Incident in Gaza

by URI AVNERY

"Whom do you believe?" asked General Ya’akov Amidror on TV with subdued anger, "the army spokesman or Hamas?"

General (reserves) Amidror is the highest religious officer in our army. In the past he has raised several public storms with some utterances denigrating secular Israelis, saying that they are not real Jews. He has a sharp mind, much above the average in the army command, and his intellect is fully employed in serving his extremist views ­ both the extremist religious and the extremist nationalist ones.

His question was intended to be rhetorical. After all, the answer is self-evident: on one side there is the IDF, "the most moral and most humane army in the world", as it calls itself, and on the other side there is a bunch of crazy murderers, so what’s the problem?

But, according to Amidror himself, the reverse is happening. The world believes Hamas and does not believe the IDF spokesman. The Israeli public believes Hamas. Even cabinet ministers and Knesset members believe Hams and do not believe the army spokesman.

The crisis of confidence was revealed in all its harshness by a series of events last week in the Gaza Strip. According to the Palestinians, the army fired air-to-surface missiles at a car in which there were two Hamas militants. When people from the neighborhood crowded around the smashed car to see if the could help the victims, they were attacked by another missile. All in all 14 Palestinians were killed, among them a doctor who had rushed there to help, and dozens of others, including many women and children, were wounded.

"A big lie!" the Army Spokesman angrily announced. The army did not fire another missile at all. It did not hurt civilians! It’s just another vicious Palestinian slander!

So there are two opposing versions, which are completely incompatible. A matter of either-or. One of the two sides is lying. But who?

The Palestinian version is supported by the TV and video coverage of the killed, the funerals, the wounded delivered to the hospitals, as well as by doctors and journalists, local and foreign. The army version is supported by the host of Israeli "military correspondents" and "Arab affairs reporters" on TV, the radio and the newspapers who, almost to a man, repeat the official line like robots, as if they themselves had investigated and come to this conclusion.

This time even the heavy artillery joined the battle, headed by Haaretz military commentator Ze’ev Shiff, whose independent judgements are often uncannily similar to those of the army command. The Air Force commander, already up to his neck in the affair of the rebellious combat pilots, took an unprecedented step and had the official version, denying the Palestinian story, circulated at all Air force bases.

To reinforce its own story, the Air Force published, after a delay of 24 hours, a clip shot during the action by an army drone (unmanned aircraft). It clearly shows two missiles fired at the suspect car, with hardly any civilians in the vicinity. The devoted military correspondents even used their stopwatches to measure the seconds between missile A and missile B.

So here we have a perfect riddle. A factual clip against the eye-witness account of the journalists. What would Sherlok Holmes have said?

Well. Perhaps a Palestinian propagandist of genius invented the whole thing. The civilians committed suicide or shot each other, dozens of others wounded themselves, all in order to besmirch the IDF with a monstrous lie. (By the same logic, the father of little Muhammad al-Dura killed his son, at the beginning of the present intifada, in order to slander our brave and upright soldiers).

Another possibility is that not two, but three missiles were used ­ the two seen in the clip and a third one later on. In order to find out, one has to view the whole film, not just an excerpt. And perhaps we are dealing with two different events altogether.

If the Israeli media were truly independent, instead of being a department of the security establishment, a dozen Israeli journalists would have rushed to Gaza on the same day, interviewed the dozens of wounded in the hospitals, compared the evidence, visited the families of the dead and taken testimony from eye-witnesses, confronting these with the army version. But apart from Amira Hass and a Palestinian correspondent of Channel 2, this kind of independent investigation has disappeared long ago from our media (and perhaps never existed.)

There remains the rhetorical question posed by General Amidror: Whom to believe?

The Minister of the Interior Avraham Poraz (Shinui party) and the Knesset member Zahava Gal’on (Meretz) chose, so it seems, the Palestinian version and acted accordingly. So did a large number of other public personalities. That was what raised the hackles of the army.

But even if we take the official version on trust, we would have to raise another question: WHY do so many people, in Israel and throughout the world, believe the Palestinians? In other words, why do they not believe the army spokesman?

There were times when the army spokesman was believed without reservation. During the 50s, I was often asked by foreign journalists whether to believe the army statements. My answer invariably was: Sure, our army does not lie.

These days are long gone. The occupation, which has corrupted everything, has corrupted the army statements, too. During the first intifada, the IDF published hundreds of statements that were manifestly mendacious. Children "lost their lives" when the army "shot into the air" (giving rise to bitter jokes about "flying children"). Palestinians were killed while "trying to wrest weapons from the hands of soldiers". Tall stories. Baron von Munchhausen would have been envious. Since then, the situation has become even worse.

During the last 20 years I have followed the work of foreign correspondents, neutral, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, and almost all of them trust the Palestinians more than official Israeli spokespersons.

When things get tough, official spokespersons bring up the Jenin affair. The Palestinians claimed that during the "Defensive Shield" operation in April 2002 a massacre occurred there. This proved to be an exaggeration, but the things that did indeed happen there were terrible enough. For example, many houses were demolished by the drunken driver of a giant army bulldozer, without any idea whether the inhabitants were still inside. The terminological battle over the word "massacre" distracted attention from what actually happened.

Credibility is worth more then gold. It takes years to build up, but just a few minutes to destroy. Now this affair shows that the credibility of the army spokesman has fallen into an abyss.

"Whom do you believe?" the general asked. Wellhmmit’s not pleasant to say, but…

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. One of his essays is also included in The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: avnery@counterpunch.org.

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