The Memory of Fifty Seven Seconds: After Watching an Israeli Missile Strike in the Gaza Strip on Al-Jazeera

A short fragment of video, fifty seven seconds long, taken from behind a window in a building in the Gaza Strip which was aired last night on Al Jazeera television brought home (once again) the sheer horror of the Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF) brutal, ongoing offensive against the people of Palestine with devastating clarity.

As I write, this offensive, ostensibly aimed at delivering what the warlord Benjamin Netanyahu who is also the Israeli Prime Minister pompously called  ‘revenge’ for the truly regrettable and unfortunate killing of one Israeli-American and two Israeli- teenagers in the illegally occupied West Bank territory (which resulted in the reprisal killing of a Palestinian teenager, and the serious wounding of his cousin, a Palestinian American, also in the West Bank) has claimed more than a hundred and twenty  Palestinian lives in the Gaza strip, including that of several children. The State of Israel has said that it is in no mood to halt the assault, and it has said it does not care for international political pressure (which in any case has not been forthcoming). More missile attacks are expected. More buildings will bury more children in their debris in Gaza. More flimsy rockets fired by foolhardy Palestinian militia members aligned or competing with Hamas who mistakenly believe that the masquerade of amateur pyrotechnics can liberate an imprisoned population will fly and land in barren patches of land.  Death is hard at work in Gaza.

During last evening’s broadcast, Al Jazeera also showed the result of the aftermath of the bombing of a centre for the care of disabled people. Amongst the wreckage were mutilated wheelchairs. A mutilated wheelchair is in some ways even more horrifying than the spectacle of a maimed body. It shows us that the oppressor’s evil can destroy even the things that provide succor to maimed and injured bodies. This war, like all wars, does not simply destroy life, it aims to destroy the conditions that make life possible. The extent of that destruction is the lethal measure of the IDF’s  efficiency.

As I write, as of now, not a single Israeli life has been lost so far since the IDF’s offensive began due to the rockets fired in the direction of Israel, either by Hamas, Hamas affiliated militant groups, or other militant groups operating in Gaza, or by any attacks originating in the West Bank.

The sheer disproportionate nature of the violence unleashed by a military superpower like the Stae of Israel on a captive population in the Gaza strip makes any effort at drawing an equivalence between the violence of the colonizer with the resistance of those who are in this case the effectively colonized an obscenity. The leaders of the United States, Britain and France, who have sought to create and maintain this equivalence, and have spoken of Israel’s right to ‘self defense’ are guilty of reproducing this obscenity. A narrative that seeks to offer a rationalizing ‘nuance’ for the accounting of the Israeli state’s attack in retaliation to the resistance offered by a besieged population that the same state has driven from their own land and homes is a travesty of truth. No one, not even Israeli citizens more committed to the truth than to the myth spun by their rulers are under any illusion (unlike Obama, Cameron and Hollande) about the moral equivalence of Israeli ‘defense’ and Palestininan ‘resistance’.

You did not have to be in Gaza, or in Khan Younis, or anywhere within hailing distance of an Israeli missile to be shaken by the experience of watching the fragment of footage that I began by recalling. Anyone who watched that footage on television, wherever they were, in New York, Sydney, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Srinagar or Tel Aviv could have found it just as disturbing, as I did, sitting in New Delhi, if they paid attention. For fifty seven seconds, its was as if your were  standing next those who stood by that window in Gaza, listening to their voices witnessing the instants leading up to a carnage.

(No, it wasn’t, because watching this happen from the safety of a living room thousands of miles away is nowhere near watching it in a place where the horrible whistle of the next missile, in the next few minutes, or hours, or days, could tear a hole through the roof over your head and evaporate you, or the person standing next to you. It is nowhere near watching this take place on television, but it does mean that watching it unfold on television, or on a computer screen, also means that we are all, wherever we are, implicated in this war, either as standing shoulder to shoulder with the people by that Gaza window, or as complicit in the view available to those in the command and control centers from where the orders to let the missiles fly are issued.)

What the footage was in fact was an illustration of a measure that the IDF is normally at pains to publicize as proof of its ‘ethical conduct of war’. The video showed, a ‘rooftop knock’, a drone delivered projectile supposed to act as a ‘warning’ sign to the occupants of a building that the site was about to be bombed. On the video, (which is taken from behind a window) we see several rooftops, a projectile lands on a roof with a puff of grey dust, and a sharp sound, the people behind the camera are shaken, they know it is a warning. They wonder if the inhabitants of the building that has been ‘knocked’, know it too. They speak of whether or not they will be able to get the ‘father’, in the targeted building, presumably, someone aged, perhaps infirm, out to safety in time. The time code (in the Al Jazeera broadcast) on the top right hand corner keeps ticking, and exactly as it reaches the fifty seventh second, even as the voices of the horrified witnesses rise to urge the inhabitants to ‘leave’, ‘leave’, ‘leave’, out of the blue, a missile strikes. A massive pillar of smoke rises, the building is flattened. And then, there is a calling out to the mercy of a  mute, unresponsive God.

What can you do in fifty seven seconds ? What else can you do?

Human memory works in two, actually three, kinds of ways, depending on whether it is working on a short term or a long term basis, or on an immediately sensory level. The ‘short term/long term + sensory memory’ triad was first proposed by the psychologist Richard Atkinson and the cognitive scientist Richard Shiffrin in the course of their investigations into the cognitive psychology of human memory in 1968.

