Global, Israel, Politics

To Speak About the Unspeakable

Stayed up until the wee hours the other night surfing the web reading report after report about Gaza. Despite my better judgement, I couldn’t take my eyes off the horrific reports that Israel was using white phosphorous in densely populated civilian areas. After seeing a picture in the NY Times of a 10 year old boy who had lost his eyesight and most of the skin from his face from phosphorous burns, I turned to reports on B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch. I’m ashamed to report I was reading this stuff well past the time it would have made sense to go to bed…
Needless to say as I read, my mind and emotions reacted a mile a minute, ranging back and forth from defensiveness to righteous anger and everything in between. Is it really true? Perhaps the reports are mistaken? Burning children alive in the streets? Couldn’t there possibly be another explanation?
It’s been all the more upsetting since there has been a near total absence of any honest communal discussion about these kinds of reports. On one end of the spectrum, some can discount upsetting news like this by placing exclusive responsibility upon Hamas for cynically using civilians as human shields. On the other end, others will excoriate Israel for the barbaric genocide it is perpetrating against the Palestinian people. The rest, I imagine, simply bury the news deep down and move on.
Upon arriving at work yesterday, I read one of the weekly e-briefings that I regularly receive from a well-known American Jewish organization. It purported to give an up-to-date status report/analysis on the situation in Gaza, but it was essentially yet another excuse to dispassionately analyze Israel’s successful military “operation” in Gaza:

Israel acted decisively, despite (ongoing) internal divisions, the approaching elections, and the false image of a hedonistic society. A strong, determined, and high-spirited military, both regulars and reserves, showed up ready to do battle to rid the South of the missile threat.
Hamas’s own tactical designs collapsed, as the IDF put into practice the bitter lessons of 2006: Units were thoroughly equipped, well-trained, informed by intelligence, and ready for battle, anticipating the various tactics (such as booby-trapped houses and the rush of suicide bombers in civilian clothing or even IDF uniforms.

You get the idea. And in the meantime there was nary a hint of the untold civilian suffering and loss that this horrid war has wrought. I don’t know what I expected, really. I shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is for a community to find the werewithal to speak about the unspeakable. Is it too much to hope that we find a way to start?

16 thoughts on “To Speak About the Unspeakable

  1. Just how could an army that claims to be moral and concerned with minimizing innocent casualties undermine its own case with illegal weaponry?

  2. I had the same feeling when I read about the “white phosphorous” over at Juan Cole’s Informed Content but then I read this at Ha’aretz: “Since the beginning of Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza on January 3, 2009, there have been numerous media reports about the possible use of white phosphorous by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF told both Human Rights Watch and news reporters that it is not using white phosphorus in Gaza. On January 7, an IDF spokesman told CNN, ‘I can tell you with certainty that white phosphorus is absolutely not being used.'” Article (Ha’aretz): “Human Rights Watch: IDF phosphorous bombs in Gaza violate int’l law,” January 13, 2009.”
    Not certain what to make of this.

  3. I sincerely hope the Israel is not using White Phosphorous, but today Al-Jazeera English had a reporter in Gaza outside with a physician from one of the hospitals, Shifa I believe, who found a the remainder of a WP round on the ground. The doctor prodded it and it ignited. He then covered it in entirely sand, smothering it, waited a minute, then prodded the object to shed the sand and it ignited again!
    This is far from conclusive proof, but it does seem to match some of the descriptions of WP.

  4. There have been many reports that HAMAS has been using WP on its mortars. Could be why they found it in Gaza. It amazes me how so many in the peace camp is willing to accept every bit of propaganda that is fed to them by Hamas. Yes, a two state solution is necessary. Yes, Israel has not always had the moral high ground. But how long will it take until you understand that the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza is not committed in any way, shape, or form, to democracy! These are people who kill those who disagree with them. These are people who HATE JEWS simply for being Jews.
    Those who accuse Israel of apartheid are those people who seriously can’t see the difference between a Hamas terrorist and Nelson Mandela. If the Palestinians had spent the last 60 years in peaceful resistance to Israel’s supposed atrocities, then the condemnation would be absolutely correct. But instead they launch attacks on civilians, from within civilian buildings, and cry out when civilians are caught in the crossfire. It is time for Palestinians to take responsibility for their own destiny.

  5. Those who accuse Israel of apartheid are those people who seriously can’t see the difference between a Hamas terrorist and Nelson Mandela.
    This is a complete non sequitur. If Nelson Mandela had been a violent terrorist who attacked civilians, would South Africa’s policies not have been apartheid? The characterization of polices as apartheid has nothing to do with the reactions to those policies.
    Furthermore, the characterization of policies as apartheid has nothing to do with whether or not the policies are justified. “Apartheid” doesn’t mean “bad”; “apartheid is bad” is a separate opinion statement that exists outside the definition of apartheid.
    Some would say “Israel’s policies are apartheid; apartheid is never justified; therefore, Israel’s policies are unjustified”. Others say “Israel’s policies are apartheid; Israel’s policies are justified; therefore, apartheid can sometimes be justified.” Both of these arguments follow logically. What doesn’t follow is “Israel’s policies are justified; apartheid is never justified; therefore, Israel’s policies are not apartheid.” If you want to argue that Israel’s policies are not apartheid, you’ll have to make that argument from a comparison of Israel’s policies with the definition of apartheid; if you can’t do that, you’ll have to own your position and move into the “apartheid can sometimes be justified” camp.

