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Does It Matter: Context In Gaza


I started submitting the following piece to my local print media outlets on January 7th.  It was too long for the smaller independents, and the larger papers didn’t even respond.  A few days later, DissidentVoice picked it up.

Nowhere in the world is mainstream discourse less critical of Israel than in the United States, and that includes Israel.

Only in the United States could a mild representation of events inside the Occupied Territories get a former president openly labeled an anti-Semite. Only in the United States could a Jewish scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who had family (some surviving, some perishing) in the Holocaust be called a Holocaust denier. Only in the United States could a reporter be gambling his or her career writing a piece that comes anywhere near the tone or depiction of state critiques published within Israel’s own Haaretz newspaper.

So what should I write about? If I possessed any breaking news or shocking information coming out of Gaza, would it even matter?

I worry that we are so saddled with the assumptions of American (and thus its allies’) exceptionalism, a mere challenge to the official story would be futile.

So instead, I will offer an exercise in context and a few questions helpful to digest this official line.

First of all, discount the relevance of all so-called “official sources.” Such sources are allowed a voice for one purpose, and that is to preserve an acceptable public image. Can you even imagine an official spokesperson (on any side) consciously saying anything harmful to the interests of his or her government?

Aside from deciphering such interests, these “official sources” are best used for counting. And by that, I mean counting how many official sources (including political pundits) are represented on one side (remember, allies count as well) in contrast to those represented on the other, not to mention the order in which these sources appear and the space they are allowed. Throw these findings on a seesaw, and we get a picture of who’s got a better shot at writing history.

Such results are no surprise. As long as Israel remains one of our greatest allies, its version of events will always be given, at very least, the benefit of the doubt.

This is evident not only in the space given “official” accounts, but in the language used to characterize those accounts.

For instance, on December 29th the Associated Press lead off a story by describing the targets of the Israeli assault on Gaza as “symbols of Hamas Power.” As the story was picked up throughout the mainstream media, so was this description. Some even used it in the headline.

Attributed to no one, such descriptions are offered as assumptions. And assumptions imply a certain amount of truth or legitimacy. When Israel tells the world it is in a “war to the bitter end” against Hamas (and the U.S. publicly offers its blessing), characterizing these bombing targets as “symbols of Hamas power” implies that all such targets are justified.

This of course leaves the burden to prove otherwise on the Palestinians and anyone else who challenges such assumptions.

So for the sake of this piece, let’s just take a minute and challenge one such assumption.

One of these “symbols of Hamas power” was a university. One of the areas hit was a women’s building. Do we accept this as being a legitimate target?

Israel says this university was responsible for research and development of Hamas weapons. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. The bigger question is, “Does it matter?”

If the Israeli government is telling us the truth, does this justify the bombing? If it does, then we must ask whether this makes universities in Israel that conduct weapons-related research legitimate targets for bombing. For that matter, what about MIT and other major universities within the United States? Would we accept these being described as symbols of government power and thus justified for targeting in war?

Furthermore, when have “symbols” of power ever been legitimate targets in the first place? One way Hamas rose to power was in offering social welfare services. Does that make their clinics and food distribution centers “symbols” of power? Are they also fair game?

What about police stations? Early on, these were some of the heaviest hit. Characterized as security forces, many police officers (some of whom had literally just been sworn in) were thrown into the rhetorical pile of legitimate dead.

Do we not distinguish between military and civil service? Would we see our own non-military “symbols of power” as legitimate targets?

What about Mosques? Do we consider our places of worship “symbols of power” justified as military targets? Israel says that they were used to store munitions. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. I guess we’ll just have to assume they were telling us the truth.

It’s obviously not serious enough for the United States to demand an investigation. It’s merely enough that the “official source” says it.

In the 2006 Lebanon War, the United States didn’t demand an independent investigation when Israel killed over 1,000 people (mostly civilians), over three hundred of which were children. Nor did the United States demand an independent investigation when Israel knowingly struck a UN compound. This list of “official” oops’s goes on and on. Yet never do we demand an independent investigation.