Sensory memory, the most immediate of faculties, is itself divided into iconic (visual) and echoic (aural) memory processes. You need to remember that you have seen or heard something before you can recall what it is that you have seen or heard. Atkinson and Shiffrin concluded (based on their research into the way the human body responded to visual and aural stimuli which in turn are dependent on the different speeds of light and sound) that the registration of discrete iconic inputs as they arrive takes about 0.5 to 1 second, and that of aural inputs can take up to about 4 – 5 seconds.

Short term memory, which results from the complex processing of different sensory outputs and recall, can take up to 7 seconds per discrete item of information that is being retrieved. So, in a moment of crisis, one may recall, “Shoes”, “Keys”, “Old Father”, “Old Father is not able to walk”, “Wife”/ “Husband”, “Pain”, “One Child”, “Another Child”, “This is the shortest way out of the house”, in ten discrete seven second bursts. That adds up to  70 seconds. Add to this the fact that it may take up to 5 seconds for the ‘knock’ to register as a sound, and then another 7 seconds for the ‘knock’ to be processed in short term memory as a sign of an impending missile strike to realize that it would have taken up to a minimum of 82 (70 + 5 + 7) seconds for a member of the family ‘warned’ by the !DF that their house was about to be flattened. In this case, given that it took only 57 seconds for the real strike to occur after the warning ‘knock’ that would have been 25 seconds too many. The family in that house were just about 25 seconds short of realizing that they were on their way to death, before the 0.5 second long flash accompanying the missile strike that would kill them could be registered by their eyes. This is how efficient, the IDF’s ‘ethical conduct of war’ has become. One shaves seconds with the missile’s razor sharp trajectory even while giving the terrified enemy a hypothetical chance to save lives.

Those fifty seven seconds will be probably seared in my long term memory, available for recall at any moment,  just as the experience of waking up, as a fourteen year old in Delhi on the morning of the 19th of September, 1982 (two months before the opening of the Asian Games) to the headlines of the  massacre of around 3000 Palestinian inhabitants of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on the 17th and 18th of September by Lebanese Falangists under the watch of the Occupying Israeli army in the outskirts of Beirut has been imprinted indelibly in my memory. I can never forget the blurred duotone black and white on newsprint radio-photo image of bodies heaped, clothes askew, slippers, shoes, scarves scattered in the page of the newspaper on that morning. It made its way from my sensory, to my short term, to my forever long term, memory store as I walked to school. I have never forgotten that morning.

Elegy to My Tripped City - Large Format Painting Commemorating Sabra and Shatila by Dia El Azzawy, Collection of Tate Modern, London
Elegy to My Tripped City – Large Format Painting Commemorating Sabra and Shatila by Dia El Azzawy, Collection of Tate Modern, London

I remember clearly that on that day during assembly at school, (at Springdales School, Pusa Road, where Palestine and South Africa where never simply words thrown about as questions in a general knowledge quiz) our principal, Mrs. Rajni Kumar,  talked to us about Palestine, about Lebanon, about the fact that wars, and the massacre of innocent people are never distant events, that they are only far away. As far away as the next street corner, or as far away as a city by the azure Mediterranean. Because the world extends from the next street corner to the next continent and returns again to the next street corner. The world is never distant, only at times, far away.

Since that day, the question of Palestine, and the images and testimonies arising out of the dispossession and tragedy, the ‘Nakba’ of Palestinian people, coincident with the establishment of the State of Israel, have been something that I, (and no doubt countless others of my generation across the world) have had to wrestle with. I have had to wrestle with it regardless of whether I have been in Delhi, or, in the course of my recent travels have found myself in the streets of Tel Aviv/Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ramallah, Damascus, Srinagar, or Beirut.

I have been haunted by it in the eerily gentrified streets of Jaffa, the former bustling Arab port next to the settlement of Tel Aviv, while talking to Israeli and Palestinian friends disturbed by the nightmares of their conjoined histories. I have been haunted by it while listening to radical Palestinian, Israeli-Arab and Jewish-Israeli  town planners and architects aligned to an organization called Zochrot who have decided to work straightway to plan and prepare for what some might call the utopian prospect of creating hospitable conditions  for what they (the radical planners and architects) see as the eventually inevitable and welcome exercise of the ‘right to return’ of Palestinian refugees in the territory currently held by the state of Israel, even within its pre-1967 borders, regardless of whether or not they believe in a ‘one-state’ (one secular, democratic, state of jewish and arab citizens, that is expressly not the Jewish state of Israel), ‘two state’ (two neighboring peaceful states, Israel and Palestine, one for Jews, one for Arab-Palestinians) or even a ‘no state’ (anarchist) solution to the current crisis.