  6. “If Nelson Mandela had been a violent terrorist who attacked civilians”
    But he WAS. And SA was STILL an apartheid state.

  7. Please. When a people showing peaceful resistance are violently attacked, you don’t see a difference between when they actively try to kill and terroize civilians? International law defines apartheid as “The crime of apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which established the International Criminal Court as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” It lists such crimes as murder, enslavement, deprivation of physical liberty, forced relocation, sexual violence, and collective persecution.[1]”
    Systematic oppression and domination by one racial group. That’s apartheid. Unless you want to claim that the Law of Return is oppressive to non-Jews (heck, it’s mostly offensive to non-Orthodox Jews) then what evidence do you bring of systematic oppression of the racial group of Palestinians or Arabs? Where was the unprovoked attacks on the West Bank during the last three weeks? There was none. You know why? There was no rocket fire coming from the West Bank. Israel responded to an ATTACK on its civilians. You don’t like the blockades? Then figure out a way to prevent Hamas from acquiring rockets to fire at Israel without it.
    The point is that, whether you call it apartheid or not, there is a serious difference in the morality of attacking an area (and killing civilians) that is attacking you, versus attacking non-violent protesters. You will say “every human life is equally sacred”, and I will agree with you. But that means that a country cannot stand idly by while its citizens are attacked and murdered. Do you honestly believe that if Israel had suddenly opened access to Gaza, removed checkpoints, that there wouldn’t have been rocket attacks from Hamas? Because Israel would have sought a “peaceful” solution, Hamas would have suddenly said “Oh yes, we’re sorry, that’s good enough for us?” Would Gilad Shalit have been returned safely? If you believe that, then please let me know what drugs I can take so that I can live in that fantasy world all the time too, because it sounds very nice.

  8. When a people showing peaceful resistance are violently attacked, you don’t see a difference between when they actively try to kill and terroize civilians?
    I didn’t say that. I said that it doesn’t change the characterization of Israel’s policies, but may (or may not) change whether those policies are justified. If country A has capital punishment for jaywalking and littering, and country B has capital punishment only for murder, you don’t say “Country B doesn’t have capital punishment! Those murderers deserve it, so it doesn’t count as capital punishment. Don’t you see a difference between murder and jaywalking?” Either you say “Country B has capital punishment only in cases that really merit it” or you say “Capital punishment is never justified, so country B’s use of capital punishment is wrong.” That’s a policy debate (about whether country B should have capital punishment), not a debate over whether country B has capital punishment.
    The debate over whether country B has capital punishment might focus on questions like whether a procedure results in the death of the subject, etc., NOT on what crime has to be committed in order to be sentenced to this procedure.

  9. When people use the word “apartheid” in regard to Israel, they’re generally not talking about things like the Gaza invasion; they’re talking about the broader context of the territories which are (whether justified or not) under Israeli military control and where Palestinian residents (whether justified or not) do not have citizenship or the right to vote. There are counterarguments to be made — e.g. Israeli Arabs inside the Green Line have voting rights, etc. — but that is the appropriate axis on which to have this debate.

  10. JP,
    You said:
    There have been many reports that HAMAS has been using WP on its mortars. Could be why they found it in Gaza.
    I’d challenge you to produce some of these reports showing that Hamas 1. Had access to WP rounds; and 2. Was using them on their own civilians in Gaza.
    On the other hand, Amnesty International has declared that “Israel’s use of white phosphorus against Gaza civilians “clear and undeniable”.”
    If Hamas fired a WP mortar into Israel, that is entirely unacceptable, but I would have to see some evidence to substantiate that claim.

  11. JP,
    That’s great, you’re attacking Amnesty International for its report (complete with evidence from a weapons expert) and offer Arutz Sheva as a counter source. Nevermind that there is no documentation showing that this supposed round was ever fired, outside of the word of Eshkol Council head Chaim Yelin, who ironically said “the attack showed that Hamas is using illegal weapons.” So it’s legal for Israel to use and illegal for Hamas? Or was it the fact that this supposed WP mortar landed in Israel that made it illegal? Things that make you go hmmmm…
    I suppose HRW is also a propagandist organization, right? On the 10th they wrote:
    “Human Rights Watch believes that the use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas of Gaza violates the requirement under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. This concern is amplified given the technique evidenced in media photographs of air-bursting white phosphorus projectiles. Air bursting of white phosphorus artillery spreads 116 burning wafers over an area between 125 and 250 meters in diameter, depending on the altitude of the burst, thereby exposing more civilians and civilian infrastructure to potential harm than a localized ground burst.”
    Once confirmed, I am positive that condemnations will abound. What Israel did here (and what the US has done in places like Fallujah) is wrong.
    And for the record, AI has condemned Hamas for bombings, just a couple of examples:

