A chastened Israel fights for its life and its soul – POLITICO

todayNovember 10, 2023 5

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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In 2006, celebrated Israeli author David Grossman’s son Uri was killed in Lebanon when his tank was hit by a Hezbollah rocket. At his son’s funeral, Grossman spoke of the perennial dilemma Israelis face living in such an unforgiving neighborhood — having to defend themselves physically, while maintaining their integrity and not surrendering to cynicism.

“We have to guard ourselves from might and simplistic thinking, from the corruption that is in cynicism, from the pollution of the heart and the ill-treatment of humans, which are the biggest curse of those living in a disastrous region like ours,” he said.

The Levant is indeed a harsh environment, and Israel is defending itself once again, determined never to suffer a repeat of what is now being called the Black Shabbat. The country is still reeling from the shock and egregious savagery of the attacks by Hamas — the worst in their country’s 75-year history — and politicians across the spectrum share the conviction that this must never be allowed to happen again.

Yet during an interview with journalist Ilana Dayan shortly after the attacks, Grossman asked: “What kind of people will we become after all this is over?” According to Dayan, the question echoed the author’s eulogy for his son. “Uri was someone who believed in service, in his duty to serve, but someone who cared for human lives. We must keep doing both, fighting for our lives and fighting for our souls,” she told POLITICO.

As Israel combats an unrelenting, hardline Hamas, this contest between defense and integrity is growing sharper and more poignant.

The militant Islamist organization doesn’t shy away from spilling Palestinian as well as Israeli blood. Its strategy is to provoke Israeli retaliation while using Gazans as expendable human shields; the more Palestinians killed, the greater the storm of outrage Hamas can foment. In this scenario, Israel can be painted the aggressor, the “Arab street” erupts, and Israel’s reaction risks eroding Western support. It’s a dismal, long-playing record.

Israel has had to fight from birth. It was invaded by Arab armies within 24 hours of proclaiming its independence, and the wars and conflicts haven’t stopped since. But the Hamas attacks on October 7, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, shocked Israelis more than ever before. “Never Again” had happened — and happened inside the Jewish state, where Israelis are meant to be safe. Israel’s sense of itself has been shattered, along with its self-confidence.

Before the attack, three basic assumptions were shared by Israelis: that they are impregnable behind the iron walls they’ve built; that their army and intelligence services are dependable, alert and always on top of threats; and that for all the political turmoil and divisiveness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s years in power, the country has a functional government.

All those assumptions proved false.

“I realized we were alone,” said 62-year-old Noam Tibon, a retired major general and former special forces commander. “The whole system collapsed, the system that was supposed to protect the border collapsed. There were brave soldiers who fought but most were caught by surprise. The military was in chaos and broken.”

Tibon witnessed this firsthand. He and his wife had just finished a morning swim near their Tel Aviv apartment when their eldest son Amir, a journalist, called to say he and his family had taken refuge in the safe room of their house in a southern Israeli kibbutz, Nahal Oz, which was now being overrun by Hamas gunmen.

Tibon told his son the army would come soon, but after a few calls to senior military commanders, he realized that wasn’t going to happen — the army was instead scrambling to understand the scale and horror of what was unfolding and, to Tibon’s own horror, flailing. So he grabbed a pistol and headed south with his wife. 

“Israel has already been changed,” former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told POLITICO | Pool photo by Gali Tibbon via Getty Images

Their story that day is the stuff of Hollywood films, their rescue mission encapsulating the spirit of the Jewish state’s pioneers. They rescued survivors of the music festival massacre, aided wounded Israeli soldiers and engaged in gun battles. Tibon, seizing a helmet and an M-16 carbine from a fallen soldier, rallied disparate army and police units to force their way into his son’s kibbutz and save it.

“Grandpa’s here,” chirped his eldest grandchild, aged 3, on his arrival.

But as Tibon described the bloody twists and turns of Israel’s Black Shabbat, of the mutilated and burnt bodies he saw, of weaving his car between corpses strewn across roads, he kept saying: “We were alone.” As if still unable to understand how the government and military could have collapsed, how the devastating events of that day could have been allowed to happen. This wasn’t the Israel he knew — nor is it for most others.

And the lessons many are drawing are these: Sooner or later, the country’s top military commanders and spy chiefs must go — as must Netanyahu, who is widely blamed for the government’s disrepair — and the army and intelligence services must be rebuilt. But people feel above all that Israel has grown complacent and negligent over the last few years.

“The country has been thriving, and we didn’t want to recognize we had a terrorist state on our border. We didn’t want to be drawn back into fighting; we didn’t want to be bothered with negotiations and two-state solutions,” Dayan said. “We had our heads in the sand.” Meanwhile, Hamas was planning the devastation to come.

“Israel has already been changed,” former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told POLITICO, adding that a new Israel will have to emerge — more modest, and shorn of arrogance. The Palestinian issue can no longer be ignored.

“We boosted Hamas to undermine the Palestinian Authority. We thought we could manage everything, and that Hamas would behave according to our expectations. But everything has blown up in our faces,” he added.

As the country rebuilds, and Israelis slowly regain confidence, the state must once again be made secure.

“I once said Israel is a villa in the jungle,” recounted former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “Inside your villa, you can enjoy your jacuzzi, classical music, whatever you like. When you step outside, you should be ready to pull the trigger or not survive. But now it has become worse. You can be slaughtered inside your villa.”

“This is really a neighborhood where there’s no mercy for the weak, no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves. But we are a defiant species; we fight back and we will win,” he said.

According to Barak and others, Hamas must now be defeated. “Innocent Gazans will be killed because Israel cannot give impunity to those murderers who perpetrated the barbaric attack on October 7 just because they use their own citizens to protect themselves,” he said.

But how Israel defends itself is a matter of contention, at least for Israel’s allies. The country’s leaders complain they’re not getting enough credit for their efforts to minimize civilian casualties and observe the laws of war. “We do a lot more probably than others,” more than Western powers did when they ejected the Islamic State from Mosul and Raqqa, Barak said.

Of course, unlike Hamas, Israel has lawyers review its targeting lists. The country has urged Gazans in the enclave’s north to head south to avoid Armageddon, and has dropped leaflets and broadcast warnings, both on the radio and even on Gaza’s main TV channel — thanks to Israeli hackers. Authorities have also publicized times when north-south humanitarian corridors will be safe from Israeli military activity.

But civilians continue to die, due largely to how enmeshed Hamas’ military is with Gaza’s civilian infrastructure.

As Grossman noted over his son’s grave, one of the curses Israel must guard against is the “ill-treatment of humans.” And to the outside world, the war it is waging in Gaza looks extreme. However, most Israelis POLITICO spoke with this past week don’t think so — and that’s reflected across the political spectrum.

This includes Israeli tech entrepreneur and longtime Netanyahu critic Eyal Waldman, who lost his 24-year-old daughter Danielle and her boyfriend on October 7; Hamas killed them as they tried to flee. Waldman has since become an important figure in an Israeli effort to explain why Hamas must be uprooted.

Previously known for building bridges with Palestinians and striving to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East, Waldman now says there’s nothing to talk about. “We must continue fighting until we eliminate Hamas, or exile it and free the Israeli hostages. We need to do everything to win the war.”

Israel, too, continues to fight its endless battle, searching for balance between humanity and the dangers of appearing weak in an unforgiving neighborhood.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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