I have been haunted by it while talking to an erudite Palestinian exile tour guide in the shadow of the great Umayyad mosque in the now nearly desolate and forsaken city of Damascus who spoke to me of what it meant to make a living in a UNRWA refugee camp in Syria as a pawn in the elaborately cruel, long drawn out and cynical game played by the Assad regime in Syria in the name of pan-Arab solidarity for Palestine. And I have been haunted by it as recently as a week ago when I suddenly, and momentarily found myself at the fence that still separates the Sabra refugee camp from the now again glittering city of Beirut, where I had gone to talk with and listen to artist friends in Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanse Association of Plastic Arts). In the summer of 2014, as the missiles were just about to fly in the sky abutting the Mediterranean again, in Beirut, a city that seemed to simultaneously remember and forget what it is like to be shelled and besieged, I remembered the rainy school assembly of the 19th of September, 1982, and the first time I encountered the names ‘Sabra & Shatila’ all over again. That memory had never been distant, and suddenly, last week, in Beirut, what it recalled was not even far away. It was in front of me, on my way from Beirut to the beach in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre.

Those image of the abandoned bodies of men, women and children in the alleys of the refugee camps of Beirut have become ciphers in my memory. Sometimes they sear the memories of those I saw necklaced with burning rubber tyres two years later during the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984. Sometimes they appear in the interstices of the memory of the image of abandoned footwear on the Gawa Kadal bridge in Srinagar in the January of 1990, or in the wake of the memory of directy witnessing an Indian army company raze a house to the ground in a village not far from  Baramulla in the autumn of 2007. Sometimes, as while walking in the grounds of the  Majdanek concentration camp where thousands of captive Jews were executed by the Nazis within earshot of the neighboring Polish town of Lublin, they come, thick and fast, in hordes, because of the way in which one history of unspeakable violence abducts another history of terrible abjection and refuses to let go of its hostages .They come whenever, due to some happenstance or quirk of fate or private circumstance I have personally had to confront the reality of a population being  targeted for being who they were, for what names they answered to, for which god continued to be indifferent to them, for which hope of parceled freedom they suffered but continued to desire, for which snatch of misbegotten history or misplaced geography was their albatross, their prison, their song. Once, the oppressed people of the world could say that they were all Jews, now we are all Palestinians. The truth is, neither Jews are Jews, nor Palestinians are Palestinians. These are only names that history deals and discards like playing cards in a game fixed in advance.They, and we,  are all bodies that are now given the grace of fifty seven seconds to recognize the distance between life and and death. What makes us one or the other, the bomber or the bombed, is the matter of on which side of that distance we find ourselves today. Once the body is bombed, once the remains are collected, or not, as the case may be, it matters very little as to whether the Palestinian was Palestinian, or the Israeli was Israeli. Once you become a martyr, or a statistic, you cease to be human. You become a case, a cause, an argument, a missile thrown at memory, a glitch at the end of fifty seven seconds of video footage. The only way out I know is to stop playing the game of names and identities. We need another kind of game.

Then there is the problem of long term memory. Of a memory that refuses to forget. I have never forgotten Sabra and Shatila. In Beirut, I remembered a name. The name of the man who led the Lebanese Falangist killing squads that did the job at Sabra and Shatila while the IDF officers watched from the neighbouring rooftops. If Sabra and Shatila mean as much to you as they did to me when I was a teenager, then you would tend to follow up and learn as much, as obsessively as possible about what happened, about who did what, and who got away with what.

Just as I can never forget H.K.L Bhagat for what he did in Delhi during the Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1984, so too, there is a name that I have never forgotten from Sabra and Shatila. The name was Elie Hobeika. Elie Hobeika was the man who famously was reported to have said – “you knew very well what they had to do and that you should not waste my time with stupid questions.” when asked by the Falangist fighters under his command what they should do with a group of women and children they had cornered in the camp. Those women and their children may well have been the bodies in the photo that I saw as a fourteen year old on the morning of the nineteenth of september in 1982.

Elie Hobeika, did many things. He survived the Lebanese civil war, but was assassinated by a car bomb in a Beirut in just as he was about to depose about Sabra and Shatila to an international tribunal in Belgium. Perhaps Mossad got him, perhaps he was done in by Syrian clients. Before that car bomb, much before, he had switched sides, ended up playing for the Syrians, and indirectly for their Iranian backers in Lebanon, just as well as he had played for the Israeli occupiers. After the Lebanese Civil War had ended, the butcher of Sabra and Shatila even became a member of parliament, and in turn – a minister for emigrants protection, a minister of social welfare and the care of the disabled, and finally minister for electrification. His party, ‘Waad‘, is currently an ally of Israel’s sworn enemy in Lebanon, champion of the Palestinian cause, Hezbollah. The legacy of Elie Hobeika, the butcher of Sabra and Shatila, is nowadays safe in the custody and care of Hezbollah. Alhamdulillah.

Long term memory complicates things. It complicates the narrative of good guys and bad guys. It tells you maybe there are no good guys. If you dig deep enough, today’s sworn enemies become yesterday’s allies, and today’ s contingencies may be overtaken by tomorrow’s compulsions. The ‘Islamists’ who founded Hamas were once key assets of the Israeli occupation in Gaza. Just as it could be argued that the ‘Secular Nationalists’  who now run Fatah (the ‘secular’ Palestinian faction that dominates the PLO , which has been violently opposed to Hamas, but is currently forced to work with it, in a ‘unity’ government of the rump Palestinian Authority) are the Israeli state’s best (and most corrupt) assets in the West Bank today.

