by Nomika Zion
This wasn't my war, Bibi, and neither was the previous cursed war: not in my name, and not in the cause of my security. Neither were the boastful, theatrical assassinations of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari in November, and Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi in 2004, and Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin, and Al-Kaysi, and Shahada and Ayash—wicked as they were—these were done neither on my behalf nor for my security. Neither was the litany of Israeli military operations, packaged in deceitful language in order to soften the depths of their destructiveness: not Rainbow (2004), or First Rain (2005), or Hot Winter (2008), or Summer Rain (2006), or Cast Lead (2009), or the recent Pillar of Cloud.1
Never have I felt an ounce of security or peace when our planes passed over the skies of my home in Sderot at night en route to Gaza to "crush the head of the snake" of whichever senior or junior leader has been targeted, and whoever else happened to accidentally be in the way. I didn't feel safer when two hundred homes were flattened on a cold winter night in 2004, leaving two thousand refugees without shelter; when the Gaza power station was bombed, leaving half a million people without electricity. I gained no sense of tranquility when the bulldozers razed homes, sweeping up fields, orchards, and chicken coops; when tanks fired without pause, when sonic booms went off over and over, rattling windows and sowing terror. And not since the siege placed on Gaza, not when the authorities have been trying to come up with scientific calculations for the number of calories a Gazan needs just in order to survive. And certainly not in "the mother of all operations," Cast Lead, when a squadron of helicopters killed eighty-nine young men at a police academy. (How does it feel, in a matter of three minutes and five missiles, to take out eighty-nine young men?) And not since tens of thousands of homes were pounded, infrastructure crushed, and bodies lined up, row by row, children without names, youths with no faces, citizens without an identity. There are a thousand and one ways to suppress violence by means of violence but not one of them has ever succeeded in annihilating it.
Now, let's see, what have we gained in return? More Qassam rockets, more destruction, more terror, more fear, more blood, more hatred, more lust for vengeance, a deeper loss of faith. All included. Each time, it is deeper; each time, it is less reversible. Every citizen of Sderot knows that when he hears the planes flying overhead, en route to Gaza, he must brace for the coming barrage of rocket fire. Every resident of Sderot knows that when we set out on the next military operation, Sderot will be completely overtaken by a state of emergency. Only this time it has become a nationwide mania.
It’s hard to explain the “music of war”
It's hard to explain to people who don't live here what further escalation means to the people of Sderot, and the surrounding region, what it means to live in a war zone constantly. It's easier to endure three weeks of war than to survive a never-ending conflict. It's the continuum, the passing years, the cumulative experience, the resurfacing anxieties, the trauma with no post-trauma.
This is the "music of war" that orchestrates our lives when the planes, helicopters, bombs, and missiles scratch our ears and our souls. It's the music of war that follows you to the bathroom, accompanies you to work, rushes in with you for a hasty shower, and puts you to bed in your clothes, just in case there is a siren and you will need to jump out of bed in the great rush to take shelter ahead of the next incoming missile.
The complicity of the journalists
It's the again and again and again. It's the over and over and over, and always more of the same. Another military operation, another mini-war. Once again the tough generals, again our correspondents reporting live from the scene, again the wondrous Israeli solidarity—always stored up for just these wartime moments, again, the home-front residents displaying readiness, the reserve soldiers itching to join the battle, again Roni Daniel, Israeli television's broadcaster, delivers violence from the offices of the war cabinet direct to our TV screens, and once again our finest hour is repeated ad nauseam.
A day before the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead in 2009, an esteemed journalist spoke with a woman from Sderot who had been carefully selected to be a "representative" interviewee during the days of the battle. "So, what's your opinion: should it end now or would it be a grave mistake to stop at this point?" asked the veteran reporter, couching the answer in her question. Without missing a beat, the impassioned woman replied: "Why in the world stop now?"— even as the bodies in Gaza were piling up and the morgues had run out of space to house the dead. "Hit them as hard as possible," she said. "Do not grovel before these animals. We must finish the job once and for all!" "Tell me," whispered the broadcaster, in a sultry voice, as though confiding some illicit secret, "I want to ask you something very personal. Is it true that you feel very, very Israeli right now?" Thus did the veteran broadcaster, with the help of a "representative" interviewee—who always speaks in the name of all of us—capture the essence of Israeliness: "Jonathan/Jonathan, /a bit of blood,/just a bit more blood/to top off the honey."2
The paradigm of power
Thus, over the decades, politicians, generals, and their faithful mouthpieces in the media construct the paradigm of power and the demise of an alternative. Thus, over the decades, thousands of hours of orchestrated broadcasting construct a defensive shield of consciousness. So deep is this paradigm and so monolithically aggressive the military discourse, that no Iron Dome could succeed in interrupting it. The veteran broadcaster doesn't ask, "Why did we enter into this awful war to begin with?" (or the previous war, or the one before that). She asks only, "Why stop now?"
