Tuesday, August 29, 2006

London Review of Books (UK)
August 17, 2006 Issue

As soon as the facts of the Bint Jbeil ambush, which ended with relatively high
Israeli casualties (eight soldiers died there), became public, the press and
television in Israel began marginalising any opinion that was critical of the
war. The media also fell back on the kitsch to which Israelis grow accustomed
from childhood: the most menacing army in the region is described here as if it
is David against an Arab Goliath. Yet the Jewish Goliath has sent Lebanon back
20 years, and Israelis themselves even further: we now appear to be a lynch-mob
culture, glued to our televisions, incited by a premier whose ‘leadership’ is
being launched and legitimised with rivers of fire and destruction on both
sides of the border. Mass psychology works best when you can pinpoint an
institution or a phenomenon with which large numbers of people identify.
Israelis identify with the IDF, and even after the deaths of many Lebanese
children in Qana, they think that stopping the war without scoring a definitive
victory would amount to defeat. This logic reveals our national psychosis, and
it derives from our over-identification with Israeli military thinking.

In the melodramatic barrage fired off by the press, the army is assigned the
dual role of hero and victim. And the enemy? In Hebrew broadcasts the
formulations are always the same: on the one hand ‘we’, ‘ours’, ‘us’; on the
other, Nasrallah and Hizbullah. There aren’t, it seems, any Lebanese in this
war. So who is dying under Israeli fire? Hizbullah. And if we ask about the
Lebanese? The answer is always that Israel has no quarrel with Lebanon. It’s
yet another illustration of our unilateralism, the thundering Israeli
battle-cry for years: no matter what happens around us, we have the power and
therefore we can enforce the logic. If only Israelis could see the damage
that’s been done by all these years of unilateral thinking. But we cannot,
because the army – which has always been the core of the state – determines the
shape of our lives and the nature of our memories, and wars like this one erase
everything we thought we knew, creating a new version of history with which we
can only concur. If the army wins, its success becomes part of ‘our heritage’.
Israelis have assimilated the logic and the language of the IDF – and in the
process, they have lost their memories. Is there a better way to understand why
we have never learned from history? We have never been a match for the army,
whose memory – the official Israeli memory – is hammered into place at the
centre of our culture by an intelligentsia in the service of the IDF and the

The IDF is the most powerful institution in Israeli society, and one which we
are discouraged from criticising. Few have studied the dominant role it plays
in the Israeli economy. Even while they are still serving, our generals become
friendly with the US companies that sell arms to Israel; they then retire,
loaded with money, and become corporate executives. The IDF is the biggest
customer for everything and anything in Israel. In addition, our high-tech
industries are staffed by a mixture of military and ex-military who work
closely with the Western military complex. The current war is the first to
become a branding opportunity for one of our largest mobile phone companies,
which is using it to run a huge promotional campaign. Israel’s second biggest
bank, Bank Leumi, used inserts in the three largest newspapers to distribute
bumper stickers saying: ‘Israel is powerful.’ The military and the universities
are intimately linked too, with joint research projects and an array of army

There is no institution in Israel that can approach the army’s ability to
disseminate images and news or to shape a national political class and an
academic elite or to produce memory, history, value, wealth, desire. This is
the way identification becomes entrenched: not through dictatorship or
draconian legislation, but by virtue of the fact that the country’s most
powerful institution gets its hands on every citizen at the age of 18. The
majority of Israelis identify with the army and the army reciprocates by
consolidating our identity, especially when it is – or we are – waging war.

The IDF didn’t play any role in either of the Gulf wars and may not play a part
in Bush’s pending war in Iran, but it is on permanent alert for the real war
that is always just round the corner. Meanwhile, it harasses Palestinians in
the West Bank and Gaza, to very destructive effect. (In July it killed 176
Palestinians, most of them from the same area in Gaza, in a ‘policing’
operation that included the destruction of houses and infrastructure.) They
shoot. They abduct. They use F-16s against refugee camps, tanks against shacks
and huts. For years they have operated in this way against gangs and groups of
armed youths and children, and they call it a war, a ‘just war’, vital for our
existence. The power of the army to produce meanings, values, desire is
perfectly illustrated by its handling of the Palestinians, but it would not be
possible without the support of the left in Israel.

The mainstream left has never seriously tried to oppose the military. The
notion that we had no alternative but to attack Lebanon and that we cannot stop
until we have finished the job: these are army-sponsored truths, decided by the
military and articulated by state intellectuals and commentators. So are most
other descriptions of the war, such as the Tel Aviv academic Yossef Gorni’s
statement in Haaretz, that ‘this is our second war of independence.’ The same
sort of nonsense was written by the same kind of people when the 2000 intifada
began. That was also a war about our right to exist, our ‘second 1948’. These
descriptions would not have stood a chance if Zionist left intellectuals –
solemn purveyors of the ‘morality of war’ – hadn’t endorsed them.

Military thinking has become our only thinking. The wish for superiority has
become the need to have the upper hand in every aspect of relations with our
neighbours. The Arabs must be crippled, socially and economically, and smashed
militarily, and of course they must then appear to us in the degraded state to
which we’ve reduced them. Our usual way of looking at them is borrowed from our
intelligence corps, who ‘translate’ them and interpret them, but cannot
recognise them as human beings. Israelis long ago ceased to be distressed by
images of sobbing women in white scarves, searching for the remains of their
homes in the rubble left by our soldiers. We think of them much as we think of
chickens or cats. We turn away without much trouble and consider the real
issue: the enemy. The Katyusha missiles that have been hitting the north of the
country are launched without ‘discrimination’, and in this sense Hizbullah is
guilty of a war crime, but the recent volleys of Katyushas were a response to
the frenzied assault on Lebanon. To the large majority of Israelis, however,
all the Katyushas prove is what a good and necessary thing we have done by
destroying our neighbours again: the enemy is indeed dangerous, it’s just as
well we went to war. The thinking becomes circular and the prophecies
self-fulfilling. Israelis are fond of saying: ‘The Middle East is a jungle,
where only might speaks.’ See Qana, and Gaza, or Beirut.

