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Israel wants a cease-fire Worthy of soldiers’ sacrifice

by Shmuel Rosner

July 22, 2014 | 4:39 am

Israeli soldiers mourn with the brother of Israeli soldier Bnaya Rubel (kneeling) during Rubel's funeral in Holon on July 20. Photo by Nir Elias/Reuters

84 soldiers of the Golani brigade, one of Israel's finest infantry units, were killed in battles on Mount Hermon back in the war of 1973. Their photos were all assembled for a book that came out last year, forty years after the Yom Kippur War, in which a minute by minute account of this battle leaves the reader breathless and devastated.

It begins with a poetic eulogy, written by one of Israel's most famous lyricists, Haim Hefer, who visited the site of battle soon after it ended, when bodies and blood, and barbed wire were still spread around. The book, by Ilan Kfir, recounts that the Golani officer in charge wasn't quite happy to have Hefer come in so soon, and thought he had more important, more urgent things to do than hosting the artist. "His protest didn't matter much, the Commander of Northern Command wanted the visit to take place". Four days later, Hefer shared his impressions with his many readers – he had a column in Yediot Daily at the time and for many years. "Here, in Golani's road of battle… here you walk slowly".

War was Hefer's strong suit. One of his most famous lines appears in a song titled "The Last War". A naïve poem, in which no one believes today: "In the name of all the fathers that went to the terrible battle… I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war". It was almost natural to be reminded of these lines as the stories of the many soldiers that died in the battles of Gaza started making their rounds. Most of them were young soldiers. Most of them weren't promised by their fathers that any war will be the last one. Like Oz Mendelovitz, who was among the thirteen casualties of the battle of Shejaiya. Mendelovitz's father never promised him a last war – but rather pushed him to join the Golani brigade, where he was an officer many years ago.

Just a couple of weeks ago the two of them, father and son, were jointly interviewed on the radio. "When he was drafted", the father said, "I regretted a little that I injected too much Golani into him". But then he said that he doesn't truly regret it. When Oz was at the final march of his basic training, the father joined in with the young soldiers, climbing with them up Maale Golani, on Mount Hermon.

Israelis had to begin to contend with these heartbreaking stories, as the "limited ground maneuver" in Gaza was slogging forward into its extended form. This term, a limited ground maneuver, short of war, but larger than a skirmish, was the choice of two experts of The Institute for National Security Studies in a recent paper. "The Israeli government", wrote Udi Dekel and Shlomo Brom, two former IDF planners, "defined limited goals for the campaign. The first was to attain a stable ceasefire that will last a long time and be achieved via Israel’s strengthened deterrence against Hamas… The second goal was to deal a harsh blow to Hamas’ military capabilities, on the assumption that after the change in Egypt’s policy toward Hamas and the destruction of the tunnels along the Gaza-Sinai border, it would be hard for Hamas to rebuild its military strength for a long time".

A lot of noise makes it difficult for many people to see these two simple objectives clearly. There is noise originated in a public discourse that becomes unbearable at times, and there is the constant noise of politicians aiming to score a point, and the noise of the media that has to fill many hours of constant broadcasting and many pages of newspapers. Yet amid all the interruptions, most of the Israeli public seems quite ready to accept the sober reality and the high cost of a military operation that had to be extended. It also seems generally satisfied with the calm leadership of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. These two are not always the shining example of restraint. Netanyahu can be pompous in appearances; Yaalon can be reckless with words. But not this time. In the last couple of weeks they seem focused and aren't easily distracted by provocations of their opponents or supposed supporters.

Yet their ultimate test still lies ahead: that is, the test of getting to a cease-fire that is compatible with the goals, a cease-fire that will weaken Hamas and contribute to a continuous gradual dismantling of its military capabilities. This isn't an easy test. As the world watches Gaza and the mounting number of casualties, its instinctive tendency – the humane tendency - is to want a cease of hostilities. And reaching such a cease is contingent on an understanding on which the two sides can agree. And obviously, Hamas doesn't want to accept a cease fire that makes it weaker, while Israel sees no point in having a cease fire that makes Hamas stronger, or keeps it as strong as it was before the Protective Edge operation.

So, as both sides count their dead – and no, Israel isn't much troubled by the fact that there is no "proportion" in the number of deaths, nor should it be - the Israeli government can easily find itself between a rock and a hard place. As Israelis painfully recount the very high cost in Israeli lives, they become even more adamant in wanting the operation to be worth the price, to achieve its goals. But as outside forces think about the high cost in life – more Palestinian than Israeli – of the hostilities, they become even more adamant in wanting to put an end to the fighting.

John Kerry, inserting himself not quite by invitation into the process of cease-fire negotiations, gave voice to this view: "We're deeply concerned about the consequences of Israel's appropriate and legitimate effort to defend itself", he said. Israel is not yet subjected to condemnation for its action – many governments understand that under the circumstances it had little choice and had to act. But this can quickly change if a cease fire agreement is on the table and Israel becomes the reluctant party that refuses to accept it. On the other hand, if the government accepts a cease-fire that the Israeli public finds insufficient, political pressure not to sign on to it can also easily mount. On Tuesday, it was quite remarkable to see how Israelis from almost all political corners – from rightist Naftali Bennet, to centrist Tzipi Livni, to harsh Netanyahu critic Yuval Diskin – all said that this was not yet the time to end the operation, that a further expansion might be needed before Israel can say that tangible enough achievements were made.

Of course, the trouble here is that Israel has to trust outside forces to devise a plan for a cease-fire with the same aim in mind as Israel's. That is why Egypt is, from an Israeli viewpoint, a much better mediator than US. President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who, while understanding and supportive, seem to want quiet first and foremost. The Egyptian government has no illusions regarding the situation, is less troubled by the suffering of Gazans, and also wants a cease fire that weakens Hamas. Egypt is more likely to insist on the kind of understanding that will ultimately put Hamas out of business. Not tomorrow, maybe not for a long time, but eventually.

Can Israel be tough enough and smart enough to devise such a policy? One reason to think it will have to come up with something is the cost in Israeli lives that is burdening Israelis' conscience in the last couple of days. The Golani Brigade, of which so many soldiers have died in Gaza, made a name for itself by never quitting a battle before it is won. It made a name for itself by climbing again and again on Mount Hermon – even though this wasn't necessarily the tactically wise thing to do – until it was conquered. The Israeli public looks at the names of the dead, at their remarkable stories, at their grieving families, and demand a simple thing: to have a government worthy of their sacrifice, a government that doesn't quit the battle - a limitedly defined battle to begin with - before it is won.

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