Skip to content

Running Amok

The feeds of the IDF depict what Zionism can’t see

What is wrong with the Israelis? The question as I have heard it asked, with emphasis on the word wrong, is raised not in response to footage of the genocidal death and destruction the IDF has wrought upon Gaza but to what crumbs Israeli soldiers themselves have shared of it. A small sampling of the genre, organized alphabetically by mood:

Carefree. An Israeli soldier inflates a soccer ball, saying to the camera—and presumably his child—“Before we went into Gaza, I promised you that we would bounce a ball on the beach . . . I took a ball [I’ve] carried around.” Another soldier asks him if he’d brought the pump with him too, and he says, “Of course, what do you think, I bought it here in Gaza?” Once the ball is ready the soldiers kick it around in a circle, three of them wearing swim trunks they’d possibly found in the drawers of the bedroom of the people whose house they’re inside. Someone walks the phone recording all of this through a large hole in the wall and, showing us the ruins of Gaza, says, “What a view! What a beach!”

(Casually) Destructive. A bit of a misnomer, since they’re all destructive. I mean actively destroying things. In one video, two Israeli soldiers lean against a ledge. One lights a cigarette as the entire backdrop explodes.

Devoted/Birthday. A soldier blows up a residential block to celebrate his daughter’s birthday.

Domestic. Israeli soldiers show off their cooking skills in the homes of people they’ve killed or displaced (or both). There is olive oil in every house, they say. “The Gazan cuisine, from what we saw, is full of spices.”

Graffiti artist. A soldier poses next to what I presume is his work—the words “Instead of erasing graffiti, let us erase Gaza” spray painted in firetruck red onto a building in Gaza. Beneath the show of unifying genocidal intent, he has added the Star of David, also in red.

Feminist. A female IDF soldier walks alongside a row of Palestinian men raising their arms in surrender, identification papers in hand. (The New York Times wrote that “Israel’s female combat soldiers are pushing new boundaries after rushing into battle” in an admiring report on women’s participation in the war.)

Looter (Thrifty). Israeli soldiers carry large sums of cash and jewelry, taken from homes in Gaza. A soldier holds a delicate silver chain between his fingers. Another soldier, recording him, says, “Noa, look, your boyfriend brought you a new necklace.” He pauses then adds, “Made in Gaza.”

Predatorial. In one photo, two Israeli soldiers snuggle up in the twin sized bed of a child they’ve either killed or displaced. In another, a child’s doll is splayed out on the hood of a car. Another soldier in a child’s bed. And another in a crib. Maybe this one goes in carefree: soldiers giggle uncontrollably in an emptied playground, pushing each other in red-binned carts. 

Romantic. An Israeli soldier has announced his upcoming wedding date onto an inside wall of a house belonging to people Israel had either killed or displaced (or both).

Vulgar/Kinky. In one photo, two soldiers walk through the streets of Gaza. The soldier on the photo’s left wears a nude bra over his uniform. The soldier on the right holds the tip of the cup between his fingers. His tongue is out. In another video, a soldier dangles women’s underwear over the face of a colleague, asleep on a couch inside a Palestinian home. In a video, a soldier shares a revelation, “I’m going through these terrorists’ houses looking for guns and explosives . . . at every single house”—he can hardly contain his excitement—“inside of Gaza this is what I see. Every single—unbelievable.” He opens a dresser, narrating, “Two or three drawers stuffed with the most, ehh, exotic lingerie that you can imagine. Just piles of it. Every single house. Stuffed to the brim! Look at that!” he says, dipping in a hand, lacing his fingers through it, “Unbelieeevaboh,” his British accent thickening. He adds, following a strange grunting sound, “These naughty, naughty Gazans.” The video, shared as an Instagram story, includes a poll: the prompt is “WHAT DYA THINK,” and viewers choose from the following: (1) Kinky terrorism, (2) Wtf, (3) Halal, (4) Haram.

I’m sure I’ve missed some all-timers.

