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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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On Gaza

Monday, January 26, 2009

I listened to the radio this morning, and heard a BBC correspondent interviewing a Gazan mother who lost nine of her family, four of them her children, in an Israeli air strike. It appears that the munition used was white phosphorous, the use of which is legal on the open battlefield as a smokescreen, but which is not permitted for use as an assault weapon in areas where civilians are likely to be.

The woman, remarkably calm, recounts how each of her children died. I saw him decapitated, she explains of her eldest. Her second died of smoke inhalation. Her youngest, she says, "melted in my arms."

What brutal poetry this phrase conceals. Echoes of Hamlet thinking of death here - "Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve into a due." But, as Adorno said, after the Holocaust poetry becomes impossible. And to perceive any poetry in this phrase seems equally inappropriate. For one is left to imagine - or to try to imagine - what it must be like to be a mother looking at your child in your arms as they simply melt away, vanish, cease to exist, life slipping out as easily as water down a drain.

Of course, these metaphors too are not appropriate. For they do not capture the other sensations that must have surrounded this moment that the woman's phrase eloquently conceals: the smell of charred flesh, the smashing of glass and the crumbling of rubble, white smoke, a chemical agent sticking to the skin and burning white hot and, around, little bits of felt silently fluttering down from the sky, each one a packet containing more lethal fire.

It is hard to know what to say about the Israeli action that has not already been expressed by the media, at least in European newspapers and television (the recent London Review of Books carries elequoent disavowals of the Israeli action, by scores of academics). Whilst news organisations have striven to be impartial, beyond a certain point objectivity has to tip into compassion and anger on the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the border. When 1200 Palestinians (about a third of them children) die in response to a dozen Israeli deaths, the dynamics of the war as one of retaliation - as Israel sees it - simply does not work. Israel, the world's fourth largest military power, has lost the moral conflict.

The use of white phosphorous, the shells of which bear the stamps of the American factories in which they were produced, has become iconic of this new mood. Given that the Gaza strip is one of the most densely populated regions on Earth, it is pretty clear that it should not have been used. Now that Israel has admitted use of the munition, there will, of course, be an investigation by the army, who will no doubt find some middle-ranking officer to use as a scapegoat, whilst keeping Olmert and his generals free from blame for planning to use such a weapon. There will, of course, be more impartial investigations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, the findings of which will be breezily dismissed, whilst the shells still make their way from Lockheed and Boeing factories in the States to land in the homes of civilian women melting children (future terrorists!) out of existence.

Cynicism aside, one is left with just one hope. This is that another, balance has tipped, one which has its long end half a century ago, and which has ensured that no matter how Israel levered its military might, the balance of international opinion would never tip into condemnation. Previous Israeli actions, from the 1967 war to the recent Lebanon conflict have, been conducted under the cloud of the Holocaust. For every Hamas rocket attack on Israel, the rest of the world could not attack Israeli policies because it was still assailed by the guilt of World War Two. Now, however, opinion seems, perhaps, to have shifted. The repressed has returned for the last time, so perhaps now for the first time, it is possible to be anti-Israeli without this having the faint whiff of anti-Semitism. We must now be willing to stand defiant and say of Israel that, whilst terrorism is something to which they have the right to respond, we have the right to say: "enough."

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Posted by Alistair at 1:58 pm


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