When Anwar Sadat made his dramatic and historic trip to Israel in late 1977, I was a sophomore at Tel Aviv University on hiatus from the University of Washington. At that time, there was only one Israeli television channel, the state-owned Israel Broadcast Authority, and it broadcasted only a few hours each evening. But the impact of Sadat’s visit and the local excitement was so profound that it was on air throughout most of the three-day visit. I didn’t have a TV, but I remember watching the set in the packed dorm lobby for hours or constantly stopping at every sidewalk kiosk with a television, which were always crowded with unbelieving passersby.
One of the most memorable events of the trip was the meeting between Sadat and Golda Meir, who had been bitter adversaries four years earlier when she was the prime minister during the Yom Kippur War. The most memorable moment was when she turned to him and said, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.” This simple statement in my opinion summed up the ethos of Israeli survival in an astonishingly succinct and powerful manner. Israel fights because it has no choice. Israelis die so that their homes and families will live. Israelis are forced to kill in battle and are never the same because of it.
Sadly, Meir’s words have come to my mind often since I first heard them, most recently in the past few weeks in Gaza. But in the late ’70s, most Israelis believed that Begin’s famous “No more war, no more bloodshed” would be the sound bite that would be eternally associated with the Sadat visit. In a sense, this event did mark the end of formal hostilities of the conventional warfare between Israel and the standing armies of the Arab world, who realized that their defeat in 1973 despite a profound advantage meant they would never defeat Israel conventionally.
But optimism began to disappear with Sadat’s brutal assassination, which illustrated that Arab hostility to Israel was far from over. The fundamental refusal of the Arab world to reconcile with Israel, which is what cut down Sadat, also put terrorism on center stage. Although it began in the late ’60s as a supplemental tool in the fight to destroy Israel, terrorism became the primary method for killing Israelis and Jews around the world, and today is employed masterfully by Hamas in Gaza.
I write this column during yet another ceasefire in Operation Defensive Edge. In the 29 days of the active military campaign, the IDF has dealt a crushing military blow to Hamas, intentionally (and increasingly controversially from an internal standpoint) choosing not to vanquish Hamas once and for all, but only to cripple them to the point where they will accept the terms of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. The terms are not favorable to Hamas, which is what happens to the losing side at the end of a war. This has prompted them several times to renew the missile fire onto our southern cities, towns, kibbutzim and moshavim. Immediate Israeli responses eventually lead to a new ceasefire. Hamas seems determined to renew hostilities at the end of each ceasefire and sometimes during the ceasefires, no matter how many more civilians are killed, as they fight from densely populated civilian areas of Gaza.
When the sixth ceasefire was agreed to, there was a certainty here, reinforced by statements of Netanyahu as well as the defense minister and IDF chief of staff, that the missiles, sirens, tunnels and fatalities were over for now – that war had moved to the diplomatic arena to formalize the achievements of the battle, which would be cemented by the encouraging common interests shared by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The hope for all Middle-East moderates (and what should be the hope of the Western nations) is that by strengthening this bond, Gaza could be rebuilt this time for the benefit of Gazans by circumventing Hamas – who have exploited the previous aid to rebuild tunnels, restock missile arsenals and strengthen their grip on power rather than for the welfare of Gazans. The hope raised by this confluence of regional interests is that a process of demilitarization of the Strip with Hamas sidelined could constitute the breakthrough so badly needed in two-state negotiations between Israel and the PA.
And although daily life has been fairly normal for the vast majority of us since the ceasefire of Aug. 4, as I write this, there still is no resolution. The settlements close to Gaza have continued to be hit by mortar fire, and a renewed Hamas offensive firing missiles at urban centers remains a distinct possibility. In other words, normality in Israel (as well as Gaza) is currently in the hands of a handful of terrorists from different factions in Gaza and Qatar with outrageous and impossible demands.
How did we get to this sad situation? We are fighting an extremely asymmetrical battle. Hamas benefits directly from the death of civilians on both sides. The increasing death toll among the civilians Hamas is supposed to protect, but instead hides behind and under, works to prevent Israel from waging all-out war. When inevitable civilian casualties occur, the international backlash against Israel also immensely helps Hamas achieve its military and political aims. As a tool in Hamas hands, the civilian death toll from Israeli strikes has been greatly exaggerated. The majority of Western media unquestioningly report the figures provided by the aggressively anti-Israel UN Human Rights Organization, which gets figures from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry.
But the New York Times, the BBC and others took notice of the low numbers of female casualties, which seemed to prove that Israel, as it claims, does not strike indiscriminately, because if this were the case, the numbers of male and female casualties would be similar. These data also helped verify the Israeli claim that more than half of the dead are combatants from Hamas and the other factions. It is also still unknown how many of these civilian deaths have been caused by misfired Hamas missiles, cases of which have been confirmed. But the damage to Israel for now has been done.
Even with the civilian death toll being significantly lower than reported, as Golda told Sadat, the vast majority of Israelis are profoundly saddened by civilian deaths. But in an ever escalating war of survival against radical Islam, of which Hamas is a charter member, and with Hamas choosing to fight from crowded urban areas of the population who voted it to power in 2005, our choices are limited. Just as my parents and grandparents and their contemporaries were probably not happy with the millions of German and Japanese civilians killed by allied bombing in World War II, they understood this was part of the price that needed to be paid to save the world from the evil threatening to conquer it.
