What "Waltz With Bashir" can teach us about Gaza

The stunning new Israeli film reveals painful parallels between one of Israel's darkest moments and the current conflict.

Published January 13, 2009 12:25PM (EST)

The Israeli slaughter in Gaza is continuing into a third week under the approving gaze of the Bush administration, both political parties and the mainstream media. A U.N. Security Council resolution, worldwide protests, cries of outrage from human rights groups and the Red Cross, petitions by academics, and televised images of civilian deaths have no effect on Israel or on the American establishment. Nearly 900 Gazans have been killed, the already-desperate strip has been devastated, whole families wiped out. It is clear that Israel has no strategic vision, no idea of what its onslaught is supposed to ultimately achieve or how to end it. When it finally ends its assault, Hamas will emerge from the rubble, Iran and Hezbollah will be empowered, Egypt and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will be weakened, and America's standing in the region will be lower than ever.

Yet in America the war might as well not even be happening. This Sunday's New York Times' "Week in Review" section, that snapshot of the American intelligentsia's collective brain, contained not a single word about Gaza. The ongoing carnage is clearly passé.

Yet in a strange case of art imitating life, at the same time that Israel is blasting a defenseless population enclosed in a tiny area, an Israeli film has appeared that depicts an earlier war in which Israel was complicit in an appalling massacre. America's cultural gatekeepers have rightfully hailed Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" as a tour de force and cinematic breakthrough. On Sunday night, as Israeli warplanes carried out 12 bombing raids in Gaza, "Waltz With Bashir" won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign film. Most people who see Folman's stunning film will probably not connect it with Israel's current war. But if they dig a little deeper, they might realize that the film's moral lessons apply not just to the terrible events that took place 28 years ago but also to what is happening today.

"Waltz With Bashir" is about Folman's attempt to recover his lost memory of his experiences as a soldier during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and in particular the Sabra and Shatilla slaughter of Palestinian civilians in two refugee camps. Carried out by Lebanese Christian militiamen, under Israeli protection and with its leaders' complicity, it was one of the most notorious massacres of the 20th century. "Bashir" is an extraordinary work, whose hallucinatory animated imagery and unflinching moral honesty offer an intense depiction of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic consequences. A dreamlike combination of "Apocalypse Now" and "Maus," it is at once the idiosyncratic story of one ex-soldier's attempt to heal his hidden wounds and a damning indictment of the Israeli leaders who enabled the slaughter. In the end, by interviewing other soldiers, talking to a psychiatrist and sharing his anguish with friends, Folman succeeds in putting together a fragmentary picture of the terrible events he witnessed and had blocked out for so long. Whether he himself gains any catharsis from his quest is not clear, for at the very end of the film he abruptly abandons both his personal narrative and his animated technique and simply shows filmed images of the slaughtered Palestinians heaped up like cordwood in the alleys of the camps.

Folman's film is not political. It does not preach or pass judgment. Yet in its artistic integrity, it unintentionally reveals the grim parallels between Israel's invasion of Lebanon and its complicity with the Sabra and Shatilla massacre and its current onslaught -- parallels that, if Israel and the U.S. heeded them, would lead them to understand that the Gaza campaign is both morally appalling and politically self-destructive. Israelis justifiably regard their leaders' role in enabling the Sabra and Shatilla massacre as one of Israel's darkest moments, a permanent stain on its character. Of course, Israel's moral culpability for the 1982 massacre is not the same as its moral responsibility for the civilians killed in the current war. But there are painful similarities. Sooner or later the patriotic war fervor will fade, and Israelis will realize that their leaders sent them to kill hundreds of innocent people for nothing. And perhaps in 2036, some haunted filmmaker will release "Waltz With Hamas."

It is not necessary to have any special knowledge of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, or Israel's 1982 Lebanon war to which it was a grisly coda, to appreciate Folman's groundbreaking film. But some historical context is necessary in order to grasp the parallels between what happened in Beirut 28 years ago and what is happening today in Gaza. Then as now, Israel went to war in the deluded belief that it could defeat a nationalist movement by smashing it into submission. Then as now, America signed off on this wrongheaded tactic. Then as now, Israel won a short-term tactical military victory that ultimately weakened its security and severely damaged America's interests. And then as now, both Israel and America justified massive civilian casualties by incessantly invoking "terrorism" and dehumanizing the Palestinians.

In 1982, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to put an end to Israel's Palestinian problem once and for all. Hamas did not yet exist: Back then Israel's terrorist archenemy, the fountainhead of evil, was Yasser Arafat's PLO. The two hard-line leaders believed that by inflicting a decisive military defeat on the PLO in Lebanon, they would force the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to abandon their nationalist aspirations and agree to peace on Israeli terms. Using an attack by non-PLO Palestinian extremists on the Israeli ambassador in London as a pretext, Israel launched airstrikes against Lebanon. When PLO forces in Lebanon responded by shelling the Galilee in northern Israel, Sharon and Begin persuaded the Israeli Cabinet to approve a ground invasion of Lebanon. In words that almost exactly recall the language that Israel and its U.S. supporters have used to justify Israel's onslaught on Gaza, Begin said that unless Israel went to war, it would have to accept "the ceaseless killings of our civilians ... seeing our civilians injured in Metulla or Qiryat Shmona or Nahariya."

"Operation Peace for Galilee," which Sharon initially claimed was going to be a limited and short military operation, quickly became a full-blown war. While the Israel Air Force blasted Lebanon from the air, gutting the ancient cities of Sidon and Tyre, its army drove all the way to Beirut. Just as in the current Gaza assault, the vast majority of Israelis approved the war and Begin and Sharon's popularity soared. Formally abandoning its original limited objective of merely pushing the PLO out of artillery range of Israeli cities, Israel now announced two broad goals: to install a friendly Christian-dominated government in Lebanon and to eliminate the PLO. Just as some Israeli leaders today talk of destroying Hamas and permanently changing the political landscape in Gaza, so did Sharon tell U.S. Secretary of State Al Haig that the war would "redraw Lebanon's domestic politics in favor of the Christian Phalangists." Israeli spokesmen claimed that the war would actually benefit the Lebanese people, who were suffering because of the Palestinian state-within-a-state. In similar fashion, Washington and Tel Aviv today are claiming that Israel's assault on Gaza is in the Palestinian people's best interests.

Subjecting Beirut to a brutal seven-week siege in which it engaged in high-altitude bombing of Palestinian neighborhoods and refugee camps (bombings that inevitably killed thousands of civilians and enraged a Yemen-born radical named Osama bin Laden), and cut off water and electricity to them, Israel finally succeeded in forcing the PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat, out of Lebanon.

Having achieved its military goals, Israel pursued its political ones. It connived with the Phalange, the militant Lebanese Christian political movement, to install its leader, Bashir Gemayel, as Lebanese president. Gemayel and the Phalange were sworn enemies of the Palestinians, whom they blamed for ruining their country and upsetting the old Lebanese political order in which Maronite Christians dominated. Gemayel had called for the destruction of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps and the forced deportation of up to 200,000 Palestinian civilians. In a secret meeting with Begin, Gemayel promised to restore good relations with Israel. But nine days before Gemayel was to take office, on Sept. 14, a huge bomb, probably planted by Syrian agents, killed him. Burning with murderous rage, Phalangist militiamen thirsted to take revenge against the Palestinians, whom they blamed for the assassination.

