Tag Archives: Operation Cast Lead

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After the dreadful episode of the Israeli war on Gaza this summer, it’s easy to forget that it took place less than two years after the previous “round” of the long war which is Israel’s continuing politicide of the Palestinian people. But yes, two years ago, on November 14th 2012, Israel launched an assault on Gaza. Before the “steadfast cliff” of July-August 2014, there was the “pillar of cloud” of November 2012.  To commemorate the start of that war I have chosen this clip, a Social TV report of a small demonstration on the evening of the first day of the war, outside the apartment building of then Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In the clip, protesters ask how come that yet again a war had been launched on Gaza. They are talking wearily about the “cast lead” of 2008-9. The offenses against Gaza  repeat themselves terribly every few years.

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The Qana Moment: When the Israeli government falls off its Protective Edge

When the Israeli government and military began Operation Protective Edge, they must have known that the moment would come. I’ll call it the Qana moment after the incident on April 18, 1996, during Operation Grapes of Wrath, a round of the war between Israel (with its proxy, the South Lebanon Army) and Lebanon (in the form of Hezbollah). Then, as now with the hostilities between Israel and Gaza, an undercurrent of violence flared up into open warfare, with each side blaming the other for starting it. Then, as now, Israeli authorities accused their opponents of using civilians as human shields.

UNIFIL Peacekeepers (Qana 1996) Remove Artillery Attack Victim Remains

UNIFIL Peacekeepers (Qana 1996) Remove Artillery Attack Victim Remains

Then, as now, Israeli authorities called on civilians to leave the area in which they were going to attack, and hundreds of thousands did flee. Some 800 of them took refuge in a UN compound, nearby from which Hezbollah fighters fired rockets and mortar rounds towards Israeli military positions. In the response, Israeli artillery shells struck the compound, killing 106 and injuring many more. International outrage did not immediately halt the military campaign, although on the same day the UN Security Council passed resolution 1052 calling for an immediate ceasefire, which was not reached until ten days later. A subsequent UN investigation concluded that it was extremely unlikely that the Israeli shells had hit the compound by accident, and in its rejection of the report the Israeli government continued to claim that it had not intended to hit the compound.

The Qana moment is not an isolated incident in Israel’s asymmetrical wars against non-state foes, when “by accident” a horrific number of civilians are killed by Israeli munitions. In the last round of the Israel-Gaza war in 2012, the moment was the Al-Dalu family killing on 18 November, in which twelve people died in an attack on a home.

Palestinian men gather around a crater caused by an Israeli air strike on the al-Dalu family's home in Gaza City on November 18, 2012. (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)

Palestinian men gather around a crater caused by an Israeli air strike on the al-Dalu family’s home in Gaza City on November 18, 2012. (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)

In Cast Lead, in 2009, it was the shelling on January 6 of the al-Fakhura school in which hundreds of people were sheltering, killing more than 40 of them. The story is always the same. The Israeli authorities say that they were targeting a source of fire or some armed people or installation, and that the civilians were too close to the target, or there was some technical error. As Moriel Rothman-Zecher put it on his Leftern Wall blog, the Israeli authorities’ intention matters less than the consequences of their action. The killing of civilians is not an incidental by-product of this sort of asymmetrical warfare: it is an inevitable element of it, just as the deaths of Israeli soldiers, some by “friendly-fire,” are inevitable when the air war becomes a ground war. When Israeli authorities wage war in this way, it simply means that they intend to hit their targets. That is a military, not a moral, stance.

The Qana moment may already have happened in this bout of hostilities, Protective Edge. It might have been the bombing of the Abu Jameh family home on July 20th, killing 25, apparently without warning. As I write, details are emerging of another deadly strike that is eerily similar to the al-Fakhura incident: an UNWRA school in Beit Hanoun in which people had sought shelter but were apparently trying to evacuate, was hit by shells, killing about 10-15 and injuring many more.

The Qana moments don’t stop the violence (or bring the Western governments that support Israel’s “right to self-defense to withdraw their public support), nor does media attention to them address the whole range of death and destruction. At this point, unlike in the actual Qana moment, the UN Security Council has not resolved that there be an immediate ceasefire, although the UN human rights council has formed a commission to look into possible Israeli war crimes. The Israeli response has been dismissive, with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni saying “get lost” and Prime Minister Netanyahu calling it a travesty, given Hamas’ war crimes. In all probability, when the UN completes its report, the Israeli government will reject it, just as they after Grapes of Wrath, and for the same reasons. And when civilians are killed again in the next operation, and the one after that, and so on, they will repeat the same talking points as civilians die.

The deadly repetition of inevitable civilian casualties might perhaps be slowed if not halted by an Israeli public opinion that is as appalled by them as much as public opinion is elsewhere. But unless Israelis are seeking out alternative news to that provided by their mainstream media, they will see and hear little about the Palestinian casualties. Surely if Israeli authorities were as confident in the “righteousness of our way” as they claim to be, as in the new President Reuven Rivlin’s swearing in speech, then there would be no problem for the Israeli public to be fully aware of each “justified” death, each “justified” injury, each “justified” destruction of homes, and hospitals, and mosques. As a way of bringing the public’s attention to that for which they bear responsibility but do not hear, Israeli human rights groups B’tselem tried to pay for a spot on Israeli public radio in which the names of some of the dead Palestinian are read out. But the Israeli Broadcasting Authority rejected the group’s appeal to place the spot, so instead it can be found on social media, out of sight and mind of most of the Israeli public and its sphere of ethical responsibility.