While many viewers might find this content disturbing, they are not the target audience. In Israel, where a majority opposes a ceasefire and supports starving Gaza, this content is, on the whole, incredibly well-received. It offers the folks back home an image of fortified dominance, the illusion of control. In March 2024, the liberal Zionist daily Haaretz detailed, in a report titled, “We’re Not Only Here to Fuck Hamas,” how battlefield imagery has flooded online dating profiles in Israel. Beyond its sexual currency, this content, like the torture of Palestinians aired on mainstream Israeli television, functions as entertainment. Telegram channels sharing graphic images of dead or dying Palestinians—and foreign aid workers—have amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers. The image of the shrunken corpse of a nine-year-old Palestinian boy with cerebral palsy, starved to death by Israel, appeared on one feed as part of a movie poster that included the boy’s severely cachectic face alongside a picture of E.T. in his bicycle basket, riding into the night sky. The film would be called, “A.H.M.E.T.” The boy’s actual name was Yazan; his mother called him Yazouna.

The pervasive sadism cannot be explained away as the behavior of soldiers at war.

A parallel, seemingly contradictory trend among Israelis is the widespread dismissal of these atrocities—the dead bodies, the grieving siblings, the starving children—as fake, part of what Zionists call “Pallywood,” Palestinians’ conspiratorial manipulation of the worldwide media to demonize Israel. A grandfather mourning his five-month-old grandson, killed by Israel in Gaza, was accused in the Jerusalem Post of crying over a doll. The Post later retracted the story (titled, “Al Jazeera posts blurred doll, claims it to be a dead Palestinian baby”), but only after it had gone viral.

The pervasive sadism cannot be explained away as the behavior of soldiers at war, adapted to the needs of a new generation whose social media-addiction compels them to document their cruelty. The tendencies to revel and deny coexist, not just within the population but within the same person. Near the border with Egypt, a settler, there to block humanitarian aid from entering Gaza, tells a journalist that (a) the Palestinians are not starving, and (b) they will continue to receive no food (i.e. starve) until the hostages are released.

These justifications are not for him; he throws them at a wall, and the listener is free to see what sticks.

People ask what’s wrong with the Israelis because, I suspect, they find the depravity difficult to believe, let alone comprehend. Attempts to ascribe motive are met with visceral revulsion, an affront to something fundamental and big, like morality. I wonder how a person gets here. And I know our responsibility is not to find a way to psychologically accommodate it, but rather to work to stop it. Still, with every snuff video I find myself back at that same question. In strictly political terms I can appreciate the clarity it allows. Watching these soldiers, I do not feel concern, or anything at all, for them. Instead, the feeling is that of looking at a person, and where you expect recognition you find its inverse—a stunned alienation.

The cruelty itself, on display in videos like the one taken from the vantage point of Israeli soldiers driving their tank over the “I Love Gaza” sign (that greets visitors entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing), is somehow less disturbing than that it is presented with naked glee—no trace of the sober air that marks a person “doing what needs to be done” or an awareness that the rest of the world might not welcome overt, genocidal sadism as enthusiastically as the average Israeli. It’s like they can’t see us seeing them. Or maybe they don’t care. Attempts to explain Israeli behavior often reach for the biomedical. Surely this cannot be willed, they think, and so it must be pathological. In medicine, when a patient is unable to grasp their condition—as when a person experiencing hallucinations does not recognize them as such—we say they lack insight. Because we encounter the Israelis’ smug cruelty most acutely through individuals—be they government officials, soldiers, or formerly-known-as-Twitter warriors—it is easy to perceive it as an individuated “settler psychosis.” Psychosis replaces politics and history; it obscures how societies arrive at ideologies, reinforce and transmit them over time; and how dehumanization is preceded, constructed, and justified, so that it can be rendered with intention.

A Hebrew-only article in Haaretz’s food section from February 2024 interviewed two Israeli soldiers about their culinary habits in Gaza. Among the questions posed was a delicately worded consideration of the fact that these homes did not belong to them. Can you tell us a little about the feelings of cooking and eating in the home of a Gazan family knowing that they had to evacuate or flee?” the interviewer asked, omitting the obvious third possibility. One soldier opened his reply with nonspecific remorse, “There are mixed feelings, no doubt. After all, I use their tools, in their house, when they are not here. But,” he pivoted, “on the other hand, we have to eat . . . It is important to clarify that these are abandoned houses, some of them destroyed or destined for demolition, and this is the way the IDF fights in Gaza.” On the one hand, there is the awareness of a world beyond them. On the other, the necessity of survival. Before and after, the logic of elimination.

