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Talking about Gaza is like talking about God. We face the ineffable. We cannot talk about what we see. Or if we do, we are accused of lacking common sense, failing to take a realistic approach to an unmanageable problem.
What is that problem? Palestinians are the problem. Like so many others in our world today, Palestinians are labeled as “terrorists” by the powerful, so that lethal force is the rule and extreme violence—or exemplary disregard—may be directed indiscriminately against civilians and non-civilians alike. The problem is not a simple one. If we pretend it is, then we risk validating those who hold Israel to an unfair standard, or worse, who question its right to exist. And in protesting Israeli government policy, expressing horror at its brutal excesses, we risk being condemned as “anti-Semitic” or worse, as “self-hating Jews.”
The tired debates about the history of Zionism and the threat of the Palestinian national movement—or, put more bluntly, about the end of Israel and what Jonathan S. Tobin calls “a war with Palestinian Islamists that has no end in sight”—ignore what is specific about more than four decades of Israeli domination in the Occupied Territories. Especially masked in these debates are the unique and various forms of violence used to control the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. In the name of “security,” Israel has implemented something like a permanent state of emergency. Brute force coexists with, to a sometimes-calamitous degree, a systematic practice of discrimination, surveillance, and disappearance. Behind the barriers—and they are everywhere—live the confined, sealed off from the zone of inclusion, the Israeli state.
How to talk about the beginning of the second intifada, which in Arabic means a “shaking off,” as in shaking the dust off your hands? On September 28, 2000 Ariel Sharon visited the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary in the Old City of Jerusalem. During this calculated affront and brilliant provocation, he announced “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” recalling the radio broadcast from June 1967, when Israeli forces occupied the last portions of Palestinian territory not conquered in 1948. Like so much else in Israel, policy is often dictated by the approach of elections. But never without further cycles of wanton violence. The day after his visit, Israeli forces opened fire on crowds of unarmed demonstrators in the al-Aqsa mosque compound, killing seven and wounding more than 100. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli forces used live ammunition against stone-throwing crowds. Five months later, on February 6, Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel. On May 18, Israel launched F-16 warplanes against Palestinian targets in Gaza for the first time.
When it comes to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, people take refuge in the comfort of euphemism.
I talk about the origin scene of the second intifada not to excuse the suicide attacks against Israelis that followed in the next few years, but rather to raise troubling questions about the uses of lethal force and the limits of deliberate humiliation. For Palestinians, Sharon’s walk on the sacred rock of the al Aqsa mosque was an unbearable transgression. What followed his provocation, in addition to armed combat, seemed to some inevitable. Israel began construction of a barrier that in effect annexed a substantial part of Palestinian territory. Though it is called a “Security Fence” or “Wall,” built to respond to security concerns, such discursive obfuscation or euphemism does not hide its real purpose. In 2003 John Dugard, special rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, wrote, “The fact must be faced that what we are presently witnessing in the West Bank is a visible and clear act of territorial annexation under the guise of security.”
I cannot hear the sounds of the air strikes on Gaza by drones, Apaches, or F-16s or see the explosions or confront the photos and videos of the bombing as Israel expands its range of targets without asking: Is there a precedent for this wanton harm and the exemption from blame that Israel receives?
The answer is obvious. Watching the Israeli campaign, with the casualties mounting, I remember the lack of reporting during the last Gaza assault, in 2008. It began two days after Christmas. One day after opening up the border to deliver humanitarian aid, Israel began bombing Gaza with F-16s, ostensibly to stop rocket fire into southern Israel. Torrents of smoke, a rain of shells, people running through a crush of metal and concrete. Women and children were killed, the innocent and the guilty. The attacks began in mid-day, as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market, and children were leaving school.
