Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Never Again

Many groups are observing the one-year anniversary of the Gaza "Cast Lead" campaign, which is part of the many-year war against Gaza, with no end in sight. Gaza remains under a cruel and barbaric siege. Of the commemorative articles I have read, this piece, written by Israeli lawyer activist Michael Sfard, and translated by the indefatigable Sol Salbe, captures what I think. For all the bad things that Israel had done, and continues to do, the Gaza campaign was different. Last year, as the campaign raged, Richard Silverstein and I circulated among Jews a petition condemning the Israeli conduct of the war, based entirely on press reports. Since then, those press reports have been confirmed by human rights agencies, and most recently, by the Goldstone mission. Israelis, of course, reject these reports as biased, as examples of "lawfare".

For the average Israeli, none of the Gazans human rights were violated, primarily because in order for that to happen, the Gazans would have to be human.

Last year, in playwright Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, characters debated what to tell a child who is asking about pictures of dead Gazan babies she sees on the television.

Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn't she know? tell her there's dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she's got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I'm not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we're the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can't talk suffering to us. Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they're animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don't care if the world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it's not her.

Don't tell her that.

Churchill's play was condemned as anti-Semitic. Frankly, I think it gave the Israelis more credit than they deserved. Because it assumed that children knew about what was transpiring in Gaza, that they would ask their parents what was going on, that their parents would be faced with the question of what to explain to them. Well, I was here during the Gaza campaign, and my unprofessional impression is that nobody asked questions, because nobody paid attention, because nobody gave a shit. I mean nobody gave a shit. If life could go on as normal in the rest of the country when Jews were in shelters in Sderot, or when the north was being rocketed during the Second Lebanese war, how many people could care about babies being blown up, even if they knew about it.

Truth cast in lead

Michael Sfard

Cast Lead was our second war of independence. In the first, we liberated ourselves from two thousand years of living under the control of others. In the second, we liberated ourselves from the ropes of Jewish heritage and morality that have been binding us for years.

A year has passed, just a year, but we can already tell that this one was different. This was not another "Rainbow", "Summer Rain" or "Days of Penitence" – the Israeli Defense Force's operations in recent years in Gaza. Perhaps the officer in charge of the code names has been replaced, or maybe we ran out of pastoral names. But at any rate, our last ferocious attack on Gaza was given a label that carried a violent connotation: "Cast Lead". In retrospect, that operation marks a crucial turning point in the Israeli society's value system.

There, in that besieged strip of land, we revealed the crystal-clear truth to ourselves, unadorned and free of shame. We once escaped the truth by sweeping it under the carpet. We employed self-deception which got more sophisticated from war to war and from military operation to military operation. But, like the man who has dropped political correctness and furiously sends his wife to the kitchen, we too have come out of the closet. This is what we are – and we are proud of it!

During Cast Lead we rained bombs for three weeks on one of the most densely populated civilian regions in the world. We pointed our weapons at clear-cut civilian targets, we made use of phosphorus, we deliberately and systematically destroyed thousands of homes and public buildings. We did it all while maintaining a tight siege that prevented civilians from escaping from the combat zone.

We did not set up temporary refugee camps for civilians. We did not arrange for a humanitarian evacuation corridor. We did not spare the hospitals, the food storage warehouses or even the UN welfare organizations. We did not express any sham regret. We did not claim that these were tragic mistakes and we even avoided taking the wounded children to hospitals in Israel.

The outcome is frightening: about 1400 killed, more than half of whom did not take part in the fighting and among whom there were 320 children and 120 women (B'Tselem figures) In three weeks we killed more Palestinians than in the whole of the first Intifada and all the violent incidents in the Occupied Territories till the beginning of the second Intifada combined, that is from 1987 to 2000.

The denizens of Gaza, whom we imprisoned earlier in a corral set up for them, discovered that the wardens had set fire to the jail and thrown the key out of the window. We did not pretend to hold ourselves up to the standards we believe in; nor did we pay lip service to them.

Government offices? No problem. They are officially legitimate targets for attack. So what if the people working there are civilians? What difference does it make that they are used to run civil life: transport, agriculture and welfare for 1.5 million human beings?

A collective liquidation of over a hundred police cadets in the middle of their graduation ceremony? Absolutely – they are Palestinians in uniform; that will do.

The firing of white phosphorus, which keeps on burning for days after it is discharged, on alleys where kids are playing? We have cast-iron stomachs; we can digest any poison easily. Our hearts are made of cold steel. We don't take pity on anyone.

Cast Lead was our second war of independence. In the first, we liberated ourselves from two thousand years of living under the control of others. In the second, we liberated ourselves from the ropes of Jewish heritage and morality that have been binding us for years. We no longer have to comply with the prohibition of killing the righteous with the wicked. We are exempted from remembering the lessons of being an occupied people without rights. The unavoidable insights of those who have been silenced have been erased and substituted with attitudes reserved for sub-humans.

