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What was different about this war?

Beyond an unprecedented degree of destruction in Gaza, Israel’s latest offensive on the Strip brought with it unrivaled levels of racism and incitement back home.

By Elizabeth Tsurkov

The war between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza would appear as the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas; however, this war was different from previous rounds of fighting on both sides. The level of destruction in Gaza was unprecedented, while in Israel anti-democratic and racist forces gained much more prominence and influence compared to previous wars.

As in all other nations during times of war, the Israeli public rallies around the flag. Differences that once mattered – class, proximity to Gaza, and even opinions on the economy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – disappear almost entirely.

The escalation between Israel and Hamas followed the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank. The teens were kidnapped, apparently by a Hamas cell from Hebron, and executed shortly after. The IDF launched Operation Brother’s Keeper, supposedly to track down the missing boys. Although the Israeli military and leadership knew fairly early on that the teens had probably been murdered, the Israeli public was not informed. The search for the teens turned into an operation to dismantle what was left of the civilian outreach infrastructure of Hamas in the West Bank.

Right-wing demonstrators protest in front of a demonstration against the Israeli attack on Gaza, in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, July 26, 2014. Right-wing activists protested nearby and attacked left-wing activists during and after the protest. One left-wing activists was hospitalized with a head injury. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Right-wing demonstrators protest in front of a demonstration against the Israeli attack on Gaza, in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, July 26, 2014. Right-wing activists protested nearby and attacked left-wing activists during and after the protest. One left-wing activists was hospitalized with a head injury. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Declaring war on all Palestinians

Following the murder of the teens, Israeli politicians, including the prime minister himself, called for “revenge.” Members of the religious nationalistic Jewish Home party, which had gained about 60% in approval ratings during the operation, called for “recouping the blood of the teens, an eye for an eye” and all-out war on the Palestinians. A far-right member of Netanyahu’s party, MK Moshe Feiglin, called to reoccupy Gaza and ethnically cleanse it of Palestinians by placing them in tent camps and then expelling them to other countries.

Israel has been under the rule of right-wing governments headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu since 2009. During this time, such incitement became much more common, while the peace process ground to a halt and settlement expansion shot through the roof. Incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel also spiked, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman basing entire election campaigns on painting them as disloyal.

At the same time, groups of mostly young settlers began operating in the West Bank, targeting Palestinian homes, fields, private property and mosques. The groups at first limited their “price tag” attacks to the West Bank, but then spread to Israel as well – private homes, churches and mosques were vandalized and desecrated. Israeli security forces have arrested only a few of the perpetrators, further emboldening them.

The military’s mouthpiece

For its part, Israeli media had a role to play in the violent atmosphere. As with previous IDF operations, all mainstream media outlets in Israel, except the liberal daily Haaretz, unquestionably accepted as fact claims made the IDF, and expressed full support for the war. Israeli media covered what happened in Gaza through the lens of the Israeli soldier – what was bombed and how many terrorists were killed. The narrative presented by the Israeli media was that we Israelis are the victims, while Hamas is the aggressor. The voices of the population suffering the most due to the war – the civilians in Gaza – were not heard in Israeli media, except in Haaretz, which is read by only 5% of Israelis.

Police arrest a Palestinian-Israeli protester during a demonstration against Operation Protective Edge, July 18, 2014, Haifa, Israel (photo: Activestills)

Police arrest a Palestinian-Israeli protester during a demonstration against Operation Protective Edge, July 18, 2014, Haifa, Israel (photo: Activestills)

By and large, Israeli mainstream media does not discuss Israel’s responsibility for the deaths and suffering of innocents in Gaza. Information that contradicts IDF claims about civilian casualties is hidden or not mentioned at all. Mass deaths of civilians such as the bombings of entire families inside their homes or bombardment of UNRWA schools where thousands of Gazans had taken shelter are framed as harmful to Israel’s international image.

Israeli journalists see their role as maintaining the nation’s morale in times of war. To that end, Israeli journalists practice self-censorship and don’t report on anything that may lead Israelis to think that their army is ill-prepared for war or that it is not the most moral army in the world. Reports about logistical and operational problems and errors began emerging only once the war was practically over. Israelis are not interested in receiving information that contradicts their worldview. Ironically, Israelis who want Gaza to be “flattened” and “hit hard” are not exposed to images of the IDF doing just that. This perpetuates a cycle of violence, since Israelis continue to feel that we haven’t hit the Palestinians hard enough. Both times that Netanyahu called for a ceasefire he faced opposition by most Jewish Israelis, according to polls [Hebrew].