The stage was now set for horror. But it is critical to understand that before the Gemayel killing, Sharon and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, had warned that after the PLO evacuation from Beirut, large numbers of Palestinian "terrorists" would be left behind and would have to be hunted down. Sharon claimed that the PLO had left more than 2,000 heavily armed fighters hiding among the tens of thousands of civilians in the Sabra and Shatilla camps. (Sharon's estimate of the number of fighters who remained in Lebanon was wildly exaggerated.) According to Israel's Kahan Commission report, which the Israeli government, to its credit, commissioned to investigate Israel's role in the massacre, Sharon and other top brass had decided to use the Phalange to clean out the camps, in part because of "their skills in identifying terrorists" and in part because the Israeli public was insisting that the Phalange, which had benefited from Israel's invasion, needed to do its share of the fighting.

On the evening of Sept. 14, after Gemayel's assassination, knowing full well just how enraged and bloodthirsty the Phalangists were, Sharon and Eitan decided to send them into the camps. Israeli troops moved into West Beirut, the Palestinian area, where they surrounded and closed off the camps. At about 6 p.m. on Sept. 14, 150 Phalangist soldiers entered the camps, which were lit by mortar flares fired by Israeli troops.

Almost immediately, there were reports that a massacre had begun. According to the Kahan report, an Israeli officer overheard Phalange's chief intelligence officer, Elie Hobeika, telling a Phalange soldier, "You know exactly what to do" with a group of 50 women and children. On hearing this, the Phalangists on the roof broke out into "raucous laughter." The IDF officer understood that Hobeika was calling for the women and children to be killed. The Israeli officer reported what he had heard to his superior, but no action was taken. Also according to the Kahan report, a battalion commander said of the reported massacre, "We know it's not to our liking, and don't interfere." And in an event described in "Waltz With Bashir," Israeli TV journalist Ron Ben-Yishai telephoned a sleepy Sharon himself on the night of the 17th to tell him that there were credible reports of a massacre taking place. Sharon thanked him for the information and did nothing; in the film, Ben-Yishai says that Sharon apparently went back to sleep.

The slaughter went on under the IDF's nose for more than two days. Even by the gruesome standards of intra-Lebanese conflict, it was horrific. Live grenades were hung around people's necks, a baby was trampled to death with spiked boots, pregnant women's fetuses were torn out, other women were raped and had their fingers chopped off before being killed. When it was over, between 700 and 3,500 civilians (figures differ and the actual number will never be known) lay dead.

The Kahan Commission found that a number of top Israeli officials, including Sharon and Eitan, were "indirectly" responsible for the massacre. While denying that there was any evidence that these officials had planned the mass killings, the commission found that they "could and should have prevented the commission of those deeds" and that they should have known that a massacre in the camps was probable. Sharon was singled out as bearing a "personal responsibility" for the events at Sabra and Shatilla, and the report called for him either to resign or to be dismissed. However, Sharon refused to resign, and Begin decided not to fire his formidable rival. In a compromise move, Sharon gave up the defense portfolio but remained in the Cabinet. After serving in various posts, he was elected prime minister in 2000. His hard-line policies toward the Palestinians met with the wholehearted approval of President George W. Bush, who called him a "man of peace."

There are two parallels between the 1982 Lebanon war and the 2008 Gaza war. Both wars ended up harming Israel, and both were morally unjustifiable.

The Lebanon war was a military victory but a political disaster for Israel. The PLO was driven out but not defeated. Palestinian nationalism only grew stronger, and the Islamist Hamas party, far more unyielding and rejectionist than the PLO, took root in the occupied territories. In Lebanon, the war gave birth to Hezbollah, destabilized the country, strengthened Syria's hand, and provided Iran with a strategic partner on Israel's northern border. Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah, hailed by Condoleezza Rice as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," devastated Lebanon and only further strengthened Hezbollah.

Israel's current war in Gaza will have the same effect. Most analysts agree that attacking radical movements in the Middle East, without trying to address their grievances, only strengthens them. The only way to make lasting peace is through a political settlement.

Then there are the moral parallels. In response to the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, an astonishing 400,000 Israelis -- almost 10 percent of the country's population -- attended a rally in Tel Aviv to express their outrage and demand that those who were partly responsible for it be punished. Yet today, as Israel carries out an unrelenting assault on an enclosed area packed with civilians, the Israeli public is largely silent.