And why, one might ask, should the United States be demanding anything? Well, for starters, our Arms Export Control Act sets narrowly defined circumstances for use of U.S. arms. Since we supply both military aid to Israel as well as the actual weaponry being used in its current operation, it’s our responsibility under law to strictly monitor such use.

One can only wonder how different events might be if Israel believed the United States might actually enforce the Arms Export Control Act. Of course, Israel knows that if the official version of events gets a bit too hard to stomach, they can always fall back on their intentions.

As another perk of being a U.S. ally, it is assumed Israel (as do we) always has the noblest of intentions. And, luckily, intentions are not that easy to prove.

Or are they? As Noam Chomsky points out, intentions can and should be measured by anticipated consequences.

Is it enough for Israel to say that it is doing everything in its power to minimize civilian casualties but Hamas has military installations among residential neighborhoods? Or do we apply the burden of anticipated consequences?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Israel’s official version on this one is fully accurate. Does it matter that Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and that bombing almost anywhere assures civilian casualties? Does it matter that we would never allow police in our own country to shoot hundreds of bullets into a crowd in order to take down a dangerous suspect? One of the things that makes drive-by shootings that much more heinous is their anticipated consequences.

Furthermore, the location of Hamas military installations is not the least bit unique. Civilian areas in the United States are littered with military related buildings and infrastructure. I personally used to live within a few hundred feet of the War College in Pennsylvania.

Would Israel characterize Tel Aviv as a more appropriate target than Sderot for rocket fire simply because of its military installations?

These questions are very basic ways of offering context, something that is often quite lacking in such reports and analysis.

Certainly human life deserves such context. Certainly the lives of our own children would warrant such questions, if not full-fledged investigations. Certainly the lives of our innocent would be worth more than just assumptions, more than being casually dismissed by “official sources.”

Israel and the United States both say that Hamas is the problem. Does it matter that Israel had an early hand in allowing Hamas to court power? Does it matter that the United States forced the elections that brought Hamas to head the government? Does it even matter that Hamas was democratically elected?

Israel says that it was Hamas that broke the truce. Does it matter if the rocket fire started after six Palestinians were killed on November 4th? Does it matter that Hamas offered to extend the truce, including a proposed ten-year truce? Does it matter that during the truce, Israel increased its eighteen-month stranglehold on Gaza, bringing aid organizations to call it a humanitarian crisis?

Israel says that it hasn’t occupied Gaza since 2005. Does it matter that it has rigidly controlled its land, sea, and airspace effectively making it one big open-air prison? Does it matter that it withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in tax and customs revenue due the Palestinians from Israel’s control over the ports? Does it matter that Israel has denied fuel, food, and medicine to the collective Gaza population during its blockade?

Does it matter that Israel will not allow foreign journalists in to report what is happening? Does it matter that, like in Lebanon, Israel may have had such attacks planned for over six months? Does it matter that the targets in Gaza hit as of the time I will have submitted this piece, just to name a few, include (according to the International Middle East Media Center) police stations, a greenhouse, a charity office, municipal buildings, a fuel station, a medical storage facility, a medical clinic, a hospital, refugee camps, a TV station, mosques, a university, a fisherman’s dock, apartment buildings, personal homes, a sports club, a dairy, a fuel truck, an ambulance, a picnic park, and different schools (including a UN school).

Certainly, many will suggest my own bias in that I have focused on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and not Hamas rocket fire into Israel. Such rocket fire, however, does not suffer from a lack of coverage. Nor is anyone in the mainstream justifying rocket fire into Israel.

Instead, both language and omission are skillfully used to either excuse or gloss over the actions of our ally.

Like all teams, we portray our guys as the good guys and their guys as the bad guys. The world, however, is not as simple as good and evil. Humanity is more than just us and them.

The golden rule teaches us to put ourselves in the shoes of others. This forces us to ask, “If this situation were reversed, would we stand for such?”

If we swapped out Israel’s name with Iran and the Palestinians with any of our strategic allies, is there any doubt that this very minute we would be beating our chests and calling for war (if not already committed to it)?

