Thursday, November 16, 2006

Realities of death

By Azmi Bishara
Al-Ahram Weekly

"General Elazar Stern, head of the Israeli army's Human Resources Directorate, said last week that "the Israeli army's hyper-sensitivity over the lives of its soldiers was responsible for some of the failures in the war [in Lebanon]." But you just can't choose to go to war and keep your soldiers safe. You have to say to your soldiers, "this is war and in war you kill and get killed," or if you're Israeli you say, "you kill Arabs and Arabs kill you." This hard and practical knowledge did not, though, prevent other Israeli generals from racing to the microphones to shout down Stern's statement and boast about the lengths to which the Israeli army goes to spare human lives.

Israel certainly has a peculiar attitude towards its soldiers' lives. According to its creation myth, Israel was founded to safeguard Jews whose lives were at risk in the Diaspora. The Israeli soldier is a symbol of this. Its attitude has also been influenced by the 1967 War syndrome, the belief that the army can wage war with minimal risk to its own ranks by replaying the strategies used in 1967; massive aerial bombardment, carrying the war deep into enemy territory and exacting a high toll so as to reduce the risk to one's own soldiers.

The last of these tactics was developed by Western colonialist powers and Israel has not departed from a Western colonialist sense of racial superiority that rates the lives of its own soldiers as being worth many times more than the lives of people in the colonies or the Third World in general. Were this not the case, then Palestinian spokesmen wouldn't bother cautioning Israel that the life of Corporal Gilad Shalit was being jeopardised by Israeli bombardment at a time when that same bombardment was harvesting Palestinian lives by the dozen.

Israeli leftists accused the Israeli Human Resources Directorate chief of wanton disregard for human life, arguing that the indifference to Arab or Palestinian lives would inevitably infect attitudes to Israeli lives. Such are the arguments with which some political forces are trying to mobilise Israeli political opinion against the occupation. The reasoning is that the crimes perpetrated by the occupation ultimately corrupt Israeli society; the occupation is bad because it accustoms Israelis to killing. Apparently, it isn't enough for these moral pundits that the occupation oppresses those under occupation, it has to be proven that it is detrimental to the occupying power.

That the victim of aggression can harm his aggressor seems to confirm that there is no such thing as an all-embracing humanity, except in our heads. Such a concept only acquires meaning if it is accepted as universally and determines actions. The Israeli military is more sincere than those who claim it no longer values Israeli lives because it accords no value to Arab lives, a claim that merely obfuscates a reality in which no equality exists in life or death.

In general, though, the world is a far more complex place and countries can all too easily accommodate themselves to a set of double standards governing rights to life, dignity and prosperity; one for the enemy, another for the friend, one for the citizen another for the non-citizens, one for the occupier another for the people under occupation. The Israeli Supreme Court, that bastion of Israeli liberalism, has preserved the total separation between the standards pertaining to citizens inside the Green Line and those applied to people on the other side. The discrepancy extends beyond the martial law enforced in the territories to embrace the judicial and ethical standards of judges who find themselves in a real quandary when faced with a case of discrimination against an Arab inside Israel, but who have no struggles of conscience when dealing with a similar case in the occupied territories. The standards are different because people, including judges, inhabit a reality that is at heart schizophrenic.

Everyone knows that equality is a myth, that a difference exists. Everyone knows that greater value is given to freeing Corporal Shalit than to freeing Palestinian detainees and, worse, that his life counts for more than the lives of 50 people in Beit Hanoun. It is no secret that world powers base their policies on such discrepant standards.

It requires no great feat of the imagination to know what would happen if 600,000 Americans rather than 600,000 Iraqis had been killed in Iraq. Isn't that why American officials have kept such a close eye on the daily American death toll, all the while keeping their fingers crossed that the figure doesn't climb above an acceptable level so that the American public won't start clamouring for an immediate withdrawal?

From another perspective, people accord greater importance to the death sentence handed to Saddam Hussein than they do to the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians, which is what made it possible for the current regime to bring the former Iraqi leader to trial while the ruling parties' own militias have been busy massacring Iraqis. Were there true equality in the right to life, it would be impossible to imagine such a trial and sentencing against a backdrop of corpses littering the streets. This applies as much to the current Iraqi government as it did to its predecessor; in some countries, particularly those with despotic governments, a single person's life and, hence, death, is valued above all others.

The life of a Rwandan is not equal to the life of a Frenchman. The life of an inhabitant of Gaza is not equal to that of Shalit, not when the Arabs announce after every meeting -- and as a gesture meant to ingratiate themselves to Israel -- that they have discussed "his case"; and not when they do this gratuitously, in keeping with a custom of gate-crashing weddings so that they can flaunt their proximity to a superior culture, rub shoulders and get themselves photographed with the world's political heavy- weights, court the admiration of opinion pundits in Israel or boost their own image by showing themselves to be "involved" in the issues that "matter".

It is possible to extrapolate further; to appoint to an entire hierarchy of value, public opinion accords to the life and death of different peoples. The individual in the West ranks highest. Next come those who live next door or in close proximity. In the US, the life of an African American is worth more than the life of an African. In Israel, the life of a Jew killed by a police bullet is worth more than an Arab's and the life of an Arab citizen in Israel is worth more than dozens of Arabs mowed down by occupation forces. In Gaza the death of dozens killed by the occupation triggers greater outrage than the death of Gazans killed by other Gazans. An Iraqi killed by an American receives more attention than 20 Iraqis whom the militias have kidnapped, murdered and mutilated overnight. A similar scale applies to Lebanon. The relative value of an individual's death not only depends on who he is but on who his killer is.

It is a nightmarish hierarchy, a deadly reality."

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