Monday, October 3, 2011

Defining a Massacre: A review of 'Gaza: Stay Human' by Vittorio Arrigoni

Around 200 metres from the hospital lay about 30 bodies, among them women and children, many of whom were still alive. They couldn’t be rescued as the snipers on the roofs shot at anything that moved. Those bleeding bodies in the street were civilians who’d escaped from their homes when they’d caught fire after being shelled. [The] snipers hadn’t hesitated to shoot them, one by one, including the children, once they were framed by the viewfinders on their guns. 

Put the above passage to a panel of seasoned political ‘pundits’ (to use the Hindi word for ‘religious authority’ that we apply with unintended accuracy to that special species of charlatan and bullshit-merchant), and ask them to identify the army that carried out the actions described, and it seems safe to assume their minds would turn to one of the less restrained of the Arab regimes currently involved in the broad-daylight murder of their ‘own’ citizens. Snipers had been deployed to similar effect in Egypt, after all, as they had in Libya – before Qaddafi grew impatient and moved on to yet more lethal firepower. Live rounds continue to be fired at protesters in Bahrain, and only last Saturday, snipers of the Yemeni state assisted troops wielding anti-aircraft missiles in the slaying of at least forty peaceful demonstrators. My own guess (as an aspiring bullshit-merchant myself) would have been the Republican Guard of the Baathist dictatorship in Syria, having watched in April the harrowing footage of Daraa residents trying, directly under the scopes of government marksmen, to salvage the bullet-riddled bodies of civilian men and women from their burgundy puddles in the street. 

Yet the army in question belongs not to any blood-bespattered Arabian tyrant but to the State of Israel, that most precious of American allies and supposed shining example of democratic values in otherwise dark and barbarous waters. The quote comes from Gaza: Stay Human (p. 77), a slender but astonishing account of Israel’s 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-9, and the first and sadly final book from the recently murdered Italian journalist and activist, Vittorio Arrigoni, who lived in Gaza from 2008 until his death at the age of thirty-six on April 15th of this year. 

If it appears at all odd that an army so boastful of its ‘purity of arms’ would use high-tech military equipment against unarmed women and children, I assure the reader I am not ‘cherry-picking’ for exceptional cases: I could have plucked something similar from almost any of Gaza’s 118 pages. Indeed, if the above example were any sort of departure from the average, it would be toward the tamer side. And if the comparison between Israel’s attacks in Gaza and Assad’s in Syria is inexact, it’s only because the former were so many multiples more gruesome and homicidal than the latter. 

For Gaza is a bursting reservoir of violence from start to finish; a glistening inventory of gore; an emporium of horror. Sentences such as the following are by no means atypical:

Yesterday at the Jabalia refugee camp an F16 plane dropped some missiles onto an ambulance. (p. 15)

On Sunday, 11th January, at about 3.00am, the F16s bombed the orphanage of the Dar al-Fadila Association [...]. (p. 64)

Once again, yesterday, an ambulance was hit in Gaza City. On the previous day two doctors at the Jabalia refugee camp had died when they were hit by a missile shot from an Apache helicopter. (p. 19)

If the firefighters tried to put out the fires, they’d instantly become the targets of the F16’s machine guns – this already happened yesterday.  (p. 17)

The soldiers actually prevent us from running to the aid of the survivors [...] When the wounded are close to the armoured vehicles they were just attacked by, we, in our Red Crescent ambulances, aren’t allowed anywhere near, as the soldiers take potshots at us. (p. 24)

Indeed, this sort of thing is so common that to apportion each individual case its due and proper outrage becomes impossible: after the first few dozen annihilations of hospitals, schools, orphanages, refugee camps and residential apartment blocks, an element of desensitisation is unavoidable. But nothing can prepare one for things like this:

A child was lying with his skull cracked open, his eyeballs literally hanging out of their sockets, swaying onto his face like those at the end of a crab’s stalks. When we picked him up, he was still breathing. His little brother had a disembowelled chest, and you could distinctly count his white ribs through the tatters of his torn flesh. Their mother pressed her hands on to that eviscerated chest, as if trying to fix what the fruit of her love had managed to create, and which the anonymous hatred of a soldier, obeying orders, had now forever destroyed. (pp. 25-6)

