Center Field: Gaza war shows Israel’s democratic resilience

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, Thursday Jan 22, 2009

Photos by Dafna Avraham, for full album visit Facebook

After the Second Lebanon War, one former tank commander sighed, “when my kids were teenagers and stumbled, I reassured them that, fortunately, the lessons learned outweighed the damage done: so too with Israel’s army.” Two and a half years later, forced to confront Hamas’s rocket barrages targeting Israeli civilians, Israel fulfilled this prophecy. Great democracies like Israel can transform citizens’ grumblings into constructive self-criticism, turning officials’ failures into redemptive improvements.

Ironically, while applying many lessons learned, this war illustrated the Lebanon War’s success. Hizbullah’s inaction as Israel pummeled another Iranian proxy, Hamas, suggests Israel’s message of deterrence worked. Still, despite this gain, the civilian Winograd commission and numerous internal IDF reviews proposed clever solutions to the logistical and strategic problems that plagued the battlefront and the homefront.

This time, with Hamas’s Grad missiles reaching Beersheva, “the entire country is the front line,” one radio announcer proclaimed. Still, the municipal and national governments kept citizens informed and calm, responding quickly to emergencies. In 2006, individual citizens and flamboyant tycoons compensated for bureaucratic incompetence; in 2009, the bureaucrats were the heroes.

More surprising, Israel’s governing trinity – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni – avoided the Lebanon War’s bragging and mission creep. This self-discipline reverberated down the chain of command. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was the war’s Greta Garbo, often seen rarely heard. And this time, officers collected soldiers’ cell phones to thwart electronic eavesdropping or loose lips.

The military learned to be as nimble as the terrorists. In 2006 Hizbullah easily ambushed regularly scheduled supply convoys lumbering along the three border crossings into Lebanon. This time, units entered and exited Gaza via multiple routes at random times, frequently picked out of a hat, so no one knew the next move.

This time, like last time, the entire army tried minimizing civilian casualties. Soldiers – especially pilots – occasionally aborted operations, missing targets to avoid killing unnecessarily. As the world’s self-righteous arbiters of morality protested – usually marching with crass anti-Semitic slogans – Israel’s soldiers struggled to balance strategy with morality while fighting an enemy that hides behind its own civilians. Soldiers coined a new word “misgrad,” linking the Hebrew for mosque, misgad, with the Grad missiles stored in too many Islamic houses of worship.

Considering Gaza’s density, Hamas’s propensity for cowering behind civilians, and the firepower Israel learned it needed to protect soldiers in urban combat, the number of civilian deaths was surprisingly low. Every innocent death is tragic. Still as one young tank commander said, “I saw an old woman hunched over with a suicide belt wrapped around her, walking into a building where our guys were stationed, what can you do…”

This soldier had just spent nearly two weeks in a tank. When encouraged, he described the cramped conditions, how cold the box of metal gets at night, the attempts to laugh at humiliating hygienic conditions. Apparently, one pair of underwear can last eight days. After two days you reverse it. Two days later turn the underwear inside out. Two days later, reverse again.

While Israel’s finest young people are forced to harden themselves amid the war’s blood, sweat, smoke, smells, fear and brutality, wars bring out a soft side in Israel’s body politic. The radio plays sappy songs, about – as one hit goes – the desire to embrace every soldier, from the Chief of Staff to the rawest recruit. Talk shows broadcast heartbreaking letters from teary mothers and fathers to their fighting “Dudus” and “Mickeys.” People like Haim Avraham, whose son Benny was kidnapped then killed by Hizbullah in 2000, visit the troops, hugging them and delivering supplies of candy bars, long johns, and, mercifully, clean underwear.

An often-impatient, aggressive society becomes remarkably calm and gracious. Pilots receiving gift bags say “give it to the soldiers”: reservists then offered the bags ask what about the recruits inside Gaza. Presented with gifts from the home front – or from Israel’s supporters worldwide – many soldiers were visibly moved, saying, “you strengthen us,” “this is what it’s all about,” “we’re fine, we’re doing our jobs, it’s the civilians in harm’s way who suffer.”

Perhaps the best perspective on the war could be found in Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital, where the homefront and the battlefront meet. Despite occasional “Tzeva Adom,” “red alert” sirens, the staffers worked resolutely, calmly, heroically. Many still can’t forget the heartbreaking new mothers’ shuffle, when the bombing began, leaving the maternity ward for a safer area. The pictures of Jewish, Beduin, Druse, and Muslim Israelis dressed in pajamas, some rolling their newborns in carts, others dragging IV monitors, illustrated just who Hamas targets  – as did the hospital’s need to put sandbags over its sleep lab. Just outside the hospital, by its helipads, a line of stretchers stood, waiting to be filled with the day’s casualties, the whiteness of the sheets soon to be stained by the blood of young kids who would rather surf the net than fight this tragic but justified war.

At one briefing for a North American rabbinic solidarity mission, one rabbi asked: “Do the Palestinian casualties from Gaza arrive here, too?” The administrator answered, “No longer. This is now for soldiers and for locals. Gazans go to other Israeli hospitals.” Here is Israel’s democratic dilemma, in all its messy grandeur. A democracy that sustains 10,000 rocket hits – especially after withdrawing from an area whose people could have then pursued peace – must defend itself. But both the rabbi and the doctor assumed – correctly — that Israel would nevertheless act as moral as possible in hellish circumstances.  And here, too, is the secret to Israel’s success. Along with the democratic capacity to improve, it has the democratic conscience to protect its own citizens while trying to minimize the enemy’s civilian casualties too.