Unprecedented incitement

Thanks to the years of government incitement against Palestinians inside Israel and in the occupied territories, the media’s full support for all IDF actions and the almost-unhindered rampages of “price tag” gangs, the public atmosphere during this war was different. The unique aspect was the direct – and at times literal – assault on free speech and dissent. The threats to free speech came from politicians, academic institutions, police and vigilante mobs.

The main victims of the contraction of space for dissent in Israel during the war were, of course, Palestinian citizens of Israel. Members of Knesset who represent the Arab minority (about 20% of the Israeli population) were thrown out of parliament hearings for daring to oppose the war. MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad party) was even barred from plenum discussions for the next six months – the harshest punishment ever placed on an MK by the Knesset Ethics Committee.

MK Haneen Zoabi of Balad (photo: ActiveStills)

MK Haneen Zoabi of Balad (photo: ActiveStills)

The number of hate crimes against Palestinians skyrocketed, as did the ferocity of the attacks. Shortly after the bodies of the three Israeli teens were found, Jewish Israelis kidnapped Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir from his home in East Jerusalem, beat him, forced him to drink gasoline and set him on fire while he was still alive. Another Jewish mob nearly killed two Palestinians in East Jerusalem three weeks ago.

Jewish leftists were subjected to attacks as well. The violence against anti-war protesters was organized and systematic, as never before in Israel. Almost all anti-war protests in Tel Aviv and Haifa ended in violence, mostly by right-wing gangs largely made up of teens who attacked the protesters. At other times, the violence came from the police, which dispersed protesters without any legal basis.

Vitriol on social media

The counter protests to the anti-war rallies were organized on social media and WhatsApp. Numerous Facebook pages calling for “revenge” and vigilante attacks against Arabs popped up during the war. These pages gave racist Israelis the sense that they were part of a mass movement, increasing their confidence and willingness to resort to violence against Jewish Israelis too. The far-right protesters felt comfortable adding the “Death to leftists” chant to the regular repertoire of “Death to Arabs” and songs against the Prophet Muhammad.

Facebook was also used to hunt down “traitors” – Arab citizens of Israel and leftists who opposed the war. The posts and private information of the “traitors” was posted on those pages, and followers were urged to call the “traitors’” employers to get them fired. Dozens of Arab Israelis and leftists lost their jobs as a result. Not one Israeli who called for genocide of Arabs on social media was fired.

In the realm of academia, the bastion of progressive thought in Israel, suppression of dissent was also strongly evident. Both Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion universities sent out letters to their students warning them against posting inflammatory comments on social media. Bar Ilan University publicly backed Dr. Mordechai Kedar, who teaches at the institution and called for the rape of sisters and wives of Palestinian suicide bombers to deter Palestinians from such attacks. Weeks later the university ordered a lecturer who expressed sympathy to people harmed by the war in Israel and Gaza to apologize.

A photo posted to the ‘The people of Israel demand revenge’ Facebook page, reading “Hating Arabs isn’t racism, it’s moral! Israel demands revenge’. (The faces were blurred by +972 because the girls appear to be minors.)

A photo posted to the ‘The people of Israel demand revenge’ Facebook page, reading “Hating Arabs isn’t racism, it’s moral! Israel demands revenge’. (The faces were blurred by +972 because the girls appear to be minors.)

A facade of ‘unity’

The Jewish Israeli public and media rarely oppose IDF operations, and this war was no exception. However, the long-term trends of government incitement, coupled with the sense of impunity of “Price Tag” gangs and the ability to organize into mobs using social media, resulted in an unprecedented climate of fear inside Israel. This war was clearly a turning point for free speech and Arab-Israeli coexistence in Israel. Hate speech and even hate crimes are not addressed seriously, and that’s not surprising given that the incitement comes from the top, too.

Instead of praising the unity and solidarity of the ‘people of Israel’ in times of war, Israeli government officials would do better to stop inciting against those who are excluded from or choose not to take part in the wave of militarism and violent nationalism that has gripped Israel over the past weeks.

Elizabeth Tsurkov works at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli human rights NGO, and can be followed on Twitter.

