By Anat Biletzki, The Nation – Jan 14, 2009
I write as an Israeli.
In the past two-and-a-half weeks Israeli forces have killed over 900 people in Gaza; Palestinian rockets have killed four Israelis and Palestinian fighters have killed six soldiers. As the assault began, Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s definitive right-wing party, Likud, said that talk of comparative numbers is not pertinent to the validity of Operation Cast Lead. That might be true, but the grotesque proportions of one to one hundred in counting the dead should give us pause, should make us reflect on the mantras of the conventional wisdom.
We are told by the mainstream media that Hamas broke the half-year truce agreed upon in June and refused to extend it past the December expiration date. Whether or not the truce was adhered to in its first four months is a question of interpretation rather than fact. Israelis will tell you that the Palestinians did, in fact, launch some Qassam missiles into Israel. True. Palestinians will tell you that Israel did not, in fact, live up to its side of the bargain and continued, even intensified, the siege of Gaza, stopping the electricity, water, fuel, food and medicines crucial for decent survival. True again. But no one denies that on November 4 Israel carried out an incursion into Gaza, killing seven Palestinians and setting off the renewal of violence–Qassam launchings into Israel by Hamas and Israeli killings of Palestinians in Gaza–that was in full swing by the time the truce expired.
We are also led to believe that Hamas refused to extend the half-year cease-fire. But even the mainstream news in the ten days before the attack started clearly reported that Hamas’s positions just before the expiration date were vague and divided; and that starting on December 21 it made several overtures to Israel, via Egypt and Turkey, to discuss and consider continuing the truce. Israel refused.
Then we are urged by most conventional media, buttressed by “experts” on Israel, that no nation on earth would tolerate the rocketing of its civilians. That might be true. But such legal posturing, deriving from supposed expertise in the laws of war, seems to forget that the option of going to war, not to mention bombing indiscriminately from on high, is prescribed as a last resort after all other alternatives have been tried and exhausted. Refusing to engage with Hamas, Israel has, instead, put Gaza under blockade. To quote Michael Walzer, who taught us long ago about just and unjust wars–siege is the oldest form of total war.
As to indiscriminate bombing and shelling, we are fed the constant diet of “collateral damage,” as if killing of civilians (now estimated as most of the dead, with over half being women and children) can be so effortlessly explained or excused. So, on the one hand, Israel is touted as having amazingly sophisticated methods of targeting while, on the other, it is facilely pardoned for missing the targets. The adage of collateral damage goes a long way–as long as sixteen people, most of them women and children, dying when one Hamas leader is targeted and killed; or forty people seeking shelter in a UN school. And note: in order to count as a bona fide civilian, in order not to be a legitimate target, a person living in Gaza mustn’t be in the police force, in a university, in a mosque, or in a hospital run by the Gazan authorities. So indiscriminate is Operation Cast Lead that several Israeli human rights groups and organizations have mounted a wide campaign, crying “Civilians Are Not Cannon Fodder.” Neither in Gaza nor in Israel. But that impartiality between Gaza and Israel brings us back to comparing the numbers. Over 900 people, out of a population of 1.5 million, have been killed in Gaza. That is equivalent to 180,000 Americans being killed–in two weeks.
Walzer himself has recently, in The New Republic, accused those using the proportionality argument of incautious lack of judgment. Yet some of those using that argument are Israelis demonstrating, arm in arm with Palestinians, against the carnage. Contrary to what one hears in the mainstream media, which adopts the conventional wisdom pitting all critiques of Israel as venomously pro-Palestinian–in Israel even as a fifth column–these are Israelis (and Jews) who know the unconventional facts. They are marginalized in the current Israeli ecstasy of battle; and ignored by the mainstream media.
I write as an Israeli. Some of us, as Israelis, are grieving over what we have become. Blaming the other side with a roster of rehearsed clichés cannot mitigate the grief.
Anat Biletzki is professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, currently a research affiliate at MIT and teaching human rights at Quinnipiac University. Until recently she was chairperson of B’Tselem, the Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.