(photo credit: KARL H. SCHUMACHER/WHITE HOUSE; WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
I n a memorable week of inspiring highs (Eurovision and the embassy in Jerