Gaza as repetition and spectacle

History is repeating itself in a tragedy of epic proportions.

Israel's bombardment of Gaza has cost the lives of more than 350 civilians [AFP]

Karl Marx’s famous pronouncement from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte has been repeated so often that it seems like an ever-present ghost to us: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” 

Today, however, we find historical personages we had assumed were residing in the netherworld of the past reappearing to us with astounding vitality. At least that is the feeling one gets when one witnesses the exhumation of the live bodies of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and several other neocons speaking to us not from the grave, but eerily reinhabiting our mediascapes, urging us once again to invade Iraq. Similarly John McCain assures us that we can do it right this time because our military leaders have been there, we know whom to support: “We know these guys.”

Their language is haunted by their past lives; their track record does not speak well for such self-confidence. The regurgitated phrases take on an absurd air – it appears as if we are caught in a time warp.

Similarly, John Kerry, someone who surely knows the complexities of the situation in Israel-Palestine, rehearsed precisely the same language Obama used during the 2012 bombing of Gaza. On July 10, Kerry said: “No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians and we support completely Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks.”

Obama, on November 18, 2012, said: “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” Of course political phraseology has an extremely long shelf life, but my point here is that the recycling of such language here signals just how entrenched US policy is with regard to this conflict.

Kerry’s statement was especially disappointing given Philip Gordon’s comments at Haaretz’s international conference. Gordon is the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region. Among several remarkable statements is this:

“… [A]s Israel’s greatest defender and closest friend we owe it to you to ask fundamental questions – which in fact many Israelis are asking themselves: how will Israel remain democratic and Jewish if it attempts to govern the millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank? How will it have peace if it is unwilling to delineate a border, end the occupations and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security, and dignity? How will we prevent other states from isolating Israel or supporting Palestinian efforts in international bodies if Israel is not seen as committed to peace?”

Kerry’s repetition of Obama’s 2012 language seems to mute whatever progress might have been hinted at in Gordon’s statement, and creates a weird rehearsal of Gaza in 2012.

In both instances the condemnation of firing rockets into a civilian population, and the right therefore of the people under attack to fire back, obviously is aimed to criticise the Palestinians, not the Israeli armed forces who are after all doing exactly that, but on an immensely larger scale and protected by a sophisticated rocket-defence system. The huge disproportion in terms of those killed (over 300 Palestinians so far, the vast majority civilians vs one Israeli) and injured, property destroyed, and possession of armaments makes any argument of tit-for-tat absurd, and the laying of blame on the Palestinians, rather than the Israeli government, untenable. 

In its unbridled assault on Gaza, Israel cites the provocation of Hamas rockets, eliding the fact that it had itself begun the bombing much earlier in retaliation for the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli settlers. Also lost is the fact that the kidnappings were preceded by several acts of violence against Palestinian civilians, including the fatal shooting of a Palestinian teenager by an Israeli soldier, which was captured on videotape and broadcast globally, as well as a legacy of imprisoning Palestinian children, as young as age 8.

After a young Palestinian was burned alive by a group of Israelis in retaliation for the killing of the three settlers, Netanyahu’s condemnation of the murder as a “despicable act” and his pledge to bring those responsible to justice rang hollow, given that he had incited his constituents to avenge the killing of the Israeli youths, and the fact that Israel knew the youth were dead weeks before they announced that news – Israel used that interval to ramp up its attacks in a “search” for the missing Israelis and stir up more public rage against Palestinians.

To trace the actual course of events is not to engage in hairsplitting or to even insist (as one should) that we work back historically to locate the original moment of mass dispossession in 1948. It is rather, in terms of the immediate conflict, to not lose sight of the facts as we make our judgements. We need to bring out the full history of the issues at hand and not become lost in the sleights of hand these obfuscations and ghostly rewrites employ.

Not only are the facts lost in the mystifications of political rhetoric and the reappearance of old alibis, the current attacks on Gaza bring back the horrific and ghoulish phenomenon of Israeli spectators setting up lawn chairs to witness from afar the bombing of Gaza, as if at a Fourth of July picnic, and cheering the carnage.

A tweet by @allansoreson72 showed a photo of this just a few days ago, with the caption: “Sderot cinema. Israelis bringing chairs in Sderot 2 watch latest from Gaza. Clapping when blasts are heard.” If one had doubts about this, one can read Peter Lagerquist’s excellent “Shooting Gaza: Photographers, Photographs, and the Unbearable Lightness of War,”  or simply log on and watch this YouTube video from 2009. The term “theatre of war” takes on a bizarre and even crueler meaning; the alienation of human beings from their humanity takes another shape.

Yes, history is repeating itself, but in this instance I disagree with Marx – this is no farce, it is a tragedy of epic proportions.

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University.

Follow him on Twitter: @palumboliu