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Drones, Israel, and the Eclipse of Democracy
Murder, she said; No, not the popular song, not Brecht’s Arturo Ui (rhymes with phooey), not Chicago’s SouthSide gangland variety, but the real stuff of modern times: cold-blooded, methodical, depraved, the peculiar mix of militarism-ideology-practical realism, in a word, the psychopathology of power, whose profile only the modal serial killer would ideally fit–the overkill mentality and practice, to prove one’s superiority, muscularity (as opposed to national “softness”), powers of intimidation against the weaker, contempt for humankind, and therefore, deep-down, contempt for human life, including one’s own; I mean therefore OFFICIAL violence as practiced by nations, leaving the opposition, as here, either vaporized (US armed drones for political assassination, under Team Obama) or buried deep under rubble (Israeli military attacks in Gaza); a national policy of terror, disproportionate force, women, children, sometimes infants under one-year-old, in the crosshairs, impunity combined with immunity. You get the picture. America and Israel, joined at the hip of international war crimes.
All in a week’s work, actually less. The New York Times had an article on the new US drone-opening in North Africa and Roger Cohen’s column , reflecting on Amos Oz’s criticisms of Israel, both of which prompted my brief Comments to the paper, see below, but after thinking about their possible interrelatedness, and then, coupled, with an op-ed piece by George Bisharat, a Hastings Law School professor, on why the Palestinians should find a way to take Israel before the International Criminal Court for possible war-crimes prosecution, I found, in these three items, the basis for working out the interrelations troubling me, the stark phenomenon of war crimes as such. This is the result, a brief look at drone warfare, and principal attention to the Israeli attack on Gaza in early 2009. Eerily, little has changed in the intervening time, the commission of more war crimes by the two—a veritable crime syndicate that Ui, Capone, Lepke, or, in my old home town, Miami Beach, the S. and G., could only envy—except that they didn’t have the organized resources of the State behind them, drones, F-16s, batteries of artillery, and the profound indifference to killing in promiscuous fashion. For the crime boys, theirs was a business; our political crime boys, seem made of sterner stuff, the desire to maim and kill, for the glory of—what? I wonder if they themselves know.
1. Counterterrorism as itself terror (deliberate, malicious, cruel)
On Jan. 29, the New York Times had an article about the US introduction of drones into North Africa. Comments were favorable: zap terrorists; cost/benefit analysis (cheaper than massing ground troops); antiseptic—everything but moral outrage and/or recognition that drone warfare is part of the Obama-Brennan geopolitical strategy of (a) establishing global bases (using drone airstrips to stake out a presence in key areas, otherwise known as “hot spots,”); (b) creating the pretext and incentive justifying the concept and practice of, and commitment to, the condition of permanent war; (c) institutionalizing permanent war as the primordial doctrine binding future administrations, through elaborate rationales, secret legal memos authorizing conduct (including the killing of American citizens), and, as a corollary, keeping the program under the tightest wraps, a disconnection with the American public, who yet fully approve; (d) ensuring the continuance and implementation of drone warfare through continually adding to the names on the “hit lists”—the celebrated Terror Tuesday evenings off the Situation Room, where Obama, Brennan, and representatives from such key players as CIA, Navy Seals, etc., identify targets which “pilots” 8,000 miles away, sitting in air-conditioned splendor, press levers, literally EVAPORATING victims in Pakistan, Somalia, and most probably in other areas, none of which are at war with the US; (e) preventing the dirty, yet accurate, word, “assassination,” like government itself, both falling under the cloak of a morbid hostility toward transparency, from sinking into the public consciousness (I’ve long ago, since Vietnam, given up reaching the public conscience, so weak is it, but even consciousness is largely closed down to what is being done in the name of the American people), no doubt because the perpetrators fear they have something to hide, i.e., self-evident war crimes, which only their high office, America’s global military predominance, and the political-financial intimidation of “friends and allies,” have saved them from being taken before the International Criminal Court (ICC); (f) using drone warfare as a means for keeping alive the societal tensions necessary for a full-scale counterterrorism campaign that has a tendency to spill over into the abrogation of civil liberties at home, the rise of surveillance into a national pastime (hello, incipient McCarthyism), xenophobic responses to immigration (I hesitate to use the word) “reform,” and further pressures to destroy transparancy in government and in the military’s own record (we have to rely on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to inform us of the number of children murdered in drone attacks); (g) integrating the CIA and Joint Special Ops Command (JSOC) in still more secretive activities which have made, under Obama, the reliance on paramilitary forces, along with his signature drones, the one-two punch presumably against adversaries, who have a way of taking on extended definition (“associated forces” is one favorite) possibly in the near-future to include social-revolutionary forces resisting US political-military-commercial-investment penetration; and hence (h) envisioning a global hegemony for the United States, greatly facilitated not only by the ring of military bases (at last count, I believe, exceeding 900) around the world, but also, these drone airstrips, as alluded to in the Times article, complementing, in Africa, the vast installation in Djibouti, with counterterrorism somewhat of a pretext when policymakers have something else in mind, the drone as the new cop on the block for maintaining influence, and a finger locally, in every region, for purposes not even Brennan and Obama have fully worked out.
I could, of course, go through the entire alphabet with these sordid, shameful, vicious, illegal, and profoundly immoral practices—for the record is crystal clear, despite Obama’s passion for obfuscation and his side doors to escape responsibility and accountability. E.g., under the euphemistically sonorous phrase “collateral damage,” civilians of every kind and station in life are murdered in cold blood. I do not exaggerate; press accounts and recent writings, such as CounterPuncher Medea Franklin’s Drone Warfare, based on first-person observation and/or testimony, are abundant. And particularly valuable, sufficiently documented to convince the ICC to put them behind bars for life (if ever the opportunity should arise, which most certainly it will not, the US having gone to war over lesser matters than that), is the study conducted by law school faculty, the Stanford-NYU report, “Living Under Drones,” in which the war crimes themselves, as well as the psychological torment exercised on the people through the constant buzzing, then the attack without warning, leaving blood splats where human beings once stood, become really a euphemism for atrocities. That is our Washington, our president, our nation. [See sect. 4, #1, for Comment]
2. Israel: Glorification of Force, Denial of Human Rights
Also on Jan. 29, the Times published Roger Cohen’s column on post-election Israel, focusing on the social commentary of Amos Oz, a distinguished writer and self-identified “dove” on Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and critic of domestic politics affecting inequalities of wealth, preferential treatment shown the Orthodox, etc. I respect both men, Cohen for his even-handed treatment of the country, Oz for his general sympathies and ascetic life in the desert. Perhaps it was the drone article that got me going, but after reading Cohen, I began to think about the interrelatedness of the two pieces and the substance behind them. As my Comment to the Times indicates, my admiration for Oz is conditional, for he, in what remains of an Israeli Left, cannot make a break with the record of the society and government. He points out the absolutism of his countrymen, yet drifts into a reverie of relativism which fails to liberate categorically the Palestinians from thralldom to their Israeli jailers. Having written criticisms of Israeli militarism, its policy of assassination, and penchant for supporting dictators, I was prepared to let my Comment stand, and move on. [See sect. 4, #2, for Comment] In today’s Times (Jan. 30), however, an op-ed piece appeared, “Why Palestine Should Take Israel to Court in The Hague,” written by George Bisharat, on the faculty of the (U. of Calif) Hastings College of Law and a frequent CounterPunch contributor, which forced me awake to the obvious: The interrelateness between US drones and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as per the two articles, is the common element of war crimes, war crimes revealing much about the two societies, the jadedness to human aspiration and love of family (as if a Palestinian child or a Pakistani child possesses less moral worth than an American or Israeli child, and similarly, parents who cannot feel the grief at their loss, as opposed to, by definition, the fully human, naturally standing closer to God), an entrenched arrogance, the propensity for overkill, whatever the situation confronted, a preternatural delight in torture (or at least refusal to denounce it), in dealing with putative adversaries (many of whom are ordinary people), and, as before, the list could be continued. Now with Bisharat (and the important links he supplies to the Israeli merciless attack on Gaza), as well as some of my own recently gathered material from the Times and the Washington Post, both of which supporters of Israel will dismiss as biased, as they do the UN, and if coming from a fellow Jew, then necessarily a self-hating Jew. You can’t win against totally closed minds.
