Friday, January 16, 2009

waltz with gaza

Arriving a few hours early for the NYU tax seminar I decided to take in "Waltz with Bashir," an animated film about the experience of Israeli soldiers in the First Lebanon War (beginning 1982). The tax seminar was lots of fun. Waltz With Bashir wasn't.

The film recounts the efforts of one middle-aged Israeli, who appears to be based on the director (Ari Folman) himself, to reconstruct his memories of the war, and especially the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila, which was conducted by Lebanese Phalange but (the film suggests) condoned if not encouraged by the Israelis themselves. Using the animation device as a tool to mediate between reality and memory--we are never entirely sure what actually happened and what the protagonist and his comrades remember happening--the film demolishes every conceivable myth regarding modern war and the Israeli state's conduct of it. Soldiers are shown firing on civilian targets and (even worse, in Israel) abandoning comrades under enemy fire. A soldier returns on furlough to find the country indifferent to the war and enjoying foreign music. An Israeli tells the Phalange, in English, to stop shooting civilians, but with the clear implication he could have done so sooner. Then Defense Minsiter Ariel Sharon is depicted--inaccurately, I believe--enjoying a meal at his ranch while the fighting escalates.

Some have seen Waltz With Bashir as an anti-Israel film and feared that it will contribute to still more criticism of the Gaza War. (Folman is an avowed peacenik and has been strongly critical of the current offensive.) I tend to see it as a comment on broader issues of war and memory that transcend national boundaries. There is no implication in the film that other armies behave any better than Israelis, and no idealization of the other side except perhaps the faceless victims of the Shabra/Shatila atrocity. Indeed, in a memorable scene, Arab irregulars are seen laughing, singing, and (in one case) urinating after they believe they have wiped out an Israeli unit, not noticing a lone soldier who survives by hiding behind a rock.

That said, the movie inevitably brings to mind the suffering in Gaza, where pictures of dead or bleeding civilians (many of them children) have become regular staples of evening newscasts. Some Israelis, notably Gideon Levy of Ha'aretz, have made this comparison explicit, even suggesting that Gaza--because of the direct as opposed to indirect Israeli role--is worse than the Lebanon invasion. Yet there are important differences in the opposite direction. Israelis ultimately turned against the First Lebanon War because they saw it as an imperial adventure not directly related to Israeli security. The Gaza invasion, by contrast, was a direct response to Hamas's renunciation of a cease fire and firing of rockets at Israeli civilian targets. Nor have the critics made clear how one should fight a war against an enemy which intentionally subjects its civilian population to danger. As one Israeli commander put it, pointing to a series of booby-trapped houses, the choice was my soldiers or their buildings: look around and you'll see what choice I made.

My own view is that the war in Gaza demonstrates the futility of both extremes. Neither the peaceniks, who seem to believe that withdrawal from more territory will solve everything, nor the hard-liners, with their talk of "lessons" that often prove the opposite of what was intended, appear to have much of an answer. The real lesson, I think, is that efforts to forge an immediate solution--by more withdrawals or more force-- are likely to make things worse, and that only a gradual peace process, most likely involving outside intervention and organic changes in both the Israeli and Palestinian polities, has a serious chance of success. I'll come back to this as soon as the shooting stops.


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