Six Lessons of the Gaza Conflict

Holding Fire, Hasbara and a Photo of Slain Palestinian Kids

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By Chemi Shalev (Haaretz)

Published November 22, 2012.
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  • There was no daylight between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Israel and President Obama’s United States, not even a sliver. Most of the international community, including perfidious Europe, gave Jerusalem its unequivocal support. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership played a pivotal and responsible role. The media coverage, as a general rule, was balanced, but only at it worst. Israeli complaints and fears were accorded just as much sympathy, if not more, than Palestinian suffering, including the innocent women and children killed in IDF bombings.

So there is hardly any conventional Israeli wisdom that was not challenged in recent days, no entrenched Jewish notion left untouched, no right wing stereotype that was not undermined, no part of what has become the pervasive 21st century post-Goldstone and post-Marmara weltanschauung for most Israelis and many Diaspora Jews that was not contradicted, at least partially, by the world’s reaction to Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.

Israel was not alone, the world was not against us, the media was far from hostile, President Obama was a friend indeed and if anyone had a right to feel isolated, misunderstood and much-maligned in recent days, rightly or wrongly, it was the Palestinians, not us. In the entire US Congress, among 100 senators and 435 representatives, the harshest “anti-Israel” statement, if it can be described as such, was put out by the Muslim congressman from Minnesota Keith Ellison, who bravely called on both sides to “show restraint”.

Die hard guardians of Israel’s good name still pounced, of course, on an errant paragraph here or a hint of criticism there, but all in all it was slim pickings indeed for those who insist on clinging to the biblical Balaam’s description of Israel as “a nation that will dwell in solitude”, even when all the facts indicate otherwise.

  • But it wasn’t only the rigid right that was, or at least should have been, taken aback by the rebuttal of some its long held assumptions. After all, here was perennial peace-spurner Netanyahu being cuddled by his former archenemy and the hero of the liberal world Obama, as Israeli warplanes bombarded much of Gaza to smithereens. Years of predicting that Israel’s rejectionist policies will turn it into a pariah state, alone and isolated in the world arena, were undercut virtually overnight by countries that lined up to express their understanding and by newspaper editorials that voiced their empathy for Israel’s plight.

Like their right wing counterparts, however, pious leftists refused to let the facts get in the way of their dogmas: they resolved their cognitive dissonance with the magical words “Jewish lobby”, which, as the Protocols taught us long ago, has simply taken the entire world hostage.

  • Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was quick to take credit for maintaining Israel’s good image, ascribing it to the “excellent work” that was done in what he described as the “hasbara front.”

But with all due respect to eloquent ambassadors, suave spokesmen, telling talking points, persuasive Facebook posts or the tantalizing tweets that everyone was so enamored with in the first few days of the campaign – they had only a marginal effect, at best, on Israel’s success in the battle for image supremacy. Pitted against an internationally recognized, Iranian-inspired terrorist group that glorifies martyrdom, worships death, celebrates massacres, enslaves its own people, seeks Israel’s destruction and hasn’t desisted from its so-called “armed struggle” for a single day of its existence – Israel won the public relations war almost by default.

And even with the deck stacked in its favor, Israel would have had a hard time maintaining its PR edge, Hamas or no Hamas, if the army had invaded Gaza, fought house-to-house and evoked unpleasant memories of Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

Israel has a much harder time defending itself when it is confronted by a moderate Palestinian leadership or by rock-throwing demonstrators or when it is forced to explain the killing of Turkish “civilians” aboard a ship at sea or to rationalize the undeniable contradiction between its stated support for a two-state solution and the mass settlement of Israeli Jews throughout the territories supposedly earmarked for one of those states. Israel’s image, to a much larger degree than most Israelis would care to admit, is often determined on a case-by-case basis. Biases and double standards notwithstanding, what matters the most are the merits of each individual case.

But many Israelis will draw the wrong conclusions, unfortunately, from this week’s brief fling with world public opinion. It wasn’t our product that was defective all these years, they will tell themselves, but our marketing strategy. All we need now are a few more social media specialists, a reinforced creative department, new recruits of English-speaking front men and one or two brilliant slogans. (And if that doesn’t work, then we will know for sure that the world hates Jews and is fundamentally predisposed against us.)

  • Israeli observers reported that there was a subdued atmosphere at the press conference convened in Jerusalem on Wednesday night in which Netanyahu, Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced the ceasefire. This wasn’t a joyous celebration of victory, they said, but a carefully managed effort in damage control. Many Israelis, these politicians knew, were going to be disappointed. They had expected more.