Bisharat first addresses the transmogrification of international law by Israel’s military lawyers. We might call this damage control, were it not more serious. When the Palestinians first sought to join the I.C.C., and then, to receive the UN’s conferral of nonmember status on them, Israel raised fierce opposition. Why? He writes: “Israel’s frantic opposition to the elevation of Palestine’s status at the United Nations was motivated precisely by the fear that it would soon lead to I.C.C. jurisdiction over Palestinian claims of war crimes. Israeli leaders are unnerved for good reason. The I.C.C. could prosecute major international crimes committed on Palestinian soil anytime after the court’s founding on July 1, 2002.” In response to the threat, we see the deliberate reshaping of the law: Since 2000, “the Israel Defense Forces, guided by its military lawyers, have attempted to remake the laws of war by consciously violating them and then creating new legal concepts to provide juridical cover for their misdeeds.” (Italics, mine) In other words, habituate the law to the existence of atrocities; in the US‘s case, targeted assassination, repeated often enough, seems permissible, indeed clever and wise, as pressure is steadily applied to the laws of war. Even then, “collateral damage” is seen as unintentional, regrettable, but hardly prosecutable, and in the current atmosphere of complicity and desensitization, never a war crime. (Obama is hardly a novice at this game of stretching the law to suit the convenience of, shall we say, the national interest? In order to ensure the distortion in counting civilian casualties, which would bring the number down, as Brennan with a straight face claimed, was “zero,” the Big Lie if ever there was one, placing him in distinguished European company, Obama redefined the meaning of “combatant” status to be any male of military age throughout the area (which we) declared a combat zone, which noticeably led to a higher incidence of sadism, because it allowed for “second strikes” on funerals—the assumption that anyone attending must be a terrorist—and first responders, those who went to the aid of the wounded and dying, themselves also certainly terrorists because of their rescue attempts.) These guys play hardball, perhaps no more than in using—by report—the proverbial baseball cards to designate who would be next on the kill list. But funerals and first responders—verified by accredited witnesses–seems overly much, and not a murmur from an adoring public.
Bisharat provides two specific examples of Israeli war crimes. First, in 2002, “an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in a densely populated Gaza neighborhood, killing a Hamas military leader, Salah Shelhadeh, and 14 others, including his wife and seven children under the age of 15.” And second, in 2009, “Israeli artillery killed more than 20 members of the Samouni family, who had sought shelter in a structure in the Zeitoun district of Gaza City at the bidding of Israeli soldiers.” How does war guilt vanish into the thin air of Israeli legal trumpery, the corruption of the laws of war? Here is Daniel Reisner, former head of the Israeli military’s international law division, to explain (quoted by Bisharat): “International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it. At first there were protrusions [i.e., something sticking out, noticeable, causing waves] that made it hard to insert easily into the legal molds. Eight years later it is in the center of the bounds of legitimacy.” (Italics, mine) We must remind ourselves, he is talking about assassination, openly boasting therefore about the legitimation of war crimes. The frank admission is commendable, save that it shows utmost contempt for the rule of law, a cynicism, it seems to me, deeply ingrained in the Israeli war machine—as in the way atrocities and cases of mistreatment are routinely dismissed or accorded a pro forma hearing, then dismissed. Reisner and Brennan become interchangeable cogs in that machine. For Obama, who needs Clausewitz, when he has these two?
Let me take leave from Bisharat to examine his examples of Israeli war crimes more closely. On the first, the Times reporter John Kifner, July 24, 2002, describing the “three-mile [funeral] procession today through Gaza City’s bleak streets,” filled in the scene, the F-16, “one-ton laser-guided bomb…densely packed neighborhood…just a few minutes after midnight” and the resulting deaths, “among them nine children.” He adds, “An area about half the size of a city block was leveled, and several buildings were damaged. Shifa Hospital said more than 140 people had been injured, 15 of them seriously.” The procession “drew 100,00 or more marchers,” one detail sharply etched in my mind: “A man held aloft the tiny body of the youngest victim, 2-month-old Dina Mattar, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, her small face visible. She was killed along with her mother and four siblings when upper-story rooms in their building collapsed.” The Israeli response? PM Sharon, “in a formal written statement issued by his office early in the day, described the airstrike as ‘one of our major successes.’” (Italics, mine)
Not good enough; callousness to human suffering, categorical pushing back, this time didn’t work, as “worldwide condemnation began pouring in,” from the European Union, and even George Bush, so “Israeli officials scrambled to put the best face on their actions.” The responses are instructive. (Please remember, this is John Kifner reporting, not Joseph Stalin or Chairman Mao, so the account is not readily dismissed.) General Harel, the army’s chief of operations: “We launched a precision attack….Only this house was hit, the house collapsed and this mastermind terrorist died. Unfortunately, along with him died several civilians, apparently innocent, and we are very sorry for it.” The building’s fault, not the laser-guided bomb—and were the others really innocent? Israelis never apologize—without conditions or sarcasm. At the same briefing, a “senior military official” (his and others’ remarks were not to be for attribution) states, “This was the only house that collapsed. It’s not clear to us right now where the other casualties were. There was no intention of killing people in the area. We did not estimate that houses in the area would be seriously damaged or collapse. Our assessment was that the damage to them would be minor.” The statement was similarly exonerative to that offered by US officials, in the drone killing of al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman (like his father an American citizen), set down in the report as an unfortunate “bystander”—16-years-old, although the government tried to make him over 21, to satisfy Obama’s combatant-definition, until his family produced a copy of his birth certificate showing his age and that he was born in Denver. As for General Harel and the unnamed “senior military official,” Kifner’s reporting demonstrates their straight-out lying about the extent of damage: “But in Gaza City there was a large flat area in the middle of a street of densely packed apartment houses. Neighbors said there had been three buildings on the spot, one of three stories, and two of two stories.” He continues: “All that remained were chunks of cinder block, several stumps of what had been pillars, pulverized lumps of concrete with twisted snarls of what had been iron reinforcement bars poking out of them, remnants of plumbing pipes and scraps of clothing.” Kifner ends this heartbreaking account, “A half-dozen buildings in an arc around the hole were badly damaged, chunks of their sides ripped off and floors partly destroyed.” Scraps of clothing, chunks of cinder block—Israelis have brought Gethsemane to Gaza City, not the agony of Jesus but the death of a whole people entitled, like all people, to live in freedom and without fear, and without laser-guided bombs suddenly reining down on them—while the whole world sits on its hands.