Center Field: Why we are here

Why we are here in Israel (despite Gaza war)

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-12-09

My family and I returned from England on January 2, midway through the second year of our extended Israel adventure. The seventh day of war against Hamas’s rockets added frissons of anxiety to the usual arrival chaos. After an impromptu security check as we deplaned, guards detained one passenger.

Our driver met us, saying, “The situation is rough.” I told my daughter, “We’re going to have to be extra careful wandering around for now.” With a 13-year-old’s defiant logic, she replied “Then why are we here?”

It was a fair question. We were returning from Limmud – a festival of Jewish learning with 900 sessions for 2,000 participants in five days at a bucolic (if freezing) English campus. In that British bubble, or our usual Canadian cocoon, we never worried about suspicious objects or avoided riding on buses.

I gave my daughter a 5:30 a.m. airport answer: “Because good people don’t cut and run when bad guys start bombing.”

Of course, the answer goes deeper.

We are here because the Jewish people have only one homeland, only one Jewish place running on Jewish time, where we belong as a people and are not living by anyone else’s good graces. There is nothing like Jerusalem on a Shabbat, on Sukkot, on Yom Kippur. The tranquility, spirituality, community and history enveloping us and enriching our lives here are unique.

We are here because daily life here is also special. Kids roam comfortably, under neighbors’ watchful, even prying, eyes, as adults build this small, still fledgling state, with such potential, and yes, much room for improvement.

Many of those Israeli traits that Westerners dislike, the pushiness, the incessant improvisations, are the very characteristics that will help win this war and make this experiment work.

We are here because we, like Jerusalem’s many “meaning junkies,” as one friend calls them, seeking more to life than the latest pop culture trends, hoping to root our lives in enduring values.

We are here because when we wander around Jerusalem’s Old City or delight in Tel Aviv’s modernity, when we remove ancient pots from the ground or buy modern artistic knickknacks, we do it with the heroes of Jewish history sitting proudly on our shoulders: Deborah the prophetess or David the king, Sarah Aaronsohn the Nili spy or Menachem Begin the fighter turned peacemaker, Golda Meir the prime minister who also left America’s comforts or David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister who knew when to compromise in accepting the UN partition plan and when to plunge ahead in declaring the state despite American and Jewish calls to wait.

We are here because our great-grandparents dreamed of being here but could not be, because one grandfather fought in the 1948 War of Independence, and another helped smuggle weapons from New York so Israel could be free. For generations Jews have been singing “Next Year in Jerusalem.” This is our time to be in Jerusalem, build Jerusalem and be rebuilt by Jerusalem, not sing about it as if it were some impossible dream.

We are here because the fight against terror knows no boundaries; this month it is Sderot and our cousins’ kibbutz in the Negev, last month it was Mumbai; seven years ago on 9/11 it was my hometown, New York. But here Jews control their own fate, unlike the Lubavitchers in Mumbai who had to wait for the Indian army to get organized, unlike in Montreal where we have to beg to designate firebombing a Jewish day school a hate crime, only to see the perpetrators punished lightly.

We are here because – as I said at the airport – good people cannot flee but must fight evil. Even critics condemning Israel’s supposedly “disproportionate response” implicitly concede that a state is justified in responding to 10,000 rockets terrorizing its citizens over eight years. And I for one, am proud of Israel’s response – only after years of exhausting diplomatic efforts, only after offering the Palestinians a chance to build Gaza by removing the constant struggle with the settlers and the army, only after naive but well-meaning American Jewish philanthropists raised $14 million to donate the burgeoning hothouses the Israelis developed, inviting Palestinians to make Gaza productive rather than a terror center – which Palestinians then trashed. I am proud of Israel’s attempt to minimize civilian casualties even as Hamas terrorists cower behind women and children, behind mosques, hospitals and UN schools.

We are here because if we flee, who are we; if we let others fight for us, what are we; and if none of us fight, where will we – and the world – be? What values would we stand for if we abandoned Jerusalem, as cousin Daniel continues farming on the Gaza border with rockets flying overhead, as our friend Mickey and thousands of others serve their country, the Jewish people and the civilized world so honorably and selflessly?

Israel, the Jewish people’s national project, is a rich tapestry. Every day those of us in Israel, temporarily or permanently, add golden threads to this extraordinary old-new artwork. Some threads may be as short as the ones Birthright Israel participants add in their 10-day stints here, some may only last a year or two, others are lifelong. Others, tragically, are cut short – as we have seen too frequently in this war as well.

This is our moment to spin our Israeli yarn, and add to this magical Jewish tapestry with as many golden cords as we can create for as long as we choose, on our timetable, not cowed by anyone’s threats. And yes, being here will sometimes test our fiber. But a good yarn also means a great story, and we are blessed to be here, now, weaving the tapestry of modern Israel – and helping to star in this grand narrative, one of the amazing adventures of 21st century modern democratic life.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Barry Gelman of Houston and Gil Troy of Montreal