Unlike Israel, the Allies did not warn civilian populations ahead of bombing to give them time to leave the area. Nor did they allow hundreds of truckloads per day of food, medicines and other supplies (did someone say blockade?) to German or Japanese cities; they did not ferry wounded civilians to be treated in Allied hospitals, or continue to supply electricity to the enemy who would use it against them. Israel does all these things in an effort to limit civilian suffering.
Israel is on the front line against radical Islam, which like a cancer is running rampant from Western Africa to Afghanistan, and if successful, will soon threaten Western Europe and the United States. The violently anti-Semitic protests witnessed in Paris and London should be a wake-up call. When the thousands of Western nationals fighting with Jihadists in Syria and Iraq return, terrorism will threaten the fabric of all democratic, liberal societies. Most Americans now understand the threat posed to all non-Muslims by ISIS as they slaughter Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims. They would also overwhelm and slaughter the Kurds if not for American airstrikes and western support. All of us in Israel have learned from painful experience that if Hamas gains the upper hand, it is a triumph for radical Islam.
This is the source of Israelis frustrations. The unequivocal and massive support from right and left given to the government and IDF to resolve the 14-year plague of rocket fire on Israeli civilians was unprecedented. This became even stronger with the attempted tunnel attacks and the realization of the brutal and frightening threat posed; the problem was well known but had not been given sufficient attention, a potentially lethal oversight that could be investigated by a committee of inquiry in the near future. As opposed to previous operations, today the international community has a greater awareness of the threat of radical Islam and more understanding of the intolerable situation that Israeli civilians live with. We are all convinced that if American, English, French, Chinese, Russian or German cities and towns were faced with a similar threat, the reaction would be swift, uncompromising and result in higher civilian casualties than witnessed in Gaza.
To some extent, there was a degree of initial understanding as long as missiles were fired on Israelis, and our response was limited to air strikes. But air strikes have never fully resolved a conflict, especially in an asymmetrical conflict against a guerilla organization that only exists to fight its enemy. International support disappeared with the media coverage from Gaza. The Western media’s coverage overall lacked any context of the 14 years of constant missile and rocket attacks and of Israeli efforts to minimize civilian casualties or the radical Islamic threat. It was disappointing to see news reports influenced by Hamas intimidation. Little was seen of the rocket launching sites in or near schools, hospitals and civilian housing.
But we expected Western leaders who understand the threat that Israel is fighting to not be so influenced by this biased media coverage. What we have received instead is as Ben-Dror Yemini wrote in Y-Net: “In France, it’s the president and foreign minister who are using the word ‘massacre,’ thereby not only helping Hamas score points but also encouraging the jihadists on Paris’ streets. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that every arms deals with Israel would be reviewed thoroughly. Another achievement for Hamas. When it comes to Israel, the West supports Israel’s right to defend itself, as long as it goes to war with its hands tied.”
Then there is the issue of the White House stopping the shipment of Hellfire helicopter rockets. I cannot include this example with the other cases, because the U.S. has been very supportive. John Kerry’s horrendous error of judgment by trying to bring in Turkey and Qatar, the only countries that support Hamas, as ceasefire brokers at the expense of Egypt has been well documented and the mistake realized.
But the Hellfire case does prove something else. Over the last 30 years, Israel has been forced to fight terror with its hands tied due to international hypocrisy. But there is a new element. I have written about the U.S. administration’s well-intentioned but intensely flawed attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was handled clumsily and planned poorly and doomed to fail. In an Obama White House, Israel was perceived to be the obstacle, and this caused the administration to be less supportive than it should be –especially at a time when the U.S. military is bombing in Iraq and should also be doing everything possible to encourage the alliance of common interests in the region against radical Islam.
As I look back on the last six weeks, I am thankful for the U.S. support in the Iron Dome system. I can only imagine what the toll would have been on my family and my friends with the 3,500 missiles that fired into Israel without Iron Dome. Life is anything but normal with missiles being fired at you. You feel powerless, but with the batteries strategically deployed to prevent civilian damage, my wife and I feel that the daily control of our lives that we normally take for granted was largely restored. Iron Dome is a testament to the value that Israel places on protecting life, which is unique to this region. But it is also part of our problem. The international hypocrisy surrounding our right to defend ourselves is more pronounced because more Israeli civilians are not being killed or maimed, which is due in a large part to Iron Dome. I guess the world would like to see a more even score.
If Iron Dome were not as successful and more missiles were hitting our cities, it is guaranteed that the civilian death toll in Gaza would not be between 900 to 1,000, but five to ten times that amount, because Israel would not have the luxury of capitulating to international opinion and fighting with its hands tied. And this is the mixed blessing of Iron Dome; it negates for now one of the two main Hamas threats, but it does not solve the core problem. That will only be resolved when we have the liberty of destroying the Hamas military wing – not difficult militarily, but the diplomatic cost in a hypocritical world is too high. So while Iron Dome saves Israelis as well as Gazans, it is a defensive weapon only and prevents us from taking the necessary decision to decisively alter the reality in Gaza and bring an end to Hamas terror against Israel.
Looking at Israel and the Middle East today, the optimism of the Sadat visit seems taken from a fantasy story. See you in a year or two down the road with Gaza operation number 9.