The website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a section devoted to ‘Operation Cast Lead’, in which it states that “the IDF conducted pinpoint surgical aerial strikes, using precision guided munitions”. It’s the sort of thing the Israelis say rather frequently. The claim has some interesting implications: if true, then the IDF is by far the most sophisticated and accomplished terrorist organisation in modern history; and if false, then the official statements of the Israeli government are lies. As it happens, Arrigoni has his own take on this question:

There’s no such thing as a surgically precise military operation. When the Air Force and the Navy start bombing, the only surgical operations are those tackled by the doctors, unhesitatingly amputating limbs reduced to a pulp. (p. 10)

Perhaps worse than the immediate effects of the bombing, however, are the ones that are slower to manifest, and are not so readily described by statistics and news headlines. Gaza is no mere clinical collation of forensic evidence – it’s an account of what actually happens when you bomb every inch of one of the most densely populated territories on the planet, around the clock, for twenty-two days in a row. For instance, people will stop sleeping: sixty hours in, Arrigoni hasn’t managed a wink, “and the same can be said of any Gazan” (p. 6). There will be other biological irregularities - on the tenth day of bombing, Arrigoni writes, “Many terrified pregnant women are prematurely giving birth right now” (p. 27). The repeated use of white phosphorous munitions prompts a doctor at the Al-Shifa hospital to predict an impending wave of “new cancers and deformed babies” – indeed, so lavish was the distribution of these illegal toxins by the IDF that it worried the residents of the nearby Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon, who “formally asked the Israeli government for clarification regarding the weapons used” (p. 96) in the Strip*. And then, quite apart from the physical damage, there is the incalculable mental trauma, which is unknowable to the outsider and can only be dimly guessed at by stories like the following:
A visibly malnourished child crouched in front of his mother’s corpse, already in an advanced state of decay. He had taken care of that body for four days, as if she were still alive. He had dried the blood from her face and dragging [sic] himself through the rubble of what had been their home, bringing her water, bread and tomatoes, which he’d carefully placed next to her head. He thought she was only sleeping. (p. 78)

Arrigoni goes on to explain - as anyone who had come as far as page 78 could have guessed - that “Israeli snipers had prevented the Red Cross from rushing in to bring aid” to the child’s mother, as well as everyone else killed or wounded at Zeitoun over those four days.

No reader acquainted with Israel’s conduct, or misconduct, in previous wars can fail to recognise some old friends in these pages. First, and least surprising, there is the ubiquitous T-word. During the July 2006 bombing of Lebanon, the Israeli justice minister Haim Ramon said, “All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists”. Nearly three decades ago, on September 18th, 1982, when Robert Fisk was wading through the warm bodies of women and children in the Chatila refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, an IDF soldier stopped to warn him: “There are terrorists everywhere. Be careful” (Fisk, R., Pity the Nation, p. 370). Never mind that of the c. 1,100 killed in Lebanon in July 2006, nearly 80% were noncombatants**, or that no evidence exists to suggest a single one of the c.1,700 massacred with Israel’s permission at Sabra and Chatila was a militant, the line remained unchanged during Cast Lead: “Everyone [in Gaza] is a terrorist”, said an IDF soldier quoted in a Haaretz article cited by Arrigoni (p. 110). For the record, of the 1,390 Gazans killed during the 22-day siege, “at least 759 were not taking part in the hostilities, among them 318 persons under eighteen years of age”, according to the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem.

Mention of Fisk’s magisterial account of the Lebanon war prompts a second example of old Israeli habits dying hard. Arrigoni recalls a conversation in the Al-Shifa hospital with Tamim, a journalist recovering from the amputation of both of his legs, having been selected as the target of one of Israel’s 2,360 precision-guided air strikes:

He explained how he thinks that Israel is adopting the same, identical terrorist techniques as Al-Qaeda: bombing a building, waiting for the journalists and ambulances to rush in, then dropping another bomb to finish off the latter as well. (p. 49)

Seems far-fetched, I hear you say. Yet here is Fisk describing the moment on June 27th, 1982, when an Israeli shell missed him so narrowly that “the explosion felt as if it was coming out of the back of my head”: 

Ten minutes was all we reckoned we had. The planes usually came back after ten minutes. To finish off the survivors? To catch the rescuers out in the open? We never knew. (Pity, p. 306)

Thus one of the several journalistic triumphs of Gaza is to have added yet more evidence in favour of the view, hysterically denied by the neoconservative bien-pensant, that the consistently high civilian death toll on the receiving end of Israel’s attacks is at least to some extent an intentional outcome of Israeli policy

