The man came right up close to me, to the point where I could smell his fetid breath. He took a wad of bills out of his pocket and peeled off a few green 20-shekel (almost $6) notes. I should use them to buy myself an apartment in the Gaza Strip, he told me. “Go to Gaza,” the man said, seething with anger and barely suppressed violence.
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As a matter of fact, I didn’t go to Gaza this week, even though it was essential for Israeli journalists to be there in order to do their job. But that possibility has been denied them for the past eight years by the government of Israel, which prohibits them from entering the Strip. Instead, I decided to visit towns and villages in the south of Israel, between one incoming barrage or rockets and the next. I’d done the same in all the previous rounds of fighting, and it was my intention to do so again – at least until I got to Ashkelon.
A visitor here is struck immediately by two major differences between Operation Protective Edge and its two reprisal predecessors, Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense. The atmosphere in the streets and in people’s homes is a little more secure and less panicky – thanks to the Iron Dome system – but at the same time it is far more violent, nationalistic, religious, militaristic and, above all, aggressive and intolerant.
During Operation Cast Lead, at the end of December 2008, I published an article very similar to the one I published this week on the op-ed page, about the air force pilots who are bombing Gaza. The earlier article was received with relative quiet, but this week the gates of hell opened up: I was subjected to a volley of vilification and attacks, of threats and verbal abuse that went beyond anything in my experience. My intention was to express my opinion and provoke a discussion about the pilots’ role and their responsibility for what they are wreaking in Gaza now. Maybe I succeeded to some extent, but the discourse turned vicious and verbally violent to the extreme.
All the seeds of the incitement of the past few years, all the nationalistic, racist legislation and the incendiary propaganda, the scare campaigns and the subversion of democracy by the right-wing camp – all these have borne fruit, and that fruit is rank and rotten. The nationalist right has now sunk to a new level, with almost the whole country following in its wake. The word “fascism,” which I try to use as little as possible, finally has its deserved place in the Israeli political discourse. My closest friends urged me to get out of here until things calm down, to be careful, to take care, or at least stay home.
Attorney and activist Eldad Yaniv wrote on his Facebook page: “Gideon Levy of blessed memory. With all that’s been happening here in the past few days, Levy too will soon be OBM. This is exactly how things felt in the months before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.”
The old slogan “Quiet, we’re shooting” has come back, big-time. Criticizing the Israel Defense Forces might (still) be allowed, but not during “war”; criticizing the infantry might (still) be allowed, but hands off the pilots. They are the most sacred of cows, they are “our boys,” the icing on the Israel Defense Forces’ cake, blue-uniformed and blue-blooded, and as such beyond the pale of criticism.
In the summer of 1993, my colleague Orit Shohat, the wife of combat pilot Yigal Shohat – who was taken prisoner in Egypt during the War of Attrition and in 2003 signed the letter by pilots who refused to carry out operations that might endanger civilians – published a sharply worded article against the bombing of the civilian population in Lebanon during Operation Accountability.
“When was a pilot ever tried for executing a flagrantly illegal order? Pilots don’t take Arabs to a deserted field in the middle of the night and beat them with clubs,” she wrote. “Their war is cleaner, there’s no connection between bomber and bombed … It is untenable to harm 300,000 civilians in order to punish 700 Hezbollah personnel. Nor is it tenable to bomb their homes and expel them. This is perhaps the largest illegal action the IDF has ever carried out … The man with no face also never sees the face of the Lebanese whose home he demolished …
“After all, we inform the Lebanese villagers before the bombing attack and give them four hours ‘to evacuate.’ If this is the criterion for a moral act – well, Saddam Hussein also informed the residents of Tel Aviv beforehand that he was going to hurl Scud missiles at them … What does it mean to evacuate? Do they have anywhere to go? Were day camps arranged for their children in Beirut? What do you take with you from the house, which might no longer be standing when you return? Money? Diapers? Did asthma patients remember to take their medicines? Where are they sleeping now?”
