On March 30, 2011 – eleven days into NATO’s war on Libya – Professor Juan Cole wrote from his armchair at the University of Michigan:
The Libya intervention is legal [sic] and was necessary to prevent further massacres… and if it succeeds in getting rid of Qaddafi’s murderous regime and allowing Libyans to have a normal life, it will be worth the sacrifices in life and treasure. If NATO needs me, I’m there.
Cole thus declared himself ready to suit up and reach for the sky with NATO’s bombers. It was an extraordinary moment.
The rationale, of course, was the alleged risk of a massacre in Benghazi by Gaddafi’s forces. Cole told Democracy Now!:
They mounted tanks, 30, 40, 50 tanks, sent them into the downtowns of places like Zawiyah, and they just shelled civilian crowds, protesters… And then they started rolling the tanks to the east, and they were on the verge of taking the rebel stronghold, Benghazi. And there certainly would have been a massacre there in the same way that there was in Zawiyah, if it hadn’t been stopped at the last moment by United Nations allies.
This was mostly a product of the fevered atmosphere generated every time state-corporate propaganda targets a ‘New Hitler’ for destruction (Gaddafi, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Assad, et al). Two or three weeks of sustained moral outrage from Washington, London and Paris, echoed across the media, are more than sufficient to generate the required hysteria. Almost anything can then be claimed, with even rational questioning denounced as “apologetics for tyranny”. In The Politics of Genocide, Edward Herman and David Peterson wrote:
The vulgar politicisation of the concept of genocide, and the “emerging international norm” of humanitarian intervention, appear to be products of the fading of the Cold War, which removed the standard pretexts for intervention while leaving intact the institutional and ideological framework for its regular practice during those years. 1
With mainstream political parties no longer exercising restraint on the war wagon, the need to “do something” can be turned on and off like a tap.
By way of a rare exception, Seumas Milne noted in the Guardian of Gaddafi that “there is in fact no evidence – including from other rebel-held towns Gaddafi re-captured – to suggest he had either the capability or even the intention to carry out such an atrocity against an armed city of 700,000”.
But most of the press was untroubled by a lack of evidence – the West was simply right to act. A leader in The Times commented on October 21, 2011:
Without this early, though sensibly limited, intervention, there would have been a massacre in Benghazi on the scale of Srebrenica. 2
An Independent editorial agreed:
Concern was real enough that a Srebrenica-style massacre could unfold in Benghazi, and the UK Government was right to insist that we would not allow this. 3
“We Must Blow Gaza Back To The Middle Ages”
With the above in mind, consider that, on November 16, on the third day of Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, with at least 18 Palestinians already killed, the BBC reported:
Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza has intensified after it authorised the call-up of 30,000 army reservists, amid reports of a possible ground offensive.
Israel’s cabinet quickly approved the activation of 75,000 reservists, as well as hundreds of Merkava main battle tanks, armoured bulldozers and other assault vehicles, which were transported into position for attack.
Was a massacre looming? The Israeli deputy prime minister Eli Yishai appeared to promise as much on November 18:
We must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water.
A prominent front-page article in the Jerusalem Post by Gilad Sharon, son of the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, openly advocated mass killing:
We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.
There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire.
Was the call to “Flatten all of Gaza” beyond the pale of respectable discourse? Apparently not for the BBC, which quoted a less frenzied comment by Sharon three days later.
Recall the human cost of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week offensive waged between December 2008 and January 2009. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reported:
The magnitude of the harm to the population was unprecedented: 1,385 Palestinians were killed, 762 of whom did not take part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were minors under age 18. More than 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, of them over 350 seriously so.
There is no question, then, that a “Benghazi moment” had arrived for Gaza around November 16 or shortly thereafter. A Cast Lead-style massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians was a very real possibility. If Hamas rockets had killed more civilians, for example, in Tel Aviv, it might well have happened.