“Every person has a name” goes the Hebrew song that is used on memorial days for soldiers and the Holocaust. And indeed, everyone does have a name, and the taking of that name cannot be excused by talking points. The cost of the Qana moments is horrendous, but they have the power to remind all of us of our ethical responsibility.

Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Defense

Gaza, November 14, 2012, AP


William West, The Israelites Passing through the Wilderness Preceded by the Pillar of Clouds, 1845

When the Israeli government and military launched its latest assault on Gaza yesterday, November 14th 2012, by killing Hamas’ military commander, Ahmed Jabari from the air, it indicated it was ready for a sustained campaign by giving it a codename. Curiously, though, its name in Hebrew, “amud anan” which refers to the biblical term “pillar of cloud”, has been translated to English as “pillar of defense.” The difference in name indicates that the Israeli authorities are hoping to win the battle over the image of this war, unlike “Operation Cast Lead” in the winter of 2008-9. “Cast lead” sounds ominous in English, though it is a phrase taken from a poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik, one of Israel’s national poets, to mark the festival of Chanukah which coincided with the war. So, the image managers of this war are avoiding using what they take to be an internal, Israeli Jewish cultural association that might be “misunderstood” abroad, and might thus contribute to international condemnation of the Israeli military action against Hamas.

Yet, the phrase “pillar of cloud” is hardly an unknown expression in English and in Western culture generally, as illustrated by William West’s painting, just as the Bible is somewhat more widely read around the world than Bialik’s poetry.  Appearing first in the story of the Children of Israel’s exodus from slavery in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea in which Pharaoh’s army pursuing them was drowned, and their long journey through Sinai, the “pillar of cloud” symbolizes divine leadership of the Israelites’ progress. “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them in the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night” (Exodus 13:21).

An Israeli military spokesperson quoted on the Gawker blog states that: “The name is not a direct, word-for-word translation. Like most translations, it is an attempt to convey the spirit of the name, rather than a simple Google Translate.” One wonders whether the spokesperson is unaware that the Bible has been translated into English for centuries, or whether the image managers belatedly realized that the brand name for the war was open to “misunderstanding” once again. Indeed, the Gawker has already interpreted the choice of Hebrew and Biblical name to mean that “Israel Names Its New War After Biblical Story About God Terrorizing Egyptians,” on the grounds that the divine pillar threw the Egyptian army into confusion so the Israelites could escape.

The codename perhaps has been (mis)translated deliberately by the Israeli military to cloud the negative connotations that the “pillar of cloud” has. But the (mis)translation follows a deeply rooted cultural logic in Jewish Israeli, Zionist collective existence. Jewish Voice for Peace also condemns the choice of codename, but on the grounds that “it is unseemly to invoke the protection afforded the Israelites wandering in the desert when Israel is the dominant military power in the region”. The Israelites had no army when they fled Egypt, afraid and unsure of their path. But surely, now that Israel has such a powerful military, as the Israeli broadcast media were quick to boast in their cheerleading of the assassination of Jabari and the allegedly precise strikes on the Fajr missile sites, today’s people of Israel do not feel dependent on divine protection and leadership?

In choosing a codename that figures Israel as in need, still, of divine protection, the military image makers express, from behind a cloud, a deep felt need for a Jewish Israeli public to continue to see itself as defenceless despite its strength. True, the image makers’ have an explicit imperative to present this war as a military operation in which Israel is forced to defend itself against an implacable enemy, Hamas, that both targets Israeli citizens and exposes its own people to the harm of Israeli retaliation. That is certainly part of the motivation behind the mis(translation), part of the propaganda campaign to erase Israeli and global awareness of repeated Israeli initiation of armed attacks on Gaza, part of the legitimation of a regular pattern of “little” wars, each of which is “successful” only in so far as it is repeated, as Hagai Matar has pointed out.

“Cloud” is (mis)translated as “defense” because it does not matter how much military power Israel has, nor how victorious its armed forces, nor how precisely its intelligence and weaponry can target its enemies, it will not be enough to fill the felt need for protection, for defense. All the military manna in heaven could not fill that hole. The pillars of smoke and fire that the Israeli military inflicts on Gaza by day and by night are a substitute, though a poor one, for divine protection and presence. The pillars of smoke and fire are clouds that instead of leading today’s Israel towards a promised land lead us to repeat, compulsively, acts of war that bring not peace but situations such as the unilateral withdrawal from and siege of Gaza that demand never-ending military “defense.”  The pillars of smoke and fire that cloud our hopeless, mournful,  traumatic and traumatizising repetition of violence condemn Israel to wander in a wilderness of war until we can see through the clouds of war that only a pillar of peace will dispel the felt need for divine protection and defense that we seek, vainly and profanely, through the force of arms.