Show of Force

By Noah Pollak

On June 9, 2006, a beach in Gaza was rocked by an explosion that killed seven members of a Palestinian family. Shortly afterward, Palestinian Authority television released a horrific video showing a 10-year-old girl shrieking amidst the dead bodies on the beach, and Palestinian hospital workers and spokesmen angrily blamed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) artillery fire for the deaths—even though no investigation had been conducted, and the Palestinian accusers had no way of knowing what caused the explosion. The exultant declarations of an Israeli massacre were reported as fact in newspapers and television broadcasts around the world; human rights groups joined in the condemnations; and once again Israel found itself the object of international outrage over the issue of civilian casualties.
If this story and its origins fit a predictable pattern, so did Israel’s reaction to the crisis: The IDF immediately ceased military activity in Gaza, and Israeli officials at the highest levels reflexively assented to the IDF’s culpability and promised an investigation of the incident.
The last chapter of the story is equally familiar: It was ultimately determined that the Palestinians on the beach were not killed by the IDF. Rather, Hamas had mined the section of beach where the explosion occurred, hoping to defend their arsenal of Kassam rockets against Israeli commando missions. After the explosion, Hamas men combed the beach, removing shrapnel that could be used as evidence. The sensational video that captured the sympathies of credulous journalists and set off a wildfire of opprobrium turned out, upon objective evaluation, to be a mangled skein of spliced footage and puzzling anachronisms. It was, in other words, a fake. The explosion itself occurred some ten minutes after the last IDF artillery shell had been fired into the area, and the shrapnel found in the victims’ bodies was not from Israeli munitions. Hamas, in a sloppy attempt at defending Gaza, had almost certainly killed its own citizens.
In the end, none of the exculpatory evidence mattered in the least: Israel had been tried and convicted in the court of world opinion in the first few days after the incident. And, as has happened so often before and since, Israeli officials had helped their enemies make their case.

Israel has an image problem. Beginning with the 1982 Lebanon War, and accelerating rapidly after the start of the second Intifada in 2000, the Jewish state has come to be viewed in many quarters of enlightened opinion as a sinister presence on the world stage. Founded on principles of human rights, Israel is now seen as the oppressor of another people; once considered a courageously open society in a region of tyrants, Israel today is portrayed as a brutish garrison nation; once lauded as a beacon of civil rights and democracy, Israel is called an apartheid state. Zionism itself has become an important target of this rhetorical violence. At one time considered a heroic answer to pogroms and genocide, Zionism is now blamed for granting ideological absolution for the perpetration of those very crimes. All of these caricatures aim to redefine the basic character of Zionism and the state it helped create, thus undermining both the legitimacy of the Jewish state in its current form and the moral and ideological basis for its creation. And this re-definition has most assuredly been successful: In a 2007 BBC World Service poll, respondents in dozens of countries were asked to rank 27 nations according to their positive or negative influence on the world. Israel ranked dead last—even lower than Iran—with only 17 percent saying that they viewed Israel as a “mainly positive” influence. Among Western countries, Israel barely fared better: In Australia, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, and Greece, Israel is viewed as a “mainly negative” influence by almost two-thirds of the people, and in Germany by over three-quarters of the people. Similarly, a 2003 poll found that, among Europeans, Israel is considered the most dangerous country in the world.
The handmaiden of this phenomenon is what could be called, if one wishes to be polemical, the anti-Israel lobby, or, more accurately, a dominant culture of opinion shared by human rights organizations, NGOs, Middle East Studies departments and campus groups, the United Nations, “progressive” Christian organizations, and the overwhelming majority of the British and European media and cultural elite. These factions operate in a state of more or less permanent antagonism to Israel, and in no previous era of the Jewish state’s history has such a lavishly funded, mutually reinforcing international axis existed to challenge its very legitimacy. Today, in much of Europe and the UK, and in some parts of America, a caricature of Israel that once flourished only on the ideological fringes has been mainstreamed: Israel is believed to be a sadistic oppressor, a wanton slaughterer of civilians, a relentless Middle Eastern warmonger, and a grave strategic liability for the United States and the Western world.

