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David Bromwich

David Bromwich

Posted January 16, 2009 | 11:17 AM (EST)

Self-Deception and the Assault on Gaza


What prompts the fantasy that you can "kill all the terrorists" without sowing the seeds of new terrorism? Partly, the fantasy comes from the idea that any civilian deaths you cause will be forgiven; but, much more, it derives from the secondary fantasy that civilian deaths will go mainly unwitnessed. They will be recorded as numbers, perhaps, but they will pass out of the awareness of the world. That is not the way things work, of course. There are people in the world -- not hundreds, not thousands, but hundreds of millions -- who feel more closely allied to the killed than they do to the killers.

"Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return." In every culture and every civilization, to kill the innocent is evil. Fifty civilians who live in a neighborhood where one terrorist has built a hidden sniper's nest are understood to be innocent. If you kill the fifty, you have done something worse than not killing the one.

Yet to put it like that brings up the revaluation of state terror that entered our language with the Sharon-Bush doctrine, first propounded in 2001-02. According to the Sharon-Bush doctrine, if you harbor a terrorist -- that is, if you live anywhere in the vicinity of a terrorist -- you are yourself as blamable as the terrorist and are as appropriate a target of destruction. This, no matter what the impediments on your freedom of movement, no matter how unconscious you may be of the existence of the terrorist, no matter how much your toleration of him may have been driven by fear.

On this reasoning, a one-ton bomb that kills a Hamas leader in an apartment complex and kills twelve other persons, half of them children -- that bomb is not guilty of the deaths of the other victims. If, because of that bomb and those deaths, a certain number of Arab teenagers in Palestine and elsewhere resolve to become suicide bombers, that is not the fault of the country that dropped the bomb. The new terrorists whom the destruction brought forth, like the old ones it disposed of, worked with too narrow a conception of necessity. The world itself is wrong, according to the Sharon-Bush doctrine, when it says that you can't literally kill all the terrorists without killing an unendurable number of others in the process. If that is the way the world thinks, Sharon and Bush and their followers maintain, there is nothing to be done about it. What if the world is full of raving anti-Semites and anti-Americans? We must get on with our work in spite of them. Strength lies in keeping to the plan with supreme resoluteness.

Such are the tracks in which the United States and Israel are trapped together when we think about Gaza. The world doesn't understand (or so we think) how wrong is the idea of proportionality. It is true, fewer Israelis have been killed by Hamas missiles than by other Israelis in friendly fire. And true, by January 15 more than a thousand Palestinians had died, half of them civilians, and thirteen Israelis had died, most of them soldiers. All that is beside the point. Despite appearances, the doctrine tells us, Israel is fighting for its life. How can you speak of "proportion" and compare the intolerable harassment of missiles coming in, endlessly, with the very temporary Palestinian burden of a counter-insurgency war that will have a clearly marked end? For Israel not to respond now and definitively --this is the trump card of Sharon-Bush--would have been to acquiesce in moral and psychological defeat. There can be only one victor in a war; the only alternative to complete resignation was to do what Israel is doing. And what is that? It is assuring that the Palestianians (in the words of Moshe Yaalon, Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces in 2002) "are made to understand, in the deepest recesses of their consciousness, that they are a defeated people." The more relentless the assault, and indeed the more civilians you legitimately kill, the deeper the recesses of consciousness that you are able to penetrate.

Such is the wisdom from A to Z of the Sharon-Bush doctrine.

And indeed, if nobody existed on earth except Israel and the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, the way would lie open now for the fulfillment of the doctrine. Israel, in the words of another pragmatist, Benny Morris, could finish the job begun in 1948: the job of expulsion, the forced transportation elsewhere of the Palestinian people as a whole. But again, the problem recurs: the world is larger than Israel and Gaza. There are witnesses. It is harder for conscience to abolish itself quietly when those witnesses are sometimes in mind and sometimes actually on the scene. What if you arrange to have the war not covered by journalists? The UN medical compound remains; will you fire on that, too? (On January 15 this was done in fact; there was a terrorist there, Ehud Olmert said with perfunctory regret.)

