This week Israel enters its third year of a war with no name, with nary an ally, and with no objective more glorious than a lull.
It’s been a war plagued by indecision and misdirection. The enemy’s leader is harassed and reviled but not erased. The country is said to be safe for tourism yet the danger is compared to the 1930s. Israel claims impending victory but has surrendered the messianic dreams and borders that thrilled us in 1967.
This is a war in which Jews have been killed in their baby strollers, in their beds, at seders and weddings, at discos and in pool halls, in pizza shops and while driving with the kids. After all the bombings, there is a death count, but no count
of how many nails went into brains, how many fingers and toes were found in the trees, the severed heads that went rolling in the streets, and just the other week — a heart, all by itself, out of body, on a sidewalk where a bus had been.
The Palestinians are explicit about what they’re fighting for: their holy places and an end to Israeli “occupation” — if not Israel itself. The Arabs call this war the Al-Aqsa Intifada, after their Temple Mount mosque that is the symbol of Jerusalem, even on Jewish calendars. Two years ago, after the Camp David talks — and weeks before Ariel Sharon’s September walk on the Temple Mount that was the pretext for the first battle — Yasir Arafat announced, “the battle for Jerusalem has begun.” This was war, and the Palestinians took it to it with enthusiasm.
The Temple Mount was a battle that Sharon surrendered. He never dared return. Elected prime minister a few months after his walk, he commands that the Jewish army make sure that no Jew — tourist or pilgrim — is allowed to take that same walk.
The Palestinians plunder the Temple Mount of artifacts and antiquities but no Israeli dares stop it.
Despite all the lip service paid to “the eternal, unified” Jerusalem, it has never been more divided in 35 years. Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods produce terrorists to rival those of Gaza towns. Two years after Ehud Barak was vilified for including East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount as part of a peace deal, Sharon has effectively surrendered East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, but with nothing to show for it.
And the Israeli name for this war?
It’s not the word for war. They call it the matzav, “the situation,” a word spoken with a shtetl shrug, a sigh, some bitterness but no bugles.
The Israeli right calls this war the Oslo War, an “I told you so,” but Israeli leaders don’t say we’re fighting to undo Oslo so much as “we are fighting against terrorism,” as if our only grievance is that the Palestinians are less than gentlemen and ought to kill us more conventionally.
Some say Israel is now “winning,” the funerals are further apart. But what would victory look like at the end of all this winning? Most Israelis, of all parties, have lost interest in governing and populating vast stretches of Gaza, Judea and Samaria, no matter how much sentimental, even sacred value, these lands have. Four of the most holy Jewish pilgrimage sites — the Temple Mount, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Shechem/Nablus — remain unpacified. Every Israeli peace plan accepts the notion that all Jewish villages within the final boundaries of Palestine must be uprooted and the Jews gone. If this is winning, never in history has the victory bar been set so low.
Right went left and left went right. Sharon promised that the Palestinians would get a state when the dead stop dying so fast, a promise that just a decade ago was tantamount to treason, unimaginable surrender. Now it’s pragmatism. And the left, which once dreamed of an “Arab street” turned Sesame Street, is grappling with a peace process that even a Palestinian negotiator called a “Trojan horse.” In the squandered years since the Rabin-Arafat handshake, more Israelis have been murdered than in the previous 45 years of the state combined.
On the day of a brutal mass death, we tell each other it’s the 1930s again, even the 1940s. Yet, the country is safe for your children. This is the first Israeli war in which unarmed visitors and American children in Israeli schools are sent to the front lines, and proudly risk their lives in the name of solidarity. For two years tour leaders told American Jews, “We’re only going where it’s safe,” as if they knew, as if their allegiance was truly to Jewish safety instead of the illusion of normalcy.
Well, is Israel a war zone or is it “normal”? The Israeli government Web site charts the victims from Sept. 27, 2000 — 635 dead, more than 4,500 injured, more than 1,000 terror attacks. Yet, a full 19 months into this carnage there was this Israeli headline: “Sharon: I won’t drag nation to war.”
Money is tight. This January, Sharon’s administration stopped payment of a 3.7-million-shekel (more than $700,000) subsidy to the Magen David Adom ambulance service. The Egged bus company says the Israeli government reneged on a promise to provide an additional 400 security guards. After 22 months of war, Israel reported 50 billion shekels ($10 billion) in lost growth.
American Jews, from federations to the grass roots, have responded with emergency campaigns, chocolate chip cookie sales and faux-Ben Yehuda shopping malls in synagogues and schools to raise cash for victims of terror and the broken economy. Nevertheless, this summer, Israel unfroze some Palestinian assets and cut a check for 100 million shekels (some $20 million) to Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, rather than giving that money as compensation to the victims. The day after Rosh HaShanah, Israel announced it would transfer another 70 million shekels.
When Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, at the mass rally for Israel in Washington this April, said there were innocent Palestinians who were suffering, the crowd booed. This month the Israeli army reports that fleets of Israeli trucks carrying food and medical supplies were sent into Palestinian territory to alleviate, yes, innocent Palestinian suffering. Many Israeli sympathizers are quick to explain that Israel can’t do what it wants — her hands are tied because of “pressure.” The United States, Israel’s best (only?) ally, abstained from last week’s Security Council vote condemning Israel.
But self-pity has deluded another reality. Congress overwhelmingly votes to keep Israel on the top of the foreign aid list, and is often to the right of the Knesset, and even American Jewry, in its solid support for the Sharon government. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaks of the “so-called occupation.” The majority of American editorials and columnists have been consistently supportive of Israel throughout this war, according to periodic surveys by the Anti-Defamation League. The American public has backed Israel in more than 30 consecutive Gallup polls. In fact, the greatest critique of Israel’s wartime policy comes from within Israel itself.
This war will someday end, but brokenness will haunt the living. Funeral processions keep winding up the hills. In the last seven days of the second year, there are eight more families that will never be the same, in this war with no name but the names of the dead.
Jonathan Mark’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.