Defenders of Israel and its leaders can always argue that the US and Britain
behave similarly in Iraq. (It is true that Olmert and his colleagues would not
have acted so shamelessly if the US had not been behind them. Had Bush told
them to hold their fire, they wouldn’t have dared to move a single tank.) But
there is a major difference. The US and Britain went to war in Iraq without
public opinion behind them. Israel went to war in Lebanon, after a border
incident which it exploited in order to destroy a country, with the
overwhelming support of Israelis, including the members of what the European
press calls the ‘peace camp’.

Amos Oz, on 20 July, when the destruction of Lebanon was already well underway,
wrote in the Evening Standard: ‘This time, Israel is not invading Lebanon. It
is defending itself from a daily harassment and bombardment of dozens of our
towns and villages by attempting to smash Hizbullah wherever it lurks.’ Nothing
here is distinguishable from Israeli state pronouncements. David Grossman wrote
in the Guardian, again on 20 July, as if he were unaware of any bombardment in
Lebanon: ‘There is no justification for the large-scale violence that Hizbullah
unleashed this week, from Lebanese territory, on dozens of peaceful Israeli
villages, towns and cities. No country in the world could remain silent and
abandon its citizens when its neighbour strikes without any provocation.’ We
can bomb, but if they respond they are responsible for both their suffering and
ours. And it’s important to remember that ‘our suffering’ is that of poor
people in the north who cannot leave their homes easily or quickly. ‘Our
suffering’ is not that of the decision-makers or their friends in the media. Oz
also wrote that ‘there can be no moral equation between Hizbullah and Israel.
Hizbullah is targeting Israeli civilians wherever they are, while Israel is
targeting mostly Hizbullah.’ At that time more than 300 Lebanese had been
killed and 600 had been injured. Oz went on: ‘The Israeli peace movement should
support Israel’s attempt at self-defence, pure and simple, as long as this
operation targets mostly Hizbullah and spares, as much as possible, the lives
of Lebanese civilians (this is not always an easy task, as Hizbullah
missile-launchers often use Lebanese civilians as human sandbags).’ The truth
behind this is that Israel must always be allowed to do as it likes even if
this involves scorching its supremacy into Arab bodies. This supremacy is
beyond discussion and it is simple to the point of madness. We have the right
to abduct. You don’t. We have the right to arrest. You don’t. You are
terrorists. We are virtuous. We have sovereignty. You don’t. We can ruin you.
You cannot ruin us, even when you retaliate, because we are tied to the most
powerful nation on earth. We are angels of death.

The Lebanese will not remember everything about this war. How many atrocities
can a person keep in mind, how much helplessness can he or she admit, how many
massacres can people tell their children about, how many terrorised escapes
from burning houses, without becoming a slave to memory? Should a child keep a
leaflet written by the IDF in Arabic, in which he is told to leave his home
before it’s bombed? I cannot urge my Lebanese friends to remember the crimes my
state and its army have committed in Lebanon.

Israelis, however, have no right to forget. Too many people here supported the
war. It wasn’t just the nationalist religious settlers. It’s always easy to
blame the usual suspects for our misdemeanours: the scapegoating of religious
fanatics has allowed us to ignore the role of the army and its advocates within
the Zionist left. This time we have seen just how strongly the ‘moderates’ are
wedded to immoderation, even though they knew, before it even started, that
this would be a war against suburbs and crowded areas of cities, small towns
and defenceless villages. The model was our army’s recent actions in Gaza:
Israeli moderates found these perfectly acceptable.

It was a mistake for those of us who are unhappy with our country’s policies to
breathe a sigh of relief after the army withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. We
thought that the names of Sabra and Shatila would do all the memorial work that
needed to be done and that they would stand, metonymically, for the crimes
committed in Lebanon by Israel. But, with the withdrawal from Gaza, many
Israelis who should be opposing this war started to think of Ariel Sharon, the
genius of Sabra and Shatila, as a champion of peace. The logic of unilateralism
– of which Sharon was the embodiment – had at last prevailed: Israelis are the
only people who count in the Middle East; we are the only ones who deserve to
live here.

This time we must try harder to remember. We must remember the crimes of
Olmert, and of our minister of justice, Haim Ramon, who championed the
destruction of Lebanese villages after the ambush at Bint Jbeil, and of the
army chief of staff, Dan Halutz. Their names should be submitted to The Hague
so they can be held accountable.

Elections are a wholly inadequate form of accountability in Israel: the people
we kill and maim and ruin cannot vote here. If we let our memories slacken now,
the machine-memory will reassert control and write history for us. It will
glide into the vacuum created by our negligence, with the civilised voice of
Amos Oz easing its path, and insert its own version. And suddenly we will not
be able to explain what we know, even to our own children.

In Israel there is still no proper history of our acts in Lebanon. Israelis in
the peace camp used to carry posters with the figure ‘680’ on them – the number
of Israelis who died during the 1982 invasion. Six hundred and eighty Israeli
soldiers. 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? General Udi Adam, one of the architects of the current
war, has told Israelis that we shouldn’t count the dead. He meant this very
seriously and Israelis should take him seriously. 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.


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