The Israeli Military authorities who governed Gaza when it was under the IDF’s direct control throughout the 1970s and early 80’s actively patronized and encouraged the social and educational initiatives under the name of ‘Mujama al-Islamiya’ (‘Islamic Association’) run by Sheikh Ahmed Yasin, (later to be known to the wold as the founder of Hamas) first as a charity, and then as an ‘association’ accredited in 1979 by the Israeli occupation authority in Gaza, and given ample room to function until the outbreak of the first intifada of 1987. During this time, Sheikh Yasin and his colleagues, who would later form Hamas in the wake of the first intifada, were in regular touch, with Israeli authorities, who in turn would scrupulously ‘consult’ with them on the day to day running of the occupation of Gaza. Brigadier General Yitzhak Segev, the acting governor of Gaza who took charge in 1979 is said to have met Yasin at least a dozen times during his tenure, and also arranged for his medical treatment (Yasin was a paraplegic) on more than one occasion in Israel. The capillary infrastructure of the organization that eventually evolved into Hamas, (mirroring the operation of Hezbollah in Lebanon) its ability to penetrate every aspect of social and political life in Gaza, from ambulance services to soup kitchens to schooling, was cultivated under Israeli auspices. The Israeli occupation authorities allowed the ‘Islamic Association’  to receive funding from abroad, (so much so that Gulf and Saudi money soon caused it to be more cash-rich than the beleaguered Fatah led PLO, which ran out of Soviet patronage once the USSR collapsed). The Israeli authorities encouraged the setting up of the Islamic University in Gaza which became a Hamas citadel, as what they hoped would be an effective intellectual and political counter-weight to the radicalized Birzeit University in the West Bank, and looked the other way when the Islamist ‘brothers’  intimidated, harassed, or occasionally murdered their secular Palestinian rivals. in fact, the Israeli Military authorities reversed the severe restrictions that had been placed on Islamist activity by the former occupiers of the Gaza strip, Nasser’s Egypt.

Today, Hamas, appears to be Israel’s sworn enemy, but it was not always so, and it need not be again. In a world where the United States first arms the Taliban and then fights the Taliban, in which the United States first imposes sanctions on Iran and then engages in detente with Iran to fight Sunni Extremists (whom they have earlier patronized against the Assad regime in Syria), in which Israel first supports Kurdish Independence, then hands over Kurdish chiefs like Abdulla Ocalan to Turkey and then again supports Kurdish independence in Iraq, anything is possible. If the butcher of Palestinians in Lebanon can be an ally of Hezbollah and the Syrians and still have a line open to Israel, anything is possible. Hamas may tomorrow be Israel’s ally against, say Islamic Jihad, just as Fatah, which was once Israel and Hamas’ common enemy, is now Israel’s best guarantor in the West Bank. Anything is possible.

What remains persistent in the region is the tragedy of the Palestinian people (and the tragicomedy of the theatre of the international left wing, pan arab, and islamic solidarity with the Palestinian ’cause’). What remains persistent in the region is the tragedy of the Kurdish people (and the highly baroque tragicomic spectacle of a left wing ‘revolutionary’ national liberation struggle championed by Israel). What remains persistent in the region is that you could, for instance, be a Kurd, and end up being shot in Turkey, made to disappear in Syria, gassed in Iraq and hung in Iran, all because you were a Kurd. What remains persistent in the region is the tragedy of the memory of the Armenian Holocaust and of the ‘revolutionary’ Armenian movements that dream of attacking Turkey from Lebanon, with support from Iran, Russia, Syria and yes, even Israel.

What remains persistent in the region is the singular tragedy of the persistence of the impossible dream of national liberation, which began with Zionism (once as much a favorite of international left wing solidarity activists as the ‘Palestinian’ cause is today) and which may end with the creation of the fiction of a Palestinian state, as a buffer for an exhausted Israel, at exactly that moment in time, when, as a Palestinian friend once told me in a  Ramallah cafe, “the goods-train of the nation-state will have finally departed from the railway terminus of history”.

Does this mean one becomes a bemused, saddened, cynical spectator to the bombardment of Gaza ? By no means. It means that what is required of all those who are committed to justice, peace and freedom in real terms is to resolutely oppose the Israeli state and its actions, even while refusing to be drawn into the quagmire of endorsing so called ‘resistant’ nationalist narratives. To retain a healthy skepticism about Hamas, or Fatah, Islamic Jihad or the Syrian inspired ghosts that respond to the call signs of variations of the Popular Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (GC or non GC)is not necessarily to be reticent or hesitant in support of the Palestinian people’s desire to be freed of the Israeli yoke. To be supportive of the Palestinian people is to remain vigilant about the cynical postures of the Iranian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, Saudi, Egyptian regimes and other state and non-state actors who repeat the shibboleths of some form of tired secular Pan-Arabism or of a hollow Islamism. To be supportive of the Palestinian people is to remain skeptical of those fashionable forms of solidarity tourism which sport smart kaffiyehs and remain indifferent to other oppressions elsewhere. To be responsibly supportive of the Palestinian people is to recognize that what Israel is in the West Bank and Gaza, Russia is in Chechnya, Turkey, Iran and Iraq are in Kurdistan, India is in Kashmir, China is in Xinjiang and Tibet, Sri Lanka is in Jaffna, Pakistan is in Balochistan, Bangladesh is in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. To be supportive of the Palestinian people is to recognize that nationalism builds states, it does not liberate people.  To be supportive of the Palestinian people is to simultaneously have the responsibility never to confuse anti-Zionism with anti-semitism.

