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.
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.
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.