WHEN I sat down to think about writing this essay, a word crept from the dark recesses of my brain and into my mind. “Trapsoetjies”.
I had an idea that it was Afrikaans for “chameleon” but I thought of it as a verb; to “trap soetjies”. To walk gently.
Very briefly, there are words in the Afrikaans language that just do not work well enough in English. Recently I described a former partner as “beeldskoon”. Seriously, “beautiful” is just not good enough. But let me turn to more serious things and trap soetjies…
There have been repeated calls for a ceasefire since two months into the latest phase of a war that, I believe, started when Europeans arrived in Palestine with what Philip Rahv described as “Jewish terrorists in Palestine” in December 1946. Treading gently, those were his words, not my own.
In his review of Arthur Koestler’s Thieves in the Night, Rahv, born in 1908 into a Jewish family in Ukraine, wrote about “a danger inherent in all political action, the danger of the means swallowing the ends … Koestler commits himself to Jewish action in Palestine despite his recognition of this danger … Koestler differs from the Zionists in making it quite clear that the Arabs have a strong case in Palestine, which is not to be refuted by listing the benefits of Jewish colonisation. But the Jews cannot afford the luxury of objectivity — ‘a race which remains objective when its life is at stake will lose it’.”
The way I understand it, that is part of the “origins” or the “start” of the war between Israel and the Palestinians. Returning to the calls for a ceasefire, as one of two topics for discussion, and still treading gently in this world where wrong is right, right is wrong, war is peace and peace is whatever the US and its allies say it is.
How many deaths are tolerable?
A former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, famously justified her country’s sanctions, subsequent war and the deaths of Iraqis when she was asked by Lesley Stahl of CBS’s 60 Minutes: “We have heard that half a million [Iraqi] children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima … And, you know, is the price worth it?”
“I think that is a very hard choice,” Albright replied, “but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”
She said an actual number of deaths was a price worth paying. Put differently, you kill until you reach a price worth paying. (As a pacifist my personal view should be clear, but it really does not matter here.) The question to put to those calling for a ceasefire is this: are you satisfied, now, that the killing has reached a threshold where “the price is worth it"? Because other than the actual battles raging across the region, a ceasefire may not change beliefs or values.
Since the late 1940s, Israel has had total control over Palestinian lands and communities. The country's political and military leaders have been drawn from European settlers and their offspring. It is they who are striving to “flatten” Gaza and the West Bank and remove all non-Jews, those non-Jews referred to by Israeli pop singer Narkis.
I have written about Hamas’s objectives in several places, and of Iran’s wish to see the end of the Israeli state — because of the wars against Palestinians. See here, for an example. This is a discussion about when a military-strategic objective of a dominant state (Israel) is or should be reached. The argument is made that stopping the bombs (in this phase of the war) will not stop the war when there is a prevailing belief of spiritual righteousness on the part of Israel, backed by the military might of the US and the West.
A social media platform recently deleted video clips I placed online about young Israelis (children) who said more Arabs should be killed. While social media texts should almost always be treated with serious scepticism, there are video clips about Israelis spitting at Christians, of soldiers desecrating mosques and destroying churches. Another video clip is of Narkis receiving great applause as she sings “we’re finishing off Gaza” and “we are a light onto non-Jews”.
This apparent readiness to “finish off” is echoed across Israeli society. Eliyahu Yossian, who is associated with the Israeli intelligence community, has spoken about a “flattening” of Palestinian communities. “The woman there is an enemy, the baby there is an enemy and the first grader is an enemy”. The child eating a chocolate bar today will learn one day to use an AK-47, Yossian has said.
This is a reminder, again, of the way the US approaches its wars. On October 7, 2002, then president George W Bush said the US should not wait for a “smoking gun” or “a mushroom cloud” before going to war. He quoted former president John F Kennedy who said, in October 1962: “We no longer live in a world … where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril.”
Kill before today’s chocolate bar becomes tomorrow’s AK-47.
Gaza ‘should look like Auschwitz’
The leader of the local council in the northern Israeli town of Metula, David Azoulai, has said Israel should make Gaza “look like Auschwitz” (I tread carefully). The Jerusalem Post reported this in the following manner: after the Palestinian attacks of 7 October, Azoulai said “instead of urging people [Palestinians] to go south, we should direct them to the beaches. The navy can transport them to the shores of Lebanon, where there are already sufficient refugee camps. Then, a security strip should be established from the sea to the Gaza border fence, completely empty, as a reminder of what was once there. It should resemble the Auschwitz concentration camp."
The key here is to remember that Azoulai is not in the Israeli government, the Israeli Defence Forces or the intelligence community. He is an ordinary person who happens to be on a local council. Narkis is a musician and the people on the videos that were censored on social media were children, and they all expressed a type of the “cultural ruthlessness” that became part of “the war on terror”.
To paraphrase Philip Caputo on the Vietnam war, every day on social media we see images of Israeli soldiers killing and destroying without any moral conscience. In such a “wilderness” there are no reference points that soldiers usually find familiar, no police, no laws and no schools, hospitals or churches. “Out there, lacking restraints, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country and a relentless enemy, we [the US] sank into a brutish state.” (See Philip Caputo, A Rumour of War, pages 25-27.)
It is this brutality towards Arabs, Palestinians and “non-Jews” in general (who in their right mind would reference Auschwitz as a model for destroying a people?) that a ceasefire will not change.
The Israeli remark that stands out as a definitive response to all things non-Israeli was when an Indian TV anchor, Mirror Now executive editor Shreya Dhoundial, wore what she explained was her grandmother’s heirloom green and red sari. She was told by her Israeli guest, Frederic Landau, that she should save it for another occasion. “Blue and white will always prevail,” he said.
Engulfed in militarism, killing, death, dying, secrets, lies and propaganda, in some respects war is terribly complex, and some wars carry greater symbolism than others. Since the colours green and red are so terrifying to an Israeli, I was reminded of the way the colour green carried terrifying symbolism to US veterans of the war on the Vietnamese.
“Green in Vietnam was like the all-consuming whiteness of Moby Dick. It came to symbolise everything that was inscrutable and therefore hateful.” (See Donald Ringnalda’s Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War, page 52.)
Writing about the literature on the Holocaust of World War 2, Irving Howe wrote: “The canniest of the writers keep a distance. They know that their subject cannot be met full-face. It must be taken on a tangent, with extreme wariness, through strategies of indirection and circuitous narratives that leave untouched the central horror…”
More than a decade ago, a student rose at the end of a semester and said: you have laid out all these theories, examples, evidence, ideas… can you tell us what you personally actually think? I don’t remember the precise wording but the 120 students over four classes wanted to know my opinion on things as diverse as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the Taliban and the US wars on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. I did not share my opinions, or “what I really think or feel”. Here, I have not said what I think about the war on the Palestinians that, I believe, started with the arrival of Europeans many decades ago. Suffice to say that the Israelis (Landau’s blue and white) will prevail.
The question remains: when will enough killing be enough? My belief is that it will end when there are no more Palestinians left to kill. Some calls for a ceasefire are no more than performative or posturing. This war should never have been allowed to start in the first place.
♦ VWB ♦
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.