The second example of Israeli war crimes to which Bisharat referred, in which 20 members of one family were killed in an artillery attack, was reported by Sabrina Tavernise and Taghreed El-Khodary, again in the Times (Jan. 18, 2009). The article’s title says it all, “Shocked and Grieving Gazans Find Bodies Under the Rubble of Homes.” Israelis had not learned anything from the previous attack, if anything becoming still more ferocious—the article making clear, a degree of inhumanity rare even by their own standards. Above the article, there is a photograph of a grave site, people solemnly gathered around, with the following legend underneath: “In Gaza City on Sunday, relatives buried the bodies of members of the Samouni family who were killed in attacks by Israel. More than 20 bodies of family members were recovered Sunday.” The writers grimly begin: “It was a day of digging and bitter discovery. Houses had lost walls, and the dead, after three weeks of war, had lost their faces. Families identified them by their clothes.” (Italics, mine) This reminds one of saturation-bombing or carpet-bombing, the insidious itch to destroy, and more, to terrorize civilian populations. They write: “As the people of Gaza emerged from hiding [similar to the drone attacks in Pakistan, as described in the Stanford-NYU report] on Sunday, they confronted, for the first time, the full, sometimes breathtaking extent of the destruction around them wrought by the Israeli military. [Once more, not Stalin-Mao, or worse to the Israelis, some UN observer, but Times reporters] Bombs had pulverized the Parliament and cabinet buildings, the Ministry of Justice, the main university and the police station, paralyzing Gaza’s central nervous system and leaving residents in a state of shock.” (Italics, mine) One way to obviate the need for a two-state solution is to destroy the government buildings—more to the point, humiliate the people, destroy their confidence in themselves, in the form of a scorched-earth policy of the mind. Yet the people were not, at least for some, humbled into submission. “Some places in Gaza City,” the reporters note, “were bustling and matter-of-fact. Work crews in bright orange vests repaired water and power lines. Shops reopened. People lined up at bank machines.”
But that proved the exception. What follows is difficult to read (much less, from which to quote), for the ancestors of the Holocaust have created a micro-holocaust of their own, against, like their forebears, a defenseless people. The reporters continue: “But other areas ached with loss. In Twam to the north, thousands dragged belongings away from ruined houses; they were dazed refugees in their own city. In Zeitoun, families clawed at rubble and concrete, trying to dislodge the bodies of relatives who had died weeks before. The death toll kept climbing: 95 bodies were taken from the rubble.” Zeitoun had been home to the massacred family: “More than 20 of them were from the Samouni family, whose younger members were digging with shovels and hands for relatives stuck in rooms inside. Faris Samouni, 59, sat alone, watching them. He had lost his wife, daughter-in-law, grandson and nephew, and he was heartbroken.” I deliberately do not italicize; the words themselves shout out to us—and this from the staid Times—of murder, treachery, refugees, rubble, digging with hands and shovels, the dead trapped inside the ruins. And Mr. Samouni: “’Twenty-one are down there,’ he said, starting to cry. ‘One is my wife. Her name is Rizka.’” I wish I could throw this in the face of every Israeli. As a Jew I can think of Rizka as my mother, and the mother of all children everywhere at every time. But for Israelis, ho-hum, the emotional outburst of another self-hating Jew. What do you expect, they would and DO say, the world is against us, even disloyal Jews are turning away. Why doesn’t AIPAC smear them into pride and compliance with Jewish solidarity? And the recitation of evil goes on, so reminiscent of William L. Shirer’s book on the Third Reich—the attempt to identify corpses, trinkets, the stench—except now the situation has been reversed, the perpetrators being Jews, with a fighter jet flying over to remind the people of Israeli power, intimidate them, overawe them, all at the time of their profoundest misery.
To the point, the writers state: “The dead were badly decomposed, and families searched for familiar personal details that would identify them. One woman’s corpse was identified by her gold bracelets. Another by her earrings. And a third by the nightgown she wore. The smell of rotting flesh was suffocating, and as they got closer, the diggers donned masks.” Rizka and the fighter jet, simultaneous, as though recapitulating in an instant of time, the history of oppression, the strong over the weak: “At 10:55 a.m., the body of Rizka Samouni emerged as an Israeli fighter jet roared in the sky. Other corpses followed. Houda, 18. Faris, 14. Hamdi, 21. The smallest corpse that emerged, from a different family, was that of a 4-year-old.” Rizka’s brother, Subhi, 55, said, “’They killed the elders, the children, the women, the animals, the chickens….It’s a nightmare. I never thought I would lose all of them.’” The chickens, too; calling up images of a Czarist pogrom in my mother’s village as a child, 20 kilometers west of Minsk. (Israelis to this day have not learned that human misery knows no separate identities, but is universal in its pain, and those who inflict the pain, under whatever flag, or whatever color uniform and insignia, are pariahs in the sight of whomever or whatever source one wishes to invoke.)
There was a brief flurry, bureaucracy in the war machine (twisting the knife into the now-refugees): “Around noon, a worker from the Red Crescent ran up to the diggers. The Israelis had called, telling the people to leave, he said. The families began to run, again. ‘We have to go!’ a woman shouted. ‘But where can we go? Where do we go?’ An Israeli military spokesman said the order had been issued because the Red Crescent had not coordinated its movement in advance.” Eichmann would have understood. The lesson driven home, of gaining prior approval, the order was lifted, “permission was granted and the diggers returned to exhume the remaining bodies.” Jet fighters, donkey carts—correcting for time, place, and technology, Twam might have been Rotterdam or some other city bombed-out in the Second World War, as their account suggests to me: “One of the areas worst hit was Twam, a neighborhood north of Gaza City, which by Friday afternoon had turned into a disorganized mass move. Donkey carts lurched over torn-up roads, spilling pillows and bedding into the dirt. People dragged bed frames and mattresses out of bombed-out houses. Small boys carried bookshelves. Curtains tied in giant sacks held clothes. Decorative cloth flowers fluttered from a half-closed trunk.” In the words of one newly-created refugee, Riad Abbas Khalawa: “’It’s madness….Now our home is gone. There’s no place for us to sit together as a family.’”