How did we, as a society, lose the ability to formulate questions about the feasibility of a political alternative? How did it happen that a person who suggests a nonviolent solution is the delusional one, the traitor, and the one who calls for the leveling of Gaza is the true patriot? How did peace become the enemy of the people, and war always the preferred option? How did it happen that dialogue and treaties cause more public fear than a volley of missiles? And how did these dehumanizing processes seal us off from the suffering of others? How did we lose the capacity for empathy? What does it mean that a girl from Gaza—whose school was bombed and her best friend was killed before her eyes—has to remind us that they, too, are human beings? And how has a nation that has occupied other people's territory for forty-five years continued to tell itself, with such deep conviction, that we are the single and ultimate victim in this story? And the evil of the occupation has become so banal that no one sees the evil anymore.
Kol Aher/The Other Voice – Dialogue between Sderot and Gaza
For five years Kol Aher (the Other Voice) has carried out a dialogue with residents of Gaza. This has been a conscious effort to avoid being swept away by the floodwaters of hatred and dehumanization. It was a decision to see people, as opposed to bombs and missiles. It was a decision to preserve human sanity within a landscape of violence. It was a decision to include another narrative—precisely because it was so difficult to witness, with broken hearts, the destruction and trauma, the endless distress, experienced by our friends on the other side of the fence. This is why it was extremely difficult for us during the war, because we always experience this situation in multiple dimensions, not just the convenient division of "good" and "evil."
Yet Kol Aher is also a clear political call for negotiations, for dialogue with Hamas—direct or indirect—to lift the siege and blockade of Gaza, to open the border crossings, to establish security arrangements and international guarantees, to promote commerce—taking into account the changes in the Arab world—and to slay the beast of occupation. It is an almost desperate attempt we make—here of all places—to raise another voice in a shrinking democracy, in which it is barely a footnote drowned out in the pervasive noise of media shouting with the intoxication of power and the ecstasy of war. (The latest dialogue took place on Saturday night, December 29th, 2012 – ed.)
Pillar of Defense was not my war, Bibi. The despair, however, is completely mine; Private and profound, draining and weakening. In view of past history, it's hard to be optimistic about the cease-fire negotiated under Egyptian auspices, which was announced on November 21. Twelve years of hopeless rounds of violence leave their marks. In the first years, there is still hope that things might be different in the future. Then there is only an illusion of hope. Then you are struck with the realization that violence is here to stay, and it will get worse with each escalation, and that war is the most consistent and constant feature of our lives, almost a kind of ideal. That there aren't leaders now or on the horizon who are strong enough, who would have the mandate to address the most pressing questions. Soon enough there won't be any need of questions; neither will there be anyone left who cares to ask them.
Life is hard when there's nothing left to believe in. It's hard in Sderot. It's very hard in Gaza. There is a price to hopelessness, Bibi: A blocked horizon, a closed-off consciousness. Life without hope exacts a heavy mental price. We will continue to raise another voice in the dwindling light, as we wait anxiously for the next bloody round, in which we'll surely succeed at "finishing the job," and do, as always, what we seem to do better than any other: "Jonathan/Jonathan, /a bit of blood,/just a bit more blood/to top off the honey."2
Sderot, November 22, 2012 — Translated from the Hebrew by Avi Steinberg
1. Translator’s note: the Israelis referred to this operation as “Pillar of Defense” but its literal translation is “Pillar of Cloud.”
2. Translator’s note: these lines are from “Jonathan,” a well-known 1966 Hebrew poem by Yona Wallach.
This translation originally appeared in The New York Review of Books It's Not Just About Fear, Bibi, It's About Hopelessness by Nomika ...