November 20, 2012
A call from Tel Aviv: Freaked, at first
Is this a war?
It’s so hard to know these days. Wars used to happen on things called battlefields, where armies met, fought and met again.
What’s going on in Gaza and Israel is far murkier than that. In Israel, the rockets rain down on apartment buildings, fields, schools. The retaliation into Gaza, for all Israel’s careful targeting, must of necessity strike neighborhoods, homes, children.
This is not a war of tanks in the Sinai or dogfights over Damascus. It is a war of families huddled in stairwells, of bodies spilled out of cars. The wars of Israel get more intimate as the home fronts and battlefronts merge.
My friend Simone left a message on my cell phone when the fighting began. She had moved to Tel Aviv from Los Angeles less than a month ago, when her boyfriend, Wes, got a high-tech research job there. “You’ll love it,” I’d told her. “Most fun city in the world.”
“Rob,” Simone’s voice quavered. “I know it’s 3:30 in the morning, but we just heard explosions over Tel Aviv and I’m freaking out.”
Is it an existential war for Israel?
At first read, no: As of Monday, Israel has suffered just three casualties. Hamas is using weapons that are several rungs below conventional. No enemy armies are poised to invade, no enemy aircraft will — or perhaps even can — take to the skies.
But appearances are deceptive. No country can be expected to tolerate, as Israel has, its people being subject to unremitting terror from the skies. No country would accept that as “the price of doing business.” No economy or tourist industry or education system can function indefinitely under the constant threat of missile attack. As long as Hamas continues to procure, store and use rockets, Israel’s survival is at stake. Gaza 2012 is the latest battle in a war that began in 1948, when Arab nations rejected the Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, escalating in 1967 when Arab armies threatened to wipe Israel off the map, and again when Egypt sought its revenge in 1973.
“The problem for the 1 million (out of a total of 7 million) Israelis who live in the southern part of the state closest to the Gaza Strip has been the ongoing unleashing of Hamas rockets against these southern communities,” Jerusalem Report writer Robert Slater wrote in an e-mail to friends. “Though casualties have been few, those 1 million Israelis live in constant dread that a rocket will fall on them.”
And it’s not just the south: Slater’s family in Jerusalem had to rush into a bomb shelter when air raid sirens went off there. Several rockets exploded near or above Tel Aviv.
We hear of all this instantly. The air raid sirens go off in Tel Aviv, and seconds later a push notification pops up on my iPhone. We Skype my brother-in-law as he sits with his daughter in a Tel Aviv cafe, waiting for the next round. I listen to live reports on Galei Tahal and Reshet Gimel, via an app called Israel Radio, as if I’m driving on the Ayalon Highway. My e-mail inbox fills up with first-hand accounts and cell phone video clips. My Twitter feed shows photos of friends in shelters, and of Palestinian children in Gaza mangled by Israeli retaliation. In intimate wars, there is no escaping the battle, or the images.
“Why is Hamas doing this?” a friend asked — because everyone sees the inevitable and fearsome retribution Israel is able to inflict.
The simplest answer is, because it’s Hamas. If Hamas cared about Palestinian children, it would cease its fire. If its warriors didn’t want to paint themselves in the blood of innocent women and children, it would stop. If it wanted to build the Gaza economy, with Israel as a partner, it would quit. But it can’t: Hamas is the heir to the same dead-end ideology that has compelled Arab nations to reject and battle Israel from the beginning of the state. This current conflict is one more skirmish in that longer war. Israeli tanks rolled across Gaza in June 1967 to thwart an Egyptian army advance — and the battle goes on.
Israel captured and then occupied Gaza for decades, then withdrew unilaterally to allow Palestinians to shape their own future. But Hamas decided the future lay in … 1967.
Israel, of course, is not what it was then. It has rockets that can intercept and shoot down rockets midair. It has cities and an economy far more resilient than it had decades ago. It has people who know — intimately — what it takes to live next to a neighbor who wants to destroy them.
By the time I checked back in with Simone, she had endured several air raid sirens, several fast walks to the shelter or reinforced hallways, where people brought their laptops and their dachshunds, and stood around and talked.
She told me she was now embarrassed to think how frightened she was in her first message to me.
“You kind of get used to it,” she said.