Stunned, in search of an explanation for Israeli actions, there was a recognition that Hamas, the presumed object of the operation, was unscathed, that many themselves were not even supporters, and rather, that his was an attack on the people, to get them to leave Gaza. As one, gathered in the crowd around Khalawa, shouted: “’It’s a war against us as people….What happened to Hamas? Nothing!’” A crime against a people—genocide—seems to me accurate, with Hamas a convenient target or pretext for ridding the territory of Palestinians. The aftermath was one of somber reflection, the weight hanging heavily on peoples’ shoulders. One example: “Beker Rahim, a 26-year-old who works for a water distributor, was walking with a cradle on his head, and a blue plastic jug of homegrown olives in his right hand. He had to move a corpse on Sunday morning from near his house, placing it respectfully at the gates of the mosque. As he walked to his house, he saw it had been mostly destroyed and was unlivable.” Another: “’It was my dream and now it was erased,’ said Hadija Saker, 55, who ticked off the evidence, as she saw it, of Israel’s unjust actions. She said Hamas lacked influence in the area. A teacher at a United Nations school lived on one side. A journalist on the other. Most painful, she said, were her lemon trees, which she had nurtured for years and now lay crushed under the sandy soil crisscrossed with the marks of tank tracks.” To those who drive tanks, it is perhaps inconceivable that Palestinians dream, and care about, their lemon trees.
Callousness of the conquering heroes: “Anger was compounded when people concluded that Israeli soldiers appeared to have been using their houses. The Sakers found wrappers for chocolate cranberry power bars and corn puffs with Hebrew writing. In another, a child found a tiny Torah.” (I won’t even bother to comment on the implied desecration involved here.) Others pointed out they were Fatah supporters, but that Hamas’s rocket fire did not justify Israel’s disproportionate, i.e., overkill, response. Ziad Dardasawi, 40, a wood importer, and Fatah supporter, said of that response: “’Let’s say someone from Hamas fired a rocket—is it necesssary to punish the whole neighborhood for that?’ he said, standing in a stairway of his uncle’s house, where furniture had been smashed, and all the windows broken. He drew on an analogy he thought would strike a chord: ‘In the U.S., when someone shoots someone, is his entire family punished?’” He might as easily have mentioned, in light of the practice of collective punishment, a reference closer to the Jewish experience in Nazi-dominated Europe. Also, Dardasawi does put his finger on the phenomenon of blowback, the resistance to—indeed, not to mince words, retaliation for—the carnage wrought (similar to what is happening in response to Obama’s drone campaign of targeted assassination, in which, for each individual killed, especially through “collateral damage,” as is very much the case in Gaza as well, there are multiple others to take his place: “The Israeli actions made the situation more intractable, he said. ‘How can I convince my neighbors now for the option of peace? I can’t.’ He added: ‘Israel is breeding extremists. The feeling you get is that they just want you to leave Gaza.’”
Finally nightfall, the enormity of the personal tragedy further sinking in: “It was almost dark and the Samounis were finally burying their dead. It took time to find a car big enough to carry them all. A man had to stand in the back to keep them from falling out. At the cemetery, a battery-powered neon light cast an eerie glow over men digging the graves. There was a moment of panic when Hamas militants launched a rocket not far away, but then nothing happened.” When one sees vividly the logistics of death, preventing bodies from falling out of an overloaded car of the dead, the battery-powered neon light, and now, the grave site itself overloaded, what, really, is there left to be said? The reporters, once more: “A final obstacle: There was not enough room to bury all the bodies. The family opened up an old grave to accommodate them. A cousin, Khamis el-Sayess, observed bitterly, ‘Even our dead have no land.’” The meaning of the Occupation: “Even our dead have no land.” The last word must go to youth, and to hope. “But for Yasser Smama,” they conclude, “a teenager who was also part of the crowd, there was almost a resigned hope. ‘Today is not the end,’ he said. ‘Today we bury our dead, and we pick ourselves up.’ Then he pointed to the sky [just as perhaps in Shirer’s account of an execution at a mass grave dug by the concentration camp inmates, the grandfather cradling the child and pointing upward to the sky, as the Nazi machine gunner, a cigarette dangling from his lips, was about to fire], and said, ‘We have to be strong because they might hit us again tomorrow.’”
3. In Memoriam: Dina Mattar, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Rizka Samouni
For additional insight into the Israeli attack, I turn first to Times correspondent Ethan Bronner, whose provocatively (and correctly) titled article, “Israel Reminds Foes That It Has Teeth,” (Dec. 29, 2008), was published three weeks before, after the second day of the onslaught. Bronner, well-connected with the military, superbly reveals the operant mind-set: Strike hard, act with disproportionate force, intimidate, as if—reading between the lines—one sees, on the part of the Israeli military, pride in the exercise of violence (hardly Bronner’s intent to bring out), perhaps with the further twist that spilling blood becomes the elixir of life, renewed youth, muscularity, manhood. The springboard for Gaza, after the first invasion of 2002, was the Lebanon War of 2006, which the Israeli military saw as an inconclusive victory because insufficient force was applied—a “Never Again” moment when, from here on out, we vow that we will not make the same mistake of going easy on our enemies. There actually was, I recall, the extremely heavy use of force, and then, the seeding of the frontier with a massive dose of cluster bombs. That apparently was not enough. Hezbollah’s will was not crushed. Other nations will think we’re getting (or going) soft. We’ll show the world through attacking Gaza with the force all will come to respect—hence the title for Bronner’s piece. All of that destruction, death, human suffering, for what? To underwrite an ego-trip, give Israelis a shot in the arm of confidence, confirm them in their belief as being uebermensch, over Dina’s dead body, just as, for Americans, over Abdulrahman’s dead body, one two-months old, the other, sixteen years.
