Tutu on Death: Grieving Israel’s Victims

This January Democracy Now replayed Desmond Tutu’s 2003 speech at the huge N.Y. protest against yet another war against the Arab Middle East. He said that people killed in war “are not collateral damage. They are human beings of flesh and blood.” This bears on the difficult subject of Israel’s killing and its treatment of human bodies. In his forward to the Goldstone Report investigating the 2008/09 massacre, Tutu “observed the gangrenous ravages of the conflict”. Four articles on Israel just published in January 2022 raises questions about what is known and what is done about Israel’s “gangrenous ravages”.

Charles Lencher, Tantura Massacre: Why Israel’s Founding War is in the News Again ,importantly writes “this is a history most of us don’t know about.” Yet almost all Israelis serve in the army, and Tantura was reported in 1950 and was in the Israeli press in 2001, 2016, and recently in 2020: Gideon Levy writes “What happened there should have led Israel to an acknowledgement, to compensation and atonement, and that was the greatest threat of all. That’s why we never chose to do that. We never changed our attitudes to the inhabitants of this land…, and we never, to this day, pondered our heavy guilt. Which is why, for most people it doesn’t exist”. In 2006 historian Ilan Pappe described how the Tantura villagers were herded at gunpoint and the “men” between ages 10 and 50 were separated from the women and children. Selected men were systematically executed, many in front of their children.”[1]

Adam Raz’ wrote about the just discovered mass grave at Tantura, Only a fraction of Israel’s massacres garner reaction. Albert Einstein and other prominent Jewish people wrote a famous letter to the N.Y. Times in 1948 about the Deir Yassin massacre by the extremist Irgun and Stern gangs. Ilan Pappe [2], based on archival records, reported that it was actually the ‘most moral’ military, “the Hagana that decided to send the Irgun and Stern Gang troops, so as to absolve themselves from any official accountability.” (p.90)

Lawrence Davidson wrote on divisive Jewish schisms, on differences and continuities between Zionism and Judaism. People on both sides defend nation-state realpolitik and the need for a militarized Jewish state while other secular and religious people support international human rights norms and a non-militarized multi-ethnic democracy. Davidson reports a poll of American Jewish people in which 22% described Israel’s policies as genocidal. Davidson’s conclusion is a-historical and bio-deterministic: “we’ve never witnessed a state that is principled and law-abiding (Jewish or Gentile)”, and that this “may or may not have something to do with human evolution and genetic propensities.” Davidson’s conclusion is also a-moral: “This problem has caused all manner of psychic disturbance within the Jewish diaspora”. But “this problem” brings massive killing of non-Jews.

Robert Herbst reviewed Sylvain Cypel’s book on Israeli nationalism and colonialism. Herbst’s prise de conscience was not until 2014 Operation Protective Edge and the killing of 2000 Palestinians including 551 children. Jewish Le Monde journalist Sylvain Cypel was first struck by Jewish nationalistic and colonialist attitudes in 1969, seeing Israel as a “racist, bullying little superpower”. He did not speak up until the May 2018 Gaza fence massacres, writing that “Israel is by and for Jews, but it is not Jewishc.”

Returning to Tutu’s statement, human rights crimes are not the same as human killing. The Nakba is reported as expulsion, not massacre. The focus on civil and political rights overshadows killing and the supreme crime of aggression: ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and settler colonialism are not explicit about killing. “A new functional paradigm of human rights law” does not include a prohibition of killing (“ending the scourge of war”) – human rights are categorized but not triaged to save lifes, such as the emergencies of child deaths in Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Gaza, as in 1990s Iraq.

