Yosefa Loshitzky, The Electronic Intifada, 5 January 2009
|Gaza’s suffering is sanitized. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)|
“I reiterate that we will treat the population [of Gaza] with silk gloves”
– Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
I am not sure that most people understand the meaning of the name “Operation Cast Lead” chosen by Israel for its murderous and criminal attack on Gaza. The name is borrowed from a Hebrew nursery rhyme which was (and may still be) very popular among Israeli children in the 1950s. In this song, a father promises to his child a special Hannukah gift: “a cast lead sevivon.” Sevivon, in Hebrew (A dreidel in Yiddish) is a four-sided spinning top, played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Somebody, in the Israeli army, who apparently feels nostalgic about his childhood, decided that if Israeli kids would enjoy a sevivon cast from lead there is no reason why Palestinian children would not appreciate it too. After all Operation Cast Lead is not the first (and unfortunately, will not be the last) of Israel’s cruel war games.
The cynicism embedded in the name, selected for what Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most celebrated commentators, called “an intelligent, impressive operation,” is symptomatic to the cold, meticulous and calculated cruelty with which this attack was “designed,” “executed” and “marketed” to the world. As the perpetrators themselves proudly boast, Operation Cast Lead is not only a great military victory but also a success story of Israeli hasbara (meaning in Hebrew, explanation, but practically referring to misinformation, spin and lies).
This great victory, as some (but not enough) noticed, prominent among them, Richard Falk, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is targeted against the “wretched of the world.” They are first, second and third generation refugees (originating from the area currently being rocketed from Gaza), the poorest people in the world, crammed in one of the most densely-populated areas on the planet, already starved and weakened by months of Israeli blockade. The sanitized language of the western media calls it “a disproportionate reaction.” But the ground zero that it creates for the Palestinians, who, over the last decades, have achieved the dubious honor of becoming the world’s quintessential victims, should be a “shock and awe” for any person who has not, as yet, lost his or her basic humanity and sense of justice.
Israel’s oiled propaganda-machine was further lubricated by its self-acknowledged decision to select women as their masbirim (misinformation spokespersons) so as “to project a feminine and softer image.” To add some cool glamour to Israel’s hot lies, Tzipi Livni, the state’s foreign minister and a natural blonde, announced, in response to calls for truce: “There is no humanitarian crisis in the [Gaza] Strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce.” The blonde offensive, led by the rising star of Israeli politics, was fortified by a team of peroxide blonde Israeli women, whose sex, lies and video games decorated TV screens worldwide. They explained to the sympathetic world the hardships endured by the nuclear-armed Israelis threatened by the crude rockets. After all, one Israeli was killed in the last six months, while three other Israelis (one of them a Palestinian citizen of Israel) were killed by rockets since Gaza has been turned into a slaughter-house by the silk gloves of the Israeli army.
Quick to join this sugar-coated team of blonde bombshells were Israel’s most celebrated and translated writers abroad, Amos Oz and David Grossman. The two project to the international community (i.e., the so-called liberal west) what it regards as Israeli political conscience and moral voice. Both are given a special stage by prestigious western media platforms to express their opinions regarding major political events involving Israel. They are Israel’s hamasbirim haleumim (the national spokespersons) a euphemism for national (or international) deceivers, who whitewash Israel’s dirty laundry in the global launderette.
Grossman (slightly more to the “left” than Oz) has obtained an extra moral authority after his own tank commander son was killed in Israel’s murderous attack on Lebanon in 2006. In a militaristic society, centered on the cult of the fallen soldier, a bereaved father (av shakul in Hebrew) enjoys a special status. One could have expected Grossman to “cash” in this newly gained status and come out with a more courageous stance, one that would criticize Israel’s immoral massacre, rather than re-play the eternal Jewish victim, pleading “to halt” Israeli fire while promising Hamas that: “Even if you continue to fire on Israel, we will not respond by resuming combat. We will grit our teeth, just as we did throughout the period before our attack.”
Israelis, in Grossman’s self-adulatory discourse, are rahmanim bnei rahmanim (merciful sons of merciful fathers), dignified and righteous victims. Perhaps this is what Olmert meant when he talked about the silky touch of the Israeli gloves caressing “ordinary,” non-militant Palestinians in Gaza.
One could think about a braver bereaved parent, Smadar Elhanan-Peled for example. A mother who, after losing her daughter in a suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem, publicly and openly put the blame for her daughter’s death on the Israeli government and its cruel policies towards the Palestinians. Her teenage daughter, unlike Grossman’s son, was not a tank commander, not even a soldier but just an ordinary girl.
