LRB contributors react to events in Gaza
London Review of Books, January 15, 2009
It’s very frustrating to see Israeli society recruited so calmly and easily to war. Hardly anyone has dared to mention the connection between the decision to go to war and the fact that we are only a few weeks away from an election. Kadima (Tzipi Livni’s party) and Labour (Ehud Barak’s) were doing very badly in the polls. Now that they have killed more than 1000 Palestinians (250 on the first day – the highest number in 41 years of occupation) they are both doing very well. Barak was expected to win eight seats in the Knesset; now it is around 15. Netanyahu is the one sweating.
I am terribly sad about all this, and frustrated. On the first day of the operation I wrote an article for the Walla News website and within four hours I had received 1600 comments, most calling for my deportation (at best) or immediate execution (at worst). It showed me again how sensitive Israeli society is to any opposition to war. It is shocking how easily this society unites behind yet another military solution, after it has failed so many times. Hizbullah was created in response to Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in 1982. Hamas was created in 1987 in response to two decades of military occupation. What do we think we’ll achieve this time?
The state called up more than 10,000 reservists, and even people who had not been called also travelled to military bases and asked to be sent to Gaza. This shows once again how efficient the Israeli propaganda and justification machine is, and how naturally people here believe in myths that have been disproved again and again. If people were saying, ‘We killed 1000 people, but the army is not perfect, and this is war,’ I would say it was a stupid statement. But Israelis are saying: ‘We killed 1000 people, and our army is the most moral army in the world.’ This says a lot about the psychology of the conflict: people are not being told what to think or say; they reach these insights ‘naturally’.
Since I was a soldier myself ten years ago, I worry I might be called up as a reservist. If I were to refuse now, when Israel is at war, I would be sent to prison. But still, I tell myself, that would be so much easier than being part of what my country is doing. Apparently, every single Jewish member of the Knesset, except one from the Jewish-Arab list, believes that killing more Palestinians, keeping the Gazan population under siege, destroying their police stations, ministerial offices and headquarters will weaken Hamas, strengthen Israel, demonstrate to the Palestinians that next time they should vote for Fatah, and bring stability to the region. I have no words. Only one Jewish member of the Knesset, out of 107, went to the demonstration that followed the deliberate bombing by the Israelis of an UNRWA school being used to house refugees, resulting in the deaths of 45 civilians. Once again, the Israeli slogan is ‘Let the IDF win’ and once again everybody agrees. People have short memories. By 2008, two years after the Second Lebanon War ended, Hizbullah had more soldiers than before, three times more weapons, and had dramatically improved its political position. It now even has a right of veto in parliament. The same could happen to Hamas, but once again military magic enchants Israeli society.
I have a friend whose brother is a pilot in the IDF. I asked to speak to him. I told him what I thought about Israel’s behaviour and he seemed to agree with my general conclusions. He said, however, that a soldier should not ask himself such questions, which should be kept to the political sphere. I can’t agree. But the second thing he told me was more important. He told me that for pilots, a day like the first day of the war, when so many attacks are being made simultaneously, is a day full of excitement, a day you look forward to. If you take these words into account, and bear in mind that in Israel every man is a soldier, either in uniform or in reserve, there is no avoiding the conclusion that there are great pressures for it to act as a military society. Not acting is damaging to the IDF’s status, budget, masculinity, power and happiness, and not only to the IDF’s. This could explain why in Israel the military option is almost never considered second best. It is always the first choice.
Ha’aretz too is a source of unhappiness for me, since in wartime the paper is part of this militaristic discourse, shares its values and lack of vision. Ha’aretz did not criticise Israel when its troops deployed to Lebanon in 2006. Nor did it have anything to say when the same soldiers bombed Gaza’s police, schools and people. Even when there was a demonstration against the war, with more than 10,000 people taking part, both Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Ha’aretz website chose to publish a picture of a counter-demonstration, in which a few hundred participated, waving Israeli flags and shouting: ‘Let the IDF win.’
I have problems speaking to my closest friends and family these days, because I can no longer bear to hear the security establishment’s propaganda coming from their mouths. I cannot bear to hear people justifying the deaths of more than 200 children killed by Israeli soldiers. There is no justification for that, and it’s wrong to try to find one. Usually I feel part of society in Israel. I feel that I am on one side of the political map and other people are on the opposite side. But over the last few days, I feel that I am not part of this society any more. I do not call friends who support the war, and they do not call me. The same with my family. It is a hard thing for me to write, but this is how it is.
Yonatan Mendel was a correspondent for the Israeli news agency Walla. He is currently at Queens’ College, Cambridge working on a PhD that studies the connection between the Arabic language and security in Israel.
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