Cycles of rhetoric and violence

What was remarkably clear during this latest assault on Gaza is that cycles of violence are perpetuated and reinforced by cycles of rhetoric.

The Israeli PR machine works by constantly shifting and re-setting the parameters of the discourse. Arguments are made and forgotten. Inquiries are held and dismissed. First principles are ignored and histories are erased by carefully trained spokespeople who excel in double-speak and a logic of empathetic violence audience-tested for optimum palatability.

Their mantra: It’s not what you say that counts. It’s what people hear.

The facts are all out there that, together, make a case that is undeniably damning for Israel. But the damnation is endlessly postponed and complexified by a media machine that forces distractions to the forefront of the debate. The statistics, the photographs, the captured anguishes do not lie — and yet it is the spin that gathers quickly around them that dominates the agenda.

Since the beginning of this assault, the raison d’être of the Israeli campaign has changed three times, each time centering around a buzz word that is repeated until there is no room for any other concept. The words were “kidnapped” (June 12 to July 2), “rockets” (July 7 onwards), and then “tunnels” (July 17 onwards), a word and concept which only entered the discourse alongside the announcement of the ground invasion on the same day. The following day the death toll spiked, with 60 people killed in 24 hours, and a fourth buzz term entered the arena: “human shield.” Now that the tunnels are all allegedly destroyed, if another word is needed it will be “disarm.”

KIDNAPPED: the Israeli government has now admitted that Hamas did not kidnap the three boys. They even knew they were dead after only a few hours but trumpeted the manhunt to enrage the public and instigate a pre-prepared operation, “Brother’s Keeper,” to dismantle Hamas in the West Bank. Why? Because eight days earlier, after eight years of schism, a unity government between rival groups Hamas and Fatah had been signed.

ROCKETS: Israel boasts about its Iron Dome defense system, claiming it is a prime specimen of Israeli engineering that keeps its civilians safe. They also claim they live in a state of terror because rockets “rain down” on them. This contradiction cuts to the heart of the constructed national psyche of Israelis as a fearsome warrior people who live in constant fear.

Ben Ehrenreich describes the rockets as “more like the ones you might have learned to build in high school shop class than any sort of 21st-century artillery: Thick metal pipes with fins welded on, an engine at the base, a few pounds of explosive at the head, the latter usually insufficient for much by way of destruction. What little damage they do is caused mainly by the momentum of their impact.” 

To date, two Israelis and one Thai civilian have been killed by these rockets, giving them a kill rate of 0.1 percent. The number of Palestinians killed? 1,886.

HUMAN SHIELDS: From the hardest hawks to the softest of Israeli doves, the same justification is being traded in for the massive numbers of Palestinian fatalities: “Hamas uses human shields.” Even Amos Oz, the great conscience of liberal Zionists, could only muster this simplistic scenario:

“Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?

Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!

Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?”

If this is the thinking of a great intellectual heavyweight of the Israeli left, then a truly toxic atmosphere has been successfully engendered, one in which regular soldiers need not think twice before pulling the trigger.

The fact is that it is Israel, and not Hamas, that has been documented using human shields. The UN’s Goldstone Report into Operation Cast Lead found Israel had killed civilians “while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags” and documented multiple instances of Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as human shields.

But the Goldstone Report, so thoroughly damning in its findings of multiple and wide-ranging war crimes, has been all but forgotten. Israel specializes in the erasure of histories, so why not its own?

TUNNELS: The BBC, ever mindful of the approved Israeli lexicon, refers to a series of “attack tunnels.” So who are these tunnels attacking? They are, we are told, designed to penetrate Israel and kidnap Israelis.

In 2006, soldier Gilad Shalit was captured and held as a prisoner of war. He was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners — many of whom were rounded up again during Operation Brother’s Keeper. No civilian has ever been abducted through them. So why do they exist? And why did no one ever mention them before July 17?

