Silent Partner

Yitzhak Laor

On 4 April, a news item on BBC World, introduced as ‘The Israeli Lesson’, dealt with suicide bombing as a potential problem for the Anglo-American axis in Iraq. We were shown footage from Israeli checkpoints in Palestine, where the lesson had already, allegedly, been learned. Palestinian civilians were shown being kicked by soldiers, although of course they were treated this way long before suicide bombing became a tactical problem. Then there were images of terrorist attacks inside Israel along with what seemed to be footage from Iraq of a putative uprising. A British security expert was interviewed, and told us what we already knew: that every Iraqi citizen would, from now on, be treated as a suspect. Since the war had from the beginning been waged against the very idea of Iraqi sovereignty, it was obvious that every Iraqi citizen must be regarded as an enemy and a target. Then came the real Israeli lesson: extracts from an interview with an Israeli colonel who, sitting in a helicopter, had killed a Palestinian boy running for his life on the hills around Bethlehem during the first Intifada. ‘My advice to the Americans,’ this hero said, ‘is don’t be friends with the Iraqis. You are not friends of the Iraqis.’ ‘The language of the mob was only the language of public opinion cleansed of hypocrisy and restraint,’ Hannah Arendt once wrote, in connection with the demise of law in the face of a threat to the national interest. Here in Israel, as in the US, the language of the mob and of public opinion have converged: there is no restraint; there are no euphemisms.

No one indeed was keener on the war in Iraq than the Israeli media. The wave of anti-war demonstrations, from Dhaka to San Francisco, from Tokyo to Damascus, was presented as merely a temporary obstacle, commented on by international editors who usually work on stories about storms in India, or strikes in South Korea and France, or wars in other parts of the world. But from the moment Paul Wolfowitz gave us his vision of massive Iraqi graveyards, this war was reported and analysed by senior journalists and experts on Arab affairs, by former military commanders, and by all kinds of specialist on the US: ex-cabinet ministers, ex-ambassadors, professors of American history, specialists on democracy in general, specialists on democracy in our part of the globe in particular, PhD students, Michael Walzer fans, Thomas Jefferson fans etc. The civilian casualties were hardly mentioned, as in the US, though our media are not quite as bad as theirs. We were never shown the ‘disturbing pictures’. Instead, every evening Israelis could watch the former head of the Air Force analysing bombardments and cruise missiles and the hell that Iraq’s cities had become; he seemed to be enjoying himself, one TV critic noted. The horrors were reported not as potential war crimes, but as obstacles to a speedy ending of the war, or to Tony Blair’s success as its PR officer.

We did all we could to be a silent partner in this war. We managed first of all to be among its victims by declaring a state of emergency on day one. Children had to go to school carrying heavy gas masks and emergency kits that included atropine. For twenty days (until the Passover holiday began), everywhere you looked there were disciplined children obeying parents obeying schoolteachers obeying the Ministry of Education obeying the Chief of Staff – in short, performing the role of a nation at risk. (Fifteen children were hospitalised after injecting themselves with the atropine.) But we also did our best to join in. The Israeli Army, one of the world’s strongest and best trained, does not have real wars to fight, and so when there is a real war next door, and our sacred army is marginalised again, just as it was in 1991, the only available compensation is verbal. TV commentators kept themselves busy moving troops on huge maps, and retired generals talked as if they had just returned from the battlefield. Newspaper headlines dealt with the war as if it were being waged by our own flesh and blood, and described events in the most optimistic and boastful way. One of Israel’s most influential columnists, Yoel Marcus, wrote in Haaretz on 4 April:

After two weeks of fighting, we can say the ‘day after’ has already arrived. Despite doubts and the criticisms of the way the military is functioning, despite Der Spiegel headlines like ‘They wanted a blitzkrieg but they’re stuck in the mud,’ and despite protest rallies in the United States and around the world – America is on its way to victory.

In other words, we have good reason to be envious of America. Look at the noise that was made, even in the US, about a small-scale atrocity like Jenin, or the demolition of seventy shacks in Rafah, or the killings in Gaza, or the destruction of a huge building with 15 of its inhabitants so that we could kill a Hamas leader. What are all these compared to British artillery pounding Basra for 18 consecutive days? What are all these compared to the bombardment of Baghdad?

When Israel occupied Beirut, critics said it had gone too far. But look how America breaks every rule. Who is going to take seriously the claim that Israel is being led by a war criminal when what Sharon has done is measured against the atrocities of this spring offensive? The Belgian Parliament, following the glorious victory over the mighty army of Saddam Hussein, has already decided to limit the law on crimes against humanity, in a move that keeps at bay possible action against democratic leaders. The Belgians have subscribed to what Israel, with Britain and the US, has always claimed: if a leader is democratically elected, he may and even should, wage war against peoples that don’t have democracy or strong armies, or weapons of mass destruction. Let’s see our ailing Refuseniks try to accuse our generals of war crimes now, just for uprooting a few thousand olive trees. Who except for anti-Israeli zealots – and anti-semites, of course – will take the claims of our diminishing peace movement seriously? If Jack Straw ever again tries to condemn the killing of civilians in Gaza, we will be able to remind him of the horrors of Basra.

People in Europe, and even here, warn that this is the right time for ‘concessions’ to the Palestinians, if not for the sake of freedom, then for the sake of peace, and if not for the sake of peace, then for the sake of Tony Blair, whose face we must save. And now we’re all waiting for the famous Road Map, not that anything will ever come of it. Even the settlers aren’t speaking out against it. For years the Americans told us the settlements were ‘an obstacle to peace’, but they never did anything about dismantling them; we have defied dozens of UN resolutions and developed the worst weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological and atomic (for defending ourselves, of course). Did the Americans mean what they said? Did they try to implement the UN resolutions? No, because the Americans need us. Because, contrary to what self-righteous European columnists write, stability in the Middle East is not a necessity for the US.

What are the lessons America can learn from Israel? First, that enormous damage was done when pictures from Sabra and Shatila were sent all over the world. So in Jenin we kept the journalists out: they’re not to be trusted. Next, that America and Britain needn’t worry about justifying the war on Iraq. Israel didn’t have a real, still less a legal, reason to invade Lebanon. And we lost that war. No one’s going to worry about the reasons you went to war after you’ve won. Forget about the weapons of mass destruction that the US Congress and British Parliament took as their casus belli. Make sure you say all the right things about freedom for the Iraqi people, regional threats, democracy, universal values, the market economy. (Memorial days, by the way, are great. Peace movements don’t dare interfere with memorial days.)

How to end the war is another thing you could learn from us. You can end it whenever you want; ending a war is an ongoing process. The war in Lebanon officially ended in 1985, but in fact Israel finally withdrew in 2000, driven out by three hundred partisans. No matter why Bush and Blair get out, or when, they should make sure it isn’t said that they were driven out by partisans, or members of the resistance, or the Iraqi underground, or freedom fighters. Muslim militiamen, however, can never be freedom fighters if they fight against their own liberators, who came in the name of freedom. Thirty-five years ago, Israel invented an untranslatable word to describe any Palestinian the military wanted to kill or arrest: Mekhabel (in the plural, Mekhablim). Its untranslatability was crucial: the point was to foreclose any universalisation. The closest English equivalent would be ‘saboteur’ (‘he who comes to disrupt’). But Mekhabel isn’t a euphemism; it was a new name that could be given to any Palestinian – and later to any Lebanese, or any Arab guerrilla, or terrorist, or school, or hospital (it can be used for buildings as well as people). Tens of thousands have been arrested, tortured, expelled or killed for being Mekhablim.

It’s important for the Anglo-American axis to find a name for the resistance fighters they will encounter in Iraq. But they shouldn’t use the old colonial names. It would be a mistake to copy Churchill’s vocabulary when he ordered the gassing of rebellious Iraqis. ‘I am strongly in favour,’ he wrote to Hugh Trenchard, the Chief of the Air Staff, in February 1920, ‘of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.’

There is one big difference between Israel and the Anglo-American axis: Israel ignored Lebanese nationalism and was defeated. Bush and Blair can ignore Iraqi nationalism and win. They can do this because they have the power to erase it – democratically, of course.

9 April