January 17, 2009
War by any other name
01.13.2009 | Haaretz
By Gideon Levy
Words, it is true, do not kill; but words can ease the work of killing. From the dawn of the Israeli occupation in the territories – by now an ancient dawn – or perhaps from the very establishment of the state, or maybe even from the revival of Hebrew, the language has been mobilized in active reserve service. There has been a permanent emergency call-up and Hebrew has never doffed its uniform. War after war, doublespeak after doublespeak, words are on the front line. They don’t shed blood, but somehow they make the sight of it easier to take, sometimes even pleasurably so. They justify, validate, purify, polish and clean; often they also whip up, incite, inflame, push, urge and encourage – all in standard usage. Dry cleaning, express, removes every stain instantaneously, our word-laundering is guaranteed.
We were hurled into this war armed with lines written by our national poet for the Hanukkah holiday, the holiday of the onset of this war: “Cast Lead,” from a poem by Bialik. From now on, when kindergarten children sing “My father lit me candles, and acted as my torch,” people will remember this war, which some commentators are already calling “the most just in Israel?s history,” no less. But as for “war,” the authoritative Even-Shoshan dictionary defines it as “an armed clash between armies, a conflict between state bodies (nations, states) in battle operations with the use of weapons and by force of arms.” The Litani Operation (Lebanon, March 1978), a large-scale action which lasted three full months, never gained the national honor of being considered a war. Even the “Second Lebanon War” was not given that official name until half a year after it ended. This time we were quicker and more determined. The forces had not yet raided at dawn, the planes had not yet finished bombing the graduation ceremony of the traffic police – leaving behind dozens of bleeding young bodies; and we were already calling it a war. For the time being it is a nameless war; yes, afterward the ministerial committee for ceremonies and symbols will convene and give it an appropriate name. The First Gaza War? Surely not the last.
True, the dictionary raises doubts. This is certainly not “an armed clash between armies.” After all, which army is fighting us, exactly? The army of Qassams and tunnels? It’s even hard to call it “a conflict between nations and states in battle operations,” because the battles are not actually battles and one of the sides is not exactly a state, barely half a nation, it has to be admitted. Still, war. What difference does it make if a senior officer in a reserve unit was quoted this week in Haaretz as saying, “It was a superb call-up and training exercise”? For us it?s a war. For months we longed for it, oh how we longed for the “big operation” in Gaza. No one talked about “war” then, but look, a war was born. Mazel tov.
There is nothing chance about this war. We went to “war” because that single, highly charged word serves infinite goals, all of them as just and as justified as the war itself. Say war, and you say heroism and sacrifice. Add some grit, mobilization and of course the inevitable bereavement, and it’s ready: war’s verbal arsenal.
“Heroism and bereavement” was the headline the militant freebie Israel Today used in one of its combat editions. In war as in war, there is also “victory.” Let the IDF win this war. Win over whom? How to win? Just win. But the goals of the war change quicker than a chameleon changes color – one day it’s to stop the firing of the Qassams, and when that doesn?t work, you switch goals. Now we have moved to a war against smuggling and tunnels. Maybe also a war of pressure on Egypt. And of course a war against Hamas, most of which is aimed at and strikes – just our bad luck; the helpless civilian population whose only connection to Hamas, if at all, was in the voting booth.
In war it is also necessary to upgrade the enemy’s strength. First we are fed information for months on end about the Hamas arms buildup and its military sophistication, including bunkers and missiles from Tehran and Damascus, and now Ahmed Jaabari is being called “the Hamas chief of staff.” Lieutenant General Jaabari, chief of the General Staff of the army of the semi-hollow Qassams. And why did we bomb Islamic University in Gaza City? Because that is where the Palestinians’ version of the Rafael arms development authority was based, the Israeli press reported. That?s where they develop drones that carry ammunition and bunker-busting missiles, not only lathes for machine-tooling. We built up their strength and so heightened our victory and sweetened its taste.