Related:
Propaganda war: Searching for a narrative in Operation Protective Edge
Not just escalation: A frightening new era of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel
Why Palestinian citizens of Israel are no longer safe

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    COMMENTS

    1. Richard

      Its truly bizarre that hatred for the people who’ve been trying to wipe you out for decades and are now indiscriminately shelling major cities is considered “racism” by the editorial pages of so many Western magazines. Of all the double standards applied the Israel, this is definitely the most absurd.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        Please tell me the human (and monetary) cost of these terrible “indiscriminate” rocket attacks. And then take a step back and get over yourself. You’re like a kid complaining that the internet is cut off so he can’t play League of Legends, and then sets the neighbor’s house on fire for cutting your line.

        Reply to Comment
      • Whiplash

        How silly of you Richard to think that 4500 rockets fired at Israeli cities was anything more inconvenient than disruption of playing an online computer game. In Ray’s world (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq?) attempted murder, murder, terrorism of a civilian population and destruction of property by flying missiles is an every day event. By Ray’s standards Hamas’ shooting of mass barrages of rockets and mortars at civilians in Israel is no more troublesome than having your internet connection dropped while playing Call of Duty. Bizarre, but that is Ray.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ray

          Silly me. I had the impression that the rockets had killed about only about a small handful of people, and done minimal property damage, along with the cancellation of certain airlines to fly to Tel Aviv. Nothing to complain about, compared to what you’ve done to over two thousand innocent civilians, in the name of “self-defense.” And a small price to pay for your insistence on not ending the occupation until the other side cries uncle.

          And if you think the rockets are anything like what goes in on the countries you listed, you need a reality check.

          Reply to Comment
      • The only double standard applied here is that Israel constantly breaks Intern’al law, flaunts countless UN resolutions and yet gets full support from just about any Western government.

        Israel’s a veritable superpower and its offensives against the Palestinians are like taking a pneumatic hammer to a crumbly nut.

        Richard’s problem is that Western media, including the US’s, are increasingly reluctant to continue playing Israel’s eternal fake victim card.

        The Israeli Emperor has no clothes on and even the US media are beginning to see it.

        Mazel tov!

        Reply to Comment
    2. Whiplash

      One might ask how this article is different from the many articles posted on 972mag assailing Israel and Israeli society? The answer is not much. The article is replete which unsubstantiated conjecture, obvious misstatement of facts and fringe left wing bias.

      For instance, the charge that the sufferings of Gazan civilians “were not heard in Israeli media, except in Haaretz, is simply bizarre and untrue. During the war I heard Lucy Arish (an Israeli Arab) and other anchors at i24 tv interview Gazans civilians, reporters and Hamas spokespersons concerning the effect of the war on Gaza. The Jerusalem post and their news clips clearly displayed Palestinian suffering. Ynetnews and the Times of Israel extensively covered the effects of the conflict on Gazan citizens.

      What the writer does not like is that the Israeli press sided with the Israeli government that Hamas was responsible for civilian deaths. Her fringe, left wing, non mainstream view is that Israel is responsible for the deaths because it was Israeli bombs and artillery which ended civilian lives in Gaza. She ignores that Hamas engaged in a war with military assets which it had interwoven with the infrastructure of civilian Gaza. It is a sad, cruel fact that Hamas used its civilians as shields for its military operations against Israel. It put command centers in civilian houses, it rigged rows of civilian houses with explosives, it stored weapons, rockets and rocket launchers in homes, schools, hospitals, medical clinics, and mosques. Their military commanders hide in tunnels and bunkers under hospitals and civilian houses, apartment blocks and linked them up by tunnels.

      The actions which Hamas took were not by accident. They planned, engineered and built military fortresses in among the civilian population of Gaza to make it harder for Israel to hit Gaza’s fighters and to permit them to kill and attack Israelis. Hamas knew that families would be wiped out when Israel attacked the suspected military target near or below a house, mosque or apartment tower.

      A war is fought with lethal weapons and people die. If Hamas and terrorist groups wage war from among civilians and below their houses, apartment blocks, hospitals, schools and clinics, they know that some of them will die when Israel defends its citizens. These are cold hard facts which the writer evades.

      Dr. Mordechai Kedar did not call for the rape of sisters and wives of Palestinian terrorists. In an interview he was making a point that because of the fanatical nature of terrorists’ beliefs and cultural values, it is virtually impossible to dissuade terrorists from attempting their attacks. Palestinian terrorists are like other Arab terrorists in the middle east, as in Iraq or Syria, who kill because of their belief systems and are not afraid to die in martyrdom operations. As the Dr said, this is the middle east.