Reportage to one side, Gaza also contains some passages of sharp analysis. Reflecting on the wider effects of Cast Lead just two days after the ceasefire, Arrigoni is among the first to register the swivelling vanes of a fresh Palestinian paradigm:

If Israel’s objective was to isolate and rid the Strip of Hamas by dividing further a people already split by internal diatribes, then Israel has achieved the exact opposite of what it intended. The bombing has in part given Gaza back its national identity. [...] The flowing beards of the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades’ Islamists, Hamas’ fighting wing, have fought side-by-side with the scampish, goatee-sporting Marxist guerrilla fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and alongside Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Only time will tell if this newfound unity among the militias is a reflection of unity within civic and political society. (pp. 93-4) 

Well, we know from the Goldstone report that things weren’t as merry as all that, with Fatah people being on multiple occasions detained, beaten and even killed by Hamas authorities during the 22 days. But it’s no less true that in May of this year, meeting in a newly liberated Cairo for the first time in four years, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Khaled Meshaal of Hamas signed a pact of unity that led to the formation of a coalition bloc that might yet govern the first UN-recognised Palestinian state. This is presumably not the return on investment the Israelis had in mind in December 2008 – nor, for that matter, is the loss of Israel’s two most strategic partners in the region, Turkey and Egypt, which the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has also accredited to the “resounding failure” of Cast Lead. It’s numbing to realise that Arrigoni was killed just one month before the Fatah-Hamas conciliation, and would thus never know how prophetic his words had been.

Just in case that sounds at all saccharine, I ought to state that Arrigoni’s words can be a few other things besides. Sanctimonious, for example. Humourlessly self-congratulating, for another. Did we really need to be told that Arrigoni and his comrades are

[M]ore at ease in the midst of this Gazan hell than relaxing in a metropolitan heaven in Europe or America, where people celebrating the New Year and [sic] aren’t really aware of just how complicit they are with the butchering of all these innocent civilians. (p. 20)

? Or that

Human beings, like myself, like many who vent their indignation, are ready to risk their lives rather than lounge passively in their living rooms watching news bulletins. (p. 57)

? The point is not that Arrigoni isn’t risking his life, or that there aren’t Europeans and Americans who are complicit with Israel’s policies. It’s more, as one cringes to have to spell out, that people generally become less inclined to think a person heroic the more that person tells them how heroic he is. 

Far worse than this stylistic affront, however, is the moral affront of his complete omission of any reference to crimes committed by Palestinians against Israelis. He manages to write his penultimate chapter, titled ‘War Crimes in Gaza’, without mentioning the merest misdemeanour on the Palestinians’ part, despite quoting from Amnesty International’s Operation ‘Cast Lead’: 22 Days of Death and Destruction, which mentions “serious violations of international humanitarian law [and] war crimes” committed by Palestinians; from Physicians For Human Rights – Israel’s Ill Morals: Grave Violations of the Right to Health during the Israeli Assault on Gaza, which talks of the “severe and systematic violation of International Humanitarian Law” that was “the firing of missiles by the Hamas to the south of Israel”; as well as the Goldstone report itself, which describes the Palestinian rocket fire as “an indiscriminate attack on the civilian population of southern Israel, a war crime, and may amount to crimes against humanity”. If it’s true, as Arrigoni claims, that “[a]s a pacifist and non-violent person, I abhor any form of Palestinian attack against Israel” (p. 14), then one wonders why these nontrivial accusations weren’t given a moment’s mention.

Nevertheless, on balance, I feel this shortcoming must be forgiven. For no reasonable human being could read Gaza and earnestly feel that the firing of homemade projectiles at sparsely populated civilian centres is anything like as morally objectionable; as basically repellent as an exorbitantly powerful army launching an all-out military operation, using everything from tanks to navy ships to attack helicopters to fighter jets - not to mention cluster bombs and white phosphorous - on very densely populated civilian targets such as orphanages, hospitals and refugee camps. It’s true that critics of Israel are too often given to throwing heavy words around lightly - terrorism; atrocity; war crime; genocide – but what the Israelis committed in Gaza over those 22 days was a massacre if the word means anything at all. Let it be our tribute to this brave and honourable man to remember that much, and to insist on it. And let it be our tribute to the more than 700 dead innocents to loathe and resist their murderers – whether Israeli or Palestinian – by any and all lawful and democratic means. These are the necessary, if far from sufficient, conditions for our ‘staying human’. 

* For more on this, see Human Rights Watch’s Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza

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