Confronted with the human toll of their frequent incursions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli officials respond with a familiar, canned refrain: Israel does everything in its power to minimize civilian deaths, and only pursues military campaigns that are consistent with its security needs. Journalist Max Blumenthal’s subversive new book, The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, a chronicle of Israel’s invasion of Gaza last summer, makes both of these claims difficult to swallow.
Blumenthal was one of a few Western journalists able to travel to Gaza during the fighting, and he attempts to show us, in part through the stories of Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and in part through his own political deconstruction, what happened to Israeli and Palestinian societies during Operation Protective Edge.
The discrepancy between appearances and reality, intentions and outcomes is a frequent theme in The 51 Day War. Blumenthal speaks with Israeli soldiers who say their directives to target civilians and level entire towns directly contradict the Israeli administration’s stated intentions, and with Gazan families who suffered the consequences of that devastation. He argues these are not isolated or extreme episodes, but parts of a systematic strategy of collective punishment known within the Israeli defense community as “mowing the lawn.”
The prose reads like Blumenthal composed it in one furious sitting, as if to document the horrors before they could be erased by the forces of official spin. We meet an ordinary Arab-Israeli family with sons murdered by Jewish nationalists, a medical worker who pleaded with the Israeli army not to bomb a hospital while wounded patients recovered inside, Palestinian youth who never had considered joining the armed resistance until they saw their worlds destroyed during Operation Protective Edge. These narratives challenge those who may have difficulty understanding what motivates would-be ordinary teenagers to take up arms against Israel.
The Israel that Blumenthal depicts, like in his earlier book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, is unmitigatedly ugly and hateful; it isn’t the Israel that many in his audience, including this writer, may be familiar with. He attempts to minimize the role of Hamas in escalating conflict and imperiling its own people. He applies a dishonest double standard to Israeli and Palestinian leadership, arguing that the Israeli regime should be accountable for provoking isolated acts of violence against Arab citizens, but that Hamas isn’t responsible for attacks carried out by private actors.
Blumenthal points out that Hamas’ al-Qassam brigades operate in one of the most densely populated places on Earth, making it difficult to avoid endangering civilians in their campaigns, but doesn’t extend that same latitude to Israeli forces. It’s difficult not to be suspicious of a voice that understands the Middle East in such tendentious, uncomplicated terms.
Blumenthal does himself no favors by refusing to engage sympathetically with Israeli society. The main value of his work is in his urgent willingness to speak truth to power and to make inerasable the injustices committed by Israel, not in his political analysis. Yet his sometimes specious ideological arguments tarnish his credibility to sympathetic readers.
Still, to write off The 51 Day War for lacking nuance would miss his point. Blumenthal knows his account isn’t balanced. He doesn’t care about Israeli national goals, or about how Israelis conceive of themselves and the threats they perceive around them. Doing so would distract from the structural power disparity between Israelis and Palestinians and the disproportionate scale of violence it produced last summer: More than 2,000 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians, compared with fewer than 100 Israelis.
The 51 Day War isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be, an evenhanded account of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and it shouldn’t be anyone’s introduction to the intractable, existential struggles both peoples face. But it’s one that all lovers of the Jewish state, especially those who defend its violence against the Palestinian people, should be willing to engage and contend with.
Contact Marina Bolotnikova at: email@example.com or 419-724-6522.
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