  12. I do not accept as objective any organization that makes a moral equivalency between the actions of an army that works hard to avoid civilian casualties and a terrorist organization targets civilians specifically. I do not accept as objective an organization that condemns Israel for its attacks but did not condemn Hamas for launching attacks at civilian targets which began on December 24th, BEFORE the attacks began on Gaza (December 27th).
    (Yes, I know there was a blockade. I do not have a problem with criticizing that action. Sorry, I do not believe that justifies attacks on CIVILIAN targets. If you do, I think that your moral compass is misguided.)
    I did not deny that the IDF uses WP. I did not say that it was illegal to use for Hamas and legal for Israel. The Int’l Red Cross has confirmed that it is within the norms of international law to use it in some circumstances. I’m glad that you think that Amnesty, which does not condemn Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians, has moral authority to decide what is legal in war or not.
    Amnesty and HRW are not propagandist organizations. But they have (historically) had blinders on when it comes to Israel. HRW also had no condemnation of Hamas when they fired rockets at civilian targets on Dec. 24, but after Israel responded, they called on both sides to stop the violence. I do not expect them (nor should they) support all of Israel’s actions (blockade, not enough care in selecting targets that avoid civilian casualties). Indeed, they should criticize those actions on both sides which are deserving of criticism. But to say that Israel’s attacking of targets that result in civilian casualties is morally equivalent to Hamas’s specific targeting of civilians shows a lack of true moral thinking.

  13. JP,
    You said:
    “I do not accept as objective any organization that makes a moral equivalency between the actions of an army that works hard to avoid civilian casualties and a terrorist organization targets civilians specifically.”
    Sorry, which army are you referring to? There is a significant enough history of the IDF targeting civilian infrastructure and civilian complexes.
    Furthermore, what is a blockade if not an attack on a civilian population? It is collective punishment doled out upon the civilians of Gaza.
    And to your point that:
    “The Int’l Red Cross has confirmed that it is within the norms of international law to use it in some circumstances.”
    Yes, I’m not arguing that International Law has not allowed for the use of WP. What Amnesty and other groups are saying is that the use of WP by the IDF was indiscriminate and done in a way which put far too many civilian lives at risk.

  14. Please show me evidence of Israel targeting civilians when the terrorist/militants are not among them. If Hamas set up camp outside of civilian areas, don’t you think that Israel would bomb them directly? The percentage of civilians killed in Gaza in the last month is small considering that Hamas uses civilians as human shields ON PURPOSE. Don’t you understand that Hamas does this purposely? They make it impossible for Israel to hit them without catching civilians in the crossfire, and then rile up their people about how Israel is attacking them. Where is your condemnation of Hamas assassinating members of Fatah and those who collaborate with Israel? Please explain to me how Israel is supposed to defend itself against attacks. Should the response be “Well, we can’t take out the rockets that are attacking us without hitting civilians, so I guess we should just turn the other cheek?”
    A blockade is not murder. Is it justified? Perhaps, perhaps not. I’m not arguing that it could be a criminal action. But it is not an excuse for murder, which is what Hamas’s attacks on Israel are. If Hamas unrelentingly attacked the soldiers at the checkpoints, or the Israeli Navy ships blockading them, that would be a reasonable military response. But Hamas responds to a blockade with murder. Instead of defending Hamas’s response, why aren’t you advocating that Hamas stop spending their money and energy on fighting Israel, and instead spend it building infrastructure and helping its people? The answer is, because you know it won’t happen. Even the EU, which has roundly criticized Israel, has said that they will only participate financially in the rebuilding of Israel if Hamas is not in charge. Why not? Because Hamas will take the money and build more rockets instead of buying food for the hungry.
    RE: Amnesty. Again, I ask you-where was Amnesty when Sderot was being shelled and rocketed? Was Hamas being discriminate and not putting civilians at risk? No, they did exactly the opposite. If Hamas’s missiles were more accurate, they would be hitting civilian targets with every launch, with no intention of hitting military targets. The answer is that Amnesty does not see the killing of Israelis as a crime, only Palestinians.
    Is Israel perfect? Certainly not. Is Israel justified in every attack it makes? Probably not. Can it be argued that this should be solved at the negotiating table rather than in rockets and ground wars? Of course. But criticism of Israel needs to come from an understanding of the enemy it faces (and I speak here about Hamas, not the Palestinians in general), which does not believe in democracy, which uses civilians as human shields, which has the stated goal of the elimination of the State of Israel, and which purposely attacks civilians. And, I repeat, I do not accept as objective criticism any organization that does not take these factors into account.

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