Whereas Benghazi was being torn apart by a Western-fuelled insurgency, Gaza is under decades of military occupation and years of siege, greatly strengthening the moral case for external intervention. Escape from a ground assault would have been completely impossible for Gaza’s 1.6 million people, about half of them children. And whereas Benghazi was up against Gaddafi’s tin pot army, Gaza was targeted by the most advanced weaponry US taxpayers’ money can buy. Gaza, certainly, was facing a cataclysm beyond anything Gaddafi could have inflicted on his own people.
By any reasonable accounting, then, the case for a no-fly zone, indeed a no-drive zone – some kind of humanitarian intervention – was far more compelling for Gaza than it had ever been for Libya. And yet our search of the Lexis media database found no mention in any UK newspaper of even the possibility of setting up a no-fly zone over Gaza. There was no reference to Gaza’s “Benghazi moment”.
By contrast, many “Benghazi moments” have been identified in Syria. A leader in the Independent commented in July:
It was the imminent threat to civilians in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, that clinched the argument at the UN for outside intervention. But with multiplying reports that the fight is on for Syria’s second city, Aleppo, the signs are that even government air strikes will not spur a similar Western and Arab alliance into action. Morally, that has to be deplored.
We saw no commentary suggesting that Western military action might have been justified to prevent a massacre of civilians in Gaza.
Moral ME – The Armchair Warriors Doze Off
In 1999, David Aaronovitch (then of the Independent) made an announcement on NATO’s war to “defend” Kosovo that equally stunned and inspired readers (Juan Cole among them, perhaps):
What would I myself be prepared to sacrifice in order to stop the massacres and to strike an immense blow against the politics of racial and ethnic nationalism? Would I fight, or (more realistically) would I countenance the possibility that members of my family might die?
I think so… So yes, for this cause, if the government asked me to, I’d do what was necessary without complaining a lot. 4
Presumably, with Gaza facing another massacre this month, Aaronovitch must again have been eager to swap his armchair for a cockpit to “strike an immense blow” for racial and ethnic nationalism. Not quite:
Thinking about how to write about Gaza without just repeating laments of last decade. Sometimes seems little that is both true and useful to say.
No fighting to be done, it seems, and not even much to be said – it was just all very sad. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky commented in Manufacturing Consent of a similar case:
While the coverage of the worthy victim was generous with gory details and quoted expressions of outrage and demands for justice, the coverage of the unworthy victims was low-keyed, designed to keep the lid on emotions and evoking regretful and philosophical generalities on the omnipresence of violence and the inherent tragedy of human life. 5
Leading Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland also shook his head sadly and wondered whether Israelis and Palestinians would be “locked in a battle that drags on and on, perhaps till the end of time?” Freedland focused on “the weariness”: “I feel it myself, a deep fatigue with this struggle, with the actions of both sides. ‘So yes, I’m weary”, “weary of it”. “I’m tired”. “I’m tired”. “I’m tired. I’m weary”. And “I’m especially tired”. “I feel no less exhausted. For I’m weary”. “I’m tired, too.” “And I’m weary”. “This wearying”… and so on.
Prior to the onset of this moral ME, Freedland had been the very picture of interventionist vim and vigour. In March 2011, he wrote an energetic piece on Libya titled, “Though the risks are very real, the case for intervention remains strong”. A key obstacle was that “Iraq poisoned the notion of “liberal interventionism” for a generation”. No matter:
If those nations with the power to stop these pre-announced killings had stood aside, they would have been morally culpable. Benghazi was set to become another Srebrenica – and those that did nothing would share the same shame.
Last February, ignoring the chaos he had helped make possible in Libya, Freedland wheeled out the same arguments in response to the Syrian crisis. The article featured a picture of Syrian children holding up a cartoon of a green-headed Assad pointing a Kalashnikov at the head of a little girl holding an olive branch. Freedland wrote:
The 2003 invasion of Iraq has tainted for a generation the idea once known as “liberal interventionism”.
We have new problems now. Fail to see that and we make the people of Homs pay the price for the mistake we made in Baghdad.
