Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gideon Levy: The Punishment of Gaza

"Words," Gideon Levy writes, in The Punishment of Gaza (Verso, 2010), "do not kill; but words can ease the work of killing." Any number of misnomers and euphemisms can make the casualties of war less shocking, can turn the collective punishment of an entire population into a 'just war' against Hamas, can make the temporary cessation of state belligerence into a 'humanitarian' cease-fire.

Nevertheless, this is not entirely the fault of language. It requires a  concerted campaign of misinformation to make so many euphemisms legible, so even the most recent example of the belligerence of Israeli Defense Forces will appear, in the North American media, not as deliberate tactics but as defensive tactics. Not that this is confined to North America. Bernard-Henri Levy, who we've already criticized before (here and here), manages to twist the IDF's aggression around into a tactical error, all while bemoaning the "inversion of values" and the "hijacking of meaning" by the international condemnation of Israel's attack on the Gaza flotilla. BHL knows that you've got to ease the conscience of the world's liberals to remain an intellectual media personality.

Hence the importance of voices such as Gideon Levy, a journalist and editor for Haaretz, and an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories (and, incidentally, a critic of BHL). His recent book, made up of articles published in Haaretz from 2006 to 2009, is an incisive condemnation of Israel's four year long blockade of Gaza. Incisive, and, as one encounters the details of life under the blockade, infuriating. The Punishment of Gaza gives a narrative voice to the sustained collective punishment endured by the population of Gaza ever since Hamas won the majority in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. [1]

Levy's main concern is Operation Cast Lead, which lasted from December 27, 2008 to January 17, 2009. In that short time, Israeli bombardments killed over 1,300 Palestinians, injured over 5,000, and left over 100,000 homeless. However, as many critics of United States foreign policy know, numbers alone do not make an argument; they require context. Otherwise, they can also be used to justify war under the guise of humanitarian intervention. In The Punishment of Gaza, Levy provides the context of these statistics. First, he argues that Israel's disengagement from Gaza is a method of oppression from without, that is, a blockade intended as collective punishment. Second, he argues that the casualties of the IDF's onslaught are not accidents, but tactical targets in their occupation. For example, numerous articles show how civilians, including children, are deliberate targets in military operations, not because they are singled out, but because the Israeli army does not enforce repercussions for soldiers who kill or injure civilians. 

But, he argues, none of this would be possible without a political culture that dehumanizes Palestinians when it does not ignore them. He writes that the injustices continue because 
we have trained our soldiers to think that the lives and property of Palestinians have no value whatsoever. It is part of a process of dehumanization that has endured for dozens of years--the fruits of the occupation (142).
Just as there are generations of Palestinians who have been raised in refugee camps, there are Israelis who know of no other political culture than one in which the occupation is the order of things, where even the so-called moderates push over each other on the race to start another war (recall that, while it is not directly discussed by Levy, the Second Lebanon War also takes place during the time period covered by the book).[2]

Levy dismisses equivocations between the two sources of violence. The defense of Israeli aggression rests on the spectre of terrorism and the destruction of Israel, which are woven together in Western representations of the fear of Hamas. But, Levy argues, to perpetuate the occupation due to threats to Israeli security  is to mistake the effect for the cause. Only Israel can end the blockade and the occupation, even if it shows no inclination to do so. International opinion and policy does not show much inclination to intervene, with the exception of the growing strength of the campaign for divestment in Israel. As dire (for the Palestinians) as the situation appears, Levy shows, clearly and directly, that Israel is responsible for the continued injustices of the occupation. "Israelis," Levy writes in the final chapter, in a moment of polemic, "aren't paying any price for the injustice of occupation" (144). Only when Israelis feel some degree of international pressure through divestment and boycott, and domestic pressure through self-criticism, will it end. Formulations such as these sound abstract, but in The Punishment of Gaza they are given in concrete detail.


[1] This is not to ignore the fact that 'narrative voices' ought to also include analyses of the blockade by Palestinians. Levy's book is hindered by the fact that the information is largely 'second hand,' because Israeli journalists have been prohibited from visiting Gaza since November 2006.

[2] See the chapter "No Moderates Left" (available online here), or more recently "Kahane Won," previously discussed by Joshua.

1 comment:

ralph said...

Hmmmmm....I thought there would be many comments. I'm the first one. Apathy?.....What Hitler did to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto is about the same as what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians in Gaza.Both are horrible crimes against human beings. I guess the fog of propaganda has clouded the thinking of most Israelis and Americans.