Fear, Loathing and Frustration in Tel Aviv, With Small Slivers of Hope

'Shall the sword devour you forever?' Abner asked Joab in the second book of Samuel; in Israel this week, the answer was an emphatic yes.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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An Iron Dome missile flies through the sky above Tel Aviv to intercept a missile fired from Gaza, July 12, 2014.Credit: David Bachar
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

1. The thing that struck me almost immediately when I arrived in Israel ten days ago was the palpable sense of despondence. Friends, relatives and colleagues, as far as I could tell, were more depressed than ever. And this was before the ridiculously named Operation Protective Edge had gotten under way, before things went from bad to worse and from there to bloody awful.

The kidnapping of the three boys near Hebron united the country in shared concern and outrage but also shattered the illusion of normalcy and stability created by the long period of relative calm. Beyond the empathy for the anguish of the families and the hope against hope that the three boys would somehow be found alive, the abductions triggered traumatic memories of the ordeal of captured soldier Gilad Shalit and recalled the horrors of the second intifada, which Israelis had tried to suppress.

Then came the brutal murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Kheider, which genuinely shocked most Israelis, I believe, including those who have been warning for years that such violence was inevitable, given the brutalization of Israeli society over 47 years of occupation. At the other end, some of the strongest protests against the murder came from right wing settlers and their political leaders who tried to preempt claims that they had helped create the atmosphere that could spawn such violence in the first place.

But any chance for even a modest bout of soul-searching was abruptly curtailed by rocket attacks and bombing runs over Gaza and the simultaneous resurgence of national solidarity, self-righteousness and a deep sense of victimhood. The volleys of rockets on Israeli cities sparked fear and apprehension, but also frustration and resignation. Israeli lives were disrupted, tourists ran away, an already faltering economy was destined to suffer even more and Israel was on the defensive in the international arena, once again.

The previous narrative of periods of calm periodically marred by hostilities was replaced by one of ongoing hostilities interrupted by intermittent calm. “Shall the sword devour you forever?” Shaul’s general Abner asked David’s Joab in the second book of Samuel; in Israel this week, the answer was an emphatic yes.

Little wonder that by the time I left, most of my interlocutors were united in their despair of all the concerned parties, including the U.S. Administration, which seemed powerless to intervene. Surrounded by the doom and gloom, I was not as surprised at the end of my visit as I was at its outset by the fatalistic sighs of disappointment voiced by some of my older acquaintances or by their children’s persistent inquiries about employment opportunities abroad.

2. Israel does not purposely target civilians. It does not use citizens as human shields. It takes measures to try to ensure that loss of civilian life will be kept to a minimum. It arguably does more than any other army in the world to hold “collateral damage” to a minimum.

But that does not mean, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, that Hamas and its partners are the “only ones” responsible for civilian casualties in Gaza. Try as it might, Israel cannot absolve itself completely of responsibility for the carnage that its own planes and weapons are causing, justifiable as the military campaign may be. And at a certain point in time, the numbers start adding up: how many civilian casualties does it take before Israel becomes culpable? Will Israel still exempt itself if 500 Palestinian civilians are dead? How about 1,000?

Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s particularly effective brand of moral one-upmanship and black vs. white view of the world have played a major role in erasing any Israeli empathy for Palestinians and in casting any effort to engage as self-introspection as tantamount to perfidy. The same can be said these days, unfortunately, of the Jewish establishment.

Israel has certainly come a long and wrong way since it prided itself on the moral qualms and combat ambiguities that found expression in the book “The Seventh Day” that documented the angst of soldiers who fought in the Six Day War. If they spoke out today, such soldiers would more likely be pilloried as traitors and possibly attacked with violence on the streets of Tel Aviv, as left-wing demonstrators were on Saturday night.

3. Against this backdrop, Haaretz’s Conference of Peace flickered like an unexpected shimmer of hope and optimism on an otherwise dark and dismal landscape. Lambasted by its numerous critics as proving Haaretz’s disconnect from the belligerent reality surrounding them, it was also a defiant challenge to the prevailing resignation to many more decades of violence and occupation. For the conference’s participants, at least, it was a much-needed shot in the arm at a time when they needed one most.

