Robert Fisk

Pity the Nation

Avneri was more cynical. 'I will tell you something about the Holocaust,' he said. 'It would be nice to believe that people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it's the opposite, it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism. Herzog [the Israeli president] was speaking at the site of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen but he spoke only about the Jews. How could he not mention that others--many others--had suffered there? Sick people, when they are in pain, cannot speak about anyone but themselves. And when such monstrous things have happened to your people, you feel nothing can be compared to it. You get a moral power-of-attorney, a permit to do anything you want--because nothing can compare with what has happened to us. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel. Everyone is convinced that the IDF is more humane than any other army. "Purity of arms" was the slogan of the Haganah army in early '48. But it never was true at all.'
     Politicians, according to Avneri, used the Holocaust as moral blackmail. 'But it's real, it's not invented--it's there. It produces an odd kind of schizophrenic attitude. The Israelis will say: "We'll never allow another Warsaw ghetto or Auschwitz to happen again." Then they'll tell you they can conquer the whole Middle East in forty-eight hours. No one feels any contradiction in this.'
      Does this partly account for the curious way in which reasonable, thoughtful people--even men who suffered terribly--cannot bring themselves to criticize Israel when it is palpably obvious that the nation is at fault, that its army has behaved in a brutal, cruel way? At these times, normal standards of judgments seem to be suspended. 394

The week after the massacre at Sabra and Chatila, Newsweek magazine decided that the most important event of the previous seven days had been the death of Princess Grace of Monaco in a road accident. Two weeks after the massacre--when the enormity of what had happened had presumably penetrated its offices in New York--Newsweek was in no doubt about its priorities. The magazine's cover story was headlines 'Israel in Torment' and carried a picture of a dead dove, an olive branch in its beak, its blood staining the Start of David. One of the subsidiary cover headlines recorded 'The Anguish of American Jews' while an inside report dwelt upon 'The Troubled Soul of Israel'. 401

In the Israeli press, there was little debate on the subject [of who is a terrorist.] At the start of the Israeli invasion in 1982, the Jerusalem Post was busy tampering with AP's reports from Beirut, changing every reference to 'guerrilla' into 'terrorist,' until the AP told the paper's editor to stop. 439

But 'terrorism' no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. 'Terrorists' are those who use violence against the side that is using the word. The only terrorists whom Israel acknowledges are those who oppose Israel. The only terrorists the United States acknowledges are those who oppose the United States or their allies. The only terrorists Palestinians acknowledge--for they too use the word--are those opposed to the Palestinians.
      To adopt the word means that we have taken a side in the Middle East, not between right and wrong, good and evil, David and Goliath, but with one set of combatants against the other. For journalists in the Middle East, the use of the word 'terrorism' is akin to carrying a gun. Unless the word is used about all acts of terrorism--which it is not--then its employment turns the reporter into a participant in the war. He becomes a belligerent. In Lebanon, it also means the journalist believes that the immensely powerful armies and militias in the country can be divided into 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. They cannot; in Lebanon, they are all bad. 441

(The 1996 Qana Massacre)
A UN soldier stood amid a sea of bodies and, without saying a word, held aloft a decapitated child. 'The Israelis have just told us they'll stop shelling the area,' another Fijian soldier said. 'Are we supposed to thank them?' Behind him, in the wreckage of the UN battalion's conference room, a pile of corpses was burning. The roof had crashed in flame onto their bodies, cremating them before my eyes. When I walked towards them, I slipped on a human hand. 670

The banality of the rhetoric with which the PLO in Lebanon denounced the subsequent Camp David accord misled us, made it almost possible to forget the volcanic anger that lay there, just beneath the crust. I remember watching a Palestinian in Beirut in September of 1978 as he read an Associated Press report coming over the wire from Tel Aviv. The great unresolved issue of the Camp David Mid-East summit;' the AP correspondent in Israel had written, 'is the future of about one hundred Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land.' The Palestinian looked at this paper for some seconds, nodding at the sheet of paper in a confirmatory way. Then his face became contorted with anger. 'Who do the Americans think we are?' he exploded. 'Why don't they just say what they mean--that the least important question is the fate of two million Palestinian refugees?' 148 is one to approach the behavior of the state which was forged--as many of his citizens will tell you--in the very fires of Auschwitz? 7

A militia spokesman rambled on in Arabic about the need for resistance the nobility of struggle against isolationism and the potentialities of the revolution. Unaware that they were being treated to a rhetoric bath, foreign reporters demanded a translation, whereupon Mohamed Salam, a Lebanese AP staffer turned to them with grim cynicism. "The man," he explained to his prim colleagues, "is saying 'no comment.'" 80

One evening, returning through Damour, I found that the Syrian army had blocked the road north and were ordering the refugees to return to the battle zone, to stay put in their homes. "In Palestine, the Israelis claim they found a land without a people,' a Syrian officer explained to us. 'Now they will take Southern Lebanon and claim they have found another land without people if these refugees do not return.' 130

According to Saudi diplomats of Beirut, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia warned that his country would withdraw all its investments from the United States at once and impose oil sanctions against the West within hours if the Israeli army was not brought under control. Reagan was at last made aware of the gravity of the crisis and Haig--who has always denied that he gave Israel a 'green light'--resigned. Lebanon had claimed another victim. 269

So what was happening? Did the Israelis think they were hitting 'terrorists' but were merely mistaking their targets, killing innocents in error? Or were they indeed as accurate as they claimed--in which case, one could only conclude that they intended to slaughter so many people: The equation seemed obvious to the Lebanese and Palestinians: the Israelis were either bunglers or murderers. Many times, we were asked which was true. We could never reply. Certainly, the Israelis could not have it both ways. 306

When does a killing become an outrage? When does an atrocity become a massacre? Or, put another way, how many killings make a massacre? Thirty? A hundred? Three hundred? When is a massacre not a massacre. When the figures are too low? Or when the massacre is carried out by Israel's friends rather than Israel's enemies?
      That, I suspected, was what the argument was about. If Syrian troops had crossed into Israel, surrounded a kibbutz and allowed their Palestinian allies to slaughter the Jewish inhabitants, no Western news agency would waste its time afterward arguing about whether or not it should be called a massacre. 371