Of course, I am not asserting that what Israel is doing in Gaza is morally equivalent to what the Phalange did in Sabra and Shatilla. Intentionally massacring women and children is not the same as dropping bombs and firing shells into one of the most densely populated areas in the world, even if the resulting civilian death tolls are similar. But there is some equivalence between its moral culpability now and its leaders' moral culpability in enabling the Phalange atrocity in 1982.

Defenders of the current war argue that Israel is targeting Hamas, not Palestinian civilians, and that the hundreds of civilian casualties are merely regrettable collateral damage, of the sort that occurs in all wars. But that analysis glosses over the peculiar nature of this conflict.

Contrary to its official propaganda, Israel did not undertake this war to end "intolerable" rocket fire from Gaza. Such attacks have been going on for years, and both sides know they will intermittently continue as long as there is no political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Like other Palestinian acts of violence directed indiscriminately at Israeli civilians, they are immoral and unjustifiable -- as is, of course, the de facto Israeli occupation to which they are a response -- but they pose no real threat to Israel.

So why did Israel attack Gaza? Supporters of the invasion paint the war as a fight to the death against an evil enemy, part of the "global war on terror." But the truth is that Israel is too smart to want to destroy Hamas: If it were to do so, it would be creating a mini-Somalia on its border, a lawless territory where Qaida-like groups would flourish. Rather, as the Israeli analyst Aluf Benn points out, Israel went to war simply to set back Hamas, to postpone its ability to strike at Israel. Benn notes that Israel has reconciled itself to the fact that Hamas will run Gaza: "In fact, Israel is accepting -- however grudgingly -- the Hamas idea of long-term truce." For Israel, in short, the Gaza war has extremely limited strategic aims: Buy a little time, restore the "deterrent capability" that was damaged in the 2006 Lebanon war, and play to a hawkish population in the run-up to an election.

Israel knew in advance that by launching an aerial and artillery assault on one of the most densely populated areas of the world, it would inflict enormous "collateral damage," to use the Orwellian phrase. Just as it was predictable that the Phalange would slaughter everyone in the camps, so it was predictable that attacking Hamas in Gaza would kill hundreds of innocent civilians. As the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy pointed out, the Gaza war is "maybe the only war in history against a strip of land enclosed by a fence."

The very modesty of Israel's goals makes the war's civilian casualties morally unacceptable. In certain situations, one might justify military actions that are certain to kill large numbers of civilians. The Allies' "strategic bombing" of Germany in World War II, for example, killed tens of thousands of civilians, but one could argue that the air assault was justifiable because it shortened the war and played a decisive role in defeating the Nazis. But that justification does not apply in this situation.

In 2002, Israel assassinated Salah Shehadeh, the leader of Hamas' military wing, by dropping a bomb on his house in Gaza City. The bomb killed 17 people, including his wife and nine children. In response to protests by Israeli peace groups that the attack was immoral and illegal, the State Prosecution agreed to establish an independent commission to investigate the decision to drop the bomb. The investigation went nowhere, but at least the Israeli government showed that it was aware that such actions are morally objectionable.

What a difference six years make. The current Gaza operation is a repeat of the Shehadeh assassination, exponentially multiplied. Yet Israel and America -- which is equally guilty of extrajudicial assassinations in which civilians are killed -- are silent.

All wars are dirty, and Hamas -- which employs terrorism and is willing to pay with Palestinian blood to remain in power -- most emphatically does not have clean hands. But the Israeli onslaught against Hamas has reduced Israel to the same level as its enemies. Today, Israel and America are applauding the war. But as "Waltz With Bashir" painfully demonstrates, today's glorious victories can become nightmares that haunts individuals and nations for decades. One can only pray that it does not take too long for leaders on all sides to realize that all this blood, Palestinian and Israeli, has been spilled for nothing and move to make a lasting peace.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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