The Killing Fields

November 6, 2006

In News

By Gideon Levy

A bloodbath is taking place in Beit Hanun, the Israel Defense Forces runs rampant and kills at least 37 people in four days – and Israeli public opinion yawns with indifference. A brigade commander tells his soldiers, who killed 12 people in one day: “You’ve won 12:0,” and the soldiers grin broadly. This is the moral nadir we have reached, following a long slide down a slippery slope: Human life has become cheap.

Proof of this came at the end of the week from the big mouth of Major General Elazar Stern, the head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, who occasionally says true things. “The IDF’s excessive sensitivity to human life led to some of the failures in the Lebanon war – and this should not happen,” Stern told Channel 7. Stern should be praised for these forthright words: Those who embark with unbearable lightness on a futile war of choice cannot allow themselves the luxury of showing sensitivity for the lives of their soldiers. In war, soldiers not only kill, but are also killed. This should have been stated in advance.

But the general’s remarks are also tainted with hypocrisy: Those who over a few months kill more than 1,000 Lebanese and 300 Palestinians for dubious reasons do not have the right to speak about sensitivity to human life. The fact that the public protest against the war did not take off demonstrates that after having lost all sensitivity for the lives of others, we are also gradually losing sensitivity for the lives of our children who are killed in vain. The contempt for human life starts with the lives of Arabs and ends with the lives of Jews.

What a long way we have come since the talk, as hypocritical as it may have been, about “the purity of arms.” This concept has been totally deleted from the lexicon. What a long way we have come since the time when we took pride in the fact that, unlike the Arabs, we tried not to kill innocent civilians. And now we have arrived at the shocking reality of the second Lebanon war. For example, the number of people Israel killed is not only almost 10 times higher than the number of people Hezbollah killed, but the number of soldiers Hezbollah killed is three times higher than the number of Israeli civilians they killed, while the number of Lebanese civilians killed by Israel is about three times the number of Hezbollah fighters. So whose arms are purer? A journalist from The Guardian who is currently in Israel was shocked to hear that these figures have not been the subject of public discussion here.

The current stage of the moral decline began with the targeted assassinations in the territories. When they began, there was still an argument over their legality and justness. Who remembers that the assassinations were once limited, declaratively at least, to “ticking bombs”? The High Court of Justice, in its cowardice, has evaded taking a stance on this issue for years, despite the petitions on its doorstep. And the assassination project grew and expanded until it reached monstrous proportions.

In recent months, almost no day has gone by without Palestinians being killed in Gaza. Instead of asking why, we get a prime minister who boasts to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about “300 terrorists” dead within four months, as if killing in itself were an enormous achievement. This is the lesson from Ehud Olmert, and it is immeasurably more grievous than all his alleged corruption affairs.

No one asked who these fatalities were, whether they all deserved to die, and what benefit Israel derives from this wholesale killing. Beyond the terrifying number of civilians killed, including dozens of women and children, we should also ask whether every armed person in Gaza – and there are tens of thousands of them – deserves the death penalty, without a trial. The day the IDF began the targeted assassinations, our sensitivity to human life was doomed to be erased.

The IDF has been operating in the town of Beit Hanun for several days now. Operation Autumn Clouds is ostensibly intended to target Qassam launchers, but meanwhile it has only brought more Qassams on Sderot – besides the killing, destruction and terror it sows in the heart of the 30,000-resident town. I was at the Beit Hanun home of the Abu Ouda family twice recently. The first time was when a shell destroyed the family’s home. The second time was when soldiers killed the father, his son and his daughter, who were innocent of any crime. And this was before Operation Autumn Clouds.

And how is the Israeli press covering Autumn Clouds? In Maariv on Thursday, you needed a magnifying glass to find an offhand reference to the killing of 10 Palestinians in one day; it was the same for Yedioth Ahronoth. The two newspapers with the country’s largest circulation demonstrate a disgusting level of dehumanization. The statement by Yedioth Ahronoth’s military commentator, Alex Fishman, that one of the operation’s goals is drilling the troops for the “big operation,” does not stir any protest. That the IDF is embarking on a “training operation” in a dense population center, sowing death and destruction – does this not show a frightening contempt for human life?

The daily killing in Gaza receives scant mention. Futile operations aimed at restoring the IDF’s lost honor do not arouse any debate about their aim, morality or chances of succeeding. No one wonders about the extent of Qassam damage versus the extent of the killing and destruction – including the bombing of the power station – in Gaza, where a million and a half people are encaged, impoverished and hungry.

These futile operations will not stop the Qassams, which are aimed at giving us and the rest of the world a painful reminder of the imprisoned and boycotted Gaza residents’ distress, which no one would notice if it were not for the Qassams. The way to fight the Qassams is to stop the boycott, sit down at the negotiating table and reach an accord. Otherwise, we will continue to slide and become immune to their loss of life, and soon to our loss of life as well. Listen to Major General Stern.