In the Diaspora: Faceless in Gaza

For a change, it's the other side with the hasbara problem

0901-freedman (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
When Israel attacked Hizbullah in 2006, one of the innocents caught in the middle happened to be an American chef and author named Anthony Bourdain. He was in Beirut filming a segment of his cable-television show, "No Reservations," which was going to focus both on Lebanese cuisine and the nation's rebirth after a generation of civil war. The IDF's bombing of runways at Beirut's airport and its naval blockade of the city's harbor, meant to stop Hizbullah from being resupplied with arms from Iran and Syria, marooned Bourdain and his crew in a war zone. They did what one would expect journalists to do - begin reporting, both on television and for the webzine Those accounts were nuanced and sophisticated, putting Israel's bombing campaign into the context of Hizbullah's rejectionism and provocation and Syria's desire to reassert control over Lebanon. But there was no getting around the fact that, in a certain way, the day Anthony Bourdain got swept up in the Second Lebanon War was one of the days when Israel lost it, at least on the hasbara front. More than in any other of Israel's wars, in Lebanon II the other side became visible and familiar for a mass American audience. It is old hat for Western Europe, to say nothing of the Arab world, to cry crocodile tears over the deaths of civilians whom groups like Hizbullah, Hamas and, in a previous era, the Palestine Liberation Organization strategically put in harm's way. What happened in 2006 was something qualitatively different. Americans saw not just blood, misery, mourning and tears, but saw people who looked like themselves - not Hizbullah's mullahs and militiamen but middle-class, Westernized Lebanese, as well as Arab-Americans whose families had emigrated from Lebanon decades earlier and in some cases had summer houses and vacationed there. 'WE WAKE up to molar-vibrating percussions and go to sleep to distant thunder," Bourdain wrote for Salon. "Afternoons, we watch as Beirut is dismantled. Bit by bit. First the sound of unseen jets flying overhead. Then silence. Then a 'Boom!' Then a distant plume of smoke. Black, brown, white ... the whole city south of us slowly growing more indistinct in the midday light under a constant, smoglike haze." Israel's spokesmen could say all they want that the IDF's target was Hizbullah, not Lebanon per se, but at a gut level that distinction was lost on many Americans who were following the war by blog, newspaper and television. I don't think the result was a sudden erosion of support for Israel in a general sense - Hizbullah isn't exactly a cherished party in the United States - as much as a heightened skepticism about the way Israel had gone after its enemy this time. Gaza is a place with a vivid and controversial history of victim iconography. In the early days of the Second Intifada, the signal image of Palestinian suffering emerged in the news footage of a 12-year-old boy, Muhammad al-Dura, cowering next to his father during a firefight and then slumping dead. He became a worldwide martyr, the emblem of defenselessness. James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly later published a lengthy and persuasive examination of the incident, concluding that the boy was probably killed by Palestinian rather than Israeli bullets. There is even a prevalent conspiracy theory that the boy's apparent death was an elaborate ruse. All this effort at debunking, whether from credible or crackpot sources, misses the essential point - the way the footage of al-Dura was absorbed and understood by viewers, the way it put a face on the Palestinian experience, brought it down to the foundational human poignancy of a father unable to protect his child. (It reminded me of the time a prominent American Jewish writer, a firm Zionist, told me what he feared most was "the great Palestinian novel.") Those of us who fully endorse Israel's attacks against Hamas wait anxiously for the next Muhammad al-Dura, the next Anthony Bourdain, the next indelible embodiment of the civilian toll that is the inevitable consequence of the current operation. If an IDF tank can mistakenly shoot at IDF soldiers in a Gaza house, then let's be realistic: the same kind of mistakes will kill innocent Palestinians, too. PART OF the ticking clock on the current war, part of the measure of its success, will be how long it takes before a photo or news clip or Youtube up-load appears to sway heart over head. The hard-core anti-Israel crowd made up its mind ages ago; but there is, at least in the US, a middle ground that is torn between the cerebral comprehension of Israel's trouble with Hamastan and the visceral response to Palestinian suffering. The counter-argument is not to tally our own victims. We should never want the comparable suffering in Israel to be our currency for political sympathy. The citizens of Sderot, I am quite sure, would gladly take fewer solidarity missions in exchange for fewer missiles. Fortunately, if that is the word, Hamas has done much to estrange itself from American empathy. Its cult of martyrdom, its fundamentalist theology, its severe public spokesmen, its rhetoric of perpetual resistance - all these put it a long way from chic, modern Beirut. Gaza does not have the familial and commercial linkages to Palestinian-Americans that the West Bank does. Hamas has chosen, since Israel's unilateral withdrawal, to use its resources for rearming instead of rebuilding. As a journalist, I cannot support Israel's news blackout from Gaza, but Hamas has chosen in many ways to black out itself. For a change, it's the other side with the hasbara problem. Postscript: Since I wrote this column earlier this week, the clock indeed ran out, with the IDF's bombing of a UN school, killing about 40 people. The facelessness of Gaza is now over and so, as a result, is the most intense part of the Israeli attack.