Israel’s human killing is often subtly obscured by vague and ambiguous language. A progressive Jewish organization mentions suffering but not killing or culpability: “We have caused others to stray from righteousness by miseducating our community and our children about Israel’s role in the Nakba and Palestinian suffering alongside the history of Jewish suffering.” Progressive critic of Israel Judith Butler, focusing in Judaic humanitarian values, nonetheless uses speculative questioning to omit objective findings of the Goldstone investigation of Israel’s war crimes: she asks “whether Goldstone speaks or whether international law speaks”, “whether civilians were targeted or …whether civilians were used as human shields.” She does not write that this was an investigation and that Goldstone was not representing himself or international law. She does not report that the investigation found that Hamas did not use people as human shields (p 366) but that Israel did (p 308)[6]. The late eminent Middle East journalist Robert Fisk wrote that “murder is murder is murder”, and Edward Said wrote that “killing is murder is killing is murder.” I’ve previously written on the omission of human death regarding climate change , nuclear weapons, and Israel. Inattention to death isn’t intrinsic to human nature or to lack of knowledge – much was known about Tantura. There are innumerable reasons to look away, yet what are the consequences of not seeing?

Irene L. Gendzier wrote: “It remains for the non-generals, the non-politicians, the vast majority of others, the non-important people, the rest of us, in sum, to ask, as did journalist Amira Hass in her eloquent address in Ha’aretz to Israelis about their studied indifference to the decimation of Palestinian society and to the incarceration of Gaza, ‘Can you really not see?’”p.130 [2]

As in the Tantura massacre, there has long been extensive information. What is done with this information?

Nakba killing (examples)

Ilan Pappe writes: “As the Jewish forces regarded any Palestinian village as an enemy military base, the distinction between massacring people and killing them ‘in battle’ was slight…One only has to be told that thirty babies were among the slaughtered in Deir Yassin to understand why the whole ‘quantitative’ exercise … is insignificant.”(p.91) The massacre in Dawaymeh, “ in many respects… more brutal than the Deir Yassin massacre”. The UN reported “455 missing men, women and children strewn on streets and in a mosque. The Jewish soldiers who took part in the massacre also reported horrific scenes: babies whose skulls were cracked open, women raped or burned alive in houses…”(p. 195ff) In Tantura (estimated 230 killed); Safsaf (70 men executed, a pregnant woman bayoneted, four women and a girl were raped in front of the other villagers); in Sa’sa where the order was to “blow up twenty houses and kill as many ‘warriors’ [read: ‘villagers’] as ‘possible’ – 60 to 80 dead bodies… quite a few of them were children”, Hula (80 killed), Saliha (100 killed, p. 192). Ayn al-Zaytun was destroyed within a few hours by the Hagana’s ‘search-and-execute’ routine , where 37 teenagers were executed, where many bodies of women, children and babies were found in a local mosque and possibly several hundred men were executed (p. 111-12). Pappe describes the utter erasure of these people. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) buried all evidence of massacres and of villages turned to dust, desecrating the dead with ecological theme parks and recreation areas. Ayn al-Zaytun was emptied in May 1948. Its name was changed to Hebrew “Ein Zeitun”as if there were never other people there. The JNF’s celebrates a nightmarish creation: Ein Zeitun “has become one of the most attractive spots within the recreational ground as it harbors large tables and ample parking for the disabled. ..The parking lot has biological toilets and playgrounds. Next to the parking lot, a memorial stands in memory of the soldiers who fell in the Six Day War.”231. Shmuel Lahis became the Director-General of the Jewish Agency after he single-handedly executed 35 people (p.192).

Post Nakba (examples)

In 2006, Yitzhak Laor wrote that “in Israel there is still no proper history of our acts in Lebanon…How many members of that once sizeable peace camp protested about the tens of thousands of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian casualties. Isn’t the failure of the peace camp a result of its inability to speak about the cheapness of Arab blood? …We should make it our business to count the dead in Lebanon and in Israel and, to the best of our abilities, to find out their names, all of them.”[3]

