How to sell ‘ethical warfare’

Claim moral superiority, intimidate
enemies and crush dissent –
Israel’s media management is not just
impressive, it’s terrifying

Neve Gordon
The Guardian
January 16, 2009

One of my students was arrested yesterday and spent the night in a prison
cell. R’s offence was protesting the Israeli assault on Gaza. He joins over
700 other Israelis who have been detained since the beginning of Israel’s
ruthless war on Gaza: an estimated 230 of whom are still behind bars. Within
the Israeli context, this strategy of quelling protest and stifling resistance
is unprecedented, and it is quite disturbing that the international media has
failed to comment on it.

Simultaneously, the Israeli media has been toeing the government line to
such a degree that no criticism of the war has been voiced on any of the three
local television stations. Indeed, the situation has become so absurd that
reporters and anchors are currently less critical of the war than the military
spokespeople. In the absence of any critical analysis, it is not so surprising
that 78% of Israelis, or about 98% of all Jewish Israelis, support the war.

But eliding critical voices is not the only way that public support has been
secured. Support has also been manufactured through ostensibly logical
argumentation. One of the ways the media, military and government have
been convincing Israelis to rally behind the assault is by claiming that Israel
is carrying out a moral military campaign against Hamas. The logic, as
Eyal Weizman has cogently observed in his groundbreaking book Hollow
, is one of restraint.

The Israeli media continuously emphasises Israel’s restraint by underscoring
the gap between what the military forces could do to the Palestinians and
what they actually do. Here are a few examples of the refrains Israelis hear
daily while listening to the news:

• Israel could bomb houses from the air without warning, but it has
military personnel contact – by phone no less – the residents 10 minutes in
advance of an attack to alert them that their house is about to be destroyed.
The military, so the subtext goes, could demolish houses without such
forewarnings, but it does not do so because it values human life.

• Israel deploys teaser bombs* – ones that do not actually ruin houses –
a few minutes before it fires lethal missiles; again, to show that it could kill
more Palestinians but chooses not to do so.

• Israel knows** that Hamas leaders are hiding in al-Shifa hospital. The
intimation is that it does not raze the medical centre to the ground even
though it has the capacity to do so.

• Due to the humanitarian crisis the Israeli military stops its attacks for a
few hours each day and allows humanitarian convoys to enter the Gaza
. Again, the unspoken claim is that it could have barred these convoys
from entering.

The message Israel conveys through these refrains has two different
meanings depending on the target audience.

To the Palestinians, the message is one that carries a clear threat: Israel’s
restraint could end and there is always the possibility of further escalation.
Regardless of how lethal Israel’s military attacks are now, the idea is
to intimidate the Palestinian population by underscoring that the violence
can always become more deadly and brutal. This guarantees that violence,
both when it is and when it is not deployed, remains an ever-looming threat.

The message to the Israelis is a moral one. The subtext is that the Israeli
military could indiscriminately unleash its vast arsenal of violence, but
chooses not to, because its forces, unlike Hamas, respect human life.

This latter claim appears to have considerable resonance among Israelis,
and, yet, it is based on a moral fallacy. The fact that one could be more brutal
but chooses to use restraint does not in any way entail that one is moral.
The fact that the Israeli military could have razed the entire Gaza Strip, but
instead destroyed only 15% of the buildings does not make its actions moral.
The fact that the Israeli military could have killed thousands of Palestinian
children during this campaign, and, due to restraint, killed “only” 300, does
not make Operation Cast Lead ethical.

Ultimately, the moral claims the Israeli government uses to support its
actions during this war are empty. They actually reveal Israel’s unwillingness
to confront the original source of the current violence, which is not Hamas,
but rather the occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.
My student, R, and the other Israeli protesters seem to have understood
this truism; in order to stop them from voicing it, Israel has stomped on their
civil liberties by arresting them.

Neve Gordon is the chair of the Department of Politics and Government,
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and is the author of Israel’s
Occupation, University of California Press, 2008. His website is
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009