The crying game: Losing on the ground, winning on TV
Even the Jewish terrorist attack near Shilo did not manage to steal the show from the settlers. The murder spree, only four dead, was not enough to distract attention from their great pain. Among all of the harsh scenes provided to television yesterday, there was one that made a particularly memorable impression on me. An orange-clad girl from Neveh Dekalim screaming at the head of the IDF's Education Corps, Brigadier General Ilan Harari: "You're doing the terrorists' job!" The commander, old enough to be her father, stands facing her and takes the humiliation in silence. Channel 10's Miki Haimovitch pops up from the sidelines and turns to Harari: "You're hearing heartbreaking things. How do you deal with this?" Harari attempts to answer: "I understand her, it's hard for me, but we have to carry out the mission." His reply is swallowed up by an onrush of shouts. Cut.
All the elements of the conflict were crammed into that symbolic scene: the screaming girls who represents the victim's absolute justice, the silent officer who represents the preferable power of the realm but primarily its limitations, and the broadcaster struggling to decide with whom to identify - with the "heartbreaking" words of the girl, or with the public humiliation of the officer.
Haimovitch's role (as a parable) is no less important than the roles of the other two players. She is supposed to give meaning and context to the story. She will determine how it will be seared into the collective consciousness. In this case, as in most of the other cases, it was seared as a wrenching story of victimization. The weak side, screaming in pain, is perceived as the just side. Witness the fact that even the chief officer of the Education Corps identified with the girl. He had no response to her words except "we need to carry out the mission."
In the heat of the great conflagration between evacuators and evacuees, not enough attention is being given to the central role of the media, particularly that of television, which is the dominant medium in marketing the evacuation story to the public. The direct broadcasts throughout the day and the cameras' complete and immediate access to every incident supply Israelis with a powerful, rich and defining experience from reality, with which no other medium can compete. That grants television the privilege to influence, and maybe even to win the real battle being waged in the Gaza Strip - the battle over the disengagement narrative.
So what's the story with the disengagement? Is it a story about disaster and destruction or about rehabilitation and recovery? A story about the triumph of the settler spirit or its defeat? The impression from the first three days of the broadcast is that the settlers' disaster narrative of destruction and victimization is the winner. They are few against many, weak against strong, idealists against "followers of orders," determination versus ambivalence.
Obviously their spirit grabs the screen. The images they have to offer are far more attractive. Viewers watch and weep. The quest for the human drama leads the cameras over and over again to the wailing evacuees and to the soldiers, especially women soldiers, who join in their tears. They document the children as they come out of their homes in Kerem Atzmona with their hands up, crying and wearing orange Stars of David (sure it's "in poor taste," but that only proves how much they hurt). They stay focused on the man dangling a helpless baby out a second-story window (sure it's dangerous, but what can you do, he's desperate). They caress the groups of worshipers and reciters of Psalms. The pain, the anguish and the prayers makes for terrific footage. The show of force and restraint are much less photogenic.
The asymmetry cries out to the heavens. In the physical conflict the security forces have a tremendous advantage. In the moral-political conflict they are helpless. Not because their mission is less just. Quite the contrary. But even if they realize this, they aren't permitted to talk, and nobody on the ground is speaking for them. Nobody is presenting for the cameras the competing narrative; the chief officer of the Education Corps cannot tell the orange shrieker that the evacuation of the Jewish colonies is the most Zionist and moral move in the world. He only talks about the pain and about following orders. The IDF Spokesman, too, talks only of sensitivity, determination and implementing missions. She is not authorized to talk about politics.
There are actually several speakers sitting in the studios who acknowledge the justice of evacuation, but the cumulative power of the reports overshadows their words. The footage from the field is all-powerful. The settlers are losing on the ground, but they're winning on television.
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