I lived in an alternate universe that bore no relation to what was happening. As more and more civilians became targets for the excesses of violence, then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced, “There is no humanitarian crisis.” On the fourth day, amid deepening and broadening scenes of carnage, the New York Times reported on what it called “Conflict in Gaza.” Then, as now, bland language spares readers the need to confront the facts. When it comes to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, people take refuge in the comfort of euphemism. Public discourse about blatant atrocity committed against large numbers of civilians turns evasive and noncommittal, when these civilians happen to be Palestinians. Cruelty and indifference are justified as a reasonable response to Hamas rocket fire.
On December 30, 2008, on the fourth day of the offensive that the Israel Defense Forces called “Operation Cast Lead,” rain fell as I made my way from the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem to Tel Aviv airport. The taxi driver lived in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem where Israeli bulldozers had just demolished a few more Palestinian homes. When I asked him whether he was for Hamas or Fatah, he answered: “I’m for my wife and children.” In Sheikh Jarrah piles of upturned earth, razor wire, trash, and glass shards are constant reminders to him that nothing is safe, nothing is certain.
On this drive to the airport along route 443, the wall rose high beside me. Israelis can drive to Tel Aviv without ever actually seeing Arab towns. A first-time tourist might imagine that nothing exists between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv except this road. The $3 billion system of highways and “bypass roads” integrate the settlement blocks into the metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv, Modi’in, and Jerusalem. But each Palestinian city, town, or village forms a broken landscape, divided into cantons that are defined in Israel’s terms and with only tenuous connections one to the other.
On that day, I left Israel for the second time in two years. I never visited until 2006, when I traveled to Jerusalem to meet my husband’s family. My father, though Jewish, never wanted to go there. Born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, he still spoke Arabic; drank arak, a sweet, distilled, anis-flavored alcoholic drink; played backgammon, which he called “Tawla,” meaning table in Arabic; and chanted periodically throughout the day the muezzin’s call to prayer. Everything connected to his childhood was precious to him. In Atlanta—what he called the “desert of the South”—he held fast to the memories. After the six-day war of 1967, he changed his name from “Dayan” to “Tawil” when Arab friends would visit. They were his life-line to music, tawla, and good conversation. This is how I remember my father’s happiness in what was, I always thought, an unhappy life.
Speaking with my taxi driver, I learned something of what John Berger famously called “the stance of undefeated despair” in describing the beauty and the miracle of Palestinian life in the territories. As the driver told me: “Stories can be cruel, but they are real. They have a history.” Israel, the settlements—Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Modi’in Ilit, Beitar Ilit—the Occupied Territories, every site has a story to tell.
That story is told through the landscape. How do lives become expendable? Dispossessed of their homes and ancestral lands and labeled as outsiders and enemies, Palestinians are confined as nothing more than superfluity. Even if their neighborhoods remain, they are ravaged and filled with debris. Uprooted olive trees. Piled-up branches and trunks of rotting fruit trees. Slabs of concrete standing out of the ground like tombstones. Fences, walls, roadblocks, earth mounts, checkpoints, trenches—we drove through a wilderness of barriers, as if some crazy wizard decided to fit every kind of partition into the smallest amount of space.
Today, in 2012, leaflets are falling as bombs continue to hit Gaza, warning civilians to get out of the way and assuring them that they are not the objects of harm. But there is nowhere to go. In photos, the warning leaflets fall like snow. “Important announcement for the residents of the Gaza Strip,” they announce. They blame Hamas for the violence and warn citizens to stay away from Hamas facilities: “For your own safety, take responsibility for yourselves and avoid being present in the vicinity of Hamas operatives and facilities and those of other terror organizations that pose a risk to your safety.” A risk to safety? In the open-air prison that is Gaza, 1.7 million people are unable to move in or out. Resistance to the occupation has been met with Israel’s policy of isolation and non-recognition. Living under siege since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006 and control of the Gaza strip in June 2007, Gazans are under the constant threat of violence—targeted killings and their “collateral damage.”
The biblical code name for the current Gaza attacks is amud anan, ‘pillar of cloud.’
