Just Another War? by Anat Biletzki
Was the latest war in Lebanon another war? Another, as in one more (of the same) in the list of Middle East wars? Or another, as in a different war (of new dimensions)? Paradoxically—it was both.
It’s always so risky writing about Israel-Palestine, lately turned into Israel-Palestine-Lebanon, seeing as we’re always in dreaded flux. If asked to draft some thoughts about “the situation” four months ago, I would have tried to provide an analysis—it might even have been optimistic—about the implications of the March elections. If asked to do the same two months ago, I would have cried out in anguish that the Occupation had gone on a rampage against Gaza. Still again one month ago, I would have faulted the new war in Lebanon for immersing everybody—or almost everybody—in such conceptual turmoil that familiar anti-Occupation discourse could no longer serve to define current urgent problems and articulate their solutions.
But now that war is seemingly over and writing today is risky because by the time these words go to press there might be something else afoot, making current judgments outdated. I prefer now, however, with no risk at all and with rather the adamant, even if infuriating, tone of “this is what we’ve been saying all along,” to point, yet again, at the Occupation and all it symbolizes as the root of our troubles. And to say, even more vehemently, that the Occupation is the iconographic manifestation of the hubris that underlies an unjust, racist society, which has elected to “live by its sword.”
Here are some numbers: It has been 109 years since the official beginnings of the Zionist movement. It has been 61 years since the end of the Holocaust. It has been 58 years since the establishment of the State of Israel. And it has been 39 years since the start of the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. No round numbers, no aesthetics to them. Then there is the other list, the list of wars: The 1948 war (a.k.a. the War of Independence to Israelis, or the Nakba—Catastrophe—to Palestinians); the 1956 Suez War (a.k.a. the Sinai Campaign); the 1967 war (a.k.a. the Six Day War to Israelis); the 1969-70 War of Attrition; the 1973 war (a.k.a. the Yom Kippur war to Israelis); the 1982 Lebanon War (a.k.a. Operation Peace of the Galilee to Israelis); the 1987 “first” Intifada; the 2000 Intifada (a.k.a. the Al-Aksa Intifada); and now this latest war in Lebanon, sometimes referred to in Israel as the Second Lebanon War, but still conspicuously nameless. There are precious few aesthetics in that list, but so many discussions and theories. Debates center on questions of “war of choice” and on the justness of these wars, and though there is a modicum of agreement that only the Suez War and the first Lebanon War were wars of choice, that accord has been challenged again and again. On the question of this most recent war—the challenge is more intriguing.
Lists and numbers in the history of Zionism and its wars cannot begin to tell the real story, a story that must mark, clear and loud, with no obfuscation, without evasion, the genuine culprit of the tale—the Occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel in 1967. (This is not the place, though that place may be of vital importance, to delve into the idea that the Occupation did not begin in 1967 but way before. I choose, uncharacteristically perhaps, to stay here with mainstream consent on that date.) The Occupation has ruined the lives of several generations of Palestinians, constantly and routinely violating their rights. Writ large it has denied them the right to citizenship and self-determination. (I always laugh—or is it weep?—when Israel, a state ruling over 3.5 million people without citizenship rights, is held up as the “only democracy in the Middle East.”) Writ minutely, but no less perniciously, it has violated rights galore—the right to marry and found families, freedom of movement, the right to education, the right to earn a living, the right to health, to property, and on and on and on. Headlines scream out atrocities, but tell little of humdrum wickedness, of banal and routine evil. So when a pregnant woman dies at the checkpoint, or when a violinist is made to play there, when a family is murdered on a beach, or a girl is run-over by a bulldozer, we are treated to the details of the horrors. But the everyday of Occupation, the crippling and dismantling of the very marrow of a society, never makes it into the news. Yet it is this routine of Occupation, and its acceptance by Israelis by and large, that makes up the background to this latest war.
An aside, albeit a sizeable one, rears its head here. What about the “disengagement” from Gaza, you may ask, which heralded the beginning of the end of the Occupation? What about the plan of “convergence,” touted by Olmert and Co. during elections, as the continuation of the beginning of the end of Occupation? What about the polls saying that a majority of Israelis want to “get out of the territories” and voted accordingly? The answers to these queries are surprisingly simple and run against the deceptions inherent in those catchwords (“disengagement,” “convergence,” “get out of the territories”). Ariel Sharon did not suddenly become a man of peace; on the contrary, he stayed the pragmatist he had always been, intent on keeping as much of the land of Israel-Palestine as possible for the Jews with as few Palestinians (Arabs, in his words) as possible on it. When the settlements in Gaza became a clear liability he chose to remove them, leaving Israel in control of Gaza’s airspace and water-space, internal population management, and all goings in-and-out of Gaza. This was no disengagement—but merely a move of the wardens from inside the prison to its fence.
