Book Review: Gideon Levy, The Punishment of Gaza (London: Verso, 2010)
Gideon Levy is a veteran journalist and columnist with the liberal Israeli daily, Ha’aretz. Along with Amira Hass, he is one of the few Israeli journalists – one of the few Western journalists – to take a long term interest in the Gaza Strip. His book The Punishment of Gaza is a valuable collection of his Ha’aretz pieces, since 2006.
The starting point of the essays is notable, in that it reminds us that Gaza’s travails did not begin with ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the murderous Israeli bombardment and invasion of the Strip between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009. Gaza has been a brutalised place since 1949, when its original population of around 50,000 was swollen by the overnight arrival of 250,000 refugees from other parts of Mandate Palestine, ethnically cleansed during the creation of the State of Israel. Site of Israeli massacre, birthplace of Hamas, Gaza has always been a locus of Palestinian radicalism. It’s also one of the most densely populated regions on the planet, with a population now approximately 1.5 million.
It’s important to realise a couple of things about Levy and his book. His critique of Israel, or of Zionism, or of the ‘moral’ Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) is delivered in the hope that these institutions can be redeemed or brought up to the level they once existed on or aspired to. So he is a critic of Zionism, but he has not completely left it behind. In fairness to him, he is never less than clear about this. But what is crucial is realising that the apparent ferocity of Levy’s criticism masks this fundamental belief in the amenability of the current socio-political system to reform. Levy is not a radical, but an outraged and bitter liberal.
Further, his book is a collection of short journalistic articles. Their principal strength is their Cassandra-like quality of blunt truth-telling, and the raw energy they exude: sadness, fury, incredulity, sarcasm, sympathy. They offer little in the way of sustained or structural analysis of the situation in Israel or the Territories, or of the Middle East more widely, or of any of the political agents in the region.
Levy clearly feels his situation intensely. His anger at Israel, at the hypocrisy of its political class, and of many of its intellectuals, is white-hot. He is or feels himself to be a voice in the wilderness. Self-consciously lonely dissent can lead to a writing of insufferable preciousness and self-regard, but Levy’s refreshingly plain style prevents that. He does not mince his words. He writes forcefully and with conviction, and though his anger is related to his broken hopes for his country, it is still salutary. His voice is all the more welcome for its capacity to punch through the miasma that surrounds discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict much of the time, and more especially now, with the vaunted Obama Administration ‘peace talks’.
One might profitably divide the essays in The Punishment of Gaza into two broad groups. One is the set which describes, sometimes in wrenching detail, the minutiae of Palestinian suffering. So he gives us the story of young Palestinian fishermen, who try to bring in a catch from small open boats off the Gaza coastline. Partly because of the blockade, partly because Israel is exploring the viability of hydrocarbon fields off Gaza – a resource that should rightly belong to the Palestinians – the coastline is heavily patrolled by the Israeli navy. To make matters worse, the fishery is harmed by the thousands of tons of raw sewage pumped into the sea from Gaza every week, a situation caused by the Israeli blockade on building materials going into the Strip. Levy narrates the story of Mohammed Masalah, shot in the leg by Israeli patrol boat crewmen in an unprovoked attack. He spends weeks in hospital, and his family’s livelihood is severely impaired.
Or Levy tells the grim tale of Yasser Temeizi, a Palestinian labourer from the West Bank, who, during Cast Lead, went early one morning to work his family olive grove with his seven year-old son, Firas, carrying water and equipment by donkey. There, he was approached, beaten and cuffed by IDF reservists, who took the man away with no regard for the safety of the young child left behind. All day, Temeizi’s relatives frantically tried to ascertain where he was, until, in the afternoon, a worker with B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, found that his body had been brought to a hospital in Hebron. Eyewitness and professional pathology reports showed that Temeizi had been shot in the stomach, with an exit wound in his thigh, suggesting that he had been shot while sitting down. IDF sources told an investigating Ha’aretz reporter that
the manner in which the incident was handled, particularly in regard to summoning of assistance for the wounded man, indicates there were serious failures. This is a very serious incident, and one can’t help thinking that if a regular force was stationed there, it would not have happened. The reservist soldiers are simply not familiar with or trained for such scenarios and such situations.
To this bureaucratese, Levy responds:
What kind of training is needed for such situations? Do soldiers really need to be trained not to shoot a handcuffed prisoner? Do they truly need to be trained to immediately summon medical care for someone who is gravely wounded?
The Orwellian echoes are unmistakable.
The second category of article contained in The Punishment of Gaza is that where Levy pointedly takes the Israeli elite to task. So he castigates the willingness of European, not to speak of American, political leaders to praise Israel and to draw the veil of convenience or reason-of-state over its crimes. He accuses Israel of corrupting its youth by developing the elite esprit de corps of its military pilots while requiring them to drop thousands of tons of lethal munitions on persons – mostly civilian – whom they will never see, and whose shattered lives they will never comprehend. In the first four days of Cast Lead, IDF aircraft killed 375 people, bombing a mosque, a university’s student dormitories, and a police station, all of them elements in what the IDF referred to as a ‘target bank’. These young pilots return home to honour and praise, but what they have perpetrated is a massacre of people who could never have resisted them.