“The people of Gaza don’t deserve to suffer,” Ehud Olmert said on the first day of the three-week assault in 2008. In other words, these excesses are not punitive. Even obedience will not make them cease. Before each new stage of that offensive, leaflets bore polite warnings addressed to “residents of the area.” They repeated words that fly in the face of reality and sense: “For your own safety you are required to leave the area immediately.” Leave to where? Nowhere is safe. That is the horror.
As of November 20, Israel, according to its own government statistics, had carried out more than 1,350 attacks since launching the current offensive. The passion for retribution stands in for a justice as infinite as it is arbitrary. Its broad sweep calculates what is innumerable. Its generality takes all kinds of individuals into its maw. Why should Israel be immune from criticism? Intrinsic to its dominion and our inability to confront its obvious violence is the politically redemptive argument of defense: Israel needs to rebuild deterrence so no more rockets can be fired on it. Obama speaks of what is happening as the proper response of a country that has the right to defend itself.
But there are alternatives to indiscriminate slaughter, to the call “to flatten all of Gaza,” as Gilad Sharon, the son of Ariel Sharon, wrote in a November 18 Jerusalem Post op-ed. As many have noted, Hamas had agreed to an informal truce before Israel decided to kill Ahmed Al-Jabari. Gershon Baskin, who negotiated with Hamas on the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, explains, “On the morning that he was killed, Mr. Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel, including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance.” What, then, is the IDF retaliating for? Why deprive a population of its entire infrastructure? How, as Richard Falk asked in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, does that “produce security”?
“So I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza / Fire that shall devour its strongholds” (Amos 1:7).
Every Israeli offensive into Gaza bears a name that delivers a message meant not only for those locked up there, but also for others in Israel and the rest of the world. What do these names tell us? “Operation Summer Rain” on June 27, 2006. “Operation Autumn Clouds” on November 1, 2006. “When clouds are full, they empty rain on the earth.” So said Koheleth, the preacher in Ecclesiastes. Almost lyrical, like bits of haiku, these names portend nature gone wrong: rain that does not moisten but scorches the earth; clouds that promise terror so unrelenting that no season can survive it. No more autumn. No more winter.
“Operation Cast Lead” prompted a different chain of associations. Not only the ancient Israelites in their biblical battles against Canaanites and Philistines, but a slew of other transformations. I recall the song of Moses in Exodus after the Lord saved Israel from their enemies: “You blew with your wind, the sea covered them / They sank like lead in the mighty waters.” Lead, known as the “salt of Saturn” in alchemy, heralds darkness and misfortune. Bodies turned into lead, buried deep below the sea or cast into new shapes are not molded in the image of God, but rather changed into base metals, things unnatural and ripe for ruin.
Perhaps these rituals of naming move us from the realm of actuality, the undeniable realities of experience—what we see and hear and know—into the terminology of what Kenneth Burke called the “Upward Way.” As we transcend the merely empirical, respond to a higher call, our judgment is suspended. Obvious harm disappears as we enter a special realm that is closed to others. We forget the piddling violations of international law. They cannot hold a proverbial candle to the newest divine sanction.
The biblical code name chosen for the current Gaza attacks is in Hebrew amud anan, meaning not “pillar of defense,” as it is being translated, but actually “pillar of cloud.” We can forget the clouds of smoke from buildings burning, bombs falling, and drones firing. The defense is God’s protective cloud, the cloud that hid the children of Israel from harm during their exodus from slavery in Egypt. We join with them, protected from whatever is outside our felicitous refuge. The mistranslation doubles up on the codename’s original use and transforms it. Despite what is clearly real—the obvious and asymmetrical force of arms tuned against the population of Gaza—Israel’s pillars of fire and smoke are recalibrated as a legitimate and necessary defense, no matter the cost.
Talking about Gaza is like talking about God.
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, and Haiti, History, and the Gods. She has just published With Dogs at the Edge of Life, a fierce personal enquiry into canine profiling, preemptive justice, and extermination.
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