Palestinians have been “abandoning” their houses for a long time. At the start of the Nakba in 1948, a member of the kibbutz called Karmia—between Ashkelon and Gaza, built over the Palestinian village of Hiribya—wrote of settling there in the 1950s, “I did not feel like I was stealing from others, I did not feel any guilt at all . . . those who had lived in the kibbutz area had abandoned their homes and fled.” This is what the kibbutz members had been told. In fact, Hiribya had been targeted by Israeli air raids during Operation Yo’av; its survivors fled south, many to Gaza. The operation was carried out following a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire between Israel and the Arabs, and after the assassination of the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte (the “first UN casualty”). Bernadotte had arranged a truce and insisted Israel present a plan to ensure the safe return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, thus laying the groundwork for UNRWA. His assassination was carried out by members of the Stern Gang (a Zionist terrorist group later absorbed into the Israeli Defense Forces) whose actions Israel—also condemned by the UN Security Council (in Resolution 59)—refused to investigate.

It was a time of euphemisms. At a high-level meeting in August of 1948, Ben Gurion and several of his officials discussed the “problem” of Palestinian refugees, and how to prevent their return. Various options were presented: the destruction of villages or their timely resettlement with Jewish settlers. The cultivation of fields on “abandoned” lands was discussed. At least one person at the first meeting expressed “reservations about settling Jews in Arab houses.” Attendance had been curated to minimize such positions: members of Mapam, a leftist Zionist party that envisioned the inclusion of Arabs in their state, were excluded for their “departure from reality and their ideological hallucinations.” Note the language of psychosis to describe an unwillingness to accept the obvious. Russian Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall,” asked readers to “consider all the precedents with which they are acquainted, and see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonisation being carried on with the consent of the native population.” He then answered his own question: “There is no such precedent.”

The justification behind implementation of the population “transfer” was that war suspends morality. In February of 1948, addressing the consciences and practical concerns of those who worried how the Zionists could build a state when they owned around 6 percent of the land, Ben Gurion reasoned, “The war will give us the land. The concepts of ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’ are peace concepts, only, and in war they lose their whole meaning.”

To sustain the Zionist project, the Machiavellian clarity common among Zionist leadership required ideological integration into the population. Among the more idealist kibbutzim members who’d arrived to cultivate the land in the 1940s and construct a socialist utopia, some struggled to reconcile their politics with the reality they were recruited to establish. My grandfather’s village Salha (spelled Saliha by the British and their colonial inheritors) was settled in 1949, soon after it had been ethnically cleansed through a massacre that killed an eleventh of its inhabitants and drove the rest to Lebanon, after which they were barred return and shot at if they attempted to. Part of the land was renamed Avivim; the rest, Yi’ron. A member of kibbutz Yi’ron wrote in the second issue of their newsletter:

The facts are that men, women, old people and babies were murdered, villages were destroyed and burned, without justification. . . . There will only be atonement when those guilty of murder will be judged and when the houses and lands of the people of Saliha will be returned to them . . . but who but us, sitting upon skulls and ruins and eating from the “abandoned land,” who but us knows that none of this will ever come to pass? . . . What a horrific contradiction! We, who “uphold brotherhood of nations and faith in man,” will we be silent and will try to find atonement for that great crime, in ourselves?

While this moral dilemma was by no means common—none of the issues he raised were revisited in subsequent newsletters—that it was raised at all suggests the settlers knew. Of course they knew. Palestinians have spent a long time asking how Zionists could live with themselves. In Palestinian writer and militant Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Returning To Haifa, the Palestinian protagonist Said and his wife, seizing on the opportunity of transiently ruptured borders following the 1967 war, return to their home, “abandoned” in 1948. They knock, and a stranger, an old woman, opens the door. “May we come in?” they ask, and the old woman steps aside, allowing them to enter “with slow hesitant steps.”

They began to pick out the things around them with a certain bewilderment. The entrance seemed smaller . . . [Said] looked around, rediscovering the items sometimes little by little and sometimes all at once, like someone recovering from a long period of unconsciousness . . . The old woman was sitting in front of them on the arm of one of the chairs, looking at them with a blank smile on her face. Finally, without changing her smile, she said, “I have been expecting you for a long time.” . . . Said leaned forward and asked her: “Do you know who we are?” She nodded several times to emphasize her certainty. She thought for a moment, choosing her words, then said slowly: “You are the owners of this house. [I know] from everything. From the photographs, from the way the two of you stood in front of the door.”

It is the perspective of Kanafani’s protagonist, the Palestinian, that the settler at the kibbutz built atop Salha decided to accommodate. He looked around him and thought of the people, the lives destroyed “without justification” whose echoes were everywhere, in everything, and understood there should be consequences. I’m unsure whether he left or stayed. The home was eventually destroyed.

