One might ask: of all the horrors perpetrated by the IDF in Gaza, why davka, display this image?
In my grad school days I pursued a PhD in Hebrew literature. One of the most powerful literary evocations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in the writing of S. Yizhar. I even prepared a translation of his novella Hirbet Hiza–(recently published in English and featured here) about the decimation of an Arab village during the 1948 war–I loved the work so.
One of the hallmarks of Yizhar’s writing was an affinity for portraying the small-talk, ennui and cruelty of the Israeli soldier pulling duty in villages like this one. One of the more compelling portrayals is a story of a soldier killing an Arab donkey for sport. What shocks is the petty cruelty and depravity of the act; the studied detachment of the soldier showering it with bullets and watching its death throes; the relief from boredom it provides. When you’re raised on the concept of tohar neshek, it is revelatory to read such characterizations of Israeli brutality harkening to the beginnings of the State:
“Whadya say about those doneys and their incredible vitality,” the [radio] operator said.
“What are you talking about, said Shmulik.
“Yesterday I pumped three bullets into one and it didn’t die.”
“Where’d you hit it?”
“One in the neck. Another here in the head just beneath the ear and the third next to the eye.”
“It didn’t die, it just went on walking.”
“Come off it. That’s impossible.”
“I swear. Yesterday, right by the camp. I’d just gone to check the equipment. I saw it wandering around by the fence. I just blasted it right away.”
“At what range?”
“Up close. No more than ten yards or more.”
“And it didn’t die?”
“No way. It just went right on walking. And then it dropped.”
“When it got hit in the neck it lifted its head and looked. Blood was already spurting out of it like a faucet. So what does this donkey do, it goes on munching grass. I got it below the ear, but it gave a start but went on standing there, looking. That was too much already. I shot it in the eye at closer range and it took a few steps farther in the grass and then really slowly, lazily, it dropped and sprawled over. What incredible vitality!”
“…It’s the bones they have, like iron.”
“…Once I shot a donkey from behind and it dropped right away. This great balloon came out of its behind, and it pushed its head into the sand and fell over.
—Khirbet Khizeh, pp. 19-20
The donkey is the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine in this passage. A soldier who can shoot a villager’s donkey as if he was kicking a stone in the road will treat the villager himself no better. This soldier’s coarseness highlights the moral debasement of the Zionist ethos brought on by the War of Independence. It is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” writ small. After reading Hirbet Hizeh one can no longer be starry-eyed and idealistic about the IDF or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So I immediately grasped the significance of this N.Y. Times image. The IDF soldier who killed this poor beast was taking target practice. He killed an animal crucial to the livelihood of its Gazan owner. And he did it for sport; for the relief from boredom it provided.
There are more profound indictments of the Gaza war to be found. But this one, for all its everydayness, captures well the brutality and hopelessness of Israel’s mad adventure in Gaza. It also brings to mind Lear’s comment:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for sport
So are the Palestinians and their domestic animals sport for the IDF. This is what the Occupation does to the Israeli soul. It kills it in the most mundane of ways.
The other images in Tyler Hicks photo essay on the suffering of El Atatra are equalling compelling. No question, he deserves a Pulitzer.
A big thank you to reader Eurosabra who provided the page numbers and to the Bellevue branch of the King County Library which provided the scans of the pages. This is the wonder of the internet age: an Israeli living in Europe tells me the page numbers I’m looking for in the source text and a reference librarian scans the pages and e mails them to me–all without leaving my desk. Pretty cool.