Opinion Israel's Conspicuous Silence after the War

Israelis do not understand a world that reproaches them for what they have done in the Gaza Strip. They brush aside concerns about civilian casualities and stories about Palestinian suffering are relegated to the back pages. Why is discussion about the war so taboo?

By in Tel Aviv

Palestinian boys play in a destroyed house in Gaza City: Discussion about civilian casualties is taboo in Israel.

Palestinian boys play in a destroyed house in Gaza City: Discussion about civilian casualties is taboo in Israel.

The number of dead, wounded and homeless runs into the thousands -- and all of this happened less than an hour's drive from Tel Aviv. But no one in Israel seems to be talking much about the consequences of the war against Hamas. Thoughts about the upcoming elections on Feb. 10 push away those about the moral issues involved with military action. There is no public discourse about the ethical boundaries soldiers and officers should have observed. Nobody asks how many children it was acceptable to sacrifice in Gaza in order to save the life of one Israeli soldier. No one wants to know about the question of who is responsible for taking care of Gaza's homeless and refugees.

This silence worries Gadi Baltiansky, director general of the Geneva Initiative, a large Israeli peace organization advocating a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It troubles him that his country is so indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. There's no doubt that -- in military terms -- Israel won the war against Hamas, he writes in an op-ed for the Israeli news Web site Ynet. But, as Blatiansky sees it, a society that does not "engage in an incisive debate" about the results of the war is "a numb society with meager values."

As a result, "we keep on losing," he writes. Israel has undergone a worrying transformation, he writes, asking: "What happened to us?" For him, the question is no mere rhetorical flourish. He is concerned about the kind of society he is living in: "A society that treats its domestic critics as anathema, traitors, and evil beings is a different society than what we used to have around here, and different than what we should have here."

Taboo Questions

In these days, such voices are rarely heard in Israel, and their very rareness lends them an almost exotic aspect. You might say that the author David Grossmann also numbers among these lonely critics. As Grossman wrote in the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel may have shown that it has a formidable military, but it has failed to prove that it was in the right.

In the rather small chorus of critical voices, there can also be found those of eight Israeli human rights organizations. They are calling on Menachem Mazuz, Israel's attorney general, to convene an independent commission to investigate the Israeli military's attacks on civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, is a civic association whose mandate also includes monitoring the media. The organization does not share the widespread mentality that holds that discomforting questions are automatically taboo. In its most recent media report, the organization came to a conclusion that is sobering but -- as Yizhar Be'er, Keshev's executive director, puts it -- "in no way surprising."

The report concludes that, when it comes to covering wars, editors and reporters behave in a patriotic manner that is "almost instinctual" and that, instead of scrutinizing press releases, they eat out of the hands of official spokespersons. As Be'er puts it: "In crisis situations, the media constantly endeavor to justify military actions, and they accept the narrative of the government or of military officers without criticism." And, he adds, it was no different this time in Gaza.

Opposing the Cease-Fire

Quiet, we're shooting: This is how Israelis justify the silence during the war. But even once the fighting is over, critical questions aren't asked. After an overwhelming majority unconditionally supported the three-week war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, many are now disappointed that the government has announced a unilateral cease-fire. Half of Israel's population currently feels that the truce happened much too early.

If you look at the public opinion polls, you'll see that over half of the Israeli population also does not believe that peace will return to southern Israel. As they see it, the war's goals have not been met and Hamas is still dangerous. Talking on televison as they handed in their weapons and ammunition, Israeli soldiers said it won't be long before they will have to return to Gaza "to finish the job."

During the war, Yedioth Ahronoth, the country's most influential newspaper, reported each new expansion of the offensive in bold headlines, while at the same time relegating stories about the suffering of Palestinians to the back pages -- as if the latter were somehow irrelevant. In any case, the Israeli media weighted the events in Gaza differently than Western newspapers and TV stations. For example, Israeli readers had to wait until page seven of Yedioth Ahronoth to find reports about the Israeli military's shelling of a United Nations-run school. In the European and American media, on the other hand, reports about the incident were given far greater prominence.

With Israel facing global condemnation and with the possibility of war crimes trials, the Israelis are concerned about the legal pitfalls that might lie ahead for its government ministers and military officers. Many people do not understand what the world wants them to do and dismiss the criticisms, saying: "As usual, everyone is turning against us again." A full 82 percent of Israeli citizens say they do not believe that Israel acted with disproportionate violence in Gaza. That might explain why they don't understand how the images and reports coming out of Gaza could create a wave of empathy for Palestinians -- and anger toward the Israelis -- around the world.

Instead of reflecting on whether there is any moral justification for the 1,300 killed in Gaza, Israelis continue to demand the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been missing ever since he was kidnapped by Palestinian militants in the summer of 2006 and brought to Gaza. Officers currently withdrawing from Gaza can be heard saying: "The battle is not over until Gilad is back home."

According to Baltiansky, who was formerly a spokesman for Ehud Barak, this indifference toward Palestinians is the result of a lengthy process. As he see it, people have come to tolerate reprehensible social phenomena -- such as the racist "death to the Arabs" chants that can be heard in soccer stadiums.

But Palestinians are not completely blameless when it comes to rising indifference to Palestinian suffering among Israeli youths. Seeking to explain Israeli public sentiment, peace activist Baltiansky says: "The suicide bombers who brought insecurity to Israeli cities during the second intifada have hardened Israeli society. Why should we show restraint when Palestinians sacrifice their children for suicide attacks and send them against us?"

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent for the Swiss weekly "Weltwoche."

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