Mowing the Lawn: Politics vs. Art

15 July, 2021
Gaza #47 from “Gaza: Mow­ing the Lawn,” Jaime Schol­nick (cour­tesy of the artist).

Note From the Edi­tors: We are aware that the author of this essay and The 51 Day War on Gaza sub­se­quent­ly adopt­ed the anti-impe­ri­al­ist posi­tions with respect to Syr­ia that have come to the defense of Bashar al-Assad. We are of the view that the Syr­i­an regime is respon­si­ble for mas­sacres and war crimes—of “mow­ing the lawn” of the Syr­i­an peo­ple, and we want this to be noted. 

Max Blu­men­thal

The 51 Day War by Max Blu­men­thal is avail­able here.

“The trac­tors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers mov­ing like insects, hav­ing the incred­i­ble strength of insects,” wrote John Stein­beck, the great chron­i­cler of itin­er­ant Dust Bowl farm­ers. “Snub-nosed mon­sters, rais­ing the dust and stick­ing their snouts into it, straight down the coun­try, across the coun­try, through fences, through door­yards, in and out of gul­lies in straight lines,” was how Stein­beck described the giant thresh­ing machines that turned the dirt-poor Okies off their land like it turned crops to chaff.

These pas­sages from Stein­beck­’s nov­el, The Grapes of Wrath, often came to me when I was report­ing from inside Israel-Pales­tine. Wher­ev­er Israel lord­ed over Pales­tini­ans, vir­tu­al­ly any­where in the Holy Land where there were indige­nous peo­ple to be dis­placed, there were machines that remind­ed me inti­mate­ly of Stein­beck­’s cru­el trac­tor. The most obvi­ous par­al­lel was the Cater­pil­lar D‑9 bull­doz­er, a 3.5 ton machine respon­si­ble for the destruc­tion of tens of thou­sands of Pales­tin­ian homes — at least 30,000 since the occu­pa­tion began in 1967. Across the Holy Land, I fre­quent­ly came across the D‑9 belch­ing up smoke as it chugged through fields of crops, mis­ery shacks and mul­ti-fam­i­ly Pales­tin­ian hous­es, leav­ing piles of con­crete and rebar in its wake, along with the pieces of lives deprived of hearth and home.

In the occu­pied West Bank, the D‑9 was used to paci­fy the refugee camp of Jenin dur­ing the iron­i­cal­ly named “Oper­a­tion Defen­sive Shield,” an Israeli assault that reduced hun­dreds of homes to rub­ble in 2002. Dur­ing that offen­sive, the mil­i­tary dis­patched an unem­ployed soc­cer hooli­gan and reservist nick­named “Kur­di Bear” into the cen­ter of the camp. At the wheel of a D‑9, with a whiskey bot­tle in his hand and the flag of his favorite soc­cer club atop the bull­doz­er, Kur­di Bear destroyed with reck­less aban­don. “For three days, I just destroyed and destroyed. The whole area…” he said in an inter­view with the Israeli paper Yedio­th Ara­n­oth. “I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they did­n’t mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 peo­ple for gen­er­a­tions. If I am sor­ry for any­thing, it is for not tear­ing the whole camp down.”

“I had lots of sat­is­fac­tion in Jenin, lots of sat­is­fac­tion,” Kur­di Bear reflect­ed. “It was like get­ting all the 18 years of doing noth­ing — into three days.”