In war as in war, silence is permitted: keep silent yourself and silence others. It?s not just permitted, it’s obligatory. Here is another good reason to call this a war. War makes it possible to mobilize, call to the flag and unite the ranks of the people, which most of the time are more interested in the seacoast of Antalya than in any West Bank outpost. Only in war are we permitted to have media that sound more like the briefing room of the IDF Spokesman. In war, propaganda is all right. Using the word ‘war’ also validates war crimes, which might be prohibited in just a plain operation. If it’s war, then let’s go all the way: white phosphorus shells in the streets and artillery against population shelters; hundreds of women and children killed; strikes against rescue units and supply services. Hey, this is war, right?
War also gives rise to poetry of its heroism. True, we will never again have songs like we had after the Six-Day War. Arik Lavie will no longer sing the lyrics of Yoram Taharlev: “We are past Rafiah, like you wanted, Tal, against the enemy we charged, and those who fell, fell. We passed by the fallen, we ran forward, Tal.” (Major General Israel Tal commanded the division that captured Gaza in 1967.) It’s true that we will never again sing “Nasser is waiting for Rabin, ay, ay, ay,” or “Sharm al-Sheikh, we have come back to you again.” But songs there will be, for sure. We have already had one rhymester wit in this war: “Hamas in Damascus is disconnected, the leadership in Gaza is dejected, the military wing is defecting, Hamas is screaming as expected.” Cute, eh? (Lyrics as recited by the cabinet secretary, Oved Yehezkel, in a press briefing on Sunday about the briefing to the cabinet by the director of Military Intelligence.) Whoever the wag is, we already have our first war song, as boastful as “Nasser is waiting for Rabin.”
The swaggering lyrics go hand in hand with doublespeak. “The houses have to be distanced from the border,” a learned military analyst explained incisively last week, referring to what needs to be done in Rafah along the “Philadelphi” route. “To distance the houses from the border,” as though these were homes marked for conservation in the old Sarona neighborhood of Tel Aviv, on which the Kirya – the defense establishment compound – now stands. Why, you just slide them onto tracks and move them a few meters down the road. Has the learned analyst seen the Rafah homes opposite Philadelphi in recent years? Most of them have long since been reduced to rubble. People lived in them, a great many people, who have nowhere, but nowhere, to go. Now there are hundreds more destroyed homes, which we have “distanced from the border,” so to speak.
We “liberated” the territories, “preempted” the terrorists and “preserved order,” the order of the occupation; consolidated the occupation with a “civil administration,” being careful not to cause a “humanitarian disaster,” jailed people in ?administrative detention,” killed with “neighbor procedure,” murdered with “rules of engagement” and liquidated “senior figures in Hamas”; children “died from their wounds,” adults were killed with “rubber bullets,” a 6-year-old child who is killed is a “youth,” a 12-year-old youth who is killed is a “young man” and both are “terrorists”; we established a “crossings unit” which is a network of roadblocks, and a “coordination and liaison directorate” which hardly coordinates or liaises between anything; we killed “gunmen” and “wanted individuals” and people “required for questioning,” all of them “ticking bombs.”
Now we have a “humanitarian corridor” and an equally “humanitarian” cease-fire. The “bank of goals” is also a friend.” People “in shock” exist only in Israel, no one has gone into shock in Gaza. “Children of the south” live only in Sderot. Hamas fighters are “terrorists” and “Hamas activists,” too, are not entitled to the honorific title of “noncombatants,” so their fate is the same. Every postman of the Palestinian postal service, every policeman, every government accountant and maybe also every doctor working in Hamas’ non-civil administration is considered an activist of the organization and therefore is to be killed before he kills us.
Our air force bombs and levels “targets,” sometimes also “structures,” never houses. Israel demands a “security zone” in Gaza, and security is always ours, only ours. Only my colleague at Haaretz, Amira Hass, dares, with characteristic courage, to call the tens of thousands of new homeless people in Gaza, made homeless by us, refugees for the second and third time in their lives; dares to call them “displaced persons.” A term that is so heavily charged and fraught with history. But these DPs have nowhere to escape the horrors of the “war.”