Chomsky’s 565 page book The Fateful Triangle provides an immense amount of carefully documented material about Israel’s unrelenting brutality against Palestinian and non-Palestinian civilians, the high ratio of child victims, Israeli impunity, its lies, widespread silence about atrocity, US and Israeli unconventional weapons, and the West’s unreserved praise for Israel’s “moral perfection” [4] This was written about early on: Irene Beeson reported in the London Guardian that “150 or more towns and villages in South Lebanon…have been repeatedly savaged by the Israeli armed forces since 1968.” (p.191) This was known: N.Y. Times writer Judith Coburn provided a rare report of post-Nakba bombing raids on villages, attacked “almost daily…by airplane, artillery, tanks and gunboats” that blow up houses, kill villagers, and take prisoners; weapons included phosphorous, incendiary bombs, CBUs and napalm, with an estimated 3500 killed in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan in Israeli raids, and double that figure for Palestinian civilians. Many in Beirut believed that Israel was pursuing a scorched earth policy.”(p. 191.) Much was censored: what preceded the PLO terrorist killing of 20 Jewish teenagers in Ma’alot was months-long sustained napalm bombing of Palestinian refugee camps that killed 200 Palestinians, and Israel rejected negotiation efforts by the PLO. (p. 189). There was little mention that after the PLO turned away from cross-border terrorist raids, the Labor government shifted from ‘retaliation’ to ‘prevention’ strikes. On December 2, 1975, 30 Israeli warplanes bombed and strafed Palestinian refugee camps and villages, killing 57 people.

Begin and Sharon launched Operation Peace for Galilee in June 1982. The first target was the Palestinian camp of Rashidiyeh. 9000 residents were herded to the beach where “all teen-age and adult males were blindfolded and bound, and taken to camps, where little has been heard about them since” (p. 217). Dan Connell a journalist who was a Lebanon project officer for Oxfam, reported that Israel used “ phosphorus bombs to set fires and cause untreatable burns. Much of Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon was leveled..” Israel bulldozed the mosque at the edge of the camp searching for arms, but “found 90 or 100 bodies under it instead, completely rotted away.” Lieut. Col. Dov Yirmiah, the oldest Israeli soldier to serve in Lebanon, bore witness to the atrocities: “in story after story he told of prisoners savagely and endlessly beaten in captivity, of torture and humiliation of prisoners, and of the many who died from beatings and thirst in Israeli prisons or concentration camps in Lebanon.” He described the “shattered population wandering in the ruins of Tyre and Sidon and ….the cries of the bereaved, the massive weaponry so out of proportion to any military need.” (239-241 Yirmiah “we have become a nation of vicious thugs, whose second nature is fire, destruction, death and ruin. “I am ashamed to b part of this nation, arrogant, boastful, becoming more cruel and singing on the ruins.” These massacres were followed by Sabra and Shatila. Oxfam reported in 1983 that “no one will ever know how many dead are buried beneath the twisted steel of apartment buildings or the broken stones of the cities and villages of Lebanon.” P.221.

The Goldstone UN investigation established that Israel’s operations had “certain consistent features”, that “while many of the tactics remain the same, the reframing of the strategic goals has resulted in a qualitative shift from relatively focused operations to massive and deliberate destruction.” After the destruction of the Dahiya neighbourhood in Beirut, 2006, Major General Gadi Eisenkot legitimized the Dahiya Doctrine: “…in every village from which Israel is fired on…. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases…This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved” (191) [5]. It was applied to Gaza in 2008-9, 2012, 2014, 2018-19. 2021. Here is the Goldstone data on disproportionate force: 19 Israeli civilians died between 2004 to 2009 due to rocket and mortar fire from Gaza, compared to the 2008/09 22 day war on Gaza when an estimated 1,444 Palestinians died, including over 300 children. Extreme disproportionality characterized 30 August 2006 Operation Summer Rains, followed by Operation Autumn Clouds in November 2007-8, Operation Cast Lead 2008/9, 2010 Mavi Marmara, 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, 2014 Protective Edge, Great March of Return 2018-19, the May 2021 11-day attack killing 232 Palestinians, 65 children, 39 women. In Qana, Lebanon 1996, Israel killed approximately. 100 civilians in a UN compound where they had taken refuge, and again in 2006 Qana Israel killed anywhere between 28 and 54 civilians, at least 16 of whom were children.


