Before Rafah

On Sunday 16 May, a day before the IDF launched its long-awaited, well-planned attack on the civilian population of Rafah, the Israeli chief of staff, Major- General Moshe (Boogey) Ya’alon said it was ‘almost the last chance’ for such an operation and that ‘special conditions were in place’ for an imminent attack. By ‘special conditions’, of course, he meant the public desire for revenge following the deaths of 13 soldiers in Gaza in the space of 48 hours. It was a convenient opportunity to start a war. But he also meant that sooner or later the Jewish settlements blocking Rafah’s access to its beach would be evacuated, so there was no choice but to destroy as much of Rafah as possible, and as soon as possible.

José Saramago, visiting Israel in March 2002, before the invasion in which Israel reoccupied the territories, said that Israel had two problems. The first, he said, is that the settlements need the army. Everyone agreed. The second is that the army needs the settlements. Nobody agreed. Nobody even listened. Yet Ya’alon knows that without the settlements he would have no excuse for patrolling the Gaza strip. Do Israelis understand the military’s motives? No. Many Israelis, probably the majority, would gladly turn their backs on the settlers. Not on the military, though. Therefore, the whole political campaign against the extreme right is futile. Behind the extreme right lurks the ‘moderate army’, and the army is the one player in Israeli society whose motives are never questioned.

Israeli militarism is about Israel’s faith in this huge benevolent apparatus. The army is always described in terms of ‘our boys out there’, sons, lads, children, a poor, beleaguered David. That’s us, the eternal victims. And the enemy is always Goliath, even the children who defied the IDF in Rafah three days ago and therefore had to die while demonstrating, empty-handed, in solidarity with the thousands whom the benevolent military had thrown out of their shacks and houses.

That same Sunday, 16 May, before the lethal convoy left on its way to Rafah, was almost a euphoric day among more moderate Israelis. On Saturday night, 150,000 people rallied in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to call for peace, more or less. It was the largest rally Israel had seen for many years. The main speaker at the demonstration was Shimon Peres, foreign minister in Sharon’s former government, a man for all seasons and suits. His excellent speech was broadcast live on Israeli TV, even on the state-owned channel, which has become almost a Likud station. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised at the favourable TV coverage, just as we shouldn’t be surprised that all three Israeli newspapers were very excited about the rally the following day, even Ma’ariv. ‘We are not the Left, we are the majority of the people,’ Peres declared. But that wasn’t what the rally was about. And it wasn’t about the IDF policy of daily killings: the strategy that ensures our war will never end. It was about the Gaza settlers and everyone’s opposition to them.

It was only when soldiers were killed for no purpose other than to defend the settlers that public outrage brought Israelis to say: ‘Something must be done.’ This is a mode Israelis adopt from time to time. But this ‘something must be done’ always goes in two directions. The first leads to the demonstration square (and then back home). The second leads to the military operation that has just won ecstatic support. People in the West don’t know that the demonstrators are people who love the army, that the peace movement in Israel is still deeply involved in the military love affair, that no peace demonstration in Israel has ever dared say that the military might be participants in atrocities or warmongering. The phrase ‘war crimes’ is not allowed at these demonstrations, because such words bring the army, not only Sharon, into the frame of ‘evil’.

The rally’s organisers – Peace Now, Labour and Meretz – invited General Yom-Tov Samya to speak. And he did. Military men at a peace demonstration: how nice. Only he hadn’t come to say that he was tired of war, or that he’d once been wrong; he hadn’t come to call for more moderate behaviour by the army. Samya had been the head of the IDF’s Southern Command; for years he was in charge of the war against the Gaza strip. It was under his command that dozens of houses were demolished in Rafah and their poorest inhabitants thrown into the mud during the very cold winter of 2001. It was in his glorious day that ‘war crimes’ started to be part of the discourse. It was under his command that some officers formed the refusenik movement Courage to Refuse and went to prison. Of course they weren’t allowed to speak on the podium at Saturday night’s rally. In fact, the organisers had issued a press release in which they promised not to invite any refuseniks to speak.

The rally in effect constituted a licence for the military to complete their dirty war: not because it was so friendly to the army but because it made it possible for nothing to be said about the imminent attack. Everybody knew there was a major attack on the way. Experts had argued on TV talkshows about whether the army would be given the green light. But not a word was said about it on the podium in front of the 150,000 moderate Israelis. The entire demonstration was about supporting Sharon against the settlers. The biggest banner in the rally read: ‘Arik, the people are with you.’ The Zionist Left had, yet again, produced an imaginary battlefield in order not to fight the real battle. Why are we for Sharon? Because he was supposed to be against the settlers. Where was the voice warning about the coming war in densely populated areas? Nowhere.

And so it began, as always, by frightening the civilian population: poor, isolated refugees in a world that doesn’t know what Palestinians want, or how they live. So they took their children and their mattresses and left, again, and the army continued to spread its stories about the tunnels of munitions running under the houses, and finally – with the Supreme Court authorising them to destroy more houses, because we’re in a state of war, which the army declared, created, produced – the forces went in.

Since that attack, which turned into a blood-bath, there have been demonstrations in Tel Aviv every day. Not massive, but larger than before. Some are being led by Courage to Refuse activists. There were clashes with police, there were arrests, yet the majority of Israelis went silent again. The Supreme Court justices, the professors of ethics, the chiefs of staff: they might meet at a university seminar on ‘Morality and War’ or ‘International Law and Terrorism’. But right now the army is busy.

According to the Israeli sociologist Alina Korn, there has been a ghettoisation of the Palestinians since the early 1990s. It’s not bantustans that the authorities have in mind, but ghettos, detached from each other, dependent on Israeli military authority. The ghettos, which are already numerous, multiply, and the conditions differ from place to place. Ramallah is visible to the West, so life there is more bearable. Hebron is hidden. Rafah is entirely cut off. The Israeli army didn’t kill the children in Rafah intentionally, it will be said. Who will remind us that for three months now, the army has been killing unarmed Palestinians demonstrating peacefully along the Wall that’s going up in the West Bank?

Israeli families of dead soldiers or dead civilians get a follow-up, even on foreign TV, for they had a future ahead of them before they died. Did the Palestinian children who died in Rafah have any future? No. So they are dead, and it will be over in a few days. Palestinians don’t get a follow-up, not even on foreign TV. Maybe there’ll be a documentary movie, followed by some public discussion about whether to allow the movie to be publicly screened, or whether it’s another sign of ‘the new anti-semitism’. Nothing will be followed up. The Israeli army is secure. It calls itself the Israel Defence Force.

YITZHAK LAOR is a novelist and poet who lives in Tel Aviv.

This essay originally appeared in the London Review of Books.