In the decades before the Nakba, the justifications for colonizing Palestine had been the decision itself. God and the British—in the Balfour Declaration of 1917—had promised Zionists the land, and it was their duty to actualize it. The Palestinians, whom Zionists still refer to as “Arabs” (a linguistic distancing of the people from the land), were in the way. “My great-grandfather,” writes Ari Shavit in My Promised Land, about his ancestor’s decision to settle in Palestine in 1897, “does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see. He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back.”

Zionism is a self-contained system of truth, with an origin story inspired by divine right, a bridge over its wretched beginnings.

In those early days, before the state’s machinery had refined the process, the Zionist project’s foot soldiers sometimes struggled to sustain the narrative they imposed onto reality. Israeli historian Ilan Pappé writes in The Idea of Israel that during the Second Aliyah at the beginning of the twentieth century, “faint-hearted humanist views were not permitted.” Walking by an Arab village, Yossef Rabinowitch, a Second Aliyah activist, “found himself . . . charmed momentarily by [its] beauty . . . and the sound of a shepherd’s flute.” To snap out of what he described as “a moment of weakness,” Rabinowitch reminded himself that “these were foreigners on the homeland.” Shavit’s great-grandfather and other pioneers “were blessed and cursed,” he explains in My Promised Land, “with convenient blindness.” It was, of course, neither a blessing nor a curse in that God, despite promising them the land, had nothing to do with it. They had been born with sight and hearing and smell, the full range of sensory input, intact, and they developed an ability to suspend what their senses perceived. And if, as he writes, “the historical circumstances were unfavorable,” they would tell themselves something else.

For decades after 1948, the Palestinian dispossession foundational to the Zionist project went largely ignored by Israeli historians. During its “war of liberation,” Israel was the underdog, its victory nothing short of a miracle. This historiographic erasure mirrored much of what happened on the ground: the destruction of hundreds of villages unfit for a modernizing project, the planting of parks and trees in place of Palestinian homes and cemeteries, the careful renaming, the manufactured disappearance of any sign of Palestinian life. Following the declassification of several documents by the Israeli government in the 1980s, a group of Israeli scholars, calling themselves the “New Historians,” reassessed the facts: it turned out that the Palestinians had been the “weaker” side; until the 1940s, the British had armed and supported the Zionists; the Palestinians had not simply “abandoned” their homes; and so on.

Historians debated whether the massacres and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people were coordinated at the level of Zionist leadership, but they agreed that the state could not have existed had the natives not been dispossessed and significant atrocities not taken place. They collected their thoughts around the question of whether the founding atrocities could be justified—and whether these should reframe everything that followed. Here the New Historians diverged. Historians like Ilan Pappé hoped that if the Israeli public understood the injustice committed against the Palestinians, they might reevaluate the cost of their world. Pappé worked to reform the system from within and, after realizing “most,” even if they knew the truth, “would not walk the extra mile that such a position demanded of them,” left Israel.

Other Israeli historians, among them Benny Morris, insisted that the Zionist project was a moral necessity. From this, he approached the Nakba with “moral neutrality”: unfortunate and unavoidable. Among Morris’s most well-known scholarly contributions are The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988) and its revised edition, published in 2004 after Morris uncovered “far more Israeli acts of massacre than [he] had previously thought,” and “many cases of rape.” Still, in an interview with Ari Shavit published by Haaretz in 2004 called “Survival of the Fittest,” he asserted:

[Ben Gurion] made a serious historical mistake in 1948. Even though he understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. . . . If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job.

Shavit, in disbelief, asked Morris to clarify. Did he support the completion of the “transfer” today (in 2004)? Morris offered that he did not, as the present circumstances were not “realistic.” There might be a window in the future. “If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified.” Morris’s concerns, then, were tactical. Like Pappé, he understood the “removal” of Palestinians as essential to Zionism. Except Morris chose to stay.

Morris plays out familiar European themes in a conjured Arab mind to dazzling effect. He refers to “the situation” that Zionism faced in 1948 as “genocide,” and conflates the “annihilation” of Zionism—a European settler-colonial political project premised on the elimination of the native—with “the annihilation of [his] people.” A call to stop, even reverse, the implementation of a genocidal ideology becomes a call to genocide. Political and religious identities merge, reaction precedes action, causality is perfectly inverted, and the danger starts with “the Arabs” intending to “destroy the Jews,” rather than with Zionist settlers claiming Palestinian land. For Morris, this is why the Palestinians are “not honestly ready” to give up their right of return. They are, he says, “preserving it as an instrument with which they will destroy the Jewish state when the time comes.”

