The Language of Death

By Chris Hedges

World Can't Wait helped produce a town meeting last night, sponsored by Revolution Books in New York City.

Chris Hedges Photo
Chris Hedges
gave the main address.
 
The incursion and bombardment of Gaza is not about destroying Hamas. It is not about stopping rocket fire into Israel. It is not about achieving peace. The Israeli decision to rain death and destruction on Gaza, to use the lethal weapons of the modern battlefield on a largely defenseless civilian population, is the final phase of the decades-long campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestinians. The assault on Gaza is about creating, squalid, lawless and impoverished ghettos in the West Bank and Gaza where life for Palestinians will be barely sustainable. It is about building a series of ringed Palestinian enclaves where the Israeli military will have the ability to instantly shut off movement, food, medicine and goods to perpetuate the misery.   
 
Privilege and power, especially military power, is a dangerous narcotic. Violence destroys those who bear the brunt of its force, but also those who try to use it to become gods. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, said Israel is engaged in a “war to the bitter end” against Hamas in Gaza. A war? Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques and slums, to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command and control, no army, and calls it a war. It is not a war. It is murder.

The images of dead Palestinian children, lined up as if asleep on the floor of the main hospital in Gaza, are a metaphor for the future. Israel will, from now on, speak to the Palestinians in the language of death. And the language of death is all the Palestinians will be permitted to speak back. 

The use of terror and hunger to break a hostile population is one of the oldest forms of warfare. I watched the Bosnian Serbs employ the same tactic in Sarajevo. And I watched the Bosnian Serbs, like the Israelis, attempt to justify their systematic destruction of the city, with thousands of dead and wounded, on a few paltry Muslim mortars and light arms fire. Those who orchestrate such sieges do not grasp the terrible rage born of long humiliation, indiscriminate violence and abuse. A father or a mother whose child dies because of a lack of vaccines or proper medical care does not forget. A boy whose ill grandmother dies while detained at an Israel checkpoint does not forget. Families who carry the broken bodies of their children to hospitals do not forget. All who endure humiliation, abuse and the murder of those they love do not forget. This rage becomes a virus within those who, eventually, stumble out into the daylight. Is it any wonder that 71 percent of children interviewed at a school in Gaza recently said they wanted to be a “martyr”?
 
Militant movements feed off of martyrs and Israel is delivering the maimed and the dead by the truck load. Hamas fighters, armed with little more than light weapons, a few rockets and small mortars, are battling one of the most sophisticated military machines on the planet. And the determined resistance by these doomed fighters exposes, throughout the Arab world, the gutlessness of dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who refuses to open Egypt’s common border with Gaza despite the slaughter. Israel, when it bombed Lebanon two years ago, sought to destroy Hezbollah. By the time it withdrew it had swelled Hezbollah’s power base and handed it heroic status throughout the Arab world. Israel is doing the same for radical groups like Hamas.
 
The refusal by political leaders, from Barack Obama to all but five members of Congress, to the major media to speak out in defense of the rule of law and fundamental human rights exposes our cowardice and hypocrisy. Those who openly condemn the Israeli crimes, including Israelis such as Yuri Avnery, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe, Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, as well as American stalwarts Noam Chomsky, Dennis Kucinich, Norman Finklestein and Richard Falk, are ignored or spurned like lepers. They are denied a platform in the press. They are rendered nearly voiceless. Falk, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories and a former professor of international law at Princeton, was refused entry into Israel in December, detained for 20 hours and deported. Never mind that nearly all these voices are Jewish. 
 
Our self-righteous celebration of ourselves and our supposed virtue is exposed to be as false as that of Israel. We have become monsters, militarized bullies, heartless and savage. We are a party to human slaughter, a flagrant war crime, and do nothing. We forget that the innocents who suffer and die in Gaza are a reflection of ourselves, of how we might have been should fate and time and geography have made the circumstances of our birth different. We forget that we are all absurd and vulnerable creatures. We all have the capacity to fear and hate and love. “Expose thyself to what wretches feel,” King Lear said, entering the mud and straw hovel of Poor Tom, “and show the heavens more just.”
 
Falk, labeled before this assault what Israel was doing to the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza “a crime against humanity.” He reminded us that under international law collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza is “a flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” He has asked for “the International Criminal Court to investigate the situation, and determine whether the Israeli civilian leaders and military commanders responsible for the Gaza siege should be indicted and prosecuted for violations of international criminal law.”
 
The public debate about the Gaza attack engages in the absurd pretence that it is Israel, not the Palestinians, whose security and dignity is being threatened. This blind defense of Israeli brutality towards the Palestinians is a betrayal of the memory of those killed in other genocides from the Holocaust to Cambodia to Rwanda to Bosnia. The lesson of the Holocaust is not that Jews are special. It is not that Jews are unique. It is not that Jews are eternal victims. The lesson of the Holocaust is that when you have the capacity to halt genocide, and you do not -- no matter who carries out that genocide or who it is directed against -- you are culpable.   And we are very culpable. The F-16 jet fighters, the Apache attack helicopters, the 250-pound “smart” GBU-39 bombs are all part of the annual $2.4 billion in military aid we give to Israel. Palestinians are being slaughtered with American-made weapons. They are being slaughtered by an Israeli military we lavishly bankroll. But perhaps our callousness indifference to human suffering is to be expected. We, after all, kill women and children on an even vaster scale in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bloody hands of Israel mirror our own.
 