Bronner begins (again, recall, this precedes the foregoing account by three weeks, plenty of time to withdraw, close the spigot of violence, look in the mirror and question one’s motives—but no, the damage only got worse): “Israel’s military operation in Gaza is aimed primarily at forcing Hamas to end its rocket barrages and military buildup. But it has another goal as well: to expunge the ghost of its flawed 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and re-establish Israeli deterrence.” (Italics, mine) Things had just begun, but already the overpowering use of force: “On the second day of the offensive, which has already killed hundreds and is devastating Hamas’s resources, Israeli commanders on Sunday were lining up tanks and troops at the border.” But this was all right, since renewed occupation was not part of the plan: “But they were also insisting that they did not intend to reoccupy the coastal strip of 1.5 million Palestinians or to overthrow the Hamas government there.” One would have hoped that such military force directed against such a densely populated center would have pulled them back upright. Bronner is so valuable here, both for internalizing with little question the Israeli military thought processes and values, and, good reporter that he is, faithfully recording them for us, especially for this particular flash point of conflict. The reason overthrowing Hamas isn’t worth the candle is because something worse might replace it; instead, a more hardnosed peace treaty with Hamas is needed. Still teasing out the basic motivation for the attack, he continues: “Such a concrete goal, however, should not obscure the fact that Israel has a larger concern—it worries that its enemies are less afraid of it than they once were, or should be. Israeli leaders are calculating that a display of power in Gaza could fix that.” (Italics, mine) Killing these people isn’t enough, one also shows disrespect by not even caring who they are, simply a prop for conducting foreign policy (if that is what it is) via the sheer use of force.
The magic elixir of force—the reporter’s emphasis on energy to counter doubt: ”’In the cabinet room today there was an energy, a feeling that after so long of showing restraint we had finally acted,’ said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking of the weekly government meeting that he attended.” (Not unlike Obama’s Terror Tuesday weekly meeting with Brennan and the boys, tossing off restraint, finally acting, with hit lists for designated murder.) Regev’s assessment (boast?) was seconded by “a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University,” Mark Heller, who said that “that energy reflected the deep feeling among average Israelis that the country had to regain its deterrent capacity.” From the military and government, to the think tanks, to the man in the street, one finds a wonderful concurrence on the virtues of power, strength, force. Rizka Samouni doesn’t stand a chance. Heller is a superlative guide into the Israeli mind—my congratulations (and to Bronner for quoting him): “’There has been a nagging sense of uncertainty in the last couple of years of whether anyone is really afraid of Israel anymore,’ he said. ‘The concern is that in the past—perhaps a mythical past—people didn’t mess with Israel because they were afraid of the consequences. Now the region is filled with provocative rhetoric about Israel the paper tiger. This operation is an attempt to re-establish the perception that if you provoke or attack you are going to pay a disproportionate price.’” (Italics, mine)
Heller’s statement, which it appears is fairly typical of what one hears among defense intellectuals, in the US and Israel (themselves, together, a tightly-wound group), invites a judgment of psychopathology, as in his remark about “a mythical past,” which comes down to a golden age of stirring fear in the hearts of others, to which its opposite is mated, the obsession with weakness, as in the remark about being considered a “paper tiger,” a thought too horrible or unsettling to contemplate, which in turn calls for the resolution, a supreme manifestation of bullying to allay all fears and resolve all doubts–the “disproportionate price” to be exacted or inflicted on all comers who threaten this fragile self-image of doubt, aggression, ego-loss, our collective ubermensch in search of conquest of those still weaker. The banner has “overkill” inscribed on it, lest the victim fight back, resist, or even penetrate the façade of emptiness, in full heroic dress. There is something pathetic about the doctrine and practice of exacting a “disproportionate price” at every occasion, as though doubting one’s own internal strength and moral core, in this case perfectly understandable.
Bronner, recalling Lebanon, discusses how Israelis learned the lesson there about finishing the job: “Israel began that war vowing to decimate Hezbollah without fully realizing the extent of its military infrastructure, underground bunkers and rocket arsenals. And while many in Lebanon and overseas considered Israel’s military activities to be excessive, in Israel the opposite conclusion was reached—that it had been too restrained, too careful about distinguishing between Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon.” The statement, probably accurate in reflecting the prevalent mood, could be seen as calling for an open season on the civilian population, for “distinguishing between Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon” had interfered with the wholesale destruction—the unforgivable reticence which thwarted its actions, as in “decimate”—of both, the latter included because it allowed Hezbollah to exist in its midst. Like Obama’s second-strike credo, 100% allegiance has to be assured. Those attending the funerals of victims are probably terrorists themselves or fellow travelers. The same for first responders. If, as also happened, if five men are involved in changing a tire, one of whom is a suspect, all five are dispatched or their ranks decimated. Bronner might have quit while he seemed ahead, but, good reporter that he is, there is more. Our favorite, “a senior military officer” (hence not for attribution), said of Lebanon, “’We were not decisive enough, and that will not happen again.’” And on the war of the moment: “‘I have flown over Gaza thousands of times and we know how to hit something within two meters.’” This is not only false, as witness the breadth and depth of destruction, unless of course our “senior military officer” intended the widespread destruction, but is exactly what US officials, starting from Obama and Brennan, have been saying about drone strikes, its surgical precision. Because of these thousands of flights, one would have expected more careful target selection (especially given the putative accuracy), instead of the indiscriminate slaughter which took place—unless that was the purpose, the accuracy being put to good use, in the first place.
There is a certain barbaric pride in the reconnaisance operation, for what it led to (still, of course, discounting or denying outright civilian casualties): “The current operation started only after preparation and intelligence work, military commanders said, leading to a true surprise attack on Saturday and the instant deaths of scores of Hamas men. The Israeli military had mapped out Hamas bases, training camps and missile storehouses and systematically hit them simultaneously in an Israeli version of ‘shock and awe,’ the sudden delivery of overwhelming force.” This is becoming too much: boasting about “a true surprise attack” (Rizka Samouni, along with many others, was struck without warning shortly after midnight); boasting further about “shock and awe”; boasting about “the sudden delivery of overwhelming force” (both elements of the attack are important), along with one’s query about whether Rizka Samouni was killed in this or that training camp or missile storehouse, or rather, in her bed, in an apartment house in a densely packed quarter, all together speak to the psychopathology of willed destruction unworthy of any claim to representing a democratic government or ethos. Here, Ehud Barak, whom we associate with Camp David and peace (Ha!), now in charge of the Gaza campaign, followed the advice of Ron Ben-Yishai, “a veteran military correspondent,” on the lessons of Lebanon: Don’t rush in, instead, choose carefully the “moment and circumstances,” which, to Ben-Yashai’s satisfaction, Barack did (the aforementioned surprise attack). As Bronner explains, Barack acted, “not only behind the scenes but through a subtle public disinformation campaign. On Friday night, after having decided to launch the operation, he appeared on a satirical television program. An attack seemed at least several days away and Hamas, which had been holding its breath, relaxed. The next day, the Jewish Sabbath, and the first day of the Arab workweek, Israel struck.” The Sabbath? Not its desecration? And if not, why not? Israelis love their games, stealth attacks employing overwhelming force being one of them.
