A Nation Clad in Combat Fatigues

How typical it is of this country-in-uniform that all eyes should be trained on the IDF officers' challenge to the legality of orders and operations in the territories and on their objection to serving in these areas.

How typical it is of this country-in-uniform that all eyes should be trained on the IDF officers' challenge to the legality of orders and operations in the territories, on their objection to serving in these areas, and on their dispute with the chief of staff over who is more political. Meanwhile, a dismal report testifying to the decline and moral rot of civilian society has been greeted with indifference.

The document in question is a report on the work of the Israeli police force in 2001. Ostensibly, this is a dry digest of facts and figures, but actually it is an elegiac lament on the price that citizens of Israel pay every day for a war that has become a way of life. Have we ever lived differently? No one even remembers anymore.

Well, Minister of Defense Benjamin Ben-Eliezer can proclaim that the "country is euphoric," Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz can boast of our "power of endurance," and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, spinning the first anniversary of his election, can accuse the media of "painting the situation more black than it really is." (This is from the inventor of the incessant bleat of the opposition that "the situation is grave, very grave.")

However, the true facts as laid out in the police report, are as follows - 208 civilians were killed and 1,523 were wounded in 1,794 terrorist attacks in 2001. That means that in just one year of this "scrap Oslo and eradicate terror" government, there have been more attacks than in all four Oslo years that went before it.

In addition - and not coincidentally perhaps - there has been a 28 percent rise in criminally-motivated murders, a 20 percent rise in child abuse, and a dramatic increase in the number of robberies. As he summed up the statistics, a glum looking Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishky offered this gloomy prophecy in a kind of rap-style dirge: "Terror will increase. Violence and serious crime will rise. There will be more of links between terrorism and criminality. Personal and public safety will decline."

One doesn't need a police report or a commissioner's lament to grasp that this continuous state of war is of no benefit to the "Israeli street," no matter what the ministers of the right and the heads of the security establishment would have us believe.

Indeed, listening to the Sharon-Mofaz-Ben-Eliezer triumvirate and the ardent supporters of escalation, one would think that we were languishing in the midst of the Golden Age, splashing happily in the springs of salvation. One might think there is nothing finer, healthier or more invigorating than these Renaissance days of "living by the sword."

Perhaps it's all in the spirit of guess-who (hint - bald and Italian). He believed "neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace; war alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it."

Even democratic leaders have tried to "bring forth sweetness from the strong," in the manner of Samson, or to speak like Winston Churchill of the "finest hour" of those engaged in the most bitter warfare. But look how ugly our "hour" is! Step out into the street of any Israeli city, and already one feels the apprehension, the depression, the violence, the melancholy that are the pernicious outcome of military tension and economic woes, combined with the absence of any political vision, hope, or sense of direction.

In Jerusalem, a sheep is slaughtered on the sidewalk at the mayor's feet - a cross between an offering of thanks for being saved from a terrorist attack, and a ritual to ward off future evil attacks. In Pithat Rafiah, an entire settlement panics and packs up to leave following the prediction of some fortune-teller. In Hadera, the noise of a car backfiring brings people running into the streets waving guns in the air.

In Israeli cities, lynching suspected terrorists has become an element of lifestyle. "Good morning" has been replaced by "bomb alert." No question about it - something at the very core of life in this country is beginning to unravel. The home front has known difficult days, even before it became a battleground - even before having to resign itself to sacrificing an average of two citizens a day on the altar of revenge killings, occupying territories while insisting on no fences, and keeping a unity coalition alive.

But the Israeli people have never been led for so long, and so consciously, into a political, military and economic void. In it, the spice of life is guessing where the next terrorist attack will be, and what "appropriate response" from the bankrupt Bank of Targets the IDF will succeed in selling to the kitchen cabinet and TV military reporters before nightfall. In such an atmosphere, it is no wonder that even the last remnants of civilian leadership - a shrunken mass featuring figures like Beilin, Meridor and Burg - are treated like lepers. No wonder that any spark of political creativity - from the Peres' corner, for instance - is treated like a miluim joke, drawing a loud guffaw and soon forgotten.

In this strangulating, khaki-clad existence, is it any wonder that even rebellion remains within the confines of the barracks? In the final reckoning, even refusing to serve in the army or doing reserve duty in the territories, even challenging the lawfulness of IDF occupation, is part of the military milieu and the never-ending debate over "purity of arms."

But is that the question - whether this or that order is ethical? Not the character of the state, its borders, its priorities - are these not issues that demand political action?

The problem always is that in a military country, politics is a dirty word. The efforts of reserve officers, who are actually civilians, to prove that their refusal to serve is "not political" - when the person they are trying to convince is the most political chief of staff in the history of the IDF - only amplifies how pathetic Israeli civilian society has become.

While the reserve soldier that is Israel ponders the question of reporting for duty with a shabby knapsack in tow, conniving generals - some retired, some in uniform - have swiped from under his nose the one piece of gear that could still make a difference. Politics.