Gaza, the fridge in Gilo and moral responsibility


For some relief from the misery of Israel’s south and Gaza, here’s a joke from the second Intifada.

An American Jew at a party in New York tells an Israeli friend, “I’d love to visit, but it’s just too dangerous.” The Israeli protests: “Don’t believe what you see in the papers! Come, come, it’s safer than Brooklyn. Just avoid Jerusalem.”

A Jerusalemite listening in interjects: “What are you talking about, Jerusalem is as safe as Ramat Aviv. Except for Gilo, of course, but who goes to Gilo?”

“I happen to live in Gilo, bub,” a third man says. “It’s as boring as a suburb should be – as long as you keep away from Rehov Ha’anafa, across from the gunmen in Beit Jala-“

Ma pitom* Rehov Haanafa,” a girl says from across the room. “My parents live there, and I go every Shabbat, and I’m a certified coward. Forget about it, come to Rehov Ha’anafa, as long as you avoid 422, naturally-“

“422?!?” shouts the bartender. “422 is like a day in the park. A wonderful building, and I should know, my girlfriend lives there. Everyone knows 422 is fine, except for the miskenim in 10-B.”

Miskenim?” says the guy slumped in the corner, waking up. “I’ll give you miskenim, ya’ mamzer. We’re just fine in 10-B and everyone is invited next Shabbat to prove it. Keep out of the kitchen, is all.”

“The kitchen?” an older woman huffs. “As if you even know what it looks like. The kitchen is safe as can be,” she says, “As long as you don’t stand next to the fridge.”

And so on.

I know, some relief.

It’s hard to get around the dilemma this war poses, especially as refracted through the know-nothingism permeating commentary on the web and in the newspapers.

I’m Israeli, I lived there 15 years, a lot of them in an apartment like 422-10-B, facing a Palestinian village, and I don’t have answers. I wish I had the confidence of those who do.

But I only have questions. It’s all I can come up with, a whittling down, perhaps, of my (take your pick) self-confidence/moral centeredness/arrogance after way too many years of asking them.

So here are a few:

For the dimestore analysts who talk about Israel’s compunction for disproportionate response, as if it were somehow inherently Israeli: What is the worth of conclusions drawn only from selective data? I mean, if Israel’s response is “disproportionate” (to what, by the way? No one ever posits a “proportionate” response) what was it for those long periods since Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 that it did not respond at all? If there is some deep moral flaw in the Israeli character that naturally disposes to disproportionality, why isn’t it triggered each time a rocket lands in Sderot? And thousands have. This question first occurred to me during the Lebanon war in 2006, when the same sighs of “how Israeli” arose after a cross-border Hezbollah raid triggered aerial assaults and then a ground operation; the (willful?) amnesia struck me: Israel had suffered exactly such a raid in the summer of 2000, yet had NOT responded in kind. What did that say about Israel’s alleged trigger-happiness? And about Hezbollah’s recklessness (along the lines of “fool me once,” etc.)? If there’s one there’s one thing I’ve learned in 20 years as a reporter, it is that ascribing an inherent, immutable quality to a body as organic as a nation or a people is cheap anti-intellectualism at best and probably something far, far worse.

And before you start nodding, what is a “proportionate” response then? Why is 20 percent civilian deaths acceptable? Who deems it so? Supposedly, that’s comparable to Afghanistan; Is the NATO operation in Afghanistan something we (we Israelis) want to emulate? Does the storing of weapons in civilian areas justify the risk of taking children’s lives? Is anyone making these decisions asking these questions? What is the acceptable risk factor? Loose talk of “collateral damage” is, well, meaningless. No, worse, it has meaning: The relativization of human life.

