WESTERN hawks of a certain stripe seldom miss an opportunity to pounce upon anyone who has the temerity to suggest that the upsurge in Islamist terrorism over the past decade or so may bear some relation to policies followed by the United States and its allies in the international arena. "You cannot," they screech, "blame the victims."
The confected rage is intended to pre-empt too much pondering about the possible causes of deadly fanaticism. Mention motives and you are accused of seeking to justify terrorism. One consequence of this compulsory incuriosity is that efforts to combat the phenomenon exclusively target its symptoms, in the process increasing the likelihood of asymmetrical retaliatory violence.
Israel is among the leading purveyors of this approach and it has managed, in the context of its latest military assault, not only to blame the victims but to get any number of other governments, from Cairo to Washington, to buy into its narrative (although not much effort is required in the case of the US, where among the political class as well as the mainstream media, the default response to Israeli excesses is unequivocal support).
Last year Israel set up a National Information Directorate, which, according to a report in The Guardian, "acts across ministries and decides key messages on a daily basis. Of its core messages for the media, there has been advice that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreements with Israel; that Israel's objective is the defence of its population; and that Hamas is a terror organisation targeting Israeli civilians."
It quotes a military spokesman as saying, "Quite a few outlets are very favourable to Israel, namely by showing [it] suffering .... I am sure it is a result of the new co-ordination." The same report informs us: "An Israeli foreign ministry assessment of eight hours of coverage across international broadcast media reported that Israeli representatives got 58 minutes of airtime while the Palestinians got only 19 minutes."
Now that might strike some people as disproportionate, but use of this word is frowned upon by devotees of Israel, who have been peppering the western press with complaints because the term has cropped up frequently in comments on Gaza. That shouldn't be surprising, given that since the attack began on the sabbath following Christmas Day, hundreds of Palestinian lives have been lost.
In the same period, rockets fired by Hamas or Islamic Jihad had, at the time of writing, claimed six lives: four Israelis (including two Arab-Israelis) and two young Palestinian sisters. In eight years, these crude weapons have killed 20 Israelis. Their deployment is undoubtedly a crime against humanity and the attackers are likely to have found cause for pride in a bigger death toll. But how can anyone deny, at the same time, that Israel has effectively written the textbook on disproportionateness? We don't play the numbers game, Israeli spokesmen solemnly intone, and the mantra is faithfully echoed by the White House and the State Department.
Israel's success in controlling the narrative can be gauged from the international media's focus on "civilian" casualties, the unstated implication being that all other victims are fair game. No effort is made to question the definition of the term. Evidently, anyone associated with the Hamas administration in any capacity - from policemen to municipal officers and, who knows, perhaps even anyone who voted for Hamas - is deemed a non-civilian. Among the first 400 dead there was only one prominent Hamas leader: Nizar Rayyan, described by the BBC as "a vitriolic cleric who had called for suicide attacks on Israel". He was by most accounts a singularly unpleasant character, but surely that ought not to have robbed him of the right to a trial, let alone led to a death sentence for his wives, children and neighbours - in what was, mind you, a "precision" strike.
The Gaza Strip assault is widely viewed as a savvy electioneering move for foreign minister Tzipi Livni and defence minister Ehud Barak. Israelis go to the polls on February 10 and are expected to repeat the disastrous mistake of electing Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu as their prime minister. The government of Ehud Olmert evidently wished to make it clear that voters should not underestimate the viciousness of a Kadima-Labour alliance.
A Ha'aretz poll last week revealed 52 percent support among Israelis for the air war but only 19 percent backing for a ground invasion, compared with 20 percent support for a ceasefire. It'll be interesting to see whether any of that changes after Israeli troops and tanks entered the Gaza Strip last Saturday, raising the prospect of many more atrocities. There have been antiwar demonstrations in various Israeli towns and cities, staged by Arab-Israelis as well as predominantly Jewish groups. Meanwhile, groups of anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews have participated in protests in the US and Europe.
The majority of Israelis, however, are unperturbed by the Orwellian tendencies of the governments they elect. Too many of them are willing to accept that war is peace. Groups such as Hamas are routinely accused of wishing to eliminate Israel; while there are elements among Palestinians who tend towards extremism of that sort, they are incapable of doing very much about it. Israelis who seek to eradicate Palestinians have much more lethal equipment at their disposal.
Big Brother's heirs would not like anyone to be reminded that once upon a time Israel encouraged Hamas as a counterweight to Yasser Arafat. It's aim of Palestinian disunity was achieved several years ago. Ariel Sharon's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was never intended as a step towards peace: it was a step towards consolidating control over the far more precious West Bank. The economic blockade of Gaza set up the piteous statelet for inevitable failure. Collective punishment is another term Israeli spokesmen don't like. After all, that was a Nazi tactic, wasn't it? But then, Joseph Goebbels would have been impressed by Israel's capacity for twisting the facts - not least by seeking to exclude from the present debate any mention of the occupation or the illegal West Bank settlements.
The one-sided Gaza war is presumably not a challenge Barack Obama particularly relishes. But he could turn it into an opportunity by throwing his full weight behind a settlement in the short term. As long as the occupation continues, there will be bloodshed. Ergo, it must end. It's a complex task but not an impossible one. The alternative is an open-ended cycle of terror in which the Israeli war machine and Islamist or nationalist militants are unequal participants, And in which ultimately everyone is a loser.