Beware the cost of war, and representation, and…

Picture 4

Hanna is in Gaza and has a blog. It’s not always about what she does in the world’s largest open air prison — there are other topics: architecture, photography, women, the museum. But here she writes about a current exhibition of Israeli and Palestinian photographers in London, “Beware the Cost of War,” that removes credits and captions from images of Israel and Palestine (for many of the photos, its Gaza and southern Israel last winter, specifically) as a way of looking, hopefully, at conflict devoid of identity, ideology, politics. It’s interesting, gruesome, and mostly it works. The New York Times photo blog covered the show and quotes organizer, Israeli photographer Yoav Galai: “People want to see the world as they see it: there’s good guys and bad guys.. I wanted to give the pictures back to the photographers. Away from the headlines. Away from pro- or anti-something. So you can see the reality of the conflict.”

Picture 6

The images represent the conflict, and they’d come to represent “one side” if printed in a newspaper and given a caption, we are supposed to believe. Like Hanna, I looked for the first sign of Israeli or Palestinian in every photograph — the Star of David on the medic’s vest, for one. (Actually it’s quite easy to pick out the Palestinians, by the quality of clothes and the extent of wounds and destruction). This proves the curator’s point, in a way, that we need to connect suffering with its subject, presumably to lay blame and understand its context. Galai said he was inspired by this bit of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others:

To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance. To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.

But what about moral equivalency in a conflict, in this case last year’s assault on Gaza, that doesn’t demand a balance of both sides, given the shear imbalance of dead and casualties (13 Israelis, 3 of them civilians, to 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians; crude rockets falling on Israeli towns, to guided bombs destroying Gaza’s only flour mill, bulldozers flattening chicken farms, and white phosphorus falling on children and a UN school). From scopophobia:

…I came across a picture of a dead dog (the “victim” of a Hamas rocket attack in southern Israel) next to images of dead Gazan children buried in piles of rubble that used to be their homes. I understand they were short of images of Israeli suffering (so they had to include some war criminal soldiers with minor cuts to rouse outr empathy), but really? Rather than open my eyes to the suffering of the Other, this collection of photographs showed me that the suffering is not the same. That saying “individual suffering is immeasurable, let’s not play the numbers game” is really closing your eyes to reality.


By creating a moral equivalency between the victims of both sides, this project is not taking a neutral stance ‘reaching across the lines’ as it fashions itself as doing. If you say to me “Israelis are suffering just as much as Palestinians,” you are actually saying this: one Israeli home damaged in Sderot is worth 25,000 homes in Gaza, one Israeli soldier captured is worth 11,000 Palestinian prisoners is Israeli jails, 13 Israelis killed (3 of them civilians) is worth 1,400 Palestinians (most of them civilians), 60 people in Ashqelon with PTSD is the equivalent of 40 years of occupation. And those kids who live upstairs from you, who sometimes come home from school singing an unbearable number of repetitions of “Biladi,” their lives are worth as much as that of a well-bred Israeli dog.

Read Mondoweiss

p01-06-23838

An excellent blog on Middle Eastern politics and ideas. Recently, it posted this analysis of the lack of coverage and courage in leading American papers on the fallout of the Goldstone report and the continued legacy of Israel’s war on Gaza on the left in America (that is, its vaunted editors and writers don’t want to talk about it. One exception being Harper’s) :

The New York Times is covering the Goldstone Report. Where is it covering it? Well: the furor over the report among Palestinians. We’re pretty sure this is a good story. Neil MacFarquhar is on it. But it’s really not The Story, it’s just an angle of a hugely-important international story, and the only angle the Times is covering.

Here’s what the Times refuses to cover:

–the furor over the Goldstone report on the part of the Israel lobby in the U.S., and the pressure it’s put on the Obama administration, number one. Even J Street has been quiet about the Goldstone report, while it puts out a statement applauding an Israeli Nobelist.

–and what about the political jockeying over the report, the decision by the Obama administration to bury it and make the Palestinian Authority do the dirty work? Important story. Nothing. Mike Hanna of the Century Foundation said two weeks ago that the report’s troubling findings were going to be very “tricky” diplomatically for the Obama administration. He was right. He knows what’s gone down. Why isn’t the Times calling him for comment?