Moreover, the golden rule teaches us not just to put ourselves in the shoes of the Palestinians, but to imagine them wearing ours. In other words, what example are the Palestinians left with? How do we expect a generation to grow up under the brutal violence of an illegal occupation and embrace non-violence? It’s as hypocritical as encouraging African-Americans during the civil rights movement to be non-violent in the face of not just physical violence, but the mental and spiritual violence of Jim Crow.

I, myself, support Palestinian non-violent resistance. Of course no one just shot a missile into my living room, killing my children. Whatever principles we expect from those who challenge us, we must also abide by such standards.

Now does this mean that I believe Hamas is a virgin in all of this? Absolutely not. While the Palestinians possess the legal right to resist occupation under international law, such right is not without moral or legal limits. The taking of an Israeli civilian’s life is a crime, as is the attempt to take such a life. Israeli children are no less precious than Palestinian children.

But they are also no more precious.

And even if you are immoral enough to differ, you must still see the irony in supporting such attacks.

Bombs do not explode peace dust. They explode revenge. Israel’s “war to the bitter end” will no more bring safety to Israelis than the so-called war on terror has reduced terrorism. This is not the least bit controversial. So why do it?

Does it matter that elections in Israel are right around the corner? Does it matter that Barack Obama will come into office inheriting government approval of such attacks? Does it matter that Israel has longed to redeem itself from the failed military ground offensives of the 2006 Lebanon War?

Does any of this matter? Seriously. Do any of the questions I am asking matter at all? Are they not even worthy of consideration?

If not, then ask yourself, “What would it take for us to say that Israel has gone too far? When the ratio of dead is a hundred to one? A thousand to one? Ten thousand to one? When every human rights organization in the world says it’s a massacre, a crime against humanity, a genocide? When a nuke is dropped?”

Many may think I have gone too far in my questions. I think it’s quite the contrary. The questions and examples in this piece have been mild, very mild.

And yet I admit, in this current media climate I have struggled with how to approach this issue. When I spoke out against Israel’s actions in Lebanon while co-hosting a local radio program in 2006, I was scared that I might be viewed as anti-Semitic or anti-American or pro-terrorist. When I sat down to write this piece, I experienced some of the same feelings.

And yet what am I calling for? I am merely calling for questions. And why am I calling for them? Because I sincerely care about the future of Palestinian and Israeli children. Because I know that they will never be truly safe until a resolution to the occupation is agreed upon, one that is not shot through with violence and soaked in blood.

Now, maybe it’s true that some of my own questions are charged with certain assumptions. Maybe time will offer me facts that contradict my own understanding and portrayal of events. If that becomes the case, I will welcome this greater understanding.

In the meantime I’m in the same boat as you, waiting for new information. My hope is that, as we wade through the mainstream discourse, we will not automatically steer clear from information that rocks the boat, that we will not be afraid to look outside the usual suspects for competent and courageous voices, that we will not shy away from asking questions.

For helpful examples of such courageous voices and a far more eloquent and knowledgeable balance to our exceptionalist news norm, I encourage anyone to read the statements of the UN Special Rapporteur to the Palestinian territories Richard Falk or the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis. Read the perspectives of Palestinian and Palestinian-American author/activists like Mustafa Barghouti, Omar Barghouti, Ramzy Baroud, and Ali Abunimah. Read the reporting of Haaretz journalists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass. Read the analysis of scholars like Ilan Pappe and Norman Finkelstein (as well as the late Edward Said). Read the accounts of international journalists like Robert Fisk and John Pilger. Read the commentary of Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald or Ben-Gurion University’s Neve Gordon. Listen to Dennis Kucinich’s appeal for a UN investigation into Israel’s attack on Gaza. Check out the Free Gaza Movement or Gush Shalom. Check out the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights or Israel’s B’tselem. Check out any recommendation from the Institute for Public Accuracy.

Or don’t.

I guess the question you really have to ask is, “Does it matter?”

As I am writing these words ground troops are in Gaza, rockets are still being fired into Israel, and the ratio of dead is nearly a hundred to one. I can only hope that by the time you read this, a ceasefire will have been reached.

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