And Tripoli! Freedland had clearly not wearied of the price paid by the victims of “liberal interventionism” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
“Terror Attack” In Tel Aviv
One week into Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud, on a day when 13 Palestinians were killed – with more than 136 people in Gaza killed by that point in 1,500 attacks since the operation began on November 14 – 28 people were injured in a Tel Aviv bomb attack. ITV News’s international editor Bill Neely commented: “Tel Aviv bus bomb is first terror attack there in 6 years.” And: “Israeli Police confirm terror attack”.
We wrote to Neely: “Bill, are the attacks on Gaza “terror attacks”? Have you described them as such?”
Neely replied: “Media Lens; Love what U try 2 do – keep us all honest – but pedantry & refusing 2 C balance hs always bn ure weakness.”
Neely wrote again to us and another tweeter: “U & Media Lens R absolutely right. Language is v. important. But a bomb on a bus, like a missile, is terror weapon.”
Neely clearly agreed that missiles were also weapons of terror. So we asked him: “Bill, agreed. Given that’s the case have you ever referred to Israel’s “terror attacks” in a TV news report?”
Neely responded: “Just to be clear, do you think British bombs on Afghanistan are terrorism? Or on Berlin in 44?”
We answered: “Very obviously. Winston Churchill thought so, too.”
We sent a comment written by Churchill to Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief of RAF’s Bomber Command in 1945:
It seems to me that the moment has come that the bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. 6
Neely wrote back: “States use terror – the UK has in war, but groups do 2 & we shd say so.”
We tried again: “Bill, you’re not answering. You’ve described Hamas attacks as “terror” on TV. How about Israeli, US, UK attacks?”
Neely simply wouldn’t answer our question. But how could he? The truth, of course, is that ITV would never refer to these as “terror attacks”. Words like “terror”, “terrorism”, “militant”, “regime”, “secretive”, “hermit”
and “controversial” are used to describe the governments of official enemies, not our own government and its leading allies.
“Is This What They Mean By The Cycle Of Violence?”
The November 21 bus bombing, injuring 28 Israelis (initially reported as ten injured), was a far bigger story for the media than the killing of 13 people in Gaza that day. The bias was reflected in the tone of coverage. The BBC reported “Horror in Israel” whereas they had earlier referred to a “difficult night for people in Gaza” after 450 targets had been struck with scores of people killed.
Ordinarily, the BBC loves to compare the line-up of hardware available to combatants, for example, here and here. But during Operation Pillar of Cloud, the broadcaster was far more interested in comparing the ranges of Hamas’ home-made rockets. In this deceptive example of BBC “balance” two maps show “Areas hit in Gaza by Israel” and “Areas hit in Israel and the West Bank by Gaza militants” (only the Palestinians are “militants”). The impression given is of two roughly equal threats.
The BBC graphic also shows the exact “Range of Hamas rockets”, but there was no graphic of this kind comparing Palestinian and Israeli firepower. Perhaps the juxtaposition of home-made weapons and a long list of very powerful high-tech weapons would have been too absurd, even embarrassing.
The final death toll of the latest massacre is horrifying: 103 of the 158 people killed in Gaza were civilians. Of these, 30 were children – twelve of them under ten-years-old. More than 1,000 Palestinians were injured. Six Israelis were killed, two of them soldiers. This infographic provides a shocking comparison of numbers killed on both sides since 2000. And this excellent little animation asks: “Is this what they mean by the cycle of violence”?
Inevitably, president Obama said: “We will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself”.
Noam Chomsky has been a rare voice making the counter-argument:
You can’t defend yourself when you’re militarily occupying someone else’s land. That’s not defense. Call it what you like, it’s not defense.
Obama also said:
There is no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.
Try telling that to the many bereaved in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Irony is dead, it seems – killed by drone-fire!
- Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, Monthly Review Press, 2010, pp.10-11 [↩]
- Leading article, “Death of a Dictator”, The Times [↩]
- Leading article, “The Mission that Crept”, Independent, July 29, 2011 [↩]
- David Aaronovitch, “My country needs me”, The Independent, April 6, 1999 [↩]
- Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon Books, 1988, p.39 [↩]
- “Blitz, Bombing and Total War”, Channel 4, January 15, 2005 [↩]