The Red Cross described Galilee massacres in November 1948: a scene of devastation in every village they visited, with able men imprisoned, leaving behind women and children, crops not harvested and left to rot, malaria, typhoid, rickets, diphtheria and scurvy spreading at an alarming pace. (P. 141)

Ben-Gurion set up Israel’s biological warfare capability in the 1940’s, “euphemistically called the Science Corps of the Hagana. The Red Cross discovered that typhoid germs were injected into the water supply during the siege of Acre causing a typhoid epidemic. There was an attempt to poison the water supply in Gaza on 27 May 1948 with typhoid and dysentery viruses that was foiled by the Egyptians (p. 101).

The Berbir Hospital was repeatedly shelled. The clinic and apartment of doctors were ransacked, chairs were broken, dirt and food spread everywhere. In Lebanon, Gaza Hospital was hit and over 200 people killed. A children’s hospital in the Sabra refugee camp with many children lying dead inside; a Hospital in Aley, fragments of cluster bombs found on the grounds of an Armenian sanitarium south of Beirut, shelling of Acre hospital in Beirut, the Islamic Home for Invalids where the corridors were streaked with blood.

Israel continues to target health-care workers, hospitals, ambulances, withholds vital medical equipment and medicines, destroys infrastructure for potable water and sanitation. 8 of 9 Homes for Orphans in Beirut were destroyed by cluster and phosphorus bombs. The American University Beirut (AUB) hospital was hit by shrapnel and mortar fire and half the ICU patients were lost. On one day, 17 hospitals were shelled.

Canadian surgeon Chris Giannou testified before US congress that he had seen prisoners beaten to death, hospitals shelled with one killing 40-50 people, and the shelling of a refugee camp after Israeli soldiers had permitted women and children to return to it… [he] saw the carbonized bodies of victims of phosphorus shells… 300 cadavers in one area while he was evacuating the Government Hospital. (p234)


In the town of Halhul, men were taken from their houses at midnight, in their pajamas, in the cold. “During the many hours that hundreds of people were kept in the mosque square, they were ordered to urinate and excrete on one another and some were ordered to crawl on the ground and to lick the earth, and also to sing Hatikva. On Holocaust day, the people who were arrested were ordered to write numbers on their hands with their own hands, in memory of the Jews in the extermination camps [Nazis tattooed numbers on concentration camp inmates). This received no attention in the Knesset, in the World Zionist Congress then in session, or elsewhere.. (p131) In 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, soldiers defecated in the presence of the people whose homes they had invaded. The Israeli soldiers, wherever they had been, had defecated in choice places. On books, furniture, clothes and carpets; on bedroom floors; near toilet seats and in bathtubs, on school desks, and in shop windows p 270.” Soldiers broke into the apt of professor Khalidi, chair of the AUB biochemistry department … soldiers defecated on lecture notes and books ….(p.298) At the Berbir Hospital, soldiers defecated in pots and pans, a mosque was desecrated, many of its rugs were defecated upon “(p.299). Israeli musicians played string quartets and popular music over the site of massacres (Nazis ordered Jewish musicians to play string quartets inside the death camps).


Chomsky quotes unconditional adulation of Israel by well-known 20th century progressives: novelists A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Jacobo Timerman, Saul Bellow, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, Michael Walzer, Barbara Tuchman, US Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, labor union leaders, the New Republic and Commentary magazines. 1000 American rabbis reacted to the horrendous massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp, for whom what had happened was “the true sanctification of G-d’s name in the world.”

Conclusion: there are many people to grieve, and there is much evil and severe pathology to stop, to understand and to change – from above (UN) to below (individual people).


[1] Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, (2006). Oxford: One World.

[2] Irene L. Gendzier, (2008). “Exporting death as democracy: US foreign policy in Lebanon.” In The War on Lebanon: a reader., ed Nubar Hovsepian. (2008). Northampton Massachusetts: Olive Branch Press, P. 119-132.

[3]Yitzhak Laor, (2008). “You are terrorists, we are virtuous”, ibid. p. 254-259.

[4]Noam Chomsky (1999). Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. New York: Black Rose Books.

[5] Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, Philip Weiss, ed. The Goldstone Report: legacy of the landmark investigation of the Gaza conflict. (2011). New York: Nation Books/.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at judithdeutsch0@gmail.com