Innocence becomes an ontological state. Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is quoted in her autobiography A Land of Our Own as having said, “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” The Israelis are ready for peace, but its arrival is out of their hands for, she continued, “peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” The Israelis are forced to kill children. The Arabs are driven by a totalizing illogic, peace indefinitely deferred. They exist so distanced from their humanity they cannot intuit the biologically hardwired love of their own children.

Revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes that settler-colonialism is “a systematized negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity.” Here, as in every colonial encounter, the native’s blinding hatred is a stand-in for a causality inconvenient for the occupier. What is most remarkable is that Meir does not attempt to deny the killing of children. Rather she suggests Israel’s enemies are responsible for (and bear the consequences of) its actions. And it is this logic legitimizing the obscene, shuffling culpability—all of which I believe she believes—that has been manufactured as state ideology for decades. Today, when Israel commits massacres in Gaza and condemnations ensue, Zionists scream blood libel (and, in Haaretz, “Hamas Laid a Genocide Trap for Israel”).

Zionism is a self-contained system of truth, with an origin story inspired by divine right, a bridge over its wretched beginnings. Lord Balfour, author and namesake of the declaration promising Palestine to European Zionists, announced in 1919 that

the four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right.

Zionism’s solution for the “problem” of the Palestinians is to empty them of any meaning or life that is not self-referential, such that they can be eliminated without triggering remorse, such that the decision to let them stay—on the land, alive, it doesn’t matter—becomes an act of benevolence. If the Palestinians are allowed historical grievances (or anything beyond “desires and prejudices”), a consciousness before Zionism, beyond Europe, Zionism collapses. In a sense, Morris is not wrong: were Palestinians simply allowed to return to their homes, Israel would cease to exist. That they are motivated by what is theirs rather than the wish to destroy Israel, that they fundamentally refuse a world with Europe and its offshoots at its center, is what Morris cannot accept.

Insofar as Palestinians exist, they are about Israel. Those uncomfortable with the optics of Zionism measure the condition of its Palestinian subjects as a litmus test for Israel’s soul. The titles of their critiques suggest a path to redemption: in the Jerusalem Post, “Dehumanizing Palestinians has hurt Israel.” In Haaretz, “If Gaza’s Children Starve, Israel Will Lose Its Moral Legitimacy Forever.” Or, they warn about the orphaning of Palestinians: What do you think these poor children will grow up to do, to be? On the other side of the Zionist coin, the Arabs exist not as fodder for guilt but as the eternal enemy: the human shields and animals, the masses to bomb around election time, on whom to experiment and showcase murderous technology for export. Palestinians exist on the state’s periphery, as both mirror and threat, helping Zionists articulate an identity, projected against and shaped by this existential foil (in other words, textbook orientalism). Palestinians are the glue that holds Israel together.

My father, raised during the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, shook his head when I asked if Israel’s actions in Gaza surprised him. He responded in Arabic, “The Israelis relish in killing us.”

The conduct on display in Gaza is part psychological warfare, part colonial theatre, part occupation soldiers having fun, and none of it is new. Because the early Zionists failed to do a “complete job,” the maintenance of their insecure supremacy over the natives—reinforced through acts of brutality proportional to the degree of human recognition—is a collective struggle. Israeli academic Nurit Peled-Elhanan’s Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education explores how the Israeli education system prepares its children for their compulsory military service, arguing that the cruelty against Palestinians, the “indifference to human suffering, the inflicting of suffering,” are its intended consequences. In Israeli grade school textbooks, the Arabs—they are called “Palestinian” only in reference to terrorism—appear in general terms, “with a camel . . . vile and deviant and criminal . . . people who don’t pay taxes . . . people who don’t want to develop.” Their mass slaughter during the Nakba is not denied but rather represented as both necessary and good for Israel. Children are taught that Palestinian life is “dispensable with impunity,” and that they dispense of Palestinians for Israel’s sake: if the Jewish state should survive, these are a people “whose number has to be diminished.”