–the incredible discomfort that Goldstone, a Jewish judge who denounced apartheid, has created among liberal American Jews who know that Gaza was a horror but are afraid to face these facts. Nine dead Israelis, 1400 dead Palestinians: of whom the majority were civiilans. The Israelis destroyed the only remaining flour mill, destroyed chicken farms with bulldozers, and dropped white phosphorus on children. American Jews were never silent about napalm in Vietnam. Here they are tonguetied and helpless, and the Times is helping them to avoid this important question by suppressing the news.

–Nothing in the Times about the many Jews here who have supported Goldstone, including Jews Say No!

–No editorial yet in the Times.

This is about discourse suppression. It is related to the fact that the New Yorker, the leading cranial IV for the Establishment, has said nothing at all about Gaza in 10 months. No: Gaza and the persecution of the Palestinians there is an untidy embarrassment to  the liberal Establishment.

The New Republic has actually been more responsible than the Times and the New Yorker here. By publishing raving maniacs like Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi, it has at least informed its readers where it hurts, that this is ideologically disputed territory. The Times has told its readers, Only Palestinians care about this. More mush from the wimp.

One other point. Mainstream liberals are quick to call for people to speak out on Third World countries and once upon a time in Eastern Europe when human rights are suppressed. It’s easy to condemn the Soviet Writers Union or ministries in Africa for not speaking out against genocide. What’s hard is to report and speak out on issues that cause your own readers to squirm. The true measure of intellectual courage is, you go ahead and do it anyway. The Washington Post, the Times, the New Yorker and others have failed this test.

The photo is of posters in Gaza, which read “To the trash dump of history, o traiter Mahmud Abbas.” From Reuters, via the Angry Arab.

Because Rockets = Macaroni

“When have lentil bombs been going off lately? Is someone going to kill you with a piece of macaroni?” asked Congressman Brian Laird. It was only after Senator John Kerry, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised the issue with Defence Minister Ehud Barak after their trip last month that Israel allowed the pasta in. Macaroni was considered a luxury item, not a humanitarian necessity, they were told. The total number of products blacklisted by Israel remains a mystery for UN officials and the relief agencies which face long delays in bringing in supplies. For security reasons such items as cement and steel rods are banned as they could be used by Hamas to build bunkers or the rockets used to target Israeli civilians. Hearing aids have been banned in case the mercury in their batteries could be used to produce chemical weapons.

From the Independent. Finally John Kerry says something, and I start feeling a bit better about that stint as a “Finance Volunteer” during the ’04 DNC in Boston (though it was worth the free ticket to the convention the night some guy named Barry Obama gave the keynote address).

Coming back

I was idling through a long layover in Charles de Gaulle airport a few weeks ago, halfway to Damascus, trying to nod off in the terminal but interrupted by the sun coming up over the cold. An Air France flight to Tel Aviv left the gate first, followed two hours later by my flight to Syria. This was in the middle of the war on Gaza, the end of the first week of January. I remember wondering that if Israel was sunny and clear like France was that day, could the passengers, on their afternoon descent into Ben Gurion, see plumes of smoke and the evidence of Gaza burning? Maybe they would see those oddly shaped white phosphorous attacks, which look like a smoke stream of tentacles descending.

The first few weeks back in Sham: there have been a few government-sanctioned protests and rallies for Gaza. I was in Aleppo for a few days, and walked through a mid-morning rally of school children, waving Palestinian and Syrian flags in Aleppo’s central Public Park, chanting the usual chants: ” من روح, للدم, والفداء في الله “From our souls, to our blood, we will sacrifice (for Allah).”

Before last Friday, the Old City was plastered with Gaza rally posters jointly advertising the PFLP, the DFLP, and the Syrian Communist Party. This week there are new, larger posters of George Habash smiling next to the PFLP logo, coinciding with the anniversary of his death. Billboards saying this or that about Gaza are on roadsides and bus stops all over the city — end the occupation, against the aggressions of israel, etc. The favored way of protest in the Old City and in shops in the new parts of town is to spray-paint the Israeli flag on the street (or better attach a large decal of the flag to the pavement, some combined with the American flag and a Swastika) so cars and little trucks and people have to stomp over it to get a croissant, some fruit, or a bootleg dvd.