The well-orchestrated propaganda machinery was also equipped with Israel’s most successful “secret weapons” of mass deception: playing the role of the victim again. It is not an accident, therefore, that, as the Israeli spin doctors themselves explained in an interview to The Jewish Chronicle, that: “The international media were directed to a press center set up by the foreign ministry in Sderot itself so that foreign reporters would spend as much time as possible in the main civilian area affected by Hamas rockets.” The scenes of crying, panic-stricken Israelis added some excessive emotionalism which counter-balanced, but nicely complemented, the team of the icy blonde offenders.
The designation of the Gaza Strip and south Israel as a “closed military zone,” and the ban on media coverage of the Gaza carnage contributes to the sanitized view of the Gaza story as manufactured by Israel. The real horror and gore is reserved for the Al Jazeera’s spectators, particularly the Arab ones. Ghetto-under-siege Gaza remains almost silent and partly invisible to the rest of us. We hardly hear or see in mainstream media, testimonies from the ground.
But we are bombarded by statements and “explanations” given by Israeli officials and “international experts” who discuss the “situation” calmly and “logically.” After all, unlike the hysterical, always shouting and crying Gazans, they have not been bombarded by for nine days straight. They are interviewed in their comfortable (probably leather-clad) offices. They look and sound like respectable westerners, just like “us,” and their foreign minister is very calm and cool as her blonde hair obliges.
A pioneering study by the Glasgow University Media Group on media coverage of conflicts, taught us that if you look respectable and calm you must be right. The Palestinians, by contrast, usually interviewed when they are in a state of shock, look disheveled, disoriented, slightly hysterical. And they are always surrounded by chaos and disorder. The buildings around are destroyed, debris is scattered everywhere, and the noise is unbearable (not to mention that they speak this incomprehensible language). Is something wrong with them? Also, even when they are not “extremists” they are always on the defense, almost apologetic, trying to convince us that they are not terrorists, not even militants, just ordinary people who want to survive, if not to enjoy this life. This makes them look even more suspicious.
After all, if they are not terrorists, what are they doing in Gaza? Gaza, we should remember, was declared as “hostile entity” by Israel in September of 2007. And since only the powerful have the power to define, even if their definitions amount to tautologies or oxymorons, they are still the accepted ones. According to this perverse logic, produced in Fortress Israel and marketed to the whole world, any Gazan deserves to die. Furthermore, despite the fact that Israel claims to attack only Hamas and not the Palestinians (conveniently oblivious to the fact that, as David Boardman reminds us, the majority of Palestinians voted democratically for Hamas), it still clings to its old law of blood, according to which, as John Berger observes: “One Israeli life is worth a hundred Palestinian lives.” So if in the course of the last six months, one Israeli died as a result of a Hamas rocket attack, it is perfectly logical that in a week 500 Palestinians will lose their lives and thousands more will be injured. This is what the Israelis view as a policy of deterrence.
We should not forget, however, that behind this cruel apparatus of sex, lies and video war games, a more “primitive,” “organic,” and tribal cruelty, usually well hidden from the scrutiny of the outside world, is operating. Most people in the west do not realize the indifference, and more disturbingly, the joy with which Israelis receive news about the suffering of Arabs and particularly Palestinians. It is more common in the west to see Arab and Muslim crowds “dancing on the roofs” when missiles or rockets hit Israel (as was the case during the 1991 Gulf War) but it is less common to see or hear Israelis cheered at the plight of suffering Palestinians and Arabs. More than once, I have encountered a jovial taxi driver applauding the good news that he has just heard. “Let them all die in agony” was a standard reaction that I have become accustomed to hear on a day-to-day basis while I was still living in Israel.
It was also not uncommon in my Jerusalem neighborhood — even prior to the onset of the second Palestinian intifada — to see Israeli Border Police brutally harass poor old Palestinians who came to collect some “valuables” from the garbage bins of the affluent Jews. Time and again it happened in front of a popular Jerusalem cafe, where people were sipping their lattes, completely oblivious to the unfolding drama. Nobody, among these beautiful people, seemed to be bothered by these scenes, or to suffer from some disturbing reflections on the transfer of guilt.
Israel’s cruelty — manifested through its use (or rather abuse) of language, and creative “strategy” of “re-branding” its continuous assaults on the Palestinians as a war of defense, using their tautological logic to justify the extermination of an “entity” which they designate as “hostile” — should be interpreted in the spirit of Giorgio Agamben. The influential Italian philosopher argued in relation to the Nazi death camps that the “correct question to pose concerning the horrors committed in the camps is, therefore, not the hypocritical one of how crimes of such atrocity could be committed against human beings” but what were “the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime.”
We may well ask the same question today when listening to Israel’s blonde bombshells explain the bombs tearing apart the people of Gaza.
Yosefa Loshitzky is Professor of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of East London. Her most recent books are Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen (2001) and (as editor) Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler’s List (1997).