During the 1991 Gulf War in which Scuds launched from Iraq landed in Israel, people quickly adapted to carrying gas-mask kits with them and almost every home abided by the instructions to prepare a “sealed room” using plastic sheeting and masking tape in case Saddam Hussein’s rockets carried chemical warheads.
The kits soon became a fashion accessory and the “sealed room” a catchphrase. Israelis met the war not so much stoically as head-on with humor. Then-IDF spokesman Nachman Shai (now a Labor MK) earned the nickname “Mr. Valium” for his calm advice to drink water; Dr. Ruth, sexologist Ruth Westheimer, became a legend for her suggestions on what to do behind sealed doors (and there was indeed a baby boom nine months later); and the Zehu Zeh! team on Educational TV created the character of Baba Buba who has a special place in local cultural history, as does the image of maestro Zubin Mehta, conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra while the audience donned gas masks during a missile attack.
It wasn’t fun but, as with all the wars foisted on us, we learned to live with it.
The war ended just in time for the country to burst out of the sealed rooms and celebrate Purim, the holiday marking the frustration of the plans to destroy all the Jews in Persia in ancient times.
It was a celebration more colorful than this week’s parade of children through school gates at the start of the academic year, a few days after a fragile cease-fire was declared in Gaza at the end of the 50-day Operation Protective Edge.
Two months after the Gulf war, a new immigrant journalist I was working with wrote a piece starting with the words: “As the country returns to normal...”
I was shocked. “What do you mean ‘returns to normal’?” I asked. “The war’s been over for weeks now. We’ve been back to normal for ages.”
I hadn’t realized how traumatized the newcomer had been by the missile alerts and tension.
Looking back, several wars and mini-wars later, I’m beginning to realize that his response was possibly the more normal one and there is something unnatural about putting the unpleasant things behind us so quickly. But then the situation of ongoing war and terror- punctuated peace should not be considered normal either.
Former Sderot mayor David Buskila once told me that his Kassam-targeted town was like a battered wife. Even if a woman is beaten “only” once a month by her husband, it is not considered acceptable – and she lives every day with the fear that today will be the day she again gets hit for no fault of her own, he noted.
This image has come to mind more than once in recent days when the phrase “Sheket tmurat sheket” (“Quiet will be met with quiet”) has become a guiding policy. How many rockets will be launched before another round of fighting breaks out and Israel inevitably will be blamed, I wonder.
The Gulf War was a turning point because during it Israel exercised restraint at the request of the US, thereby winning some temporary points with the American administration but losing valuable deterrence in the Arab world.
Operation Protective Edge is also a turning point of sorts. The 1973 Yom Kippur War was a war Israel ultimately won but in which the country lost a lot of its sense of security; in its own toned-down manner the latest war also left us safer but conversely more uncomfortable.
One of the obvious questions still echoing from the campaign concerns the terror tunnels. The manner in which the IDF was able to locate the tunnel shafts built under private, ordinary-looking homes, not to mention those nefariously hidden under mosques and other public facilities, suggests that there was some excellent intelligence work going on. A hint of that could be seen in March in the Israeli raid on the Klos-C ship near Port Said, loaded with arms on their roundabout way to Gaza.
Yet the full extent of the tunnel threat does not seem to have been appreciated until the operation against rockets reached an advanced stage. That does not add to a sense of security however quickly normal life has been resumed.
The tunnels are just one sign of a development that is affecting the Israeli mind-set across the political spectrum almost as far as its extreme outside edges.
Israelis want peace. We don’t want to watch our children going to school and checking out the nearest shelter from missiles on the first day. We don’t want to worry about the likelihood that our draft-age offspring will find themselves in active combat. We don’t want to consider coping with war as normal.
How to achieve that peace is a different issue, not entirely in our hands.
The tunnels and the mortars have demonstrated that land matters. That the country’s main airport could be closed due to a perceived threat – or foreign manipulation of the threat – has given Israelis a new understanding that transferring to a Palestinian leadership – any Palestinian leadership – territory just a few kilometers away from the hub of air traffic is suicidal.
No sooner had Operation Protective Edge unofficially ended with the 12th cease-fire (the only one to be honored so far by Hamas) than our eyes looked to the North where Syria’s civil war is uncomfortably close.
Israelis are relieved that international pressure and so-called peace talks didn’t result in the Golan Heights being in the hands of either Bashar Assad, president of what’s left of Syria, or the Islamist rebel forces who last week took over the area of the Quneitra crossing on Israel’s border.
It seems ironic that the UN, which earlier this year passed the umpteenth resolution calling on Israel to transfer the Golan to Syria “forthwith,” this week needed Israel’s assistance in rescuing some of its besieged peacekeepers.
The fate of captured UN personnel from Fiji is unclear as I write these lines.
So, no, the promise of an international peacekeeping force on any land Israel were to give up in the future does not make normal folk here feel they’d be safe. Particularly not in the age of tunnel terrorism and ever more sophisticated rockets and missiles.
The timing of the decision to announce future plans to build in Gva’ot, just over the Green Line, adjacent to Gush Etzion in the Judean Hills, is questionable. But neither the decision nor any eventual construction there is the real hurdle to peace, despite the outcry in the international diplomatic community.
Gush Etzion is well within the Israeli national consensus. Jews lived in the bloc of communities in the area until it fell to the Arab forces attacking the nascent state in May 1948.
The Jews there at the time were either taken prisoner or massacred, depending on which particular force or commanding officer had captured them.
The influx of Jews to Gush Etzion following the Six Day War in 1967 was a return, not an act of expansionist colonialism.
If the Palestinians really want to create their own state in peace, demands that every last Jew is removed from their presence are a strange way to go about achieving it – although, sadly, it seems to be working.
Few Israelis looking back at the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 like what they see. An Islamist regime now rules and launches terror attacks where once Israelis farmed and grew flowers.
In a region in which jihadists boast of their beheading skills and cruelty, international aid is used to build terror tunnels rather than homes, and at least one dictator who has not been shy of using chemical warfare on his own people can be touted as a “moderate” force, our quick resumption of routine after war and terror might not be normal, but compared to what’s going all around us, we seem remarkably sane.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.