There will be more dead Palestinian children. There will be more U.N. schools, used as a sanctuary by terrified families, blown to bits by Israeli bombs with more than 40 killed, half of whom were women and children. There will be more emaciated, orphaned children. There will be more screaming or comatose wounded in the corridors of Gaza’s glutted hospital corridors. And there will be more Israeli lies, for that is what governments do in war, they distort and manipulate the facts knowing that propaganda is a vital instrument in wartime. The shelling of the UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp took place Israel said because Hamas fighters had been firing mortars from near the school entrance. They offered proof, an aerial photo which showed the school and the mortar. But the photo, it was uncovered, was more than a year old.   It was a lie. And lies permeate the absurd reports, like the one on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, titled “A Gaza War Full of Traps and Trickery.” In this story unnamed Israeli intelligence officials gave us a spin on the war worthy of the White House fabrications made on the eve of the Iraq war. We learned about the perfidious and dirty tactics of Hamas fighters. Foreign reporters, barred from Gaza and unable to check the veracity of the Israeli version of the war, are asked to abandon their trade as reporters to become stenographers. The cynicism of conveying Israeli propaganda and lies as truth, as long as it is sourced to unidentified intelligence officers, is the poison of American journalism. If this is all journalism has become, if moral outrage, the courage to defy the powerful, the commitment to tell the truth and to give a voice to those who without us would have no voice, no longer matters our journalism schools should devote their energies to teaching shorthand. It seems to be the skill most ardently coveted by the majority of out senior editors and news producers. Edward Said wrote about what he termed "the fawning elasticity with regards to one's own side that has disfigured the history of intellectuals since time immemorial."  And this disfigured history saturates our airwaves, our universities and our newsprint. 
 
There have always been powerful Israeli leaders, since the inception of the state of Israel in 1948, who have called for the physical removal of the Palestinians. The ethnic cleansing of some 800,000 Palestinians by Jewish militias in 1948 was, for them, only the start.   But there were also a few Israeli leaders, including the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who argued that Israel could not pick itself up and move to another geographical spot on the globe. Israel, Rabin believed, would have to make peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors to survive. Rabin’s vision of two states, however, died with him. The embrace of wholesale ethnic cleansing by the Israeli leadership and military is now unquestioned. This cleansing, for this is the intent now of the campaign in Gaza, means Palestine’s right to exist was effectively cancelled 61 years ago with the establishment of the Israeli state. It means an acceleration of the expulsion and extinction of the indigenous people whose land was stolen from them then and is disappearing under the weight of expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank and newly seized territory by the Israeli military. It means that the infamous "Plan D" of 1947-48, which resulted in the murderous depopulation of 369 Palestinian towns and villages by the Haganah and that massacre upon massacre of Palestinian civilians in razed villages from Deir Yassin to Ramle to Lydda, finds its logical conclusion in the massacre in Gaza.
 
“It seems,” wrote the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe recently, “that even the most horrendous crimes, such as the genocide in Gaza, are treated as desperate events, unconnected to anything that happened in the past and not associated with any ideology or system... Very much as the apartheid ideology explained the oppressive policies of the South African government, this ideology – in its most consensual and simplistic variety – has allowed all the Israeli governments in the past and the present to dehumanize the Palestinians wherever they are and strive to destroy them. The means altered from period to period, from location to location, as did the narrative covering up these atrocities. But there is a clear pattern [of genocide].”
 
Gaza has descended into chaos. Hamas, which despite Israeli propaganda has never mustered the sustained resistance Hezbollah carried out during the Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon, has been crippled if not broken. Gaza will now be ruled by antagonistic bands of warlords, clans and mafias. It will resemble Somalia. And out of that power vacuum will rise a new generation of angry Jihadists, many of whom may spurn Hamas for more radical organizations. Al-Qaeda, which has been working to gain a foothold in Gaza, may now have found its opening.
 
Israel operates under the illusion that it can crush Hamas and install a quisling Palestinian government in Gaza and the West Bank. This puppet government will be led, Israel believes, by the discredited Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abass, now cowering in the West Bank after being driven out of Gaza. Abbas, like most of the corrupt Fatah leadership, is a detested figure. He is dismissed as the Marshall Pétain of the Palestinian people, or perhaps the Hamid Karzai or the Nouri al-Maliki. He is as loathed as he is powerless. 
 
Israel’s destruction of Hamas and reoccupation of Gaza will not bring peace or security to Israel. It will merely obliterate the only internal organization with enough stature and authority in Gaza, an organization elected to power in free and fair elections, to maintain order. The Israeli attack empowers the Islamic movements across the regime who one day may well ring Israel like a vice. It reduces all communication to the language of force. The violence unleashed on Palestinian children will be the violence unleashed on Israeli children. This is the tragedy of Gaza. This is the tragedy of Israel. 
 
Forty plus years after W.H. Auden described the dumb ogre loose in the streets of Prague, he lopes, still dumb, again through the alleyways of Gaza City:
 
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.
 
About a subjugated plain,
Among it's desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

 

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