Satellite tv is a refuge and anger machine at once. Flipping between Al Jazeera English and Arabic, the pictures and montages are gruesome and accurately so. Some call this media hype, but when you live in a neighboring capital a days drive (if borders were open) from the destruction of Gaza and still can’t help feeling disconnected, the immediacy of suffering that makes Al Jazeera’s programming seems essential. It’s not a fair trade with the jingo montages and raving of Fox News, because Fox News doesn’t show violence. The political agenda of Jazeera, and there are many, has through the Gaza war been supplanted by the simple task of communicating suffering.

In lieu of posting many links about Gaza, here is one. A collection of comments from contributors to the London Review of Books. Among them, Eliot Weinberger who writes simply:

1. Who remembers the original dream of Israel? A place where the observant could practice their religion in peace and the secular would be invisible as Jews – where being Jewish only mattered if you wanted it to matter. That dream was realised, not in Israel, but in New York City.

2. The second dream of Israel was of a place where socialist collectives could flourish in a secular nation with democratic freedoms. Who remembers that now?

3. ‘Never again’ should international Jews invoke the Holocaust as justification for Israeli acts of barbarism.

4. As in India-Pakistan, blaming the Brits is true enough, but useless.

5. A few days ago, to illustrate the Gaza invasion, the front page of the New York Times had a large pastoral photograph of handsome Israeli soldiers lounging on a hill above verdant fields. Unquestioning faith in the ‘milk and honey’ Utopia of Israel is the bedrock of American Judaism, and reality does not intrude on faith.

More.

It’s About Occupation

Another recent Huff Post:

What does Quneitra have to do with Gaza today? It expresses the truth a conflict that becomes more hopeless with every crudely launched rocket from Gaza, every section of the apartheid wall weaving through the West Bank, every “highly efficient” Israeli strike: Arab land is occupied by Israel and has been for 40 years.

Fisk on Gaza

26298934

How easy it is to snap off the history of the Palestinians, to delete the narrative of their tragedy, to avoid a grotesque irony about Gaza which – in any other conflict – journalists would be writing about in their first reports: that the original, legal owners of the Israeli land on which Hamas rockets are detonating live in Gaza.

That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon and the fields around it – Askalaan in Arabic – were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They – or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – are among the one and a half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80 per cent of whose families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of the people of Gaza don’t come from Gaza.

But watching the news shows, you’d think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza – a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin – and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story.

More.

“Inside Gaza”

26283066

I am safe, and yet I feel like a walking dead person. Everything around me shows it. It is hard to write something of any coherence while exposed to cold winter air and to the smell that lingers after the detonation of Israeli bombs. They must have been massive. During the bombing I opened all the windows around my apartment to avoid them imploding as a result of the vacuum shocks sweeping through Gaza City after each enormous bang. While the bombing continued, I jumped down two flights of stairs to my father’s house, to make sure he was OK. Should I open up all his windows too? That would expose the old man to the risk of illness. We have no medical care or medication. However, the risk from shattering glass was greater, so I opened them all.

Sami Abdel-Shafi in Gaza city, for the Independent.

“Hysteria in Gaza” on Huffington

The Huffington Post has just posted my short response to today’s horrific news.

Children’s bodies are being covered with cardboard boxes in Gaza — the hospitals have run out of sheets — as Washington and London urge Israel to use restraint and avoid civilian casualties.

Palestinians on the West Bank are organizing in protest, but this was Israel’s plan all along. Less than two weeks ago some 50 Israeli policemen injured each-other in “gloves-off” training that a spokesman described as “a huge police training exercise to prepare for riot control and to deal with different scenarios.”

Read the rest here.

“as the White House called on Israel to avoid civilian casualties.”

_45329291_rafahcar_afp466

And the US press and political apparatus wonders why Israeli-Palestinian peace is so “elusive.” 

Why must the NYT always flip the narrative? Their report describes Israelis running from rockets that have killed ONE person so far before describing the scenes of horror in Gaza, among them children getting out of school as bombs started falling. It is such seemingly innocuous journalistic shifts that reveal media bias — along with the endless repetition of air strikes “in response” or “in retaliation” to homemade rockets that land in fields or sand in Israel.