And speaking of meaning, what do these knee-jerk calls for a cease-fire and a return to the peace process mean? What peace process involved Hamas? This is a group that since 2006 has had an opportunity to set up a functioning Islamist state. Think of it: Had Gaza run smoothly and Hamas maintained the peace, how could the Israeli leadership have resisted recognizing its governance? How could Israel plausibly resist relinquishing governance and land in the West Bank? And releasing prisoners? The pressure would have been internal as well: Occupation uncoupled from security is profoundly unpopular in Israel. And think of the regional repercussions: If Israel could accommodate Islamism in Gaza, how could Egypt and Jordan resist within their borders? I simply don’t see any other sequence arising out of a peaceful mini-state in Gaza. Yet Hamas seemed determined to smash this golden opportunity, apparently because killing Israeli civilians matters more to it than, well, survival. And yes, I know about the privations caused by Israel’s U.S.-backed blockade – triggered, after all, by democratic elections – but somehow, Hamas managed to smuggle in materiel enough to manufacture hundreds of rockets, including long-range missiles; it might have been smuggling in food and medicine and fuel. And, again, a peaceful Gaza would have created pressure enough for Israel to lift its embargoes – if pressure was needed. My sense is that the Olmert government would have done so of its own accord had peace prevailed. So what does Israel do about the arms buildup just miles from Ashkelon, less than an hour’s leisurely drive from Tel Aviv?   And yes, the rocket fire has radically diminished during the ceasefire – proof that Hamas can indeed rein it in – but the smuggling intensified (the proof is now in the longrange rockets reaching Beersheba and Ashkelon.) Who would regard an ceasefire coupled with arms buildup as a true "ceasefire"?  Is a ceasefire really the right answer? What about smarter fire?

And speaking of smarter fire and smarter embargoes: Just as the fire is “proportionate,” Israeli and pro-Israel spokesmen will insist that the embargoes are necessitated by the smuggling and, God forbid, are not collective punishment. Please forgive the hard nudge and the broad wink. As Dennis Ross and others have written, a greater commitment of Israeli manpower at security checkpoints would substantially mitigate against arming terrorists while providing relief to civilians; yet Israel has never made this a priority. And Gaza’s civilians are suffering commensurately. Israeli officials don’t often publicly acknowledge collective punishment (it’s against the law), but any veteran of military service in the territories – okay, this veteran of military service in the territories will tell you – it is routinely used to justify shutting down a village where trouble has occurred. (“We’re going to squeeze them a little, and they’ll give up the bad guys, or at least force them to go somewhere else so it won’t be our problem” is how I remember one commander explaining it in the Bureij refugee camp an eon ago.) Yitzhak Rabin, not one to suffer legal niceties gladly, bluntly made the same case more than once for broader operations. Leave aside for a moment the moral question – what is the usefulness of collective punishment? After 40 years of its intermittent use, are the Palestinians more quiescent? Has it ever been effective in the territories? Anyone heard of summud? I can think of only one instance where it had limited effect: Operation Accountabilty in 1993, where Rabin made clear he was creating an internal refugee crisis in Lebanon to pressure the government into reining in Hezbollah. But that was Lebanon. Has it ever worked on the Palestinians? And back to the moral question: How is pressuring civilians to effect policy changes not terrorism (albeit of a less lethal kind than that practiced by Hamas)?

And speaking of civilians caught in the crossfire – what is so extraordinary about this little war that it merits enhanced attention from the president-elect, from the media, from the teenager stuffing “People” into your groceries bag? Editor and Publisher’s Greg Mitchell has wondered aloud why the sufferings of the Palestinians have not merited greater coverage by the media and “liberal bloggers” (coulda fooled me). The implication is that we’re all cowering for fear of repercussions from the teeth-gnashing, gut-clawing “Israel lobby” monster. (JTA’s report is here.) The suffering has merited multiple-day front-page coverage; is the same true of eastern Congo? Of Abkhazia? Of Pakistan’s border provinces? The follow-up evasion to this usually is that Israel’s conflicts are not isolated, they threaten to engulf the region, etc. etc., yet that does not seem true in this case; if anything, Israel’s neighbors are making a new art of thumb-twiddling in hopes of seeing an Islamist movement crushed.

But that doesn’t absolve us – us Jews, us Israelis – from asking questions. It is a war waged in our name. It is a war we have been asked to defend, as American Jews, and if we have an obligation to defend Israel, we have a right to ask hard questions, and not just in chambers. The hoary old emotional blackmail – “Israel knows best, its government is on the front line” – is still dead, buried by its most strident advocates the minute they turned on Oslo. The Israeli standing by the fridge in Ashdod – and the Palestinian standing in the kitchen in Khan Yunis  – deserve no less.

*Ma pitom, literally, “What, suddenly,” is one of those transient, untranslatable idioms that means something different from use to use – in this case, “What are you talking about?” “Miskenim” means “poor slobs” and “ya’, mamzer” means exactly that.

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