When Israel rose to the attack
Wartime. Life does not proceed normally. When did it ever? “In time of war, even the image of things was war’s own image,” wrote the poet Nathan Alterman. And in the profusion of images and photographers and broadcasts and commentators and overt and covert intentions and statements and sirens, we forgot the main thing: What was the war about? Nobody talks about that except with fear that things could deteriorate, fear of a ground operation and the idea of “legitimacy.” Meanwhile, there is a cease-fire.
Every war has its own keyword of sorts. This word, legitimacy, seems to demand the impossible of us. A person who seeks legitimacy should examine his own actions. Let us begin at the end: Seven years ago, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. We destroyed our own communities and left a fertile strip of land for our neighbors. In doing so, we risked a deep internal rift that, as our prophets of doom threatened, would bring civil war down upon us with the fury of a volcanic eruption.
Fortunately, we got through that test in one piece. Meanwhile, our neighbors had a test of their own: whether they would turn the land they had received into a thriving independent entity, and live alongside us in peace. There was even talk of “the Singapore of the Middle East.” They had everything they needed. Enormous potential awaiting a historic opportunity.
But what happened was the opposite of the biblical prophecy in Isaiah 55:13. Instead of the juniper, grew the thornbush, and instead of the myrtle, the briar. Hamas turned on Fatah and the land left behind by the Jewish communities became military training grounds and weapons depots.
On the surface, life continued with its pseudo-routine, while behind the scenes, the strip of land turned into a poor-man's Sparta. Not only were the Israeli residents of the south held hostage (by endless rocket fire), the residents of Gaza — women and babies, mothers and schoolchildren — were made into human shields, protecting those who had dedicated their lives to our deaths. And we got used to it.
We are experts at adapting. “What are the Qassam rockets,” a high-ranking official once said, “but flying objects?” And truly, the excitement died down, and, as stated above, we got used to them. Even when the Qassam rockets became Grad rockets and starting hitting Beersheba and Ashkelon and even farther north, Ashdod, approaching Tel Aviv. Now let us think about what things were like here about 12 years ago, and what our brothers and sisters in the south have been going through every single day since then.
What they have been going through has become an accursed routine, a routine to which we consented. That was we fought the war over: for the right to live a normal life. For our homes. "[These things], will yet attract, as easily as a hair is lifted from fat, the soul of a generation, even after the fields are sown once more, to remember, not just in a bad way, bad times” (as Nathan Alterman writes in his poem “Leil Hanayah,” which describes a group of soldiers setting up camp during wartime).
What many of us wanted was to see Hamas crawling on its belly, begging for a cease-fire — and that is perfectly understandable. In Middle Eastern culture, it is very hard to achieve this kind of image, even if that was perhaps precisely the feeling behind the scenes. After all, Gaza ended up with its own version of Dahieh, the Beirut district that the Israeli Air Force obliterated during the Second Lebanon War.
Many government buildings in Gaza were flattened. The ammunition stashed in storage sheds blew other buildings to smithereens. Quite a few high-ranking Hamas leaders were assassinated, and others are still hiding in their holes. I heard from quite a few people that Hamas would have given anything to go back to that Wednesday, the day Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari was killed.
Still, like a few other regimes and groups in the region, Hamas will keep on acting like Cairo's 1950s-60s propaganda radio station Voice of Thunder, broadcasting false reports and doctored photographs. The search for truth depends on one’s culture. There is a lesson here about our neighbors’ culture: The facts do not matter. It doesn’t matter how bad things are for the Arabs of the Middle East — their scientific, technological, cultural and moral inferiority, the absence of democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of worship. None of that matters as long as they see themselves as superior to everyone else.
In this regard, Hamas is even worse than al-Qaida. Hamas' government is responsible for 1.5 million people, but it operates like a terrorist mafia organization. Sociologist Professor Oz Almog wrote this week, “Even if Gaza were to be wiped off the face of the earth, the last of Hamas’ officials would still stand in front of the microphone and say without batting an eyelash: We won!”
Feeling empathy for innocent people on the enemy side does not obligate us to identify with its cause. It definitely does not obligate us to doubt our own just cause. Among some segments of our society, it has become trendy to be automatically anti-war. All of us are against war. All of us want peace. But this knee-jerk anti-war reflex is what ultimately brings about round after round of violence.
The opening section of the Hamas charter — the charter of a group that operates according to underworld codes — quotes the following statement by Imam Hassan al-Banna (who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, was assassinated in 1949, and is regarded as a martyr): “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam obliterates it, just as it obliterated others before it.”
This is the spirit of the Hamas charter: complete and total negation of our existence here, uncompromising jihad (holy war) against us, and opposition to any agreement that recognizes our existence. During the 2006 elections, when Hamas replaced Fatah in power, Hamas strongman Mahmoud a-Zahar said that his organization would not change a single word of the charter, and would continue its “resistance” — a code word for terrorism against us.
Now, back to that knee-jerk anti-war reflex that judges every war, no matter what its reasons, to be an inherent moral failure. Although the advocates of this stance base themselves on the biblical injunction “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” they forget that Rabbi Akiva, the same man who defined that injunction as “a major rule of the Torah,” also said: “Your life takes precedence over that of your fellow being.” If a person disregards his own welfare in favor of moral sterility, the empathy he demonstrates toward others may be called into question.
On the other hand, when it is clear who in this story is telling the truth and who is lying, who is right and who is wrong, one can certainly show real empathy toward the innocent people on the other side: the women and children whose rooms were used to store ammunition and rocket launchers, and who were used, against their will, as human shields by the people who fire rockets at our children.
“Though the dagger be righteous in judgment,” wrote Alterman during the terrible days of World War II in his poem cycle “Poems from the Plagues of Egypt.” He was capable of justifying attacks on the enemy even as he showed empathy to the innocent on their side. “Though the dagger be righteous in judgment / It always leaves, when it passes bleeding / like the salt taste of brine / the swift-flowing tears of the innocent."
Why is it that when Arabs slaughter Arabs, the world gives a polite shudder and does nothing more? We have all but forgotten the hundreds of people massacred in Syria just this past week. Yet when Jews rise up to defend their lives and strike at those who seek to kill them, the world howls in protest. As far as the Arab world is concerned, as long as the massacres take place on its own ground, the conflict remains an internal family matter. But when Jews act to defend themselves, that is an offense against “the Islamic nation.”
From the West’s perspective, the silence over this Arab-on-Arab slaughter stems from soft racism: “That’s what Arabs do.” But the world’s shock when Jews rise up against their enemies stems from almost two millennia in which the image of the Jew as forever crucified, the eternal victim, was entrenched in Western consciousness. We are not supposed to climb down from the altar (or the cross) and take up arms in self-defense.
What were we thinking?