The popularity of this way of thinking did not evolve naturally. It has been assiduously cultivated over the course of several decades, with the many battles waged against Israel during that time serving as important opportunities for those whose goal is the delegitimization and isolation of the Jewish state. The death of twelve-year-old Muhammad al-Dura in the opening weeks of the second Intifada was a first salvo and a defining one. Al-Dura was killed in a Gaza crossfire between IDF troops and Palestinians who opened fire on their position. A Palestinian cameraman working for the French news station France 2 captured the firefight on film, and this video was edited by France 2 and then released, free of charge, to other media organizations, accompanied by the declaration that the IDF not only had killed al-Dura but had done so intentionally. How did France 2’s reporters know this? They did not. Their claim was based on the statement of one man, the cameraman, who could not have known whose bullets actually struck al-Dura, much less whether he was intentionally targeted. Not surprisingly, al-Dura was buried before an autopsy, bullet removal, or ballistics tests could be performed.
Also not surprising was Israel’s handling of the crisis. The IDF, itself having conducted only a most cursory investigation, announced that it was “probably responsible” for the killing. Amnesty International blamed Israel as well, giving an imprimatur of objectivity to the Palestinian and French accusations. Largely owing to the cinematic sensationalism of the incident, images of al-Dura’s death were seized upon in the Arab world and by the European media as icons of Palestinian victimhood and Israeli cruelty, as distilled truths revealing the entire character of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a single, frozen moment. Governments throughout the Middle East stoked the crisis by issuing postage stamps, commissioning poems and songs, and re-naming roads in al-Dura’s honor. Even Osama Bin Laden recognized an opportunity to contribute to the firestorm, warning a month after the 9/11 attacks that “Bush must not forget the image of Muhammad al-Dura.” Subsequent investigations have shown that the carefully edited France 2 video was wholly inconclusive, that al-Dura could not have been hit by Israeli fire, and that, like so many incidents that would follow, the galvanizing story of his death was in fact a ghoulish fabrication, intended as one more barrage in the larger war to destroy the moral standing of Israel and the IDF.
Less than two years later, Israel once again found itself the object of an Orwellian Two Minutes’ Hate over another invented atrocity, this time in the West Bank city of Jenin. At the height of the Intifada, during Operation Defensive Shield, IDF forces entered a section of Jenin in order to clear it of terrorists who were responsible for sending a disproportionate number of suicide bombers into Israel. Intense house-to-house fighting ensued. Over fifty residences had been rigged with explosives, and while the obvious tactic would have been to follow recent examples set by other Western militaries fighting in Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan and use artillery or air strikes to neutralize the threat, the IDF chose instead to press on with ground forces—at the cost of the lives of twenty-three of its infantrymen—all in order to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties. Fifty-two Palestinians were killed, almost all of whom were armed combatants. (For a detailed analysis of the battle, see Yagil Henkin, “Urban Warfare and the Lessons of Jenin,” Azure 15, Summer 2003). But in the aftermath of the battle, none of these facts were considered by the media or the international establishment to be of the slightest relevance. The narrative of what happened in Jenin had already been decided upon, and it demanded stories of mass slaughter and war crimes. The official Palestinian news agency declared that the “massacre of the twenty-first century” had been perpetrated. The UN envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, described Jenin as “horrifying beyond belief” and concluded that “Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict.” Derrick Pounder, an Amnesty International “forensic expert,” commented upon entering Jenin that “the evidence before us at the moment doesn’t lead us to believe that the allegations are anything other than truthful and that therefore there are large numbers of civilian dead underneath these bulldozed and bombed ruins that we see.” In America, National Public Radio, CNN, and The Los Angeles Times breathlessly repeated stories of atrocities, and in the New York Times ex-president Jimmy Carter accused Israel of “destroying” Jenin “and other villages.” In Britain, the press was the most gratuitous. “The sweet and ghastly reek of rotting human bodies is everywhere, evidence that it is a human tomb,” effused Phil Reeves in the Independent. “The people say there are hundreds of corpses, entombed beneath the dust.” The Daily Telegraph’s David Blair reported that IDF troops had summarily executed nine men, who were stripped to their underwear, “placed against a wall and killed with single shots to the head.”

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