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Israel’s New War Ethic

Watching Israeli public television (Channel 1) these days can be an unsettling experience, and lately I’ve abstained from the practice. But after being stuck for seventy-two hours with our two young children inside a Beer-Sheva apartment, the spouse and I decided to visit my mother, who lives up north, so that our children could play outside far away from the rockets. My mother, like most Israelis, is a devout news consumer, and last night I decided to keep her company in front of the TV.

For the most part, the broadcast was more of the same. There were the usual images and voices of suffering Israeli Jews along with the promulgation of a hyper-nationalist ethos. One story, for example, followed a Jewish mother who had lost her son in Gaza about two years ago. The audience was told that the son has been a soldier in the Golani infantry brigade and together with his company had penetrated the Gaza Strip in an attempt to save the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
“Because members of his company did not want to hurt civilians, they refrained from opening fire in every direction, which allowed Palestinian militiamen to shoot my boy,” the mother stated. When the interviewer asked her about the current assault on Gaza, she answered that, “We should pound and cut them from the air and from the sea,” but added that, “We should not kill civilians, only Hamas.” The report ended with the interviewer asking the mother what she does when she misses her son, and, as the camera zoomed in on her face, she answered: “I go into his room and hug his bed, because I can no longer hug him.”

Thus, despite the ever-increasing loss of life in the Gaza Strip, Israel remains the perpetual victim. Indeed, the last frame with the mother looking straight into the camera leaves the average compassionate viewer–myself included–a bit choked up. Over the past few years, I have, however, become a critical consumer of Israeli news, and therefore can see through the perpetuation of the image that Israel and its Jewish majority are the victims and how, regardless of what happens, we are presented as the moral players in this conflict. Therefore, this kind of reportage, where the huge death toll in Gaza is elided and Jewish suffering is underscored, no longer shocks me.

What did manage to unnerve me in the broadcast was one short sentence made by a reporter who covered the entry of a humanitarian aid convoy into the Gaza Strip on Friday.

My mother and I–like other Israeli viewers–learned that 170 trucks supplied with basic foodstuff donated by the Turkish government entered Gaza through the Carmi crossing. That the report had nothing to say about the context of this food shipment did not surprise me. Nor was I surprised that no mention was made of the fact that 80 percent of Gaza’s inhabitants are unable to support themselves and are therefore dependent on humanitarian assistance–and this figure is increasing daily. Indeed, nothing was said about the severe food crisis in Gaza, which manifests itself in shortages of flour, rice, sugar, dairy products, milk and canned foods, or about the total lack of fuel for heating houses and buildings during these cold winter months, the absence of cooking gas, and the shortage of running water. The viewer has no way of knowing that the Palestinian health system is barely functioning or that some 250,000 people in central and northern Gaza are now living without any electricity at all due to the damage caused by the air strikes.

While the fact that this information was missing from the report did not surprise me, I found myself completely taken aback by the way in which the reporter justified the convoy’s entrance into Gaza. Explaining to those viewers who might be wondering why Israel allows humanitarian assistance to the other side during times of war, he declared that if a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe were to explode among the Palestinian civilian population, the international community would pressure Israel to stop the assault.

There is something extremely cynical about how Israel explains its use of humanitarian assistance, and yet such unadulterated explanations actually help uncover an important facet of postmodern warfare. Not unlike raising animals for slaughter on a farm, the Israeli government maintains that it is providing Palestinians with assistance so that it can have a free hand in attacking them. And just as Israel provides basic foodstuff to Palestinians while it continues shooting them, it informs Palestinians–by phone, no less–that they must evacuate their homes before F-16 fighter jets begin bombing them.

One notices, then, that in addition to its remote-control, computer game-like qualities, postmodern warfare is also characterized by a bizarre new moral element. It is as if the masters of wars realized that since current wars rarely take place between two armies and are often carried out in the midst of civilian populations, a new just war theory is needed. So these masters of war gathered together philosophers and intellectuals to develop a moral theory for postmodern wars, and today, as Gaza is being destroyed, we can see quite plainly how the new theory is being transformed into praxis.

NEVE GORDON is chair of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of Israel’s Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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