Still 9 days before the Tavernise-El Khodary article, Craig Whitlock (one of my favorite national-security reporters) and Reyham Abdel Kareem, writing in the Washington Post (Jan. 9, 2009), present a damning indictment of Israeli conduct in the war against Gaza, a brutality difficult to fathom, as indicated by the article’s title, “100 Survivors Rescued in Gaza From Ruins Blocked by Israelis,” and the subtitle (all of which is confirmed), “Relief Agencies Fear More Are Trapped, Days After Neighborhood Was Shelled.” Deny it if one can, but Israelis hold the lives of Palestinians cheap—that, of course, is what the doctrine and application of disproportionate force is all about, not simply killing the same individual several times over, but killing more individuals, whether to prove a point, teach an object lesson, or drive home the idea that one Israeli is worth tens, hundreds, thousands, of the Other. Otherwise, how confirm one’s own superior status, legitimate the means for keeping it from being challenged, and silencing any moral inhibitions about one’s conduct that may have somehow crept in (perhaps from the Torah itself)? In the present case, Israeli soldiers prevented rescuers from saving victims buried in the rubble, a standoff that meant certain, agonizing death for those, still calling for help from beneath tons of concrete, who might have survived. Whether doing what Israel did here—not the act of individuals, but official military policy—is more or less morally reprehensible than Obama and Brennan’s targeting of funerals and first responders—also official policy of the United States, I leave for theologians (if they can stomach it) to debate.
The article begins: “Emergency workers said they rescued 100 more trapped survivors Thursday and found between 40 and 50 corpses in a devastated residential block south of Gaza City that the Israeli military had kept off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross for four days. Relief agencies said they feared more people remained in the rubble of several shattered houses in the Zaytoun neighborhood [where the Samouni family resided, as we saw, losing 20 members]. Red Cross officials said they began receiving distress calls from people in the houses late Saturday but that they were blocked by the Israeli military from reaching the area until Wednesday. ‘There are still people under demolished houses—we are sure of it,’ said Khaled Abuzaid, an ambulance driver for the Red Cross who treated survivors at the site Wednesday and Thursday. ‘But without water or electricity, we are sure they will die.” (Italics, mine) One perhaps cannot expect Israeli soldiers to throw in and help, even with bare hands, with the rescue, still less, lay down their weapons and resign in disgust; but obstructing the rescue of dying human beings, or being so cold to the dead beneath their boots (which sitting shiva in the case of their own family deaths might have somehow reached through protective-defensive layers to soften them to appreciation of the grief of others, or even plain respect for the dead as such), is beyond reach. As in the one time I attended a Jewish Studies meeting in my university, and raised, from having read Benny Morris, the Israeli historian, examples of Israeli soldiers’ raping and looting, the faculty panelist simply said, to end all discussion, “Well, soldiers will be soldiers.” I have not returned since.
Thanks to Whitlock and Kareem, we have more from Abuzaid (slightly different spellings from the above account, e.g., now the al-Samuni family, or Zaytoun, should not confuse the reader), who provides added material on the events: “In an interview at al-Quds Hospital, a Red Cross medical center in Gaza, Abuzaid said rescue workers found 16 bodies Wednesday in a large room of a house in Zaytoun: seven women, six children and three men, all members of the al-Samuni family. Most had sustained trauma injuries from shelling, but many had gunshot wounds as well, he said. Four children, weak but alive, were found lying under blankets, nestled next to their dead mothers.” (Italics, mine) There was, finally, a small window opened for rescue operations—with strings attached: “Abuzaid said he was part of a crew of 10 paramedics and other rescue workers who reached Zaytoun on Wednesday afternoon, during a three-hour break in combat operations in Gaza during which relief agencies were allowed to deliver supplies and medical care to stricken Gazans. He said Isreali soldiers told the crew of Red Cross and Palestinian Red Crescent workers in advance that they were forbidden to take cameras, radios or cellphones to the site. It is standard practice for crews to carry such equipment on rescue missions.” (Italics, mine)
What follows suggests why Israel has such contempt for the UN, which probably extends to the Red Cross as well; they’re both onto its act, the war crimes committed with impunity–the resistance to Palestinian membership, as George Bisharat made clear, done for that very reason, fear of exposure before the International Criminal Court. Thus, the reporters’ enumeration continues: “The Red Cross has accused the Israeli military of repeatedly refusing to grant permission for ambulances to go to Zaytoun, even though soldiers were stationed outside the damaged houses and were aware people were wounded inside. In a statement issued early Thursday, the agency called the episode ‘unacceptable’ and said the Israeli military had ‘failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded.’ The Israeli military said it was investigating but declined to respond to specific allegations by the Red Cross….The United Nations also pressed Israel to investigate the Red Cross allegations. John Holmes, chief of U.N. humanitarian aid programs, called the Zaytoun deaths ‘a particularly outrageous incident.’ ‘What they found was absolutely horrifying,’ he said at a news conference in New York. B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group [thank goodness they spoke out in the otherwise deafening silence], said residents of Zaytoun who had been trapped in other houses have given similar accounts of how Israeli soldiers were aware of their plight but refused to allow rescue workers into the neighborhood. ‘What these family members say consistently is that the IDF was close by,’ said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the group….’This wasn’t some remote area. The soldiers certainly were about and were aware of their position.’”
The situation even gets worse, including a My Lai magnitude and kind of atrocity which Bisharat had referred to (he wrote, “Israeli artillery killed more than 20 members of the Samouni family, who had sought shelter in a structure…at the bidding of Israeli soldiers,”), except that it is not clear whether the structure was their own home or another, and also “at the bidding” is too polite; many more had died, and had been knowingly forced into the house for that purpose. First, the account of preliminaries—round-ups, deprivations: “Access to Zaytoun…remained highly restricted Thursday. Red Cross and Red Crescent crews were allowed back to the site during another three-hour break in the fighting, evacuating 103 people who had been trapped for days without food and water….Other relief officials said the people rescued Thursday were crammed inside a handful of houses on the same block as the Samunis’ house. Two surviving members of the Samuni family said dozens of their relatives in the area had been rounded up by the Israeli military early Sunday and ordered to stay inside a handful of houses while soldiers conducted operations door-to-door. They said some people died in the shelling, which left a gaping hole in the roof of the Samuni home.” Are Israelis listening? Thus, “On Friday, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it had confirmed the account of what happened to the Samuni family. Calling it ‘one of the gravest incidents’ in Gaza since the start of fighting, the U.N. said Israeli soldiers had packed about 110 Palestinians into the house Sunday, then ‘shelled the home repeatedly’ 24 hours later.” (Italics, mine)
Round-up = premeditated killng, all taking place outside the world’s scrutiny (or perhaps caring), people in shock, disbelieving, hounded and herded in scenes that would have been familiar to the victims of World War II. The reporters continue: “The U.N. said about 30 people were killed inside. It said three children, the youngest five months old, died after reaching a hospital. Survivors of the fighting in Zaytoun remained scattered at hospitals across Gaza on Friday….The Israeli military had barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza. ‘It was horrible,’ said Shifaa Samuni, 70, who was detained in the family’s house but fled with here grandson Monday afternoon after the killings. She said two of her sons and three daughters-in-law were among the dead. ‘Look how much I lost,’ she said at al-Quds Hospital, where she was receiving treatment for minor injuries, including wounds to her hands. ‘Why? We did nothing. We are a peaceful family.’” Another witness, Ahmad Talal Samuni, 23, described the neighborhood as coming “under heavy shelling and helicopter gunfire Saturday night,” and related how the soldiers “’ told us not to leave—not by using loudspeakers, but by shooting….The soldiers were shooting in the air and they told us to go east, in the direction of Salah Din Street.’” This may have been the same massacre, seen from another angle; the circumstances were similar, but the number of casualties, number herded into the house, and the time of attack appear to differ from the other account—in any case, this was horrible enough, whether the scene of a second massacre or the original one.
