The War with Gaza Did Not Take Place
The recent Israel assault on Gaza was one in a series of war crimes and atrocities committed by the State of Israel. In 1948 there was the Nakba, the violent deportation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of hundreds of their villages and towns. The Nakba was followed by the imposition of military rule on Arab-Palestinian citizens from 1948 to 1966, and their systematic discrimination and marginalization ever after. Along with the 1967 occupation of yet more Palestinian territories came the criminal establishment of Jewish settlements in them. The racism within Israel feeds into justification of the occupation by representing the colonized/occupied as “inferior,” “barbarian,” or “primitive.”1
The repeated assaults on Gaza since September 2005 should not then come as a surprise. They are a “natural” byproduct of the occupation and, particularly, of the so-called 2005 “disengagement plan” that turned Gaza into a huge prison. So the question is: in what sense were the latest Israeli aggression and its attendant, horrendous war crimes against Gaza different from its predecessors? In my view the answer lies not in the nature of the assault or the war crimes themselves, but in the way that the Israeli public experienced the war through media and public discourse. For the Israeli public, the assault was, in Jean Baudrillard’s terms, a simulacrum of war, a hyperreal war.2
According to Baudrillard our age, “the era of simulacra and of simulation”, is characterized by two interrelated features: (i) the image or copy is the “real” by virtue of its perception as such by society, and (ii) any distinction between reality as is and its representation vanishes:
[In] the era of simulacra and of simulation … there is no longer a God to recognize his own, no longer a Last Judgement to separate the false from the true, the real from its artificial resurrection, as everything is already dead and resurrected in advance.3
In the First Gulf War, Baudrillard argued that the images of the “war” and its simulation preceded the war, becoming the war itself.4 The atrocity of the massive airstrikes and artillery barrages by the coalition troops, the immense death toll and injuries, especially of Iraqi civilians, were not part of the “war” in which there were few direct clashes between combatants, and few coalition casualties.5 The Western media showed the war from the perspective of the “smart” bombs, aimed from a distance at only the enemy who deserved to be targeted.
As Paul Virilio noted, the experience of the Gulf War via the screen was not confined to Western civilians but also, or primarily, to those who actually carried out the “war” - generals, pilots, flight controllers, etc. Since the Second World War, wars are not so much a matter of combat but “pure war” the endless preparation for war – culturally, technologically, economically and so on. In “pure war” simulations are used in combat training, such that the battle itself turns out to be the continuation of the simulation.6
On July 22, 2002, the Israeli Air Force dropped a one ton bomb on the house of Hamas military leader Salah Shehadeh, killing fourteen civilians, eight of whom were under the age of 15. When the then Israel Air Force Commander Dan Halutz (who later became Chief of Staff) was asked, following that killing, what he felt when he dropped a bomb on civilians, he answered: “a light bump to the plane as a result of the bomb’s release. A second later it’s gone, and that’s all.”7
The militarism of Israel makes it one of the best examples of living in a state of “pure war.”8 Halutz’s words do not simply reveal an individual’s numbness or apathy to Palestinians’ life per se, but show that most Israeli combatants (and, as we shall see soon, civilians) perceive the bombing and targeting of Palestinian civilians as no more than another simulation – a continuation of flight simulation, analytical models, SBTP9, and so on. Computer monitors and gaming joysticks become the weapons of this war.
During the latest assault on Gaza, the “light bump syndrome” became prevalent. In 2002 Halutz’s outrageous and arrogant statement, as well as the killing in Shejaiya itself, were subject to criticism and condemnation from within Israeli society. In the twelve years since then, that has changed. As Ami Kaufman observed,
The Shejaiya neighbourhood, wiped out like Dresden. It’s a given. It just happens. There’s no debate. No second thoughts […] Twelve years ago when we murdered innocent people, there were some people who were bothered by it. They raised their voices. They did something. It made it into the media. There was a debate. There was more than a ‘bump in the wing.’ But now? Now Israelis couldn’t care less.10
During those twelve years Israeli public discourse has been overwhelmed by the precession of simulacra. Military monitors and screens presented images of a “sterile war” to pilots and gunners, while TV screens and Israeli broadcasting in general showed the viewers an almost pastoral image of the assault on Gaza. The absence of any debate in the mass media was apparent as IDF generals and other recruited “specialists dominated talk shows and interviews with their “expert” analyses and comments which followed the PR line of Netanyahu’s administration. Their verbal mantras - about the “accuracy of Israeli missiles”, “rocket attacks on Israel”, “war between Hamas and IDF”, “Israel warning Palestinian civilians before strikes”, and so on – were supplemented by “supporting pictures” of distant smoke and the sound bombing in which no people (let alone victims) in Palestinian areas were seen or heard. By contrast, the media presented the sirens, looks of horror, destruction and blood as a result of rockets falling in Israeli areas. Deadly and criminal atrocities were being carried out in Gaza, but on Israeli screens there was a war – almost one between equals. In the simulated war the victimized who suffered an unprecedented death toll and degree of destruction were presented as the victimizers and aggressors, while the victimizers became the victimized who were merely defending themselves.
The most blatant, not to say surreal, example of the precession of simulacra was the absurd theater in the southern town of Sderot and nearby locations in Israel:
As the sun begins to sink over the Mediterranean, groups of Israelis gather each evening on hilltops close to the Gaza border to cheer, whoop and whistle as bombs rain down on people in a hellish warzone a few miles away.
Old sofas, garden chairs, battered car seats and upturned crates provide seating for the spectators. On one hilltop, a swing has been attached to the branches of a pine tree, allowing its occupant to sway gently in the breeze. Some bring bottles of beer or soft drinks and snacks […]
The thud of shellfire, flash of an explosion and pall of smoke are greeted with exclamations of approval. “What a beauty,” says one appreciative spectator.11
For those spectators, the murderous assault on Gaza was just a show, a sort of movie, or, rather, a theater show – a live show of (unseen) dead people. That is how the latest Israeli offensive on Gaza was widely perceived in Israeli society. But if we really look into the eyes of Veritas the Roman goddess of truth, then we will have to admit that the war with Gaza did not take place: there was no war but an atrocity; no conflict with Hamas but an assault by Israel on the people of Gaza. The next stop, then, should be The Hague.
Ofer Cassif completed his PhD at the London School of Economics, where he also taught before going on to a postdoctorate at Columbia University. He currently serves as the chairperson of the international relations committee of the Israeli Communist Party, and teaches at several higher education institutions in Israel. Ofer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. See Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965).
2. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Michigan: Michigan University Press, 2006).
3. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1.
4. See Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). Cf. William Merrin, ‘Uncritical Criticism? Norris, Baudrillard and the Gulf War’, in Economy and Society 23/4 (1994), 433–458.
5. See, for example, Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (London: Vintage Books, 2005). See also Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey: Summary Report (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Air Force, 1993).
6. Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War (New York: Semiotext(e)), 1997; Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989).
7. Haaretz, 24.8.2002.
8. See Baruch Kimmerling, ‘Patterns of Militarism in Israel’, in European Journal of Sociology 34 (1993), 196–223.
9. Sortie Based Training Plan.
10. Ami Kaufman, ‘Not Even A “Bump on the Wing” These Days When Killing Palestinians’ Available at: http://972mag.com/not-even-a-bump-on-the-wing-these-days-when-killing-palestinians/95778/ (emphasis mine)
11. The Guardian, 20.7.2014.