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Thursday, 15 November 2012

The fog of war

To live these last few weeks in southern Israel must have been hellish. The uncertainty of when rockets would arrive, the anxiety about safety, the anger about exposure to Hamas aggression. Nothing new perhaps, but an intensification of a barely tolerable situation. Jewish hearts empathise with the distress and the fear. (Just as Jewish hearts empathise with the on-going nightmare of the innocent victims and refugees of the near-by Syrian civil war; and with the Palestinian civilians amongst which the Hamas militia despicably hide, so we are led to believe, weaponry and missile-launchers).

And yet the latest response by Israel is distressing too, as the cycle of violence and mutual bloodshed is escalated to a dangerous and deadly new level, the consequences of which remain fraught and unpredictable. And one does not have to be a cynic to wonder: why now? Why has the government of Israel decided this is the moment to launch a major defensive/aggressive operation against Gaza? Just like Operation Cast Lead four years ago, it comes - with such unruly co-incidence - just months before an election. The calculation must be that this Operation will be over well before the January date when Netanyahu will again be seeking to present himself as the man to keep Israel secure in the face of its enemies.

And one does not have to be a cynic to wonder: why assassinate Ahmed Jabiri now? One only has to read Gershon Baskin (who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit) in Ha’aretz, which reports (November 15th) that ‘hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip’. Senior officials in Israel knew about his contacts with Hamas and Egyptian intelligence aimed at formulating the permanent truce, but nevertheless approved the assassination. “I think that they have made a strategic mistake," Baskin said, an error "which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides."

And one does not have to be a cynic to wonder: what’s with this Operation’s name, ‘Pillar of Defence’? This is the English ‘translation’ – useful for media purposes because of its obvious emphasis on ‘defence’ - of the Hebrew phrase being used in Israel, Amud Anan: a Biblical term used to describe how God, as conceptualised by the authors of the Torah’s mythic saga, was present in the desert wanderings of the Children of Israel, guiding and leading them through the 40 years of their journey to the ‘Promised Land’. In an early appearance of the phrase in the narrative, just after Israel have left Egypt, we read : “The pillar of cloud… moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.” (Exodus 14:20). So the ‘pillar of cloud’ is like a defensive shield; and in a midrash on this phrase (quoted by the commentator Rashi) we read that ‘the Egyptians shot arrows and catapulted stones at them, but the…cloud caught them”.

One can only be in awe at the chutzpah of appropriating this Biblical term and its traditional resonances as the name for a military operation to stop the contemporary missiles raining down on Israel. Awe or shame. For this, consciously or unconsciously - and I don’t know which is worse – makes the current escalation of hostilities into an act akin to a ‘holy war’. What defended the people in the stories of the tradition was the Holy One of Israel. The implication of this phrase being used in its current context is that the role of the divine has now been replaced – or enhanced? - by the military apparatus of the State. To appropriate this language is a kind of sacrilege – a hillul hashem – but of course no more so a desecration of the divine than each side’s shedding of innocent blood.

And, finally, one does not have to be a cynic to recognise that as well as Israel’s adeptness on the military front, it is becoming increasingly slick at the propaganda war. Briefings from the Israeli Embassy have flooded my inbox in the last 48 hours, as well as from the Movement for Reform Judaism and the Board of Deputies. Synagogues and their members are being offered plenty of verbal ammunition with which to defend Israel’s cause, and in the days ahead we will no doubt be bombarded with multitudes of words to justify the State of Israel’s actions in this latest tragic cycle of bloodshed.

And meanwhile, the Holy One of Israel weeps, helplessly watching as the ‘pillar of cloud’ – which protected the people of Israel only in their wanderings, and disappeared once they entered the ‘Promised Land’ – becomes the synonym for the very fog of war. A 'pillar of cloud': a cloud so thick, so dense with the acrid smoke and fumes of battle, that the image of the people of God as a ‘light to the nations’ is blotted out.

Or so it seems.