In 2005, fol­low­ing Israel’s ruth­less cam­paign to sup­press the Sec­ond Intifa­da, the West Bank’s pop­u­la­tion cen­ters fell under the con­trol of the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty’s (PA) West­ern-trained secu­ri­ty forces. From Ramal­lah, the PA coor­di­nat­ed direct­ly with the Israeli mil­i­tary to sup­press resis­tance, essen­tial­ly capit­u­lat­ing to its occu­pi­er. But in the Gaza Strip, where Israel had with­drawn its last colony of set­tlers, the Islamist-ori­ent­ed resis­tance move­ment known as Hamas had estab­lished con­trol after tri­umph­ing in nation­al elec­tions. The Israeli mil­i­tary imme­di­ate­ly estab­lished a cor­don san­i­taire around the strip’s perime­ter, clamp­ing down on exports, suf­fo­cat­ing Gaza­’s fish­ing indus­try, and even devis­ing com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions for the dai­ly caloric intake that each res­i­dent would be enti­tled. Israel’s mod­el for total con­trol was late 18th cen­tu­ry social the­o­rist Jere­my Ben­tham’s Panop­ti­con, a max­i­mum secu­ri­ty prison where the war­dens occu­py only the perime­ter, watch­ing the inmates’ every move from the out­side and enter­ing the inte­ri­or only when absolute­ly nec­es­sary, such as dur­ing the inevitable riot or jail break attempt. Once an occu­pied pop­u­la­tion at least puta­tive­ly enti­tled to pro­tec­tions under the Gene­va Con­ven­tions, the 1.8 mil­lion state­less res­i­dents of Gaza have been trans­formed into what the Ital­ian philoso­pher Gior­gio Agam­ben called “bare life” — lives exist­ing per­pet­u­al­ly at the precipice of death which could be switched off the mere flick of a switch.

Since Israel’s siege pol­i­cy was put into place, Gaza has been the site of three major mil­i­tary esca­la­tions, each one more bru­tal than the last. The assaults have seen the pop­u­la­tion of Gaza reimag­ined by Israeli mil­i­tary plan­ners as blades of grass and the Israeli mil­i­tary as a lawn­mow­er — a post-mod­ern incar­na­tion of Stein­beck­’s trac­tor. “Against an implaca­ble, well-entrenched non-state ene­my like the Hamas,” Ephraim Inbar, an Israeli polit­i­cal sci­en­tist and direc­tor of the Begin-Sadat Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies, wrote of the group that gov­erns the Gaza Strip, “Israel sim­ply needs to ‘mow the grass’ once in a while to degrade the ene­my’s capa­bil­i­ties. A war of attri­tion against Hamas is prob­a­bly Israel’s fate for the long term.” Accord­ing to Inbar, the pop­u­la­tion of Gaza could not be ful­ly sub­dued, nor could it be exter­mi­nat­ed or trans­ferred away. The only polit­i­cal­ly and mil­i­tar­i­ly suit­able option was to mow it down to size, again and again until it stopped growing.

Visit “Gaza: Mowing the Lawn” and read a critical review of the exhibit.

Israel’s lawn­mow­er is an amal­ga­ma­tion of weapons plat­forms that formed a sin­gu­lar death machine. They range from the US-made F‑15 jet that launch­es an array of pow­er­ful mis­siles, includ­ing the 5000-pound GBU bunker buster bomb, which was pro­vid­ed to Israel by the US for the pur­pose of attack­ing heav­i­ly for­ti­fied Iran­ian nuclear lab­o­ra­to­ries, but which is now used to attack civil­ian apart­ment blocs. There is the Israeli Merka­va tank and the artillery devices that have blan­ket­ed Gaza­’s bor­der regions with 120- and 155-mil­lime­ter shells, turn­ing entire urban neigh­bor­hoods to scenes of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic obliv­ion. The son­ic ambiance of Gaza is dom­i­nat­ed by the zanana, the per­pet­u­al, annoy­ing buzz of the Her­mes 450 drone — a sound not unlike a lawn­mow­er that often por­tends a Hell­fire mis­sile strike. To Gaza­’s east lays a cor­don of Israeli attack boats, the teeth of the naval siege that has dri­ven the strip’s once-pro­duc­tive fish­ing indus­try into a state of mis­ery. And to the west, perched atop the con­crete blast walls that form the out­er edge of Israel’s Panop­ti­con is the Spot and Strike sys­tem: a series of remote con­trolled machine guns oper­at­ed from tens of kilo­me­ters away by a most­ly female unit of sol­diers at a base in the Negev Desert.

