Modern war is rarely limited to the ‘battlefield’ or war zone. Today’s wars are also waged in tv news studios, chat shows and op ed columns, in what the Pentagon calls ‘public diplomacy’ or ‘information warfare’ that attempts to shape the way that war is perceived, and enlist the active support or passive acquiescence of the wider public for one side or the other.
The Israeli assault on Gaza is no exception. In purely statistical terms, Operation Protective Edge is a grossly unequal conflict that ought to be considered an obscenity worthy of universal condemnation. According to the latest UN report, 114 Palestinians have been killed and 680 wounded, of whom two thirds are women and children. In addition 512 homes have been destroyed, displacing 3, 200 Palestinians, and another 350,000 have been affected by damage to water infrastructure.
In the last week the IDF has carried out 700 air raids, and fired 1,100 missiles, 100 tank shells, and 350 naval shellings, at a range of targets that include the private homes of Hamas leaders, Hamas-run charities or institutions, a media office, a technical centre, a Kuwait-funded bank, and the al-Wafa Medical Rehabiliation Centre in Beit Lahia, which was hit by four Israeli missiles yesterday, killing two female patients.
The Israeli military claims that Palestinian armed groups have fired 686 rockets at Israel, of which 142 have been intercepted by Israel’s US-made ‘Iron Dome’ missile protection system. So far there has been one recorded Israeli fatality as a result of these attacks, an elderly lady in Haifa who died of a heart attack.
At first sight, these statistics suggest a stunningly unequal conflict that ought to make a mockery of Israel’s claims that it is defending itself from Palestinian aggression. But over the last week official Israeli spokesmen and pro-Israeli commentators have filled the news studios and commentary pages and presented a very different version of these events, in order to make this disparity seem acceptable.
These efforts, as usual, have been largely accepted without criticism or analysis by Western governments or the mainstream media, and this not-inconsiderable achievement rests on the following propaganda tropes, which have been replayed again and again
1) That Israel is not attacking Palestinians but terrorists. Hamas is a ‘terrorist organization’ and terrorists, as the world knows well, can – and must – be killed in order to make the whole world a better place. In the eyes of Israel and its supporters, Hamas is particularly evil, because its charter calls for the destruction of Israel, because it is linked to Iran and Hezbollah etc, etc.
If Hamas has no other purpose except ‘terror’, then it becomes logical that it must be destroyed, and Israel can claim, in the moronic and meaningless jargon that all its representatives like to use, that its military operations are only directed against ‘terror targets’ and ‘terror infrastructure’ or ‘command-and-control’ centers.
Such representations ignore the fact that Hamas is also the elected government in Gaza, which means that any official institutions can also be considered ‘terror targets’ by Israel, and any Hamas official or anyone in any government building can be considered a ‘terror target’ regardless of whether he/she is directly involved in any military activities against Israel.
2) That rocket attacks by Hamas are acts of ‘terror’, but Israel’s attempt to bludgeon the population of Gaza into submission is not ‘terror’ but ‘war’, and in war civilian casualties are inevitable, or ‘regrettable’, as Israeli spokesmen like to put it.
3) That Israel is only exercising its sovereign right to self-defence and responding to Palestinian aggression. Absent from these arguments, which I have head shouted again and again by blustering Israeli spokesmen during the ‘tv war’ of the last week, is any mention of the occupation of the West Banik or the blockade and occupation-from-a-distance of Gaza, or the colonial domination of the Palestinians as a people, which continues to be the prime cause of violence in the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’
4) That Hamas fired rockets first – an argument that ignores the chain of events leading to the conflict, including the incredible manipulation of the Israeli teenager murders by the Israeli government, the military operations conducted by Israel against Hamas facilities in the West Bank, and the absolute antipathy of the Netanyahu government to the rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah.
5) That the two sides are equal in military terms – an argument that ignores the homemade Qassam or more recent Syrian made M-302 rockets, used by Hamas and other armed groups, which are unguided, inaccurate, and rarely able to hit their targets. In Gaza, by contrast, more than 1 million Palestinians are trapped in a human cage, watched over by an all-powerful, all-seeing Israeli military equipped with armed drones and guided missiles that can be fired directly into the living rooms of its enemies
6) That Hamas uses civilians as ‘human shields.’ This argument is mostly based on a video by a Hamas spokesman calling on the population of Gaza to stand on the rooves of targeted houses ‘to protect our homes.’ This video does not in itself prove that Gazans are willing to do this, but to claim, as Israel’s ambassador Ron Prosser has done, that such exhortations are’ exploiting our concern for human life’ is a typically warped and deceitful representation.
The ‘human shields’ argument has become a key component of the Israeli propaganda narrative. Last week I saw a spokesman from the Israeli embassy in London telling a Palestinian blogger from Gaza that he ‘felt sorry for her’ because of this. When she denied that there were human shields, he called her a liar.
There is no statistical evidence to suggest that Gazans have been killed on the rooves of their homes. But if a family were given one of the IDF’s famous text-message or ‘tap-on-the-roof’ warnings announcing that its house was about to be bombed, and the family or anyone else went onto the roof, then the Israeli army should not be bombing them, period.
7) That Palestinians are collectively locked into a culture of martyrdom and death, and have no desire to live themselves, an argument that was made by CNN presenter Jake Tapper last week. The corollary of this argument is that Israelis care about their people, but the Palestinians don’t. And if Palestinians themselves don’t want to live, runs the clear implication, then why should it be incumbent on Israel to protect them?
8) That civilian deaths are ‘inevitable in any war’, but that Israel always takes more care than any other army to prevent them and ‘desperately’ tries to avoid civilian casualties. This argument ignores the population density and topography of the Gaza Strip, which means that civilians will always die in even the most ‘surgical’ military assault. It ignores the blurring of the distinctions between ‘terrorists’ and civilians when the homes of Hamas members are targeted.
Last but not least, this argument ignores the broader forms of anti-civilian violence that are always an implicit component of Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, in terms of the destruction of property, the disruption of the local economy, water and food supplies, psychological intimidation, etc, and the extent to which the killing of civilians and the destruction of civilian property is intended to serve Israeli military and political objectives, by turning the Palestinian population against Hamas – a policy that Israeli has practiced on numerous other occasions.
9) That those who are criticizing Israel for killing Palestinians are really anti-Semites who hate Jews, an argument that was recycled yet again by Independent columnist Howard Jacobson last week. This argument attempts to shift the parameters of the debate away from what Israel is doing to Palestinians, and tap into Western guilt about what was once done to Jews (and might be again presumably, if the bombs don’t continue to fall in Gaza and Hamas is not stopped.)
10) That Israel wants peace, whereas Hamas doesn’t – an argument that is often accompanied by the assertion that Hamas has ‘chosen’ the war in order to present itself as a victim and escape its ‘isolation’. So Israel is fighting for peace and Hamas is fighting for war.
All these narrative devices have combined, once again, to transform Palestinians into the equivalent of killable minor characters in a violent Hollywood movie or tv drama, who can be shot and blown to bits with impunity so that Israel can make itself feel better, while Western governments wring their hands and make lazy calls for ‘restraint on both sides’ or extend their solidarity to the government that is killing them.
And until that narrative changes, Israel will continue to demonstrate the absolute impunity that it has enjoyed for so long, to kill Palestinians when it likes and however it likes, safe in the knowledge that to much of the outside world, some lives will always matter more than others.