Patrick Cockburn

In Israel, detachment
from reality is now the norm

All these years on from Sabra and
Chatila, has anything changed?

Patrick Cockburn
The Independent
January 22, 2009

I was watching the superb animated documentary Waltz with Bashir about
the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It culminates in the massacre of some
1,700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in south Beirut by
Christian militiamen introduced there by the Israeli army which observed the
butchery from close range.

In the last few minutes the film switches from animation to graphic news
footage showing Palestinian women screaming with grief and horror as they
discover the bullet-riddled bodies of their families. Then, just behind the
women, I saw myself walking with a small group of journalists who had
arrived in the camp soon after the killings had stopped.

The film is about how the director, Ari Folman, who knew he was at Sabra
and Chatila as an Israeli soldier, tried to discover both why he had repressed
all memory of what happened to him and the degree of Israeli complicity in
the massacre.

Walking out of the cinema, I realised that I had largely repressed my own
memories of that ghastly day. I could not even find a clipping in old
scrapbooks of the article I had written about what I had seen for the
Financial Times for whom I then worked. Even now my memory is hazy
and episodic, though I can clearly recall the sickly sweet smell of bodies
beginning to decompose, the flies clustering around the eyes of the dead
women and children, and the blood-smeared limbs and heads sticking out of
banks of brown earth heaped up by bulldozers in a half-hearted attempt to
bury the corpses.

Soon after seeing Waltz with Bashir I saw TV pictures of the broken bodies
of the Palestinians killed by Israeli bombs and shells in Gaza during the
22-day bombardment. At first I thought that little had changed since Sabra
and Chatila. Once again there were the same tired and offensive excuses
that Israel was somehow not to blame. Hamas was using civilians as human
shields
, and in any case – this argument produced more furtively –
two-thirds of people in Gaza had voted for Hamas so they deserved
whatever happened to them.

But on returning to Jerusalem 10 years after I was stationed here as The
Independent’s correspondent between 1995 and 1999 I find that Israel has
changed significantly for the worse. There is far less dissent than there
used to be and such dissent is more often treated as disloyalty.

Israeli society was always introverted but these days it reminds me more
than ever of the Unionists in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s or the
Lebanese Christians in the 1970s. Like Israel, both were communities with a
highly developed siege mentality which led them always to see themselves
as victims even when they were killing other people. There were no regrets
or even knowledge of what they inflicted on others and therefore any
retaliation by the other side appeared as unprovoked aggression inspired
by unreasoning hate.

At Sabra and Chatila the first journalist to find out about the massacre was
an Israeli and he desperately tried to get it stopped. This would not happen
today because Israeli journalists, along with all foreign journalists, were
banned from entering Gaza before the Israeli bombardment started. This has
made it far easier for the government to sell the official line about what a
great success the operation has been.

Nobody believes propaganda so much as the propagandist so Israel’s view
of the outside world is increasingly detached from reality. One academic
was quoted as saying that Arabs took all their views about was happening
in Israel from what Israelis said about themselves. So if Israelis said they
had won in Gaza, unlike Lebanon in 2006, Arabs would believe this and
Israeli deterrence would thereby be magically restored.

Intolerance of dissent has grown and may soon get a great deal worse.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who helped bury the Oslo accords with the
Palestinians when he was last prime minister from 1996 to 1999, is likely
to win the Israeli election on 10 February. The only issue still in doubt is
the extent of the gains of the extreme right.

The views of these were on display this week as Avigdor Lieberman,
the chairman of the Ysrael Beitenu party, which, according to the polls will
do particularly well in the election, was supporting the disqualification
of two Israeli Arab parties from standing in the election. “For the first
time we are examining the boundary between loyalty and disloyalty,” he
threatened their representatives. “We’ll deal with you like we dealt
with Hamas.”

Patrick Cockburn is the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London.
He has visited Iraq countless times since 1977 and was recipient of the 2004
Martha Gellhorn Prize for war reporting as well as the 2006 James Cameron
Memorial Award. His book The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq, was
short-listed for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007. His latest book,
Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq was
published by Scribner in 2008, and by Faber and Faber in the UK as Muqtada
Al-Sadr
and the Fall of Iraq
. Muqtada is a journalistic account of the recent
history of the religiously and politically prominent Sadr family, the rise of
Muqtada, and the development of the Sadrist movement since the 2003 U.S.
invasion.