When­ev­er one of the sol­diers oper­at­ing the Spot and Strike sys­tem iden­ti­fies some­one approach­ing the wall with a threat­en­ing “gait,” they sim­ply zero in on the tar­get, press a but­ton and watch a lit­tle, pix­e­lat­ed fig­ure crum­ple to the ground on a black-and-white screen mount­ed on a wall inside an air-con­di­tioned army base. It is the same for the drone oper­a­tors who killed 164 chil­dren, includ­ing 18 in schools, dur­ing Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2014, accord­ing to the Defense of Chil­dren Inter­na­tion­al. The Gaza ghet­to’s death­scape has become a lev­el in a hyper-real­is­tic video game for Israel’s army of mil­len­ni­al joy­stick jock­eys, insu­lat­ing them from the human toll of the vio­lence they com­mit. This moral void has been cul­ti­vat­ed by mil­i­tary chief­tains like Dan Halutz, a for­mer Israeli Air Force com­man­der and Min­is­ter of Defense who direct­ed waves of aer­i­al assaults on Gaza­’s civil­ian infra­struc­ture. As Halutz non­cha­lant­ly told a reporter, “If you nev­er­the­less want to know what I feel when I release a bomb, I will tell you: I feel a light bump to the plane as a result of the bom­b’s release. A sec­ond lat­er it’s gone, and that’s all. That is what I feel.”

Like the trac­tor of Stein­beck­’s hard­scrab­ble Dust Bowl, Israel’s lawn­mow­er “had some­how got­ten into the dri­ver’s hands, into his brain and mus­cle, had gog­gled him and muz­zled him — gog­gled his mind, muz­zled his speech, gog­gled his per­cep­tion, muz­zled his protest.”

At this writ­ing, more than two years after Israel’s Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge, when it “mowed the lawn” for 51 days in 2014, much of Gaza­’s east­ern bor­der area remains in ruins. Few of the 100,000 homes par­tial­ly or com­plete­ly destroyed have been rebuilt, and Gaza­’s econ­o­my is in sham­bles. More cru­cial­ly, the psy­cho­log­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty of those who sur­vived the pun­ish­ing assault, often wit­ness­ing fam­i­ly and friends cut to pieces and los­ing limbs while try­ing to save them­selves, has been irrev­o­ca­bly rup­tured. At least half of the chil­dren in Gaza suf­fer from Post-Trau­mat­ic Stress Dis­or­der, and 70 per­cent have report­ed intense night­mares fol­low­ing Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge, the Gaza Com­mu­ni­ty Men­tal Health Pro­gram con­clud­ed. With psy­cho­log­i­cal care in short sup­ply, addic­tion to tra­madol, the sense-dead­en­ing, high­ly addic­tive nar­cot­ic, remains at epi­dem­ic lev­els. A wave of sui­cides has swept Gaza, afflict­ing even ado­les­cents. Among the very few struc­tured envi­ron­ments for fam­i­lies of lim­it­ed means are the sum­mer camps oper­at­ed by Hamas, where chil­dren are indoc­tri­nat­ed into the fac­tion’s ide­ol­o­gy and trained in mil­i­tary tac­tics. The thou­sands fill­ing these camps are the seeds Israel has plant­ed, and when they come of age, they will become the grass that it seeks to mow down.

Jaime Schol­nick­’s exhi­bi­tion, “Mow­ing the Lawn,” cap­tures the agony of Gaza as it suf­fered through Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge. Mod­eled after pho­tographs tak­en by jour­nal­ists in the heat of the assault and com­posed in a stark, wood­cut style, Schol­nick­’s com­pact paint­ings con­front view­ers with the sav­agery of Israel’s assault. These images require no embell­ish­ment and she has pro­vid­ed none. She has not retreat­ed into abstrac­tion either, flinch­ing from the ghast­ly scenes as many oth­er artists might have done. Tak­en as a whole, the emo­tion­al impact of her paint­ings is almost overpowering.

Schnol­nick­’s work is much more than an exhi­bi­tion. It is a warn­ing of the car­nage to come as Israel revs up its lawn­mow­er for anoth­er bloody run, and a call for cit­i­zens across the world to throw them­selves in the way of its gears, its wheels and the blades of the whole dead­ly, drone-like appa­ra­tus until it grinds to a halt.