Clearly, their primary purpose is an economic one, born of the crippling, medieval siege that Israel maintains against Gaza. Along the Egyptian border it is not Hamas that builds the tunnels; they merely tax the goods being moved through by the entrepreneurs that dig and own them.

Israel talks of a “terrorist organization [that] deliberately embeds its terrorist infrastructure inside civilian neighborhoods” when actually a system of loosely regulated capitalism is what governs the tunnel industry. If you own a house near the border you are very likely to get into the tunneling business because there’s nothing else you can do.

Furthermore, if Israel’s operation is about destroying these tunnels, why has it cost 1,886 lives? There were thought to be more than 1,000 tunnels between Egypt and Gaza which the Egyptian military — not widely known for its ability to act without slaughtering its citizens — destroyed with no loss of life.

The answer, of course, is that the operation is not about the tunnels, and never has been. Just as it was not about the kidnapped boys who were already dead or the rockets that don’t explode.

This war is about political capital and the bloodletting needed to appease a society that is entirely militarized: Netanyahu’s approval rating currently stands at 82 percent. This war is about fracturing the tentative Palestinian unity government: The much-hated security coordination between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel hit an all-time high in June (though President Mahmoud Abbas’ language shifted dramatically in a speech on July 23, and the PA’s position may yet shift away from total complicity). This war is about the arms trade: The share price in Israeli weapons companies who can boast their equipment is live-tested is up — the drone market is the key sector to corner for the future.

This war is about reminding Gaza, Palestine, the whole world that there’s only way forward: To shut the fuck up and die.

None of this new. The aims of this war are no different than the aims of Cast Lead (2008-2009) or Pillar of Smoke (2012). After Israeli public opinion was satiated 16 months ago a cease-fire was agreed, which Israel proceeded to violate 191 times, killing 18 people. The Palestinians violated it 75 times, killing none. Then Israel launched this war. To date more than 1,800 Palestinians have been killed; around 20 percent of them are thought to have been fighters. Sixty-four Israelis have been killed. 95 percent of them were soldiers. So Israel has killed more than 1,500 civilians, of whom at least 378 were children. Hamas has killed three civilians. Who is it that is indiscriminately terrorizing a civilian population for a political goal?

Of course, a central tenet of Israeli spin is always to refer to “Hamas” and not “Palestinians,” to hit the word “terrorist” as often as possible and stress that Hamas is “committed to the destruction of Israel.” It is never mentioned that in its 2006 election manifesto, Hamas dropped its call for the destruction of Israel and simply reaffirmed the right to armed resistance. Hamas is a political player that, like all others, is primarily interested in the acquisition of power and influence — it is very far removed from the theocratic death cult that Israel strains to see in its dark mirror.

In 2006, as Hamas was engaging in the democratic process, the group announced it was to stop using suicide bombers. There has not been a bomb since. Israel, though, claimed that the (still-incomplete) Israel-West Bank barrier wall was to thank. Again and again, Hamas has tried to play by the rules of the game as they are set by Israel, America and the international community. Democracy is embraced and brings with it a siege. Israel’s existence is recognized and it goes unmentioned. Military resistance is halted and the siege deepens. Truces are agreed and Israel violates them.

The noose around Gaza has been tightening for seven years, as tunnels are destroyed, fishing limits are reduced and buffer zones are extended — but there remains only one villain. Only one party is ever held accountable for its actions, only one people collectively pay the price. So the choice has been made clear.

Either resist non-violently and look good on fringe liberal websites that bother to report it, but your needs carry no urgency, your voice goes unheard and your people slowly starve while the next massacre is planned against you.

Or fire rockets and the world rouses from its torpor to reaffirm its conviction that you are, in fact, a terrorist, but when you speak (some) people listen, your demands are at least considered and you, in effect, become a player again. Hamas, and its affiliates, fire rockets because nothing else brings them to the negotiating table, because the status quo is burying them alive.

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Omar Robert Hamilton