She was standing there screaming, the veins in her neck seeming about to burst. “What’s happened to you − have all of you gone crazy? Who knows what he had in his house, maybe there were weapons there?” The crowd of curious onlookers gathered around her, and they too were shouting: “She’s absolutely right ... Garbage! Garbage! That’s what you are.”
This scene took place on Saturday, January 17, 2009, on Day No. 21 of the Israel Defense Forces assault on the Gaza Strip known as Operation Cast Lead. It was the penultimate day of the operation. The place: a corridor in the Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, outside Tel Aviv. The occasion: A press conference with Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a Gaza Strip physician who once worked at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, and who the previous day had lost his three daughters and his niece when an IDF shell hit their family home in the Jabalya refugee camp, near Gaza City.
It was perhaps the purest, most distilled moment of the entire operation: a moment when Israeli cruelty and hatred reared their heads, without excuses, without any cloak of “security-related” or “love of the Land of Israel” motivations. Pure, undiluted cruelty and hatred, this screaming at a bereaved father, who even in his hour of profound sorrow did not speak hatred, and who has spoken peace ever since his tragedy, as well.
Levana Stern, who introduced herself to al-Aish in the hospital as the mother of three paratroopers who were in Gaza at the time, was incapable of sharing the bereavement of this Palestinian enemy, did not identify even for a moment with his pain, did not comprehend his heartache. Decades of brainwashing and the fanning of incitement and hatred had apparently had their effect on her, and burst forth in a single moment: “Who knows what he had inside his house,” she declared, standing before a man who was seen by some to be practically an Israeli, who had just lost the people most precious to him, whose world had collapsed upon him.
Cast Lead is the turning point, the milestone. Everything that happened after it was different than everything the preceded it. Cruelty was also evident during its “predecessor,” Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, but back then everything was still wrapped in Israel’s security-related rationales, some of which were justified and persuasive, given the Arab terror that had then reached the apex of murderousness. There was also an element of “killing for the sake of killing” during the recent Operation Pillar of Defense, but it was far removed from the dimensions of the horror that transpired in Gaza during that turning-point winter of 2008-09.
For the world, as well, Cast Lead constituted a point of no return. It was the moment from which global public opinion could no longer tolerate Israel’s disproportionately wild behavior. For Israeli society, that operation in Gaza, which cannot be called a war − because one cannot really call what went on there “warfare,” in the strictest sense − planted the seeds of all of the rotten fruit that sprang up in society in its wake.
Subsequent crimes of nationalistic hatred, so-called price-tag actions of retribution, and above all, terrifying apathy − all were conceived during Cast Lead. Also conceived at the same time was a new strategy of the IDF: “zero casualties” among our forces, and at practically any cost. It is this strategy that led to the slaughter during Cast Lead of 23 members of the Samouni family; the killing of five members of the Abu-Halima family by white phosphorus shells; the killing of six passersby, including two children and a woman, by a flechette shell at Izbet Beit Hanoun; and the killing of dozens of asylum-seekers at an UNRWA school in Gaza.
Song of inspiration
A well-known children’s Hanukkah song with words by Haim Nahman Bialik provided the inspiration for the name of this operation, which began during the holiday in December 2008; the dreidel (cast from lead) spun on its axis. Under the inspiration of this children’s song, dozens of small children were killed, hundreds of innocents were killed. One can argue ad nauseam about the numbers, but even the official IDF records − 1,166 killed, including 709 “terrorists,” 89 children and 49 women − leave no room for doubt.
No matter how you put it, it was a brutal, nearly unrestrained attack on a poor, helpless, besieged population that had nowhere to flee, save the sea, and on armed Palestinian groups, with meager equipment and primitive weaponry. In its cruelty, it was unlike any other in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nor was there any parallel when it came to the Israeli public’s response: the sight of the dozens of families sitting on plastic chairs they’d brought from home, perched on the sandy hillocks around the Gaza Strip, full of young and old alike − who came to watch, be proud and maybe even rejoice as clouds of white phosphorous and black smoke rose from the world’s largest prison. The sight of applauding members of the media, and of Tel Aviv, which looked on with a dispassionate gaze as IDF attack helicopters passed overhead on their way south − all this left behind a sickening wake of apathy, and also, God help us, pride.
Yes, there have been crueler military actions, more wicked army operations. But there was never anything like Cast Lead.
Last autumn’s Operation Pillar of Defense, with its relative moderation, showed that a certain lesson was in fact learned. Nonetheless, the seeds of apathy and evil that were sown that winter between Gaza and Rafah are still blossoming here, and are spreading like weeds.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article mistakenly included the sentence: 'Amnesty International, for instance, enumerated only 92 Palestinian fighters among the dead [during 'Operation Cast Lead']. This statistic did not appear in the Amnesty International report. The article was amended on 04/04/2013.