The reporters, still drawing on Ahmad Samuni’s testimony, write: “The soldiers ordered the family into a large concrete house owned by another relative….By then, about 70 people were gathered inside, he recalled. ‘The soldiers told us not to leave….We were hungry. There was no milk for the babies, no medicine for the ill children.’” The narrative is resumed by Meysa Fawzi Samuni, 19, in an interview with B’Tselem (the reporters’ summary): “Shortly before dawn Monday, three Samuni men decided to leave the house so they could gather other relatives and bring them back….[Then] an explosion struck the doorway of the house as the three men prepared to leave, killing one of them. Moments later, a larger explosion on the roof rocked the house. She said she fell to the floor, covering her infant daughter with her body. [Now her own words] ‘Everything filled up with smoke and dust, and I heard screams and crying. After the smoke and dust cleared a bit, I looked around and saw 20-30 people who were dead, and about 20 who were wounded’….She said she was only slightly injured; her baby also survived but lost three fingers in the explosion.” Shortly after, she, her brother-in-law, and her two younger sisters “fled and knocked on the door of another relative’s home nearby,” which “Israeli soldiers had already occupied… and were guarding about 30 Palestinians inside, some of whom had been blindfolded.” She and her daughter were released, the brother-in-law, hands tied, blindfolded—and she wandered until she found an ambulance, “which took them to Shifa Hospital, where she later met a few relatives who had escaped the shelling on the house….” Meysa Samuni’s words, I should like to see inscribed on the entrance to the Knesset: “As far as I know, the dead and the wounded who were under the ruins are still there.”
Given this context, in which the State of Israel has inflicted armed violence, forced submission, and human suffering on the Palestinian people, it is no wonder that Bisharat wants Palestinians to press their case before the International Criminal Court for the prosecution of possible Israeli war crimes—the clear reason for Israel’s resistance to according them legitimate standing at the Court and membership in the UN. As a lawyer, he rejects what we saw above, Daniel Reisner’s pronouncement, “International law progresses through violations,” so obviously cynical as to jeopardize the existence of the rule of law, a lesson Americans refuse to take to heart when Obama has done, and continues to do, precisely the same thing. Drone warfare is an abomination; its purpose, assassination, requires condemnation even stronger. Failure to divulge the legal memoranda providing justification for this vile practice itself speaks to exactly the same fear motivating Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the need to fend off accusations of war crimes, or even the initiation of investigations to that end. I referred earlier to the interrelatedness of seemingly different policies; yet, assuming armed drones for targeted assassination and the sustained destruction of a people, its land, its right of self-determination, its spirit, constitute a disparate mix (which I would deny), there is still the underlying, more fundamental, abridgement of human aspirations forcibly suffocated and destroyed through the use of superior power. Evil comes in various guises, not unusually parading under the name of democracy, but to the overawed, the nonmurderous, those who ask only for peace, a little breathing space, an acknowledgment of personal dignity and moral worth, to them, all the phony labels in the world cannot remove the stench of fascism. Will America seek the fresh air of social love, mutual respect, equity permeating the law and governing the content and character of political and economic institutions, this as the starting place for the peace and justice which has alluded the nation from its founding? Will Israel do the same?
When I refer to the eclipse of democracy, this can be seen in and between the lines of each account, the distortions of law, the interrelatedness of illegal murder, the depravity when it comes to violating human sacredness. Eclipse signifies a falling into obscurity or decline—yes, quite so; it also signifies the passing into the shadow of a celestial body—even more accurate, except that now the shadow gives promise of consuming the celestial body, or more likely, the celestial body itself devolving into shadow, democracy without substance, democracy without rights, democracy the core of which is a moral void, not unlike that of its present leader in the White House.
4. Comments to the New York Times
My Comments to the Times over several years have been intended to stake out advanced ground so that I might make a slight dent in the frozen political-ideological spectrum, chiefly, since Obama took office, to mount criticisms of his record from the Left, which, in every area of public policy, seems deficient and accommodative to a fault. The first two relate to the discussion, respectively, of the drone and Israel, the remainder to the Israeli assault on Gaza in late 2008-early 2009, written at the time of the events.
[1. NYT, 1/28/13, a brief statement of creeping intervention; addendum, 1/29/13, geopolitical stategy. Claims of drones for purposes of surveillance only, now North Africa, fail the test of honesty everywhere the argument was used, because of subsequent arming.]
When do ISR operations turn into armed drones for targeted assassination? Who’s kidding whom? We know from an earlier Times article about the extent of the Djibouti airstrip and the implication that the drone–as now appears true–is the entering wedge for more extensive regional operations. The Us is planting drone bases at all the “hot spots,” a form of creeping intervention and/or imperialism which, if everything goes as can be predicted from the results in Pakistan, we shall see BLOWBACK, the recruitment of more men to al Qaeda because of our actions. [Addendum]
My previous Comment yesterday sought to place drone warfare into context, this airstrip in N. Africa, complementing the base in Djibouti, signifying the drone as in the vanguard of US geopolitical strategy for creating a global military presence. That much should be obvious, with claims of surveillance a fig leaf to make the operation palatable to the public. Fine. What must be said is that the Obama-Brennan team is jumping head-first into war-criminal territory. This is moral depravity, compounded and abetted by an American public too selfish, fearful, deliberately mind-blank, indifferent to care. Innocent civilians are being murderd–nay, VAPORIZED–in our name. Obama can sleep well at night, the blood washed off his hands, because at his core is a moral void, overlaid with a cynicism knowing that he can act because the American people are similarly indifferent to gross moral violations of law and human decency.
[2. NYT, 1/28/13. Roger Cohen, in an op-ed piece, criticizes Israel’s postelection future, using novelist Amos Oz as a breath of sanity—correct, except Oz cannot make a clean break with government policy.]