Twenty-one years have gone by, and nothing has changed in Israeli policy – nothing, nothing – other than the prevailing public atmosphere. Back then, the commander of the air force, Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger, told Shohat: “Our job is to bomb, your job is to write.” That was a legitimate, judicious comment. No one says it anymore.
The air-raid siren sounds in Moshav Gea, a cooperative village three kilometers from Ashkelon. We started the day visiting the communities of the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council. An elderly moshav member, obviously bored, sat on his verandah, slowly smoking a cigarette, a bit scornful of our panicky rush into his house. Two explosions in the sky, evidence of the Iron Dome at work. Not long afterward, a mortar shell lands across from the Kibbutz Yad Mordechai inn, and thick smoke snakes upward.
“The People of Israel live,” we read on a banner at the entrance to Sderot, noticing no fewer than six Chabad buses in a parking lot nearby. “Family purity” and Shabbat candles and King Messiah and all those Lubavitch Hasidic ideals – but one of the buses is stalled and a young bearded man is trying to fix it, with or without King Messiah.
“The king of this war is Iron Dome,” says a sign in English on a taxi, apparently as a service to its passengers, among them international war correspondents. Yesterday Iraq, today Sderot.
The taxi is parked next to the residence of yet another monarch: Itzik, Falafel King of Sderot. “Trust in God” bumper stickers can be seen on more cars than ever. In one of the town squares there’s a sculpture of a giant shofar (the ram’s horn sounded on the High Holidays). Traffic on the roads is a lot heavier than in the previous Gaza operations; it’s not routine, but it’s not at wartime level, either.
And then we arrive in Ashkelon. More precisely, at the Nafati commercial center in the heart of the city, near City Hall. A woman holding a glass of cool white wine emerged from one of the stores. “Missiles, schmissiles – things are under control here,” she said. “Screw their mothers!”
The air-raid sirens had already sounded five times that day in the commercial center, but the stores and the eateries weren’t empty. When I visited this place a few weeks ago with some television celebs (in the course of shooting a new series),, we got a warm, cordial reception. The people we saw then wanted to have their picture taken with us, but now they wanted to stone me – at least with words.
In no time at all, a crowd gathered, radiating waves of loathing and suppressed violence that seemed as if they would erupt at any moment. The comments were vulgar, crude, unfit to be printed. “You faggot, you ass-f-----” was the gentlest and most tender epithet I heard.
The only thing that stood between me and a lynching this week was a Channel 2 News camera. The only thing that stood between me and a lynching this week was a Channel 2 News camera. I was supposed to be interviewed, but that idea died a quick death. It was aborted when a beefy guy in a sporty T-shirt planted himself opposite me and didn’t let me reply to the questions from the interviewer. A very concrete demonstration of the broad, open boundaries of freedom of expression in Israel in 2014.
“You’re a good-for-nothing traitor,” he spat into the camera, using his 15 seconds of live-broadcast fame, sweating and virtually foaming at the mouth. “You have no business talking. You say our pilots are murderers. You have no business talking at all, when our soldiers are lying in wait. Our pilots are the most moral of anyone! Shame on you.”
The crowd around him kept growing and getting more agitated.
“Maybe we’ll try again?” the interviewer, Aharon Barnea, suggested. But in vain.
“Democracy, but not against the State of Israel,” the local democrat shouted.
“Okay, I can see it’s going to be too hard to do this. The temperature of blood in people’s veins is way too high these days,” the interviewer observed, giving up.
I got out of there.
“Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph” (2 Samuel 1:20). Fare thee well, Ashkelon. Won’t be seeing you again soon.
Then came the days of the threats, the hatred, the intimidations and the loathing (also the encouragement, comforting, concern and solidarity) – on the street, via email, by phone, on Twitter and on Facebook.
Darkness has descended.
All the seeds of the incitement of the past few years, all the nationalistic, racist legislation and the incendiary propaganda, the scare campaigns and the subversion of democracy by the right-wing camp – all these have borne fruit, and that fruit is rank and rotten.
A child plays beside an improvised secure space at Nitzan, near Gaza. The south was less panicky this week, but more militaristic.