In the past, we have transgressed some of the moral imperatives, but then we made sure not to reveal that to ourselves. On this occasion, we decided that the time for pretence was over. We have told enough lies to the world and ourselves. From now on we tell the truth: the Jewish state is of the opinion that the laws of war need amending in a way that reduces the risk to combatants, even if this means an increased risk to civilians. The Jewish state believes that in this new kind of war it is permitted, indeed necessary, to bombard power stations that provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of civilians. It is permitted to destroy the food-supply infrastructure and obliterate schools and mosques. And the Jewish state will not tolerate any criticism, either from within or from without.

The new freedom to act was also applied against Israeli oppositional voices. In an unprecedented move, the Israeli Police arrested hundreds of demonstrators against the war. The IDF spokesperson, an officer in uniform, orchestrated a campaign of vilification and delegitimization against organisations that dared criticise the military's activities. The Foreign Minster laboured to dry up such organisations' sources of finance. Moral decay devoured everyone: the commanders who ordered, the fighters who carried out the orders, the lawyers who certified it legal, the academics who kept mum and the press that fanned the flames of war and was so devoted to the IDF spokesperson that it became a unit in a brigade under his command.

These processes have a price. They lead to a loss of faith in Israeli society's ability to find strength within itself to return to the values upon which it was created. They generate external pressure, international investigations, prosecutions abroad, boycotts and sanctions. All these now have a legal moral basis upon which to blossom. And we, who are so addicted the freedom of having a light finger on the trigger, do not even consider quitting the habit.

Translated by Sol Salbe. Hebrew original: http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3824763,00.html



willyrobinson said...

It's good to have you back blogging, as usual I have nothing to add but my admiration - great post - w

MR Smith said...

Based on conversations with friends and family who live in Israel, about their time during the Gaza conflict, your impression that 'nobody gave a shit'is not one that I share; they seemed to care a great deal.

A question: has the publication of the Goldstone report in any way changed the situation? After its publication are you finding more Israelis expressing discomfort, shock or regret etc about what happened in Gaza? I'd be interested to know.

Y. Ben-David said...

Important to recall-this war was carried out NOT by the evil, right-wing pro-settlement Likud parties and its allies, but rather by the "progressive, pro-peace" government coalition of Kadima and the Labor Party, people who keep saying that it is imperative for Israel's future interests to set up a Palestinian state as soon as possible.
I am sure you remember that when the "pro-peace" camp of Rabin, Peres, Beilin, Ramon et al, were trying to sell the Israeli public on the idea of bringing in Arafat and his FATAH terrorist gangs to Israel and entrusting our security to them that we were assured by these people that we were not taking any chances...Shulamit Aloni said the Arabs would never DARE attack Israel because Israel was so strong. But, on the outside chance that the Arabs did use violence against us, we could always bomb the hell out of them AND WE WOULD HAVE THE BACKING OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY FOR THIS. I clearly remember A B Yehoshua saying this, along with the rest.
So finally, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008, when the rocket attacks finally became intolerable, we bombed the hell out of them, and surprise, we did NOT get the backing of the international community, at least to the degree promised by our peace camp.
The lies and deceit of Oslo finally boomeranged back on us.

LeaNder said...

Good article, indeed. I read about Michael Sfard in connection with Norman Finkelstein, if I remember well.

Caryl Churchill's play never for a second suggested antisemitism to me, only deep concern. The argument was completely absurd.

Sfard is correct, it was hard to not notice the cynicism behind the name for the operation. It was the first hint of what was to come.

Y. Ben-David, Arafat is dead, you should keep to the present talking points. It's Hamas remember?

Anonymous said...

Nice post & nice blog. I love both.

Milstein said...

Keep up the great blogging! I'm a quiet but enormously grateful reader of your posts.

Michael said...

So, the only people who agree with your assertion that Israel was the victim and Gaza, the aggressor are your fellow Zionists - in Israel and America. Given this, how do you explain that everybody else sees things otherwise - unless you say, all the world is out to get us...wait, that's exactly what you said.
If you didn't have an army to act out your delusional paranoia, I'd feel sorry for you. As it stands, the sooner the international community stages an intervention the better. BDS, UN forces patrolling the border, whatever works to save the Palestinians from you armed wingnuts.

Eurosabra said...

I don't think EU/UN monitoring has ever stopped rocket war against 1949-Israel anywhere it has been implemented, the Jordanian govt. has been effective in marginalizing it as a phenomenon, but that is a function of the difficulty of moving Grads around Jordan and the general non-cooperation of Jordanians with the al-Q-inspired groups doing the rocketing.

Most Israelis are going to see UNIFGAZA as UNIFIL redux and if the rockets continue to fall they will be right. However, success will mean that "permanent erosion of Israelis' personal security" will no longer be seen by some Israelis as an actual foreign policy goal of the UN/EU.

Eurosabra said...

And while the UN has rarely reduced the scale of Israeli response across a line (UNTSO, UNEF I are considered the success story in the period 1956-67) the record there is mixed enough that Israelis and Gazan Palestinians alike have UN involvement in living memory that was more positive than the UNIFIL experience. This may have something to do with the fact that strong states existed on both sides in '56-'67 and that the UN was highly effective as soon as harassment in Gaza stopped being a policy tool on either/both/all sides.