Poor Oz. He questions absolutism, yet his is an absolutism of relativism, hiding behind a Chekhovian facade. The mumbo-jumbo, the literary view of conflict, is flat-out escapist: The Israeli public, as per Cohen’s description, reveals the satiety of those who for too long coddled themselves while maltreating the inevitable Other. Whatever idealism early Zionism may or may not have expressed (and there is doubt on that score), its militarism, callousness, indifference to human life and human dignity makes Israel justifiably viewed as EVIL in the eyes of most of the world.
As a believing, observant Jew, I do not want Israel around my neck. Judaism is too important to mankind’s moral history, to have a blood-soaked Israel disgracing it and pulling it down. The recent election merely confirms the utter selfishness, self-indulgence, moral emptiness of the people. Perhaps with all the big talk, Israel should put back on the agenda the bombing of Iran, so that the world in response could rein-in its baseness, its glorification of force, its nuclear cloud hanging over the region.
[3. NYT, 12/31/2008. A response to the Gazan invasion: the normality of genocide]
The Israeli attack on Gaza is wholly disproportionate to the provocation of rockets, and therefore raises the antecedent question: what impels a nation to display, and exercise, overwhelming force against a weaker party? I suspect that the original Zionist vision, fueled by socialist idealism, is dead, and perhaps had already been extinguished by the mid-1950s, to be replaced by its own peculiar brand of xenophobia that showed contempt for international law and organization, and a willingness to support retrograde governments which held down their own peoples.
It would be a cheap psychological shot to say that the oppressed internalize the values and mental habits of their oppressors, but Jews–the most persecuted group in the twentieth century–have, as a result, historically shifted from Left to Right and twisted out of all reason or context the meaning of “Never again,” to become, instead, in Israel’s case, the warrior-state par excellence. As a conservative Jew, I feel, particularly now, that I, and hopefully countless others, am fighting for the soul of world Jewry, who are standing up and saying “Enough” to Israel’s rigid, antidemocratic mindset.
[4. NYT, 1/6/2009. One week later, amid vast Israeli-caused destruction; early exposure of Obama]
The Times persists in its apologia for Israel. Even today’s article, “Mounting Death Toll,” devotes only three short paragraphs at the end to the “severe humanitarian crisis.” Apparently, the rational, sensible, impartial, centrist solution is the call for a cease fire, after the carnage, annihilation, and indiscriminate firing–artillery, tanks, helicoptors, all following upon a withering bombing attack which hit more than a thousand targets.
And the world sits by, averting its eyes. One does not have to defend Hamas (which may or may not be a “proxy” for Iran) to suggest a moral catastrophe in the making: not only Israel’s sadistic display of power, but also the UN’s own cowardice in failing to intervene to stop the destruction (notwithstanding the U.S.’s veto power) or rally world opinion (it cannot even protect its own Gazan installations from Israeli shelling), and finally, the absolute callousness to human suffering of the President-elect, who lamely claims that we have one president at a time. Barack Obama, by his SILENCE, forfeits all rights to occupying the moral high ground on whatever issues before this country in the coming years. What an auspicious start to his presidency!
[5. NYT, same date—still early in the assault. Evidence of brutality; Israel hides behind, and violates the teachings of, Judaism.]
Not all criticism of Israel has to be ascribed to anti-Semites, proterrorists, or Holocaust deniers; the regrettable aspect about current protest demonstrations is that Jews ourselves do not come to grips with the moral issues involved in the present attack on Gaza and make our voices heard. Somehow, to criticize Israel is to betray Judaism and, given the close identification between Israel and the U.S., to appear unpatriotic to America. Yet, this Israel right-or-wrong attitude (and the latter is seldom admitted) forces us to rethink a blanket endorsement of Israeli actions and policies in light of the current situation.
Does the Times have the courage to acknowledge the evidence of its own reporters, or will it censor opinions it deems objectionable, even when they meet its guidelines of reasoned discourse? In today’s edition we read that the Israeli ground offensive was made “under cover of heavy air, tank, and artillery fire”. We also read that five civilians were killed and many wounded “on Sunday morning when Israeli shells or rockets landed in the market of Gaza City while people were stocking up on supplies.” Consider the import of these words! The Israeli firing has been indiscriminate, that is, geared to terrorizing a population, while necessarily inflicting death and destruction on, yes, human beings. When Ehud Barak states that Israelis are peace-givers, and when the public-relations machinery of the security cabinet, IDF, and IAF, in concert, proclaim that every measure is being taken to avoid civilian casualties, I want to puke at the outrageous self-deception, if not outright lies, being practiced. Artillery is not a precision instrument. Aerial bombardment is the method of choice when you want to dehumanize the victim and desensitize the self to gross acts of dealing death.
I believe that all Jews must stand up to the barbarism being committed in our name. Israel should not be allowed to have it both ways: to call itself a Jewish state, and, when shown that its actions violate the teachings of the Torah, to shrug off the point and say that Israel is a secular political entity. Israel hides behind Judaism, while contaminating Judaism’s wellsprings of moral conduct.
Primo Levi, for one, said that the Holocaust should teach Jews compassion. The most profound human tragedy in modern history has been trivialized, played with, indeed transmogrified, to give license to those acting in its name to become barbaric warriors in their turn.
[6. NYT, 1/16/2009. Times call for cease fire too late. Indiscriminate killing; absence of outrage.]
The Times writes that “we fear the assault on Gaza has passed the point of diminishing returns.” Perfect. Nothing could better illustrate the callousness which press and public opinion have displayed about Israeli conduct, despite the overwhelming evidence of atrocities committed by Israel against the civilian population of Gaza (including dispatches and photographs The Times itself has published). The point of diminishing returns–a neat, anticeptic formulation drawn from sterile economic theory–serves to legitimate the death and destruction inflicted by Israel in the first twenty days. Only when The Times and Israel alike realize that the flagrant attack on a UN building to which large numbers of civilians have fled has become a public relations disaster, NOT a human rights violation, is the call issued for a cease fire. Too late, too late; the point of diminishing returns had already set in on Day 1 of the invasion, when it became clear that the weaponry employed would result in indiscriminate killing.
Perhaps I am too harsh on The Times, for, in truth, much of the world also remained silent, indifferent, or actually in favor of Israeli action. To say we are in an age of denial is perhaps too charitable; jadedness, mixed with a strain of nihilism, seems closer to the truth. The Times has its finger on the pulse; it is no better and no worse than the state of contemporary feeling.
Only, I expect more from a great newspaper. I expected indignation when it became clear that children, in particular, were being killed, sometimes as “collateral damage,” sometimes in cold blood (reports of Israeli soldiers shooting point blank at youngsters, as confirmed by the location of their wounds). I expected outrage when it was reported that Israeli soldiers stood outside destroyed buildings as dying people, calling for help, were buried in the rubble. I looked for some sign of forthrightness when the moral dimensions of the tragedy were made known. Instead, we have the standard fallback position: forget the killing, let’s return to normal. The call for a cease fire is exonerative, a moral pat on the back.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.