The reason, of course, is that they had been led to believe that there would indeed be more. “We will agree to a cease fire only when Hamas begs for it,” anonymous ministers told the press in the first few hours of the operation, even though Hamas, as far as anyone can tell, was never the begging type.

But these ministers’ statements were in keeping with a long-held Israeli tradition of overreaching bravado, most memorably etched in Israeli minds in the October 8, 1973 bluster of that most tragic of Israeli army chiefs, David Elazar, who bragged “we will break their bones” a few short hours before the complete failure of a massive IDF counterattack in the Yom Kippur War.

  • Three Israelis deserve ignoble citations for having done their best to undermine Israel’s hasbara efforts, provide its enemies with invaluable ammunition and outperform all but the most despicable stereotypes of modern Israel. First in line is Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who described the army’s mission statement as “taking Gaza back to the Middle Ages”; the second is Gilad Sharon, the son of the former prime minister, who published an article in the Jerusalem Post in which called on Israel to “flatten all of Gaza”, just as the US did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the third is MK Michael Ben Ari, who told army soldiers that “there were no innocents in Gaza” so they should “hit them hard”, and then suggested giving the entire population six hours notice before expelling them to all Egypt.

All three statements stained Israel’s good name in the international arena and could be construed as incitement to commit war crimes. What’s worse is that all of the three abovementioned individuals will continue to mingle and operate in Israel’s highest circles and pay absolutely no price for their obnoxious statements which, at best, are no better than what Hamas leaders themselves would say. And what’s worst of all is that you don’t want to know how many Israelis wholeheartedly concur with these three atrocious sentiments, and let’s hope that no one conducts a poll to ask them.

  • Israel is facing a barbaric enemy that has a callous disregard for human life; the Israeli army does its utmost to try and avoid civilian casualties, while its adversaries do their best to target them; Israelis voluntarily withdrew from the Gaza Strip and would have happily allowed it to flourish had Hamas leaders not turned it into a staging ground for attacks against Israeli towns and villages; no country can be expected to sit back and allow its terrorized citizens to become sitting ducks for incessant rocket attacks from across the border; Hamas hides behind its own citizens in order to force Israel to choose between abandoning its bombing raids or causing civilian casualties; comparing the number of civilian casualties on both sides creates a false moral equivalence between the aggressor and the justified defender; Israel has shown as much restraint as any country would under the same circumstances; no army is as moral as the IDF; and so on and so forth.

But there is a Reuters picture that I wish I hadn’t seen. I looked at it, almost by accident, and it has been seared into my memory ever since. It shows 6 year old Jamal Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, 4 year old Yousef Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, 7 year old Sarah Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, and one year old Ibrahim Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, all lying together, faces bruised, eyes closed, breaths extinguished, on a steel gurney in a Gaza morgue.

They were killed in an air force bombing raid in what Israel says - and I am absolutely convinced - was a regrettable human error.

But most Israelis haven’t seen this picture. They wouldn’t want to, even if they could. They may have heard of, but they certainly haven’t devoted too much attention to, the killing of the 8 members of the al-Dalu family. Many of them were harshly critical of Haaretz for having chosen to devote a main headline to their demise.

The righteous indignation sparked and stoked by many years of Israel’s belief in its own victimhood has made most Israelis willfully turn a blind eye to the tragedies of the other side. It is a far cry from the soul-searching angst of the soldiers who were interviewed following the Six Day War in the famous book “Seventh Day”, which has since been depicted as no more than a myth, but which was nonetheless a defining manifesto for people of my generation. Nowadays, it is considered a sign of weakness, even a form of collaboration, to accord too much sympathy or to express too much sorrow at the loss of life, however innocent, however young, among those that Israel is fighting against.

There are two famous Hebrew sayings that come to my mind when I think about the Dalu children. “Happy is the one who seizes your infants? and dashes them against the rocks” is one of the most extraordinarily and bitterly cruel sentences in the Tanakh, at the end of Psalms 137, which contains the famous “By the Rivers of Babylon” cry. And then there is Israel’s “national poet” Haim Nahman Bialik who penned that terrible warning that “Vengeance for the blood of a little child has yet to be invented by Satan.”

Both of these terrifying sayings are closely connected to the helplessness of oppressed Jews living in exile, who can only vent their hatred and anger at their oppressors in words, not deeds. Supposedly, such sentiments were supposed to have remained there, in exile, but obviously haven’t.

But if I had to choose, I would throw in my lot with Bialik - though I don’t know if he was referring only to Jewish children or whether his searing words are also applicable if the blood of the child in question is spilled by accident, as “collateral damage.”

For full coverage of the Gaza conflict, go to Haaretz.com

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev


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