Olmert’s “convergence” plan was even more deceptive: 60,000 (out of over 400,000) settlers would be removed from isolated outposts beyond the Wall winding its way within the West Bank, thereby consolidating the big settlement blocs, that most conspicuous expression of the Occupation. And regular Israelis? What about their desire to get out of the territories? Sure, most of them say, as long as we keep Ariel, and Ma’ale Adumim, and Gush Etzion, and all those other old-new names, made familiar and consensual in almost 40 years of Occupation. (I sometimes laugh—or is it weep?—when our generation speaks of the “real pre-1967 Israel.” That Israel existed for 19 years, the Occupation has been with us for 39.)
For 39 years we—that is, some of us—have been fighting the Occupation. More specifically, for the last six years, since the start of the second intifada, we have been despairingly watching the Israeli mainstream—left and right—adopt additional slogans: “there is no partner on the other side”; “Palestinians are terrorists”; “we are part of the global war on terror,” and other similar mottos. And we have all polished our discourse re Occupation—those who unequivocally resist it, those who “moderately” oppose its continuation, those who security-mindedly support partial withdrawal, and those who insist, usually for religious reasons, on never relinquishing the land. Indeed, in June, when Gaza made it into the headlines again, the usual mantras were bandied about. But now, after the bogus withdrawal that was no real withdrawal at all, it was so easy to hoodwink (almost) everybody. The number of Kassams lobbed at Israel—in the hundreds, and mere match-sticks compared to Israeli weaponry—was constantly cited as the (just) reason for Israeli reprisal; no mention of the thousands of missiles shot at Gaza by Israeli aircraft and artillery after the (supposed) withdrawal. The breach of sovereignty instigated by Palestinians in “kidnapping” Gilad Shalit was heralded as an aggression; no reference to Mostafa and Osama Ma’amar, the Palestinians kidnapped by Israel the day before the Shalit abduction. And on and on it went: a one-sided description of Palestinian malfeasance with the attendant report of Israeli hostilities forever in the garb of reaction at best, retaliation at worst.
That is where we were in this most desperate and despairing of Junes. And then July came around with another war: a war that took some aback and took most back so far in history that the old adages—“a small country fighting for its survival against massive odds”—sprang up again, metamorphosing into the current “democracy fighting terrorists.” This corrupt synthesis, between the old Zionist myth and the new neo-con brainchild, managed to glue all Israelis, including those who had naively embraced the temptation afforded by “disengagement” and “convergence,” into a patriotic mass, fighting a new “war of survival.” Public discourse exhibited a consensus—namely that this was a “just war” (even if some admitted that it was, perhaps, not conducted justly). Public discourse also succeeded in playing a double game, separating the Palestinian and Lebanese cases so as to placate those who wanted to support this war while still speaking out, almost mechanically, against the Occupation, and unifying the two so as to reinforce the perception of an Israel fighting all its just wars together.
Strangely enough, this facile dualism in public discourse is a fitting front for a more interesting double-essence of this latest war. This war was, indeed, another, one more, continuous point in the history of Occupation. That is to say—it would not have occurred had Israel engaged with Syria to return the Golan Heights years ago, or had it ceased its 39-year program of destroying the Palestinian community. In that sense, it was to be expected. But it was also a startlingly new phenomenon: this was the first time that Israel’s military came to be viewed, by almost all Israelis, as having “lost” the war (notwithstanding G.W. Bush’s proclamations to the contrary). In other words, the historically and geographically grounded presupposition of Israel’s invincibility was rudely and conceptually shattered. Most telling is the bridge now being constructed between these two distinct perceptions of the war: it is clear to all that years of guarding settlements instead of instructing in warfare, years of policing instead of training, years of hunting human heads instead of strategizing, have debilitated the IDF. The ideological grounding matters not; the angst travels across the board: from left to right, from idealists to utilitarians, from peace lovers to warmongers, the Israeli populace is now fingering the Occupation as the, or at least a, significant cause of the military defeat.
So the summer of 2006 saw Israel fighting another war in Lebanon, with hundreds killed, most of them civilians. Ironically though, and oh-so-tragically, this latest war took Israel’s and the world’s mind off Gaza, off the West Bank, off the Occupation. July saw the greatest number of Palestinians killed (178—see www.btselem.org for details) in Gaza and the West Bank in any month since April 2002, half of them civilians. (Again I sometimes laugh—or is it weep?—when mass killings of “combatants,” by targeted assassination or otherwise, is easily accepted). It is time to understand: For almost forty years Israel has been fighting the same war, the war of Occupation. This latest escapade in Lebanon, to some an offshoot of the greater Israeli war of existence, or, as others may have it, a new chapter in a very different war in the entire Middle East, exhibited, no matter what its identity, the same self-righteousness and supremacy that afflicts all self-deluded powers. In that sense it was informed by the same consciousness that runs the Occupation. For now, that war is seemingly over and writing today is risky because by the time these words go to press there might be something else afoot, another evil, another bout of stupidity, another war.
—August 23, 2006
Biletzki is a professor of philosophy at Tel-Aviv University. She is the former chairperson of B'Tselem—The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.