Cradling the Israeli education system is a society that echoes those values. In 2014, settlers in the kibbutzim around Gaza gathered with their families on hilltops—bringing plastic chairs and old sofas, popcorn, and hookahs—to watch bombs drop on Palestinian homes. The following year, a group of settlers in the West Bank set a Palestinian home on fire, burning an eighteen-month-old boy and his parents to death; at a wedding sometime after, Israeli settlers recorded themselves dancing with guns as one repeatedly stabbed a photo of the baby. That same year, a Palestinian child in Jerusalem was kidnapped by settlers, doused with gasoline, and burned alive; two of the three settlers charged with his death were themselves minors. In 2024 at the border with Egypt, settlers blocking aid inflate bounce houses and distribute snacks to soldiers, and a child with an Israeli flag tied around her neck like a cape says to a journalist, “What I care? Kill them. I don’t care.” These children are conscripted into the Israeli military down the line.

Israel is an anachronism, a settler-colonial work-in-progress, and that Zionists seem totally unbothered with how we might perceive them reflects a position integral to the project’s fabric: tautologically moral, it divides the world into “with us” and “against us,” and bulldozes forward with the help of God and foreign politico-economic and military support. It does what it will and presents a potpourri of justifications post-hoc (or, shoot first and ask questions later, in the words of one Israeli official). Zionists have, for over a century, disregarded what it might mean that the Palestinians see them. And their indifference has been maintained by global superpowers—at present, the United States. The Israelis have interpreted this impunity as a demonstration of their supremacy, rather than its basis, an impunity they wield to showcase strength, even when it appears to us as something closer to fragility. 

Zionist supremacy, that perfect bubble, is delicate and requires constant protection in its state of unstable equilibrium. Israel’s maneuvering at present—full-blown genocide—reflects a frenzied tripling down of the state’s supremacist machinery, to try to restore the bubble atop its shaky hill. What they have over the native is force, and the pleasure it gives, undiminished: the right-wing weekly Olam Katan published an article in January claiming among the great victories of the genocide in Gaza—which it celebrated as unprecedented since the Nakba, even if, it qualified, the Palestinians were exaggerating—is that Israeli culture, previously influenced by “western discourse . . . knows today without shame to rejoice over the deaths of an enemy, and this is said with full mouth. This is decisive moral progress.” 

Insofar as Palestinians exist, they are about Israel.

And, this is a difference: the American soldier occupying a foreign country, acting on behalf of a settler-colony more “successful” in eliminating the native and relatively less so in masking its supremacist ethos, knows he should not take pictures. When he does and some are leaked, a significant proportion of the folks back home will complain about discordant “values” because this side of occupation they don’t want to see. Israel is a small place and because the majority of Israelis want the native gone, they cannot look away, and because theirs is a society structured around its military, they do not have to: they learn to see the Palestinian through the scope of a gun.

Looking at Israelis looking at Palestinians, it is easier to imagine they cannot see than to consider what it means for them to know. We psychologize, in some ways, to avoid having to. Settler psychosis, sick society, these people are not in their right minds—these are descriptive terms that reflect our inability to make sense, within a particular ethical or moral frame, of what we see; they do not interrogate etiology. The illness, given its prevalence, must be colonization: through contagion or side effect, the brutality of colonialism folds back on the colonizer. The occupation exacts a price on its enforcers. Missing is historical time, through which we see that the problem starts with the decision to colonize. A post on X, by a doctor, advises us to avoid “dehumanizing” Israelis. She suggests we instead consider their behavior to reflect a complex trauma response to entrapment in cyclical violence. But alienation is only possible because we already perceive the actor as a human being. The language of illness confuses morality with mental status and diffuses blame. It erases volition, without which there is neither escape nor responsibility.

Understanding Zionism as a product and function of people does not quite show us the door. That is why, I think, the world met the actions of Aaron Bushnell, the active-duty U.S. Air Force member who lit himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in D.C., with something like a burst of recognition: under the snarled weight of seemingly inescapable structural pull, here was a person stepping forward, disentangling their agency at a cost exaggerated to try to map the gravity of refusing to do so. The last time an Israeli self-immolated for geopolitical reasons was in 2005, in protest of the “evacuation” order from Gaza.

One cannot erase what they do not see. Ari Shavit’s great-grandfather knew, Lord Balfour knew, Ben Gurion knew, the people in the kibbutzim knew, and every soldier in Gaza knows. And the people back home, they know too. In the years since 1917 or 1948 or 1982, Zionism has become increasingly difficult to maintain, and requires a certain insularity—sustained by the United States—that appears, if rooted in a less curated selection of facts and causal links, like insanity. For Israelis, this is self-preservation. Peering into the Zionist project, what we see is what Zionism requires.