When you consider the current attack on Gaza, now in its seventeenth day, it’s hard to know whether to emphasise the horror or the absurdity, the viciousness or the kitsch. There’s no lack of the last of these, the most recent being the arrival of Sam Wurzelbacher, i.e. “Joe the Plumber”, briefly made famous by John McCain, and now resurrected by Pajamas Media, a right-blog/online TV op as a war correspondent. Joe’s first thought after arriving in Sderot, principal target of Hamas rockets? That there shouldn’t be war correspondents.
Sam/Joe told Associated Press TV:
To be honest with you, I don’t think journalists should be anywhere allowed war [sic]. … I liked back in World War I and World War II, when you’d go to the theater and you’d see your troops on the screen and everyone would be real excited and happy for them. Now everyone’s got an opinion and wants to down soldiers — our American soldiers, our Israeli soldiers. I think media should be abolished from reporting. You know, war’s hell, and if you’re gonna sit there and say ‘Well look at this atrocity’ — well you don’t know the full story behind it half the time. So I think the media should have no business in it.
Can anyone top that? Oh yes, here’s CNN from a few days ago:
PRESENTER: Well we wanted to report from inside Gaza on this developing conflict to get the full story, but Israel won’t permit journalists to enter. (pause). So instead here’s an interview with Israel Defence Minister Tzipi Livni, from Jerusalem…
Wonderful stuff, and all we need is Sarah Palin sent as special envoy, to sort out, you know, them gazelles to get the whole team back together. Meanwhile, for the tragedy there’s burning schools and mass death. And for both tragedy and absurdity there’s the whole Israeli attack itself.
At the heart of Israel’s justification for the Gaza attack is a paradox. On the one hand Israel claims that the rockets that have been raining down on southern towns represent an intolerable attack on sovereignty, harbinger of an existential threat etc. On the other hand, the fact that this has been tolerated for six years is pointed to as evidence of Israel’s forbearance, etc. Which leads to the obvious question — if the rockets represent an existential threat, why not do what is being done now three, four, five years ago? Yet if they can be tolerated for six years, how can the wantonness of the current attack possibly be justified?
Inflicting mass civilian casualties — including the use of terror — is morally justifiable only in situations of defensive total war, a struggle for survival. By the very fact of six years of inaction, Israel has shown what everyone knows: that these attacks are no threat to the country at all.
That is not to minimise the effect of rockets falling relentlessly on a civilian population, nor the meaning of the relatively small number of deaths. To say as one commentator did, that the rockets have “nagged” Israelis to misidentify the act (even if you consider the rockets legitimate resistance). But it is to point out that of all the people who really haven’t given a damn about what was happening to southern Israel, Tel Aviv has been uppermost. The low-level fire has been useful to a sense of embattlement, and effectively kept as an ace-in-the-hole by successive Israeli governments, to be played whenever things got desperate — politically, that is.
For what makes the Gaza attack such an abomination is that it is being conducted almost entirely for domestic political purposes, just as every crisis in the last five years — Lebanon 2006, Ariel Sharon’s waddle across the Temple Mount — has been about the projection of domestic Israeli politics into external conflict. People are dying in Gaza for no other purpose than so Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak can prevent themselves being politically outflanked by Netenyahu and Likud on national security credentials in the February elections.
Like one of those Penn and Teller magic tricks done in plain sight, Tel Aviv barely bothers to pretend that it believes the official justification — Lipni has repeatedly said that the attack won’t stop the rockets, merely lessen their number. How on earth can such a pitiful aim even on its own terms, be presented as a justification for the carnage currently underway?
Within this cynical process there’s another act of massive bad faith by many of Israel’s supporters, which turns on Israel’s official desire to both assert its triumphal status and simultaneously use a status of special victimhood to give a moral gloss to indiscriminate killing. On behalf of a country with dozens of submarine-mounted nuclear warheads trained on Arab and Iranian cities, a conscript army, a domestic armaments industry and billions in US military aid, the defence of the Gaza attack is conducted as if it were being undertaken by a beleagured Zionist militia c.1948, with a few borrowed guns.
Thus, one noxious lunatic at a Florida demonstration yells out “Jews to the ovens”, and the comment flashes round the world, as a prelude to mutterings of “never again”. Hamas, this pitiful force that Israel helped establish (thinking that a Muslim fundamentalist group would disrupt the ideological unity of the pan-Arabic/Marxist PLO) whose only success has been in intra-Palestinian conflict, is constructed as one step away from being the Wehrmacht eighth army, because its official constitution contains all the dross and kitsch of nineteenth century European anti-semitism.
The weird and self-defeating thing about this pose is that the whole point of Zionism was not that this sort of stuff would disappear, but precisely that it wouldn’t. Founded in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, Zionism’s point was that anti-semitism would never cease, so the only answer was to create a society which meant that it didn’t matter. To have that entity armed to the teeth and in absolute control, and still claiming that any dumb talk of blood drinking Jews or whatever somehow represents an existential threat would seem to defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.
At some level a lot of the world understands this, which is why Israel’s Gaza attack has been greeted with something beyond outrage — something approaching disgust. It is the same disgust marshalled against the US bombings in Vietnam and Cambodia — the utter asymmetry of the conflict opens up the space where the superior party becomes first evil and then nihilistic. Thus what plays well to the Israeli electorate — the cold precision of the IDF — and to the world: harm minimisation, treating Palestinian wounded — seems not merciful, but sadistic, the affectless precision of the killer in one of the Saw movies. Israel often claims that it is judged by higher standards than other state actors. At the moment it is falling below not merely the ethical, but the gut instincts of fairness, mercy, the avoidance of cruelty.
Why are Israel’s supporters so willing to aid and abet it down this track, to fill out the picture of the thug weeping at past slights as it deals out mass death against a trivial challenge? You can see the answer in something like John Spooner’s Saturday cartoon of a bloodspattered school playground, which was so unctuously desperate to make sure we got a pro-Isrel message that the drawing was footnoted with a ref to Hamas’s beliefs in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Or go back to Sam/Joe’s comments about seeing “our Israeli” soldiers fighting and making us “feel happy”.
For millions in the West, watching the east rising, seeing the failure of the Bush years, the moral confusion and futility of western actions, Israel is a dose of existential V-agra, since it combines both concrete aims — defend your people — and a purported belief in the abstract ethical stands of the West. Live in a country where everyone goes to Gallipoli but no-one joins the army? There’s plucky little Israel? Pointyheads offering multiple perspectives on your own society? Israel’s resolve is unitary.
It isn’t of course, but it’s the best thing going. Which is how mass death with no clear strategic aim, compromised by cynical party politics becomes the vehicle by which people can approve a massacre in which every adult Gazan male death is officially counted — by Israel — as a “military casualty”. And why Ehud Olmert today spoke of the next wave of attack as an “iron fist”. Or why today Arab Israeli parties were banned from standing in the February elections. Because once you start on this road it only leads to one place.