When Dead Children Have No Names: Israel's Terrifying Descent Into Numbness

Protective Edge may or may not stop the rocket attacks on Israel. But somewhere along the line, Israelis seem to be approaching a dangerous apathy.

Asher Schechter
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
FILE PHOTO: Palestinians inspect the rubble of a destroyed building after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 15, 2014.Credit: AP
Asher Schechter

Nearly a month into Operation Protective Edge, Israeli ground troops have begun withdrawing from Gaza. While it remains to be seen if the operation makes Israelis any safer, we can already discern one legacy. It seems to have brought Israel one step closer to an emotional numbness that blocks out any suffering but our own, as attested by a new, violent voice in the public discourse.

“Mohammed Malaka, two years old. Seraj Abdel-Al, eight years old. Sara al-Eid, nine years old. Saher Abu Namous, four years old. Ahmed Mahdi, 15 years old”. For 90 excruciating seconds, the woman’s voice - mimicking the detached tone of Israeli radio newscasters - read names of children killed in Gaza during the last three weeks. “This is only a partial list,” she stressed over and over again.

That was an ad submitted on July 23 by human rights organization B’Tselem to the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, which barred it from airing on the grounds that it was “politically controversial.”

The ad does not ascribe blame. All it does is list the names of children killed during the latest Israel-Hamas skirmish. Its title, “The children of Gaza have a name,” is derived from a line by Israeli poet Zelda, originally written about the Holocaust: "Every person has a name given to him by God and his parents.”

The censorship of the B’Tselem ad seems to signify a deeper, worrying trend. Last week, referring to the UN decision to investigate civilian casualties during Protective Edge, the prime minister's office called it a farce and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni wrote in a Facebook post that she had only two words to say about the decision: "Hapsu oti" – sort of a scornful "lots of luck to you."

And that was relatively moderate.

“We're under attack everywhere for our brutality, our cruelty, our disproportion and you say to yourself: Screw this… let them bar each and every one of us from flying abroad, let them do whatever they want, because all this together isn't worth a single Israeli soldier’s life,” wrote Ben Caspit, a senior columnist and TV personality, in Ma’ariv.

Some uncensored reactions to reports of civilian deaths were much, much worse. In today's Internet culture, opinions one used to keep to oneself now get posted publicly on Facebook or as comments to media reports. “Only four dead children? What a bummer." “Today a child, tomorrow a terrorist. Better they die now.” “That’s the price of war - next time don’t start one with us.” “So what.” Others accuse Hamas of lying. One post shrugs, “When you chop wood, chips fly."

The way we were

Of course, those are extremists, not representative of the great majority of Israelis. Many mourn the tragic senselessness of children dying on either side. But the thing is: Israel’s scum used to be less scummy.

The fact that people are openly posting things like that tells how far the social pendulum has shifted in recent years.

In the past three weeks, it seems emotional numbness has overtaken Israel.

“Dead children? Tragic, but to be honest, I couldn’t care less. If they didn’t want their children to die they should have thought twice before starting this war," said a middle-aged man in Tel Aviv this week. He used to vote for left-leaning Labor. "Why should we care about their children, when they target ours? … But no, we have to be more moral than anyone else. Screw that.”

Once, the accidental death of children, and civilians in general, would shock. The army would apologize, or answer tough questions. The media would cover the story at length. Even during the panicked, ultra-militaristic atmosphere of the Second Intifada, dead children were not shrugged off.

Now, as of writing, more than 1,700 Palestinian civilians have died during Protective Edge, accounting for 80% of Protective Edge’s departed. At least 300 were children.

This is a shocking, gruesome, frightening number. Yet it elicited few media reports. The military has not been taken to task.

Every person has a name, yes, but it turns out not all names are worthy of being read on TV.

To even express doubt as to the righteousness of our military has become so taboo in Israel nowadays that it has led to actual violence by right-wing groups determined to silence every “demoralizer.” The mere mention of innocents dying is labeled “leftist” and “hate speech,” including by elected officials such as Knesset member Miri Regev.

It’s not that most Israelis don’t care about the killing of children. It's that if they are, they're not vocalizing it.

It’s not that killing children is not wrong anymore. It’s that killing children used to be wronger.

It seems that the more children die, the less outrage sparks. Two weeks ago, when four Palestinian children were killed by an IDF airstrike while playing football on the beach, the case was widely reported and commented on. But as the list of dead children grew, most remained nameless casualties. Mere statistics, disputed statistics.

Once upon a time, they used to have names, and faces. That’s a fact.

Inured through despair

There are many possible reasons for this seeming apathy, this willful, blissful ignorance. Facing daily rocket attacks and fearing for their own children’s lives, it can be hard to feel sympathy toward people, even children, on the other side. Plus, after years of no progress towards peace, the mix of despair and anger could have led us to a collective imperviousness. The unilateral disengagement from Gaza was a bust, with the Strip turning into a "Hamastan," exactly as opponents of Israel's withdrawal warned. And while Israel's south is bombarded with rockets on an almost-daily basis, criticism from the international community seemed to point fingers only at one side. Then there's the sharp right-wing turn Israeli politics has taken in the last decade, which seems to have birthed a difficulty in distinguishing between innocents and non-innocents in Gaza.

Whatever the cause, the result is that the accidental killing of innocents during military operations, long considered a tragic cost of waging war on terror, has become "cheaper."

Though it's only plateaued now, this emotional numbness was years in the making. With each round of fighting - with each spouse, son, sibling, parent of friend, child lost - it seems more and more Israelis become deadened themselves. The danger is that over time, more and more people will go from caring less to not caring at all. And total apathy can descend into hate.

Meanwhile, in the most extreme margins of Israeli society, it has become okay to post hateful posts on Internet calling for “revenge”, celebrating the deaths of civilians, even children:

“Why are you reporting this? For a minute there I thought I entered the website of Hamas.” “Very good, destroy Gaza!” “Four less murderous psychopaths, good riddance.” “Let Hamas learn their names.” “Who cares?”

This is only a partial list. This is only a partial list.