      Reply to Comment
      • ***[…] to try to convince Israelis to stop defending themselves.***

        Israelis aren’t ‘defending’ themselves. They are brutally defending a brutal occupation of their own making. They are defending grand land theft.

        Keep crying ‘wolf’ until everyone will ignore you. Then blame that on someone else too…

        Reply to Comment
      • Sharon Pinsley

        If the leadership of Hammas are so brave, why was it only when the ceasefire was in place did they deign to surface from their bunkers or come back from safety “abroad”?! Get real! None of the so-called leaders exposed themselves to harm, but rather left this heinously/cynically to the innocent civilians of Gaza whose deaths were of course used for propaganda purposes (which they are experts at). To callously use the $billions at their disposal for amassing the tools of war and incredibly sophisticated tunnel systems unbstead of using those funds for their intended purpose- to benefit the people of Gaza with meaningful education, housing, good jobs and industry and creating the infrastructure toward building a good future. As we once did when we were truly headed toward peace and co-existence, so many Israelis would help their economy blossom as: tourists, consumers, co-developers of businesses, shared artistic projects- endless opportunity for devloping instead of destroying…Amen!

        Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn8

      It must be maddening that despite the tens of millions of dollars spent by foreign governments on “Israeli” NGOs trying to convince Israelis to hate Israel, the IDF and to side with the Palestinians, that Israelis still consistently and strongly continue to believe in the justice of their cause and to reject the absurd European views of the conflict.

      Thats ok, Elizabeth. Think of it as a wonderful opportunity to go raise some more money in European capitals. Just tell them that despite the terrible ROI on their previous investments they should totally double down on sending money to Israeli traitors to try to convince Israelis to stop defending themselves. Just tell them it is for “anti-fascist advocacy” or something similar, because you “human rights activists” really should start rebranding yourselves given how much you are hated already in Israel for being pro-Palestinian European-paid trolls and how little impact anything you say has on Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
    4. bor

      What is different about this war? Well, one thing that hasn’t changed is that we see a fifth column among Israeli Arabs.

      http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4565595,00.html

      Perhaps Ms. Tsurkov could explain to us how Israelis should feel about Israeli Arabs celebrating the “Hamas victory” and declaring it their own victory?

      What is the appropriate reaction for Israelis, whose husbands, sons, fathers and even daughters risked and gave up their lives and limbs to go to war last month?

      After all, this isn’t an anti-war protest. This isn’t a demonstration against the government. This is a celebration of an enemy of Israel that explicitly seeks to destroy Israel. This is clear, 100% identification with that enemy and its goals. Unbelievable, huh?

      Reply to Comment
      • ***After all, this isn’t an anti-war protest. This isn’t a demonstration against the government. ***

        In a democracy such demonstrations are allowed.

        Do you think pro-Palestinian demos in the West were pro-government? Clearly not.

        If it was up to you such demos would probably have to be banned.

        Reply to Comment
        • bor

          Such demonstrations are permitted in democracies. Lovely. Nobody said they weren’t. My point is that you have a fifth column here identifying in full with Israel’s enemy.

          But I am curious. In which democratic countries at wartime have we seen demonstrations by citizens identifying in full with those countries’ enemies?

          This isn’t like, say, opposition to the Iraq War or Vietnam. This is as if the USA had conscription and went to war with Mexico and then, during or right after the war, a very large contingency of Mexicans or American-Mexicans who are citizens of the US demonstrated not against the war but on the basis that they are thrilled that that Mexico won the war and inflicted casualties on Americans.

          Yeah, I’d like to see how that plays out.

          Reply to Comment
    5. Ernesto

      I strong recommend to read the extreme right commentaries about the strong IDF and the sublime humanism of the Israeli government. It sound like Germany after First World War… Fill with sense of virtue… The difference is that now they use the back mail of …we the people that always suffered. Any croc ism…YOU ARE Antisemmite… What a miserable argument, what a horrifying use of the millions of people killed by the Nazis…justify your own modern crimes using the memory and the pains of people in the past. The horrifying crimes of the Nazis , or in Rwanda, Timor east, or the hundereds of thousands killed in Irak thanks to American bombing are not less shamefull. it is impressive to see that those with more weapons are the usual ones to present themselves like the victims…. At least the Romans when decided to take control of any region did not claimed self defense…. They just claimed imperium !

      Reply to Comment