On April 29, 1956 Roi Rotberg, the 21 year old security officer of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, was killed by Arab marauders near the border with Gaza, a short distance away from the area in which the IDF lost 13 soldiers yesterday. Rotberg’s assailants carried his body over the border, mutilated it and then handed it over to United Nations observers. Then IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, who had met Roi a few days earlier, came to his funeral, where he delivered a eulogy that has endured for over half a century as a foundational cornerstone of Israel’s never-ending struggle against its southern neighbors.
In exquisite Hebrew prose imbibed with biblical references, Dayan astonished his listeners with his brutally candid view of Rotberg’s killers, their connection to the disputed land and their motives. “Yesterday at dawn Roi was murdered. The quiet of the spring morning blinded him, and he did not see those who sought his life hiding behind the furrows. Let us not today cast blame on his murderers. What can we say against their terrible hatred of us? For eight years now, they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their land and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home.”
But Dayan’s acknowledgement of the refugees’ rage does not lead him to the kind of peace-embracing positions that he would adopt after the 1973 war, in the twilight of his career. On the contrary, it is the “peaceniks” of his own generation – critics of David Ben Gurion’s proactive military policies against the Fedayeen - that served as the main target of his criticism. As historian Benny Morris translates in his book Israel’s Border Wars, Dayan said: “It is not among the Arabs of Gaza but in our own midst that we must seek Roi’s blood. How did we shut our eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate and see, in all its brutality, the fate of our generation?
“Beyond the furrow of the border surges a sea of hatred and revenge, revenge that looks towards the day when the calm will blunt our alertness, the day when we shall listen to the ambassadors of malign hypocrisy who call upon us to lay down our arms. To us and us alone cries out Roi’s blood, from his mangled body. Because we swore a thousand times that our blood will not be spilled lightly – and yet again yesterday we were tempted, we listened and we believed.”
“Let us take stock with ourselves. We are a generation of settlement and without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us. Let us not drop our gaze, lest our arms weaken. That is the fate of our generation. That is our choice – to be ready and armed, tough and hard – or else the sword shall fall fro our hands and our lives will be cut short.”
“Young Roi, who went forth from Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a bulwark from his people – the light in his heart blinded his sight and he failed to hear the voice of the murderer waiting in ambush. The gates of Gaza proved too heavy for his shoulders, and overcame him.”
For many Israelis, the reality around them today is identical to that which confronted Dayan at the time. Many view the Palestinian enmity as eternal and unchanging, although they may be less inclined than Dayan to recognize their attachment to the land. Others will claim that Dayan’s harsh and unyielding philosophy, formulated at a time when the country was smaller and weaker than in is today, has blinded Israel to opportunities in which negotiation and moderation was the order of the day.
On a sad day in which so many names are added to the thousands that followed in Roi Rotberg’s footsteps, Dayan’s speech will serve as source of inspiration for some, but as a reason for despair for others.