Friday, January 16, 2009

War by Any Other Name - Gideon Levy

Haaretz, January 16, 2009 - Words, it is true, do not kill; but words can ease the work of killing. From the dawn of the Israeli occupation in the territories - by now an ancient dawn - or perhaps from the very establishment of the state, or maybe even from the revival of Hebrew, the language has been mobilized in active reserve service. There has been a permanent emergency call-up and Hebrew has never doffed its uniform. War after war, doublespeak after doublespeak, words are on the front line. They don't shed blood, but somehow they make the sight of it easier to take, sometimes even pleasurably so. They justify, validate, purify, polish and clean; often they also whip up, incite, inflame, push, urge and encourage - all in standard usage. Dry cleaning, express, removes every stain instantaneously, our word-laundering is guaranteed.

We were hurled into this war armed with lines written by our national poet for the Hanukkah holiday, the holiday of the onset of this war: "Cast Lead," from a poem by Bialik. From now on, when kindergarten children sing "My father lit me candles, and acted as my torch," people will remember this war, which some commentators are already calling "the most just in Israel?s history," no less. But as for "war," the authoritative Even-Shoshan dictionary defines it as "an armed clash between armies, a conflict between state bodies (nations, states) in battle operations with the use of weapons and by force of arms." The Litani Operation (Lebanon, March 1978), a large-scale action which lasted three full months, never gained the national honor of being considered a war. Even the "Second Lebanon War" was not given that official name until half a year after it ended. This time we were quicker and more determined. The forces had not yet raided at dawn, the planes had not yet finished bombing the graduation ceremony of the traffic police - leaving behind dozens of bleeding young bodies; and we were already calling it a war. For the time being it is a nameless war; yes, afterward the ministerial committee for ceremonies and symbols will convene and give it an appropriate name. The First Gaza War? Surely not the last.

True, the dictionary raises doubts. This is certainly not "an armed clash between armies." After all, which army is fighting us, exactly? The army of Qassams and tunnels? It's even hard to call it "a conflict between nations and states in battle operations," because the battles are not actually battles and one of the sides is not exactly a state, barely half a nation, it has to be admitted. Still, war. What difference does it make if a senior officer in a reserve unit was quoted this week in Haaretz as saying, "It was a superb call-up and training exercise"? For us it?s a war. For months we longed for it, oh how we longed for the "big operation" in Gaza. No one talked about "war" then, but look, a war was born. Mazel tov....

The swaggering lyrics go hand in hand with doublespeak. "The houses have to be distanced from the border," a learned military analyst explained incisively last week, referring to what needs to be done in Rafah along the "Philadelphi" route. "To distance the houses from the border," as though these were homes marked for conservation in the old Sarona neighborhood of Tel Aviv, on which the Kirya - the defense establishment compound - now stands. Why, you just slide them onto tracks and move them a few meters down the road. Has the learned analyst seen the Rafah homes opposite Philadelphi in recent years? Most of them have long since been reduced to rubble. People lived in them, a great many people, who have nowhere, but nowhere, to go. Now there are hundreds more destroyed homes, which we have "distanced from the border," so to speak.

We "liberated" the territories, "preempted" the terrorists and "preserved order," the order of the occupation; consolidated the occupation with a "civil administration," being careful not to cause a "humanitarian disaster," jailed people in ?administrative detention," killed with "neighbor procedure," murdered with "rules of engagement" and liquidated "senior figures in Hamas"; children "died from their wounds," adults were killed with "rubber bullets," a 6-year-old child who is killed is a "youth," a 12-year-old youth who is killed is a "young man" and both are "terrorists"; we established a "crossings unit" which is a network of roadblocks, and a "coordination and liaison directorate" which hardly coordinates or liaises between anything; we killed "gunmen" and "wanted individuals" and people "required for questioning," all of them "ticking bombs."

Now we have a "humanitarian corridor" and an equally "humanitarian" cease-fire. The "bank of goals" is also a friend." People "in shock" exist only in Israel, no one has gone into shock in Gaza. "Children of the south" live only in Sderot. Hamas fighters are "terrorists" and "Hamas activists," too, are not entitled to the honorific title of "noncombatants," so their fate is the same. Every postman of the Palestinian postal service, every policeman, every government accountant and maybe also every doctor working in Hamas' non-civil administration is considered an activist of the organization and therefore is to be killed before he kills us.

Our air force bombs and levels "targets," sometimes also "structures," never houses. Israel demands a "security zone" in Gaza, and security is always ours, only ours. Only my colleague at Haaretz, Amira Hass, dares, with characteristic courage, to call the tens of thousands of new homeless people in Gaza, made homeless by us, refugees for the second and third time in their lives; dares to call them "displaced persons." A term that is so heavily charged and fraught with history. But these DPs have nowhere to escape the horrors of the "war.

Gideon Levy is a columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.

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