In Times of War Crimes

"That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man – that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem."

(Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem,
a Report on the Banality of Evil

Even when some of the atrocities in the West Bank are reported in the Israeli press, it is done in a way that keeps the readers emotionally detached. It is also a function of the division of labour in the press. A tabloid like Yedioth Achronoth, with its cheap melodramatic overplay of every Israeli casualty, gives little or nothing on living conditions in the Occupied Territories. The quality paper Ha’aretz, with its excellent journalist Amira Hass (the only Israeli journalist living in the Occupied Territories), is confined to a high-brow, factual, unemotional style. (Ha’aretz journalist Gideon Levy, in a personal weekly column, breaks this rule, which is why he is permanently under fire.)

Last week I was trying to explain this to a friend: a mother of two children, very much pro-peace, anti-settlements and anti-Sharon. Can you imagine, I asked her, what it means when children are locked day after day at home with their grandmother’s corpse, that the Israeli army wouldn’t let evacuate?

“Right, I’ve also read about that,” said the friend. “What I can’t understand is: why don’t they bury those corpses in the garden?”

I suggested that there might not be much of a garden in a refugee camp, and if there was one, they might not be allowed to go there under curfew.

“Well what I would do is simply put the corpse in the refrigerator, so that it doesn’t stink. Corpses stink terribly, you know.”

I reminded her that power supply was cut in most Palestinian towns since the invasion.

“It doesn’t matter. The stink stays inside the fridge, even if it’s off.”

I hinted that not all Palestinian refugees possessed an expensive double-door American fridge like in North Tel-Aviv. It might be too small for a corpse.

“Well I’m sure they can somehow fold it.” She now tried to demonstrate with her own body how this should be done.

The conversation ended here. Later, I couldn’t forgive myself for my own complicity in it, in reducing atrocities to technicalities. I also recalled that that friend had once told me the good thing about her dog was that it was tamed to get rid of dead cockroaches; she couldn’t stand the sight of them.

The Enemy Within

I almost stopped following Israeli electronic media and switched to BBC World and Al-Jazeera instead. Israeli radio and television news usually open with an elaborate report on all the important events of the day: two soldiers scratched, a third one broke a fingernail. Stones thrown at a settlers’ car, no injuries, the settlers returned fire. Twelve people injured in last week’s suicide attack are still in hospital. And so on. After all these dramatic developments, if there’s some time left, we get some marginal stories, like “Palestinian sources claim that 30 of their people were killed today” or “West Bank hospitals may soon have water again.”

That’s on a quiet day. If there is a Palestinian terror attack, all programmes are immediately suppressed in favour of reports and commentary on that, broadcasted for hours in an endless loop. A retired army general is interviewed: “Don’t you think Israel is showing much too much restraint?” A commercial television channel that once stuck to its normal schedule after a suicide attack was punished by the state regulator.

All that is still not enough for the ruling junta. You can never be enough of a mouthpiece for them. Therefore Israeli journalists are kept out of the territories. Ha’aretz (19.4.02) reports of a new kind of army checkpoints, where soldiers stop journalists, claiming it is “a closed military zone”, but let settlers go through. An Israeli journalist who had been stopped this way removed his press stickers, pretended he was just a settler and was allowed to pass. Listen to what a senior officer in the so-called “only democracy in the Middle East” has to say re. freedom of the press (Ha’aretz, 12.4.02):

“The majority of the people is with us, not with the media. It’s a war and we have no intention to facilitate your access. Only those playing by our rules will be allowed to enter. Let’s see what you are worth without the army’s help. And anyway, you should be grateful for what you get. Foreign journalists don’t even get a fraction of that.”

Like in any other dictatorship, subversiveness becomes the name of the game. Walls in Tel-Aviv are covered with a new graffiti: “It is good to die – for the settlements?” When the public television channel widely covered Sharon’s latest spin – the celebrated “regional peace conference” – the reporters could hardly suppress their laughter.

The Enemy Without

In the bus, on my way to the university, immediately before and immediately after the top-of-the-hour radio news, I heard a new commercial spot: “CNN is biased against Israel. Do not watch it. Do not advertise in it. Flood CNN with letters of protest. Call this number for details.” Yes, CNN, not some European television (everybody knows that all Europeans are anti-Semites). Even CNN isn’t Zionist enough for some people.

In the university, the Students’ Union was collecting signatures. A couple of days earlier, the same Students’ Union had announced its objection to demonstrations of Arab students in the campus. Just like that, on a purely racist basis, not even disguised.

“What’s that,” I asked.

“A petition against the foreign press, it’s biased against Israel,” the two students replied.

“Can I sign here also against war crimes?”

“No, we don’t run such a petition. Maybe others do.”

“I see. Do you find the foreign press more important than war crimes, like letting injured people bleed to death in Jenin?”

They didn’t really answer. Maybe they were embarrassed, maybe they thought I was crazy, maybe they knew or assumed I was a teacher.

“We had Holocaust Memorial Day last week, remember?”

They said they remembered.

Package for Our Soldiers

“Listen to this: in school they asked my child to bring a package for the soldiers.” I heard this line from six or seven different parents. Each of them believed it was only in their school. When I told them it seemed to be the same all over the country, they were all fairly astonished: everyone sees his part of the picture, but cannot believe it is a grand pattern.

They all experienced the same problem: on one hand, they didn’t want to give any packages to soldiers. On the other hand, they didn’t want their children to feel isolated in class.

One father told me his son was boasting at home that he would tell the whole class loudly what he thought of that war, but that he knew his son and he would probably shut his mouth when it comes to it.

One mother said her daughter put an angry letter in the package, telling her dear soldier he had nothing to look for in the occupied territories.

Another father told me his son asked his mother why the package was so heavy: “Are you sure daddy didn’t put a bomb inside?…”

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at