Friday, December 27, 2013

About goodies, baddies and two little girls

Communications media are an integral part of society. They reflect but also shape the common conceptions of their society. Societies at war cultivate the perception that we are the Good Guys.  It is this perception which facilitates the use of weapons, making it easier for the Good Guys to kill the Baddies facing them. Our fighters are heroic and humane soldiers, theirs are terrible monstrous terrorists. Our dead civilians were innocent victims of cruel  murder, theirs are unfortunate mistakes, collateral damages . And even our  children are sweeter and far more precious than theirs.

1 ) November : Avigail, two years old, from Jerusalem

It was a month ago, on the night of November 28, 2013. Shirin Ben Zion , resident of the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood in East Jerusalem, returned  home in her car, with her  three children in the back. On the road separating the Israeli Armon HaNatziv neighborhood from the Palestinian neighborhood of Sur Baher, stones were thrown at the car. One of the stones hit the head of the two year old Avigail. The terrified mother rushed her to medical treatment. Emergency services reported later that evening that "the toddler is not in life danger, she was conscious and in a stable condition when hospitalized in the trauma unit of Hadassah Hospital."

Armon HaNatziv is one of a string of Jewish neighborhoods founded in the early 1970’s in East Jerusalem, recently conquered and annexed to Israel, with the aim of "creating facts on the ground ", "thickening the Jewish population” and creating “a Jewish ring” all around the Old City.  Armon HaNatziv was built on a large area expropriated in 1970 from the Sur Baher  Palestinians, who until then used this area to pasture their  herds . There was some friction between the Palestinian residents and the Israelis living on their former land, flaring into violence during the First and Second Intifada and again in the past year. Outside the borders of Israel, such neighborhoods as Armon HaNatziv are  considered as Occupied Territory, and were counted as such in the EU guidelines which recently got to the headlines. But Shirin Ben Zion was not aware of all that, when she moved with her ​​husband and children at a relatively quiet time two years ago. To her, as to most Israelis, Armon HaNatziv is no more than an ordinary Jerusalem neighborhood where housing prices happen to be lower than otherwhere.

The injury of toddler Avigail Benzion immediately got the headlines, and newspapers competed with sensational formulations: "Toddler Injured in Terrorist Attack", "Stone Terrorism On The Rise", "Intolerable Escalation On Jerusalem Seam Line". Little Avigail's picture appeared on every front page, and extensive interviews were published with the distraught mother (who plans to move to another neighborhood as soon as possible) and with other family members who told how they heard the devastating news .

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat , recently re-elected in elections which Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem completely boycotted, hurried to the hospital to visit the toddler and make a statement to the numerous press representatives present: "This is intolerable. The punishment for throwing stones should be increased, a stone is a weapon, pure and simple."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that "the security forces will take all measures to get the bastards who hit little Avigail". Already in the wee hours of the same night , detectives arrived at the homes of four young Palestinians in Sur Baher and took them into custody on suspicion that they were the perpetrators. The capture was reported with great satisfaction on the following morning, and no journalist expressed the slightest doubt about the detainees’ guilt.

Three days later, the media reported the good news that Little Avigail was discharged from the hospital, apparently without long-term injury although she would remain under medical observation. Thus, more or less, ended this story and the media spotlights shifted elsewhere.

2 ) December: Hala, three years old, from Gaza

It was a week of escalation in the relations between Israelis and Palestinians . Last weekend, the 23-year old Nafi A-Saadi was killed in Jenin Refugee Camp when the Palestinian inhabitants brazenly dared to oppose a late night raid and detentions by Israeli soldiers. At Qalqiliya, the 28-year old Saleh Yassin was killed under similar circumstances . And Odeh Hamad, 27, killed when he approached the border fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. The Palestinians say he just wanted to collect junk metal for recycling, which was his source of livelihood, while according to the military he was trying to sabotage the fence. Anyway, he entered the area of three hundred meters from the fence, and under the rules established by the IDF anyone who does that is liable to an immediate death penalty .

These cases got hardly any mention in the Israeli media, which did report on Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the following days.  An explosive device was placed on a bus in Bat Yam, and due to the vigilance of passengers and driver detonated without casualties. On the next day Ramy Ravid, 41 , a settler who served as a community policeman in the Geva Binyamin settlement near Ramallah, was stabbed in the back while directing  traffic at the entrance to the settlement, but luckily the knife missed his vital organs. And on the following day, the 22-year old Salah Abu Latif, a civilian contractor from the town of Rahat in the Negev working for the Israeli Defense Ministry went to repair the Gaza border fence order to earn money to buy a house and get married, was fired at by an anonymous Palestinian sniper, and was killed on the spot.

Salah Abu Latif was a Bedouin from the Negev, a community targeted by the government plan to displace tens of thousands of its members from their homes and lands. Just a few weeks ago, Bedouin demonstrations were dispersed with great police violence, with some of the detained demonstrators – Bedouins of Abu Latif’s age - still behind bars in a particularly prolonged detention. Abu Latif had been killed as a civilian employee of the military. The Government of Israel decided that the killing of an Israeli citizen cannot be tolerated, and ordered the army to take immediate retaliation.

As noted by veteran commentator Alex Fishman, there has long existed an explicit directive by the Army Chief of Staff and the Commanding General South, to be effected when such reprisals are called for, entitled "Zero Collateral Damage". I.e., the targets and weapons for a retaliatory action should be carefully selected so as to avoid harming non-combatants .

Among other things, it is well known that the guns installed on tanks are effective and appropriate means of doing battle with other tanks, but their use otherwise is likely to culminate with "Collateral Damage". For reasons which remain unknown (and it is far from sure that anyone would ever try to investiagate them) it was decided that firing tank shells would be  a quick available retaliation for the death of Salah Abu Latif. A tank crew was instructed to fire a few shells in the general direction from which the sniper had shot (and from where he had long since departed) .

The Al Buheiry Family owns a small chicken farm east of the Maghazy Refugee Camp  in the central Gaza Strip. One of the tank shells scored a direct hit on the family home. Three year old Hala Buheiry was killed on the spot by shrapnel in her head. He brother Bilal, also three years old, was wounded as were the six years old Muhammad and the children’s mother.

In the Israeli newspapers of the next day it was very difficult to find any trace or reference to the death of three year old Hala Al Buheiry. Her photo did not appear on the front pages, nor was it to be found on any page. Also in the banner headlines telling of the army’s retaliation in Gaza her death was not mentioned.  Those who read newspaper reports carefully without missing a word could find, buried inconspicuously among many other details, a reference that "the Palestinians assert that a child of three was killed”. Not an objective fact. It is something which the Palestinians assert.

What was the name of the girl? Who were the members of her family? How did it happened, exactly? Those who wanted such needed to access the Palestinian news sites. Technically, that is very easy for anyone whose computer in connected online, a click with the computer mouse is enough . But very few Israelis even consider looking in Palestinian news sites .

What did get the wide attention of the media were the reports of a high alert in the Gaza Border region, in expectation of a Palestinian retaliation. Long-suffering border communities made feverish preparation, and the army  placed batteries of the Iron Dome anti-missile-missile as far away as Be'er Sheva, and that army prepared for a new round of major. But in recent weeks the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have already suffered greatly from the devastating combination of torrential rains and floods, of the long standing Israeli siege and of the Egyptian military regime’s manifest hostility towards the Hamas government in Gaza.  From the Strip came only a symbolic response to the death of the little Hala Al-Boheiry, two rockets fired at night towards Israeli fields, causing no casualties or damage. Escalation was halted . At least in that sector, at least for the time being.