In the essay ‘Child’s Play’, Levy develops the point. He notes that the ‘war’ is really a slaughter, abattoir-work perpetrated against a population of civilian refugees, half of which is under fifteen, with one third of the casualties children. It’s not a war, when the IDF and the air force can attack anyone anywhere with almost complete impunity. Pilots did not ‘intend’ to kill children, to be sure, but one can also say that they did not ‘intend’ NOT to kill children. The charge of Hamas ‘hiding’ amidst the civilian population is fatuous: the Israeli Department of Defence is headquartered in a city; the Pentagon is located in a city: if they were hit by bombs, civilians also would be killed. Hamas is not separate from the civilian population, any more than the Israeli state or government – or any state or government – exist in some separate hermetically-sealed space away from the broad population.
Levy bitterly criticises Israel’s legal profession: in the silence of Israeli jurists, he reads their acquiescence, and then moves on to note the work of IDF international law experts in ‘legitimizing’ Cast Lead; the concomitant of this is the appointment of Col. Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, a soldier-lawyer open to accusations of war crimes – to the law faculty at Tel Aviv University.
In a striking ‘open letter’, Levy accuses his friend, the distinguished Israeli writer AB Yehoshua of having succumbed to the State’s propaganda of the ‘war’. Yehoshua, an Israeli liberal, nevertheless has a dubious history in regard to some of his commentary on the Palestinians, in 2002 comparing their ‘insanity’ to that of the German people in the Nazi period. Levy bluntly debunks Yehoshua’s belief that ‘the occupation is over’, just because the Gaza settlements have been removed: just because the jailor is outside the jail does not mean that the jail has ceased to be a jail. Levy also dismantles Yehoshua’s argument that Hamas ‘deliberately’ locates its installations in the midst of civilian populations or uses ‘human shields’: Hamas, whether Western or Israeli liberals like it or not (and there was a time in the 1980s when Israeli intelligence connived at the growth of Hamas, seeing in it a religious alternative to secular Palestinian nationalism) is a part of the Palestinian social and political scene. Israel and the IDF, in seeking so avidly to destroy Hamas by military means, knowingly cause many civilian deaths.
Levy brilliantly demolishes Ari Folman’s animated film, Waltz with Bashir (received, as was the more recent Lebanon, with fawning and politically naïve reviews here), noting simply that it is propaganda. Folman’s film, Yehoshua’s vapourings, the positions taken by some of Levy’s Ha’aretz colleagues such as Ari Shavit, all partake of a mentality that Israelis call ‘shooting and crying’. In this rhetorical formulation, Israel ‘has’, or is ‘provoked’, to commit acts of overwhelming violence, but 1) suffers emotionally and psychologically as a nation or as represented by a notable individual as a result; and 2) has some terrible historical trauma in its background that ‘makes’ it behave this way (the Holocaust). So the ‘moral’ IDF ‘has’ to use force in a given situation, but its soldiers and officers will go through arcane ethical and psychological contortions as a result. The final effect, of course, is one of national or individual exculpation. So the hero of Waltz with Bashir, who has suffered nightmares since his service in Lebanon in 1982, is told by his psychotherapist that his interest in the camps at Sabra and Shatila is in fact an echo of the Nazi death camps his parents survived. ‘You have been cast in the role of the Nazi against your will’. Israel can do no wrong: even when it destroys a neighbouring country, makes alliance with a quasi-Fascist militia in that country (the Lebanese Christian Phalange, of which Bashir Gemayel was briefly the leader), and oversees a massacre of civilians, it is still the victim.
The Punishment of Gaza concludes on a pessimistic, ironic note: ‘Life in Israel is peachy’. Levy argues that the occupation costs Israeli life nothing, and therefore it will go on. Israel can inject life with seriousness, through perpetuating and manipulating the memory of the Holocaust: ‘you can enjoy yourself in Israel, and also play the victim; party and gripe’. But terrorism has not instilled in the Israelis a sense of cause and effect, a sense of the relation between the occupation and terrorism. Media and politics insist that the Arabs were born to be killed or to kill Israelis, that the world is against Israel because of anti-Semitism, and there is no link between Israeli actions and any price Israel pays.
Yet one must also note Levy’s own courageous and clear act of witnessing: earlier in the book, he calls for ‘A Different Patriotism’ in a key essay in the whole collection, where Levy sets out his vision of a necessary, dissenting, critical ‘patriotism’, a ‘Jew-hating’, ‘contemptible’, ‘traitorous’ and ‘base’ patriotism. This is a fascinating and contradictory manoeuvre. On the one hand, it is brilliant and daring, at the very least at the rhetorical level, because it sees Levy re-appropriating and refurbishing the language that is flung against him by his most aggressive critics in Israeli political and civil society. On the other hand, it is the sign of Levy’s ultimate compromise: it is not only ‘the right’, but ‘the duty’ of ‘patriotic scoundrels’: ‘our supreme duty toward the state to which we are so bound’. In this formulation, all the strengths and weaknesses of Levy’s position are dramatised. He is a brave, principled and necessary writer, which is all the more reason to read him carefully and critically.
Conor McCarthy is a founding member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign