establishment, Najd comprised 422 Muslim inhabitants living in 82 homes, growing citrus, bananas and cereals.  On 12 and 13 May 1948, the Negev Brigade of the Israeli army – according to Benny Morris – drove them out. They were sent into exile in Gaza.


The inhabitants of Huj were all Palestinian Arab Muslims and they got on well with the Jews of Palestine.  On 31 May 1948, the Israeli Negev Brigade’s 7th Battalion arrived in the village. In Morris’s words, ‘the brigade expelled the villagers of Huj … to the Gaza Strip’.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz is built on the Palestinian land of Waqf Esh Sheikh Zarif in Gaza city.


Kfar Azza is built on the Turkman quarter of Gaza city.


Erez is built on the depopulated Palestinian village of Dimra.


The 50,000 or so Israelis resident in the towns and villages surrounding the Gaza Strip live and prosper on 1,038 kilometres squared, of stolen lands while just a few kilometres away over 2.1 million Palestinians live on 365 kilometres squared. That’s a Gaza population density of 5,753 people per squared kilometre next to an Israeli population density of 48 people per squared kilometre.


Leaning left. But…


The kibbutzim on the Gaza perimeter have a left-leaning reputation. Many residents, on an individual level, try to ease life for Gazans who, for example, need to get to hospitals in Israel. Many in Be’eri, as reported by CNN, see Gazans as their neighbours, Michal told CNN:


There were people from Gaza who worked in the kibbutz and they were a part of the community, they’d bring their children to the kindergarten in the kibbutz. When they couldn’t come to work there anymore, we began collecting money from the community and there is now a fund that keeps them alive, she said, adding that she is determined to keep sending the money to the family.


Commendable as this may be, it surely demonstrates that individual, liberal interventions cannot ultimately ameliorate the harms generated by a settler-colonial state that hungers for land not its own.


Supernova festival


The 6th October was the first day of the two-day Supernova music festival, a day of: free love and spirit, environmental preservation, appreciation of rare natural values that the festival embodies.


The location of the festival was some four miles from Gaza. Almost certainly near enough for Gaza’s young people to hear the music, which they perhaps experienced as a taunt directed at them by the festival revellers, whether or not that was the intention.


There is no record of any young Gazan people being invited to the festival being held so close to their homes.


That last paragraph will strike many as bizarre and wrong-headed. But that’s to apprehend the sentence the wrong way round. For what is bizarre, is that, as far as is known, it appears never to have occurred to festival organisers and revellers that there is something wildly inappropriate in holding a loud, celebratory music-based festival next door to Palestinian young people banged-up by Israel in the Gaza Strip.


Commandant Hoss and his family were somehow able to filter out the sounds of the Auschwitz concentration camp that drifted into their self-created domestic bliss. The world outside their home had somehow been caused not to exist.


The Supernova festival planners and revellers, similarly, appear to have been able to psychologically, to spiritually block any dissonance they may have felt about holding a festival of love, spirit and music next door to Gaza. If they considered it at all.


None of the above is a form of justification for the 7the October deadly attack on the festival.


Israel onslaughts on Gaza amounts to habitual behaviour


Understandably, the focus today is very much on Israel’s current plausibly genocidal onslaught on Gaza. Whilst it’s extent and intensity surpasses previous, horrific onslaughts, we need to notice, once again, the state of affairs on the 6th October and before.


In October 2018, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories reported to the UN’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) that, as a result of Israeli actions, Gaza’s economy was in free fall; there was 70 per cent youth unemployment; that drinking water was contaminated; and the health system was collapsing.


Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967, drew attention to Israel’s persistent non-cooperation with the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. 


The World Bank described [in 2018], Gaza’s economy as in free fall, contracting by 6 per cent during the first quarter of 2018. The United Nations stated at that time Gaza may well be unliveable by 2020:  safe drinking water had almost disappeared, the economy was cratering and the state of unlive-ability is upon us, he said, urging the international community to insist that all parties bring an immediate end to this disaster. Which they did not do then; nor do they do now.


7th October  


On 7th October, Hamas, followed by any number of civilians, broke free from the longstanding, incarceration that Israel had imposed on an entire population – the people of Gaza. This they had the right to do.


Arguably, Palestinians were fulfilling a moral duty in casting aside the prisoner status assigned to them by an illegitimate and cruel Israeli regime. This perspective is endorsed in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 37/43 which affirms the legitimacy of the struggle for independence, territorial integrity, national unity, and liberation from foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle. This resolution openly recognized the right to use force against foreign illegal occupation, which it considers a serious threat to international peace and security, recalling the cases of Namibia and Palestine.


Law for Palestine adds that: historical evidence overwhelmingly supports that self-determination is rarely achieved without the use of force and armed struggle. Failing to acknowledge resistance movements would lead to an illogical situation: alien occupations would go unchallenged, rendering any resistance against their illegal status illegal itself.


The right to resist and self-defence, however, is subject to the rules of international humanitarian law, including the principle of distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Hamas, therefore, had every right to break out of Gaza, every right to engage militarily with Israel’s combatants. It did not have the right to kill civilians, though who is considered a civilian is a matter of debate, but not to be addressed here.


If you drive a person to fury, the enraged person nevertheless remains responsible for the actions they take arising out of that emotion.


But, and with equal force, that the enraged is responsible for their actions neither masks nor mitigates the responsibility of the person – or state entity – that provoked the fury in the first place.


Israel and Israelis’ actions on and before 6th October must be taken into account when making judgments about the 7th.


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Originally posted by Bernard Spiegal in his blog:

Brief bio: Previously I wrote, and worked in, the areas of public space, children and teenagers play, issues to do with risk in play and related areas. Articles on these and related topics can be found at www.playlink.org, and earlier posts to this site (pre-2017). However, I’ve had a long-term interest in Palestine/Israel (P/I) issues, most recently visiting the OPT in particular in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2022. This blog now focuses on P/I issues, though I may, if so moved, also discuss other matters.

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