There is a point in Yaron Ezrahi's book on the relationship between Israeli military power and liberal-democratic conscience, when he offers a quotation from Maj. Gen. Dan Shomron, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the early days of the Intifada. In a communiqué detailing his plan for dealing with the uprising, he writes: "We shall continue to fulfill our tasks and overcome the violence directed at us while adhering, despite the difficulties, to the legal and moral norms as well as to the standards of disciplined conduct which were imparted to us" (pp. 211-212). In many ways, Shomron's words summarize the central premise of the book. Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has tried to understand the tensions within Israeli society between epic visions of power and moral ideas of restraint and justice. This tension he sees as arising from problems surrounding Israeli notions of the individual and the collective. Through a range of examples, many of them autobiographical, he argues that Israeli society, for much of its first half-century, has been characterized by features that have actively denied the position of the individual. He discusses the influence of the kibbutz, with its ethic of community identity, and the powerful narrative of return to Israel in which, he argues, the voice of the individual was often silenced.
The personal identities of soldiers killed in Israel's early wars were often subsumed within a wider image of collective sacrifice. He details accounts of the sufferings felt by young Israelis whose fathers had been killed in 1948 or 1967 and whose images had been lost in the nation's collective sorrow. Some individuals, he notes, sought to reclaim their personal grief and there is a fascinating discussion of one individual who changed from idealizing his father, killed in the battle for Jerusalem, to literally walking away from the war in Lebanon in 1982. Ezrahi portrays this process as a painful coming to terms with the individual meaning of death in combat, separating it from the wider story of the nation.

Responding to the Intifada

Some of the most interesting material in the book, however, and the section from which it takes its title, is Ezrahi's discussion of the Israeli police's use of rubber bullets. He argues, as many have done before, that the capture of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 produced a situation in which Israeli society was forced to reconsider its approach to the use of force. Until the Intifada, Israelis, and a large percentage of world opinion, saw Israel's conflicts as wars of self-defense. Ezrahi details Israeli society's reactions to its victory in the Six-Day War, noting that, although not all the voices were those of unrestrained joy, triumphalism quickly gained hold. The image of the Jewish soldier, empowered by his swift victory in 1967, has become a truism of Israeli politics and sociology, but Ezrahi already sees in this image the beginnings of a questioning of the Israeli use of violence.
This process, he argues, culminated in the debates within the IDF and the Israeli police over an appropriate response to the Intifada. The image of the Arab aggressor threatening the state itself, or the Palestinian infiltrator crossing the River Jordan, was replaced by the moral strength of the protesters in the West Bank and Gaza. Those nationalists who tried to persuade Israeli society that all Palestinians were terrorists failed because of the new reality on the ground: "In a clash of moral claims, not of physical powers, Palestinian stones proved infinitely more painful and devastating than Palestinian bullets" (p. 221).
Ezrahi argues that the scale of Palestinian deaths and injuries in the first months of the Intifada forced Israel to reconsider its whole approach. Rabin's infamous instruction to police officers to "break the bones" of the demonstrators ultimately backfired when news footage and the accounts of officers involved filtered back to the Israeli public (p. 210). The army and the police searched "for a technical solution: the perfect bullet that would stop the demonstrators without killing or seriously wounding them" (pp. 212-213). The rubber bullet (a euphemistic term for rubber-coated steel pellets) emerged as a protection, Ezrahi argues, as much for Israeli consciences as for Palestinian demonstrators. However, as the clashes at the end of 1998 showed, the force of the rubber bullets depends heavily on the decisions and conduct of the individuals who deploy them. Fired at close range, rubber bullets can be lethal.

An Honest Assessment

Ezrahi ends his detailed discussion of the phenomenon with an optimistic vision of the transformation that the Intifada brought about within Israeli society: "This was a moment when Israelis in growing numbers began to redefine the Palestinians as civilians living on this land, to gradually acknowledge their distinct voice as a nation in our midst... This increasing readiness to acknowledge a rival narrative, a change of attitude loaded with far-reaching consequences for future developments, is inseparable from the willingness to soften the sharp points of our bullets" (p. 278).
Although Ezrahi's treatment of the Intifada is balanced and mature, some readers may find in such passages a feeling that the Palestinians did little more than provide the material for a change in Israeli perceptions of violence and that the sharp points of Israeli bullets were never an appropriate response to the demonstrators. Rubber bullets, it could persuasively be argued, allow the Israeli collective conscience to cope with the broader injustice of the occupation by minimizing the revulsion arising from violent deaths.
However, Rubber Bullets is, in many ways, a remarkably honest assessment, both of dynamics within Israeli society and Israel's reaction to its conduct in the occupied territories, a liberal Israeli's efforts to come to terms with political paradoxes within this nation. Some readers may also feel that the occupation is treated in the book as a distraction from wider injustices surrounding Zionism and the establishment and conduct of the state. The decision to introduce rubber bullets, to temper the violence of the occupation, and, ultimately, to see the Palestinians as negotiating partners rather than terrorists is only the start of a complex process of political and moral settlement, not the solution itself.
Ezrahi also represents only a section of Israeli society, with an active background in the peace movement; what proportion of Israeli society shares his view of the transformation of national conceptions of violence is questionable. It is also reasonable to point out that a book that concentrates so exclusively on one side in a conflict, at least, calls out for a similar treatment of Palestinian ideals of individualism and reactions to violence.
However, setting these criticisms aside, the book is powerfully and persuasively written and offers some illuminating insights into the psyche of modern Israel. As Palestine potentially faces its independence, many lessons can be learnt from the internal debates and problems that Israel has faced over the last 50 years. Ezrahi's book offers an excellent treatment of many of these challenges. <