The Gaza War as Reality Television

We have to know. We have to know what we did in Gaza. We have to know if the circumstances warranted it.

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I have been avoiding writing this since the war began.

The fact is, while the war was going on, I felt a compulsion to lie about it. To keep a certain ongoing internal screaming, to myself.

No more. I'm going to try to out this into words. If I fail, I hereby apologize to the reader in advance, but it won't be for lack of trying.

At war's end, I - like every single other person in this place, on both sides - am not the same person I was when it began. The mirror that war forces in front of our eyes is a cruel one. We can mask it in various ways, decide not to look, dismiss it as a distortion, contort and refocus it into managed proof that we were right all along - no matter what we thought. But we cannot, deep down, be unchanged.

The war had gone on only a few days when Israel Channel 10 television began interspersing coverage of Palestinian rockets exploding in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon and commercials for the Israeli version of the veteran reality show Survivor, in which one of the contestants is shown saying of the rival tribe "We're gonna kick their butts!"

Later that evening, the station's news department broadcast an unending, eerily quiet, queasily stationary live shot of Israeli shells exploding in slow, domelike cascades of smoke and fire an indeterminate distance behind and beside a residential area of Gaza.

I could have watched this as a journalist, or a foreigner, or a member of the peace camp. Or I could have watched it as what they call great television. If I'd lived far enough away, it was fully bizarre enough to have qualified as a live reality series on its own, as per the extraordinary account of Eric Calderwood, a Harvard PhD student living in Damascus, who found himself unable to tear himself away from Al-Jazeera.

But I watched it as a soldier from a past war. A medic. A medic's imagination is stalked by two things - What you've seen already, and what you hope you never will. What was going through my mind was one thought alone:

Let it not be phosphorus.

They taught us to dread zarchan [from the Hebrew root to shine or glow]. They taught us, as medics, that if we treated a phosphorous wound, prepare for the worst. It doesn't merely burn, they taught us, it burns first through the skin, then through the soft tissue, until it reaches bone. They taught us to take an instrument, or, in its absence, a stick, to dig out the phosphorus crystals from the flesh, or the burning would go on and on.

Channel 10 brought on military expert after military expert to discuss phosphorus and whether Israel was using it. No one would say yes. There were those who pointed out that the shells they might be using were legal under international law, when used to create smoke cover for troops moving in uninhabited areas, and to explode land mines. But they wouldn't say if we were using it. There were those who said that everything the troops were doing was within the context of international conventions of warfare. But they wouldn't say more than that.

We have to know. We have to know what we did. We have to know if the circumstances warranted it. We have to know what we did, and if what was done was done in error or by intention.

[At the risk of incurring the standard flak, from doctrinaire leftists who have decided that any peace-minded Israeli who opts for self-defense is a hypocrite, to the doctrinaire right, for whom any moral second thoughts may be seen as suspect and perhaps treasonous weakness, allow me to accompany this with the following.]

Last week, the philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel put into words the conflict many Israelis feel, when he wrote an opinion piece entitled a Just and Criminal War for the weekend Haaretz Hebrew edition.

Yovel noted that for an entire generation, beginning in the 1980s, Israel has been fighting enemies without uniforms, interwoven with civilian populations. Restrictions were therefore put on the army's actions. But many were lifted for the Gaza operation.

"The Gaza War dramatically demonstrated that the conjunction of justified combat and war crimes is not an individual instance of this war or that, rather it is becoming a permanent model for the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. As long as this is a struggle between two populations, occupier and occupied, and as long as there is no peace between Israel and an independent Palestinian state existing beside it, the Israeli soul will be divided between justice and crime, holding onto each other with no way out, like two Siamese twins."

"The way to overcome this is to create conditions for peace with the Palestinians. Toward this end, Israel should mobilize all of its resources, and its supporters abroad, in order to strengthen Palestinian society and the capability of its leaders to rehabilitate its people, and to carry out effective governance.

"Building the Palestinian economy and government is a vital advance payment on peace, and therefore an Israeli interest of the first order."

[To be continued]

Previous blogs:

Mr. Obama, grant Hamas the freedom to failIn Gaza's shadow: Obama's inaugural messageGaza War Diary IV - Can people die of ambivalence?A Jew's prayer for the children of Gaza Gaza War Diary III: If Mexico shelled Texas, like Hamas shells IsraelGaza 2009 - To win, all Israel has to do is survive Gaza War Diary II - Who speaks for the Gazans?Gaza War Diary I - Wartime in Gaza: The worst anti-Israel charges you'll hear Can the First Gaza War be stopped before it starts?The Madoff betrayal: Life imitates anti-Semitism