As Peter Beinart wrote on his Facebook page (and we thank him for it): “I'm sure lots of people will post snarky things about fact that--as Israel and Hamas prepare for war--Haaretz is hosting a conference on peace. (I'm here in Tel Aviv to speak at it). Those deluded, utopian lefties, if only they'd reconcile themselves to the fact that Jews will always be hated and Israel will always be besieged, etc. Actually, the conference encapsulates what I most admire about my Haaretz colleagues in Israel: their refusal to submit to fatalism and dehumanization irrespective of the odds. Their refusal to use the trauma of being Israeli to foreswear their moral obligations to the Palestinians with whom they share the land. When I think of how many Americans (myself included) gave ourselves over to war fever after 9/11--which was a one-time incident--I am awed by their ability to keep their intellectual and moral bearings after lives scarred by decades of terrorism and war. To every Diaspora Jew who justifies anti-Arab racism by shrugging and saying, "well, given what Israelis have endured, what can you expect," Haaretz represents a rebuke.”
As for the left-wing ruffians who famously interrupted Minister Naftali Bennet: one can be appalled by their lack of courtesy and civility but nonetheless encouraged that the hardcore left still has a pulse.

4. Haj K’hil is a relatively posh Arab restaurant on the northwest corner of the Clock Circle in Jaffa. It was packed on Friday night with well-heeled Jaffa Arabs who were breaking their Ramadan fast with a traditional Iftar meal. We were met by sullen faces, but it was hard to tell whether our sense of being less than welcome was real or just a projection of what we would expect, given the harsh punishment that the Israeli Air Force was inflicting on Gaza, less than 100 kilometers away.
After half an hour, those with iPhones nearby were the only ones to know that a “Red Paint” warning had been activated for the Tel Aviv area, because the air raid siren could hardly be heard. An excited chatter spread through the customers in some parts of the room while others studiously kept a straight face and went on eating as if nothing had happened.

Together with the man who was sitting behind me, I turned to the window to look at the two ascending orange lights rising in the sky on their way to intercept two incoming Hamas rockets. We pointed them out to each other: “Kipat Barzel” I said, using the Hebrew name for the anti-missile missile; “Kibat Barzel” he concurred, given the Arabs’ difficulty to pronounce the letter ‘p’.

A few seconds later we both pointed to the flashes in the sky, as the outgoing missies blew up the incoming. “It’ll take about a minute or more,” he told me as a seasoned observer while we waited together for the boom: one forgets how sound crawls in comparison to the speed of light.

The experience broke the ice between us and some of the families who were iftarring together. We exchanged Iron Dome anecdotes, then moved on to the best ways of making shawarma and where is the best ice cream shop in Jaffa. Telling by their glares, this Jewish-Arab camaraderie didn’t seem to go down very well with some of the others in the restaurant, but we soon finished our meal anyway, bade goodbye to our new friends and left.

We stepped out to the square and made our way to the flea market, whose trendy hotspots were busy, though my daughter told me that far less than usual. We looked up at the night sky and saw two more ascending lights expire in flashes as they intercepted two more incoming. This time there had been no advance warning at all. “Wait a bit more than a minute”, we told each other, possibly in an Arab accent, as we waited for the boom.

Some of the people around us were aware of the light and sound show above, others, with earphones on, were completely oblivious: no one seemed to get excited. The sound of the muezzin from a nearby mosque seemed much more obtrusive. “Rockets, shmockets,” one passerby noted: “Why does the muezzin have to be so loud?”

5. Israelis are gratified at the spectacular success of the Iron Dome missile system and are well aware of the sustained support that the Obama administration has offered, so far, for its operation in Gaza. Strange timing for New Jersey governor Chris Christie to attack Obama for failing to support Israel and to hold him partially responsible for the Hamas rocket attacks. Weirder still was conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s claim on Fox News that the administration was “a borderline Jew-hating administration.”

In Shapiro’s favor, however, it's true that it's often hard to tell what or who is borderline and who isn’t. 

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