[ Demonstration Against the Siege of Gaza, in London, 11th July, 2014 ]

Demonstrations against the Israeli attack on Gaza are happening in many places in the world, in the West Bank, across the Arab world, in London, in New York, and today, in Delhi, outside the Isreli Embassy and  also, significantly, inside Israel. One can only hope that these demonstrations and acts in solidarity, increase in number and intensity, and that their combined popular moral and ethical pressure can help dent the Israeli regime’s self-image and prestige signifcantly more than the hypocritical ‘concern’ of the great powers.

[ Demonstration by Israeli citizens groups against the siege of Gaza, Haifa, Israel ]

[ Demonstration against the attacks on Gaza and the occupation in Habima Square, Tel Aviv, Israel. The protestors are heckled and abused by right wing Israelis who defend the IDF’s actions in Gaza ]

Meanwhile, small bands of Israeli citizens, religious and secular Jews, along with their Muslim, Christian, Druze and Non-Believing Arab co-citizens of Israel, (mindless of the abuse of ‘traitor’ hurled at them by their jingoist fellow-citizens) have gathered, over the recent days, in Tel Aviv and Haifa to declare their shame and to express their anger and horror at the actions of the Israeli government. Their numbers may be far fewer today the numbers of Israelis  brainwashed and hollowed out of all moral and ethical sense by nationalist arrogance, militarized indoctrination and Zionist propaganda, but they are growing. They contain not just committed left wing activists, but also a small but not insignificant number of Israeli soldiers who have served as enforcers of the violence of the occupation and who are disgusted by what they have been ordered to do. They may, in time, be as important for the anti-occupation sentiment in Israel as returning Vietnam veterans who joined anti-Vietnam war protests in the late 1960s and 70s were in America.

Never in any moment in history has the entirety of a population succumbed to the evil that has possessed their state, no matter how totalitarian that state, and how repressive its apparatus, or how seductive and enticing its discourse and propaganda may have been. Were that to be the case, there would be no grounds for hope in the world. And even as bombs drop in Gaza, there must be on no account an abandonment of hope for Gaza and for the awakening of sanity amongst larger numbers of the current citizens of Israel. To abandon hope, and to abandon the conviction that some day, in the near future, there will be peace and justice on the shores of Mediterranean would be to insult those who fight to live, and for dignity and freedom in Gaza. That fight will be won primarily by those Palestinians who bravely and militantly offer civic resistance (as they have done for long) to the evil of the actions of the Israeli state despite the odds being apparently overwhelmingly against them, and by those Israeli citizens who have the courage to disobey and disagree with the actions that are taken by the Israeli state, ostensibly in their name. More than anything else, it will not be Barack Obama, or Tony Blair, or Ban ki Moon, or General Sisi or the Ibn Sauds who will bring peace in the land between the shores of the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, it will be these brave Palestinians and their courageous dissident Israeli comrades who will bring peace some day to Jersualem, Gaza, Haifa and Hebron. This will happen despite the best laid plans of Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. When that peace comes, suddenly, like a storm, like rain, we will all be astonished by the prolonged idiocy of the war that preceded it. A hundred years ago, the armies of Europe began a war in which they bombed and gassed each other like no one had ever done before. It took a few revolutions for that war to end. It may take many simultaneous revolutions for the war in what the former Imperial powers used to call the ‘middle east’ to end (how such pointless names linger on the map of our consciousness- whose middle, to who’s east? ). But the age of wars may once again be ending, and that of revolution could once again be on its way. Our times may yet hatch surprises that no one can anticipate.

[ A brave young American Jewish Man speaks out against the Israeli Occupation, and for the ‘right of return’ of Palestinians to the land, and for equal rights for all – watch the consequences ]

There have always been surprises. Even in the darkest years of Nazism, there were brave, and conscientious Germans and Austrians, who at great risk to their lives, well being, liberty and reputations aided those Jews (and others) who the Nazi state had decided to destroy.  Similarly, there were brave and conscientious Russians, Ukrainians and Soviet citizens of other nationalities, who in the darkest years of Stalinism, at great danger to themselves, hid, aided, refused to denounce and protected those communist (the majority of those killed under Stalin’s orders were, in fact, disaffected communists) and other dissidents and disaffected people that the Soviet state had decided to exterminate or send to concentration camps. Some of the descendants of the people who survived the Holocaust and the Gulag, or who were saved by those brave German, Austrian and Russian or Ukrainian men and women, and even some of the people who are grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who did the saving, who are now all israeli citizens, (some of whom I count as friends), were at those demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa, doing exactly what their German, Russian and Ukrainian Jewish grandparents (and their comrades) would have applauded in the face of the banal evil of a regime that can only be described as fascist by those it chooses to visit with its violence. It is in this way that the gift of conscientious objection, calumnied as treason, made by one generation, in the context of one violent history, is repaid by the gift of conscientious objection, calumnied as treason, made by another that succeeds it, even at a remove, in another history, at another time.  This is one way to remember and honour the world and especially the twentieth century. This is one way in which the collective, global, long term memory of our time can act against the inability to process the fifty seven second aftermath of a warning knock before a missile strike in Gaza. That inability, those fifty seven seconds of paralysis and terror are also global. The antidote to that malady must be found in our efforts to find solutions to problems as vexed as that of Israel and Palestine, not in short bursts of amnesia, but in the long, patient work of memory.

Today, the State of Israel, has (like other times in the past) the temerity to say that it acts in the name of all Israelis, exactly when several Israelis have decided that they cannot have their names sullied by its evil. The example of these brave individuals, however small they may be in number, are examples that all of us who live in bloated, militarized, occupying states must consider, wherever we are in the world. When the time comes for us to say that we refuse to accept the evil that our particular state (whichever it may be) metes out in our name, we hope that we will not be found wanting. To be loyal to humanity, one may at times be required to be ready to be called a traitor to the nation-state, and to say that a state, such as Israel, which visits violence of such gross disproportion on a subject population is in the grip of an evil regime. This is a kind of memory that looks far into the future, even as it looks askance the past.

To the memory and honor of those ‘traitors’ and to such ‘traitors’ everywhere, in every country, and amongst every people, who put their humanity and their consciences above the ephemera of citizenship in a nation-state, or fealty to a regime, belongs the future of the world. If the world, and if the ‘promised land’  that has the misfortune to be the unfortunate legatee of the sad jest of Imperial powers in the wake of the first world war that broke out almost exactly  hundred years ago is to have a future, then we need to pray, even to the god in whom some of us may not believe, that there will be enough people, all over the world, who will, in days to come, have the residual courage required for treason to the states that rule us all,  and for unwavering loyalty to the seven billion people of the world, of whom the Palestinians, with their poetry, their courage, their beauty and their resilience are an inalienable part today.

Because they teach us how to live.

[ Rafeef Ziadah, ‘We Teach Life, Sir’ ]

it is in their honor that  we are gathering all over the world. I will go to the demonstration at Delhi, it begins, I am told, this morning, at Aurungzeb Road, in front of the Embassy of the State of Israel, at 11 am.

Will you, if you are in Delhi, if you read this first thing in the morning today, be there with me?

20 thoughts on “The Memory of Fifty Seven Seconds: After Watching an Israeli Missile Strike in the Gaza Strip on Al-Jazeera”

  1. no doubt you are much worried about gaza people( alaas! you are forgetting that living in Isreal are too humans..!!) why are you not advising ISIS/ISIL to go there to protect Gaza people who are enough cruel to handle Isrealies..?


    1. The colonizer in this case deserves no sympathy. The fire crackers you are seeing from the oppressed and captive population is nothing but a flicker of resistance doesn’t ‘t matter how insignificant or naive it may be seen as. You should be ashamed of yourself for labelling Gaza people as cruel. The world is not fool like you and can clearly see who is cruel and who is oppressed.


  2. I do sympathize with the innocent who have lost their lives, but I do not think Israelis are entirely to blame for it.

    The only reason, Israel has not seen more casualties is because of their “Iron Dome” protection system. In fact they have been constantly fired upon from civilian locations. Shouldn’t the people who use “human Shields” be held responsible/accountable too?.

    During the recent conflict itself, Israelis have been fired upon with Hundreds (yes hundreds) of sophisticated long-range rockets ( and they are not the small firecrackers, that they are being portrayed as). ” More flimsy rockets fired by foolhardy Palestinian militia”

    It is easy to judge…….. My (very unwanted) suggestion would be to get a complete picture before you go and write/protest about what a state/country is doing to protect itself.


    1. Thanks for your entirely unwanted suggestion, Tanmoy. Trying to do a balancing act between a colonizer’s violence and the freedom struggle of the colonized. Good attempt, keep trying. It is always possible to do this acrobatic show – after all even in India’s largely Gandhian anticolonial struggle, there were many who espoused the cult of the bomb. And do some reading of both history and international law before you open your mouth and put your foot into it.


      1. Dear Aditya ( and perhaps Shuddha),

        I find your remark about the balancing act between a coloniser’s violence and the freedom struggle of the colonised very interesting. I was wondering if mere occupation can be considered colonialism why don’t you consider the Indian occupation of Kashmir colonialism ( please don’t tell me to read your previous posts on Israel because I have done so and I am fairly knowledgeable about Isreali history so please don’t tell me that I am putting my foot into my mouth). If you think so please could you reflect on what is your role as a coloniser and what have you done to the colonised. Perhaps a post reflecting on how Indians are colonisers might be interesting. For instance would you support a Kashmiri/Pakistani miiltant blowing himself at your Rajpur Road office .Would you also support the kidnapping of your colleagues and their ransom in exchange for prisoners ( for instance from the Indian Mujahideen)

        I look forward to a cordial conversation


        1. Dear Geetanjali,
          I will not speak for Aditya, but will speak for myself. I have no hesitation in saying that I think that the Indian state’s occupation of Kashmir is a form of colonialism. Since my political convictions do not permit me to allow for easy identifications between citizens and states, (a nationalist would be obliged to do that, i am not) I do not feel that I am required to offer mea culpas for the Indian state. I have no need to justify the actions of the Indian state, or for that matter any state, because I do not see the state to be a political form I need to invest my intellectual and ethical energies in upholding, or defending. Ergo, I am not the colonizer. Just as I do not think that ordinary British people were the ‘colonizers’ of India. I refuse, as must be clear to you from my post, to stereotype each and every Israeli citizen as the evil occupier of Palestine. My understanding of colonialism is inflected by my reading of class. Certain people in India, and certain sections of the elite, certainly benefit from the occupation of Kashmir, but I am not one of them. Most people are not. IN fact, I think that because the occupation of Kashmir is the rasion d’etre of the inflated role that the military, the state security apparatus and the military budget has in Indian political life, the sooner we are rid of this occupation, the better it will be for most Indians. I think we will then be in a position to enter into a sphere of normal politics in South Asia, not this artificial tension built around the maintenance by force of a territory obtained through a bogus accession offered by an unrepresentative feudal potentate. So, I am not the colonizer, and I refuse to be put into the corner where I have to answer for actions that I have no interest in pursuing or defending.

          I do not see how the second half of your question follows from the first part of your comment. Do I support people blowing themselves or others up in offices and streets, do I support kidnapping and ransom demands? NO. I abhor and detest terrorism, and I abhor it whether it happens in the name of Palestine, Kashmir, India or the dark side of the moon.

          Resistance, be it militantly non-violent (as the majority of resistance in Palestine and Kashmir actually is, and has been, for decades) or be it armed (when it specifically acts in defence of people’s lives and homes against the the armed might of the occupying power, in open and not clandestine ways) is not the same thing as terrorism. In a situation where the state declares war on an occupied people by suspending their right to life (as happens under AFSPA in Kashmir and parts of the North East) then, if a subject uses a weapon to defend themselves or someone they care for against an armed soldier, or an armed body of soldiers, I see nothing wrong. It may be desparate, it may be ill advised, it may be politically suicidial, it may be painful, but it is not ethically wrong. But to do that (use a weapon to defend oneself or to obstruct an armed occupier) is neither to blow oneself up in Rajpur Road, nor to kidnap people and hold them to ransom. I do not see how you can assume that such acts, different as they are in intention, in realization, and in consequence, are identical. They are not. The phase when the PLO and its constituents resorted to hijackings, to the execution of Israeli athletes, to suicide bombings, were instances of political stupidity and degeneration into a poltical-ethical vacuum. I refuse to romanticize such moves, because i think of them as actually counter-revolutionary. The only real revolutionary politics is an open, mass, democratic politics that mobilizes multitudes in open confrontation against occupying powers. This is the politics of the general strike, the sit in, the de-occupation of factories and of the barricade, in which men, women, children, old people, young people, students, workers, everyone can participate. It is not the politics of the bomb and the elite macho cult of terrorists and martyrs. That only ever strengthens the hands of those who rule by making it easy for them to justify even more repression in society. The terrorist and the secret police are objective allies, not adversaries. They both strengthen the state. I hope I have made myself clear.


        2. Geetanjali,
          Actually Shuddha has very comprehensively answered the questions you raised – and I am in complete agreement with him. Just one additional comment – colonialism was originally almost entirely about occupation and settling of populations – as in the Americas. In due course that has become normalized. The entire oeuvre of someone like Frantz Fanon too talks of the settlers’ colonies in Africa. The model of British colonialism in India was only one of the many.


  3. What a brillant write up! You seem not to like the idea of state. How about some action now? Why don’t you, for a start, renounce your citizenship, give up your passport, stop performing for state organisations like the Lalit Kala Academy, make a formal announcement to not pay taxes, so that the Indian state does not buy arms from your hard–earned money and kill innocents everywhere from that money, give a portion of money to all the ‘just’ causes that you have championed on Kafila and elsewhere, cease to use all kinds of roads, all types of electricity, water and all forms of electronic communication (because it is the same Indian state which you so love to hate provides the infrastructure for these utilities to you with a lot of subsidies), give up purchase of any commodity from the market because the Indian state charge indirect taxes from all commodities, say that you do not believe in the constitution of India, proclaim you are indifferent to the courts of India, tell everyone that in case of any injury on your property or your person you will not take the help of Indian police because it is barbaric and criminal and last but not the least forgo the use of this fiction of a promissory note called Rupee because it is perpetuated and guaranteed by the Indian state. If you can just translate your beautiful words into actions of a karma yogi Shuddhabrata Sengupta you will have my utmost respect. Till then all I say is what a beautiful write up! What erudition, what composition, what movement between event, genealogy, history, personal memory, citation of counter-movements, hint of solidarity, and what a way to invite the reader to join a demonstration. Salut!


    My Friend!


    1. Dear Anshu,
      Thank you for your kind words of appreciation.
      In the spirit of your suggestions, how about we drive a different kind of bargain? I will leave my jejune anarchist tendencies aside for the moment, pay all my taxes, (as I do) and how about, in return, the state just undertake not to make war, either on its own subjects, or on others. How about it uses my hard earned money, and your hard earned money to create greater opportunities, while simultaneously, not wasting it on war, weapons and the promotion of war aims by other means. If all states (and the Indian and Israeli states could be two good places to start this enterprise) undertook to do this one simple transformation, maybe some of us would not be so enraged by the state as a form. Until that happens, I will pay my taxes to the state,(because I have no desire to face to consequences of breaking income tax laws) and pay my dues to my conscience by trying to persuade people to join the occasional demonstration with hints of solidarity and scattered snatches of personal memory. Does that sound like a fair bargain to you?


      1. Dear Shuddhabrata Sengupta,

        This bluntness is what I deeply admire about you! Many thanks for your reply my friend.

        By your own account you appear like an honest, hard-working,concerned, articulate, skilful, hyper-aware, tax paying, respecter of constitution, propertied, potential seeker of police security (in case of harm), user of state sponsored utilities (roads, gas, water, electricity, trains, currency and telecommunication), consumer of corporate and copied goods and services underwritten by the state ( such as books, financial products, food and cultural products), deeply afraid of breaking-law, but foremost a Marxist, a devoted atheist and a person with moderate anarchist tendencies. Sometimes I wonder by these standards does Narender and Amit not appear more radical?

        God! Only if these boys had read and believed in the words of Marx instead of a Mukherjee, Gramsci instead of a Golwarker, and made Kalyayev their hero instead of a Keshav, perhaps we’d not have this conversation. I dream on. And what an utterly stupid dream don’t you think!

        You made an offer. You know what! I think your bargain is fair. And you are right. To me that bargain of yours appears like a stupid dream as well. I mean how stupid is it to think of a state to not waste money on war, weapons and the promotion of war by other means.

        I almost laughed when I read the word haunted in your text. I note you use ‘haunted’ four times. Haunted feels like such a silly word in your text. Like what are we talking about here! You don’t expect the warlord of Israel to be sane or do you? And what else can one expect from lords of war everywhere if not to harvest death. It’s their job. They do it well. Should we not appreciate someone who does their job well? Killing. Murder. Brutality. You don’t seem stupid enough to expect justice from a state or are you? Now I am haunted by the word haunted in your text. Such a waste!

        Have you ever thought when you fund the brutality of the state through taxes and decry the actions of state at the same time, you appear like an alcoholic trying to persuade a drunk to leave drinking, by showing that other person how bad alcohol is.

        Have you ever thought that your criticism of the state in written form, in speech acts and in participation of protests sometimes appear as a drunk men going to the brewery and protest against the Kalal to stop fermenting the liquor?

        State intoxicates me as well as it intoxicates you so what can we do? Your word is a sobering amusement.

        Here’s hoping to more such amusing sobriety to gang up against the kalal on a Sunday!

        Cheers (Hic!)



  4. What an inspiring piece of writing. It puts things as they are not how some would like it to be to suit their worldview (eg. Islamists)Some of the comments here are unbelievably shameful.


  5. great piece…and written with such conviction, passion, knowledge about the region…i salute the professor….let me also humbly add, (though I am not as scholarly as this professor, and I hope I can express my view), me this piece demonstrates a certain state of mind the secular theorising has reached today, in its understanding of matters that are deeply enmeshed in religious beliefs, their histories, their worldviews which do not necessarily coincide with even the well-meaning sub-altern humanist theorists as this professor…


  6. What you said about long term memory really struck a chord with me. I have seen it repeatedly as a parallel in various capitalistic imperialist ventures across the globe (specially the disturbed fertile crescent). It is the biggest chink in their armour as far as I see it, the fact that they need to arm both sides of a conflict in order to make profit out of the war machinery. Its almost like its no longer about human beings (not even idealism or propaganda!), just about using bullets and bombs. Surely it can’t be that hard to see! Maybe that’s why all the focus is on breaking news and the tweet of the hour and no one really wants to know the bigger picture. Its the media of the oppressor.


  7. The real question here is why we fund the state. The only legitimate reason to part with our hard-earned money is so we can enjoy what we were born with. Liberty. its not the state that doled out our freedoms, its the Almighty. We form a state and fund it so we can have that liberty preserved. No statist-socialist (you included, Shuddha) can understand that. Statist-Socialists believe people exist to serve the state. Welcome to Marxism, eh? Which is why they insist the state be funded, never mind if liberties have to be kissed goodbye.

    What Israel is doing is preserving its liberty. Let Hamas first recognize the right of Israel to exist. Imagine that. The terrorist group that Hamas is has vowed the death of every Israeli, and we have jhollawalas from JNU protesting to keep Hamas’ dreams alive.

    What a pity.


  8. It’s surprising and sad to see that zio-trolls have even made their way onto the web pages of India. They waste so much time and space with their denial, deceit, and distortion. Lofty discussions of the utility of nation states are very nice. Right now a lot of people are dying. Strategizing on how to make that stop would also be very nice.


  9. Shuddhabrata

    While everyone is entitled to her political convictions, a couple of points.

    Don’t conflate the importance of the “military” in India with that of Israel. If you have gone through the latest union budget, defence expenditure is 1.78% of GDP, te LOWEST, by far of any major or minor nation state. To take our “non military” credentials even further, India is the only democracy where the military is NOT included in the highest decision-making institutions of the state.

    Two, and more importantly, why should Indians be bothered with Palestine beyond a point? Israel is a source of technology, a destination for investments and a supporter of India in global forums. Palestine is none of the above – even in the heydays of Yasser Arafat, Palestinians hobnobbed with the Pakistanis in UN and OIC in snubbing India while taking diplomatic leverage out of our support to the them.

    Third , morality isn’t a one sided argument. The only reason why Israeli casualties are low is because of Iron Dome, not for Hamas’ lack of trying.

    Last, for people who have detested the policies of the US, this is how the Middle East will look increasingly as us develops an active disinterest in the region. With energy sufficiency, there is no great reason for the US to get involved there. Sans them, guess who is the predominant economic and military power in the ME? It’s Israel. As they say, think of what you wish for!?


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