Probably no people are so prone as Americans and Israelis are to think admiringly of our own good intentions. We hew to a rarer and higher standard than other people, we believe. We are generous beyond all expectation; and still, other people continue to criticize and demand more of us. The trouble with such an innocent self-image is that we read the pattern of our actions forward from our supposed intentions to their effects in the world; we forgive the imperfection of the result from our certainty of the purpose. But that is not the way to interpret the character of a person, or the character of a people, accurately. The error is easy enough to recognize when we look at persons who are not ourselves. The way to make a judgment that is in some measure accurate is to read backward from the total drift and pattern of the actions to the intentions that are likely to have yielded such effects.

Thus, if Israel in 2006 destroyed large parts of Lebanon, there is a strong chance that this happened because Israel intended to reduce to rubble large parts of Lebanon; even if the Israeli claim at the time was that it sought nothing more than to weaken Hezbollah and destroy its hiding places. Again, if Israel in 2009 reduces to rubble a large portion of the Gaza Strip and leaves tens of thousands homeless, there is a strong chance that this was what it intended to do; even if the Israeli claim is merely that it wished to stop the rockets at their source.

It is the same with the good intentions of the United States. Listen to the neoconservative apologists for the Bush-Cheney policy, and you would think that America intended to liberate the enslaved people of Iraq, and in doing so, to confer an incidental benefit by planting a democracy in the region. But then read backward from the actions of the U.S. -- a country destroyed, half a million killed, four and a half million refugees, American contractors and companies and oil men prospering on the scene, and several superbases built and manned--and you would conclude the U.S. intended to plant a military force in the region and make a solid claim to the dome of oil that covers Iraq and Iran and East Africa, while also asserting its rivalry with Russia and China for control of West Asia. Notice that the second surmise has one advantage as an explanation. It bears some relation to the things that were actually accomplished.

In the case of Israel, the self-image of its leading politicians is far more crazed and split than such common-sense reminders can hope to remedy. Tzipi Livni says in 2009 that the assault was necessary, that it is going according to design, that there is no humanitarian crisis, and that the invasion will be good for the Palestinians. Yet Ehud Barak in 1999, in answer to a question from the reporter Gideon Levy about what he would have done if he had been born Palestinian, replied without pause: "Joined a fighting organization." Ehud Olmert says in a daring interview in his penultimate season in office that there will have to be a two-state solution and that Israel will have to give up a large part of the settlements it now holds. Yet Olmert devotes his final weeks in power to the merciless waging of this war, and refuses to convene his cabinet to take up the encouragement of a cease-fire that is coming at last from both Livni and Barak. The contradictions and the almost open flaunting of fantasies are themselves a kind of madness.

This deadlock in the middle of apparent victory was inevitable. You cannot bomb a people into partnership. You cannot obliterate a people into a just and lasting peace. You cannot drive deep into their consciousness the knowledge that they are a defeated people and, when you have finished your education through violence, come to treat them as moral and political equals with yourself. So Israel is now at a loss. It cannot see its beginnings in this vision of its triumph.

The creation of a Palestinian state has been postponed now for more than 40 years while the Israeli settlements have expanded. Why should any witness of the pattern be expected to follow the Israeli reasoning from good intentions to misfired actions, when the pattern of the actions, reading backward to the intentions, so plainly seems to indicate that annexation was always the stronger motive? Read backward from result to probable purpose and the assault on Gaza looks like the last postponement, the one after which nothing further need be said or done. Yet, when it is carried off in so confused a state of fevered imagining, with a queasy mixture of paternalism, perverted compassion and baffled nostalgia for resistance and solidarity, such as are audible in the above statements by Livni, Olmert, and Barak--one realizes that nothing after all has been resolved by this war.

Is it possible to look forward without illusion? For we do know what actions like Israel's lead to; we, Americans as well as Israelis, know from our recent history. From the imposition of state terror in one generation spring the soldiers of guerrilla terror in the next generation. Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. Just as the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza brought on the Second Intifada, and just as both of these, together with the American footprint in Saudi Arabia, were a substantial motive in the making of the September 11 attacks, so the present attacks in Gaza, enabled by America's financial and political support and America's F-16s and Apache helicopters, are nursing hatreds for a new round of terrorism to come. The assault on Gaza endangers the security of Israel, and it endangers the security of the United States.