Yitzhak Laor | London Review of Books | August 17, 2006
You are terrorists, we are virtuous
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 state.
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 scholarships.
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.
Yitzhak Laor lives in Tel Aviv.
Posted on 11-08-2006