After the initial airstrikes, which also wounded about 600Palestinians, dozens of rockets struck southern Israel. Thousands of Israelis hurried into bomb shelters amid the hail of rockets, including some longer-range models that reached farther north than ever before. One Israeli man was killed in the town of Netivot and four were wounded, one seriously.

A military operation against Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, had been forecast and demanded by Israeli officials for weeks, ever since a rocky cease-fire between Israel and Hamas broke down completely in early November and rocket attacks began in large numbers against Israel. Still, there was a shocking quality to Saturday’s attacks, in broad daylight on about 100 sites, as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market and children were emerging from school.

Compare this to a current report in Ha’aretz:

Israel launched Saturday morning the start of a massive offensive against Qassam rocket and mortar fire on its southern communities, targeting dozens of buildings belonging to the ruling Hamas militant group. 

Palestinian medical sources said that at least 205 people had been killed in the strikes, which began with almost no warning at around 11:30 A.M. 

Medical personnel in Gaza said that more than 200 people were also wounded in the series of Israel Air Force strikes. Egypt has opened its long-sealed border with Gaza to allow in the wounded for medical treatment. Hamas said that the attacks had caused widespread panic in the Strip. 

The first wave of air strikes was launched by a 60 warplanes which hit a total of 50 targets in one fell swoop. The IAF deployed approximately 100 bombs, with an estimated 95 percent of the ordnance reaching its intended target. Most of the casualties were Hamas operatives. 

Gaza

This morning I ducked into a little mahal near Bab Touma to buy credit for my cellphone. The old man behind the counter, who’s always smiling, always rattling off greetings, still had a smile on his face when I walked in. But the TV was on and the smile left at the next moment.

“Haram… shame on them.”

I turned around the see the small television on a shelf. On it was a news program showing the powerless hospitals in Gaza.

“What’s the news?” I asked, forgetting at this early morning hour that Gaza was once again without power, that hospitals were again forced to run on generators after the only power plant shut down; that foreign aid was just barely leaking in; that foreign reporters last week were barred from entering the coastal strip. 

“The Israelis and their siege. Look at the hospitals…” he deadpanned. The Syrian news showed an old man slumped in a corner of a dingy room in blinking fluorescent light. It hardly looked like a hospital. “Shame, shame on them.”

From the BBC:

Many will tell you that they feel a time of deep division in Palestinian society is being taken advantage of.

Few take Israel’s explanation, that it is only protecting its citizens from the horror of rocket attacks, at face value.

“Isn’t it enough that their army kills the people who fire rockets?” asks Mr Nasser.

“We are not responsible, so why are we all being punished? It makes no sense.”

He talks of the long-term impact on children in Gaza, including his own, aged six, five and two.

“It’s getting harder for us to answer our childrens’ questions about the situation, without instilling hatred in their minds about the people responsible for our suffering,” he says.

He does not just mean the Israeli government.

“People here see everyone as responsible for their miserable lives. They see Israel closing Gaza, but they also see people around the world doing nothing.

“They see Hamas making things worse by using the blockade as an excuse not to be accountable, and they do whatever they like.

“People see the silence of the PA, [the Fatah-dominated Palestinian government in the West Bank] and blame them too,” he says.

“It’s so hard to see where the hope is, and so hard to stop these conditions breeding more hatred.” 

Blogging for TIME must be a sweet gig

I’m trying to think back on where our Mediterranean voyage went horribly wrong. Was it the heavy sea and wind that pitched our sailboat up and down like a rubber duck in a jacuzzi? The fact that the Israeli navy was probably jamming the communications of the peace boats we were trying to rendezvous with on the high seas? Or was it that our sly skipper Shmuel was in cahoots with the Israeli authorities and was cheerily trying to sabotage our mission?

The plan seemed perfectly do-able: a small group of journalists would charter a boat and set a course northeast from the port of Ashdod so that we would meet up with two vessels loaded with peace activists who were trying to break Israel’s sea blockade on Gaza. We would witness what happened when the two ships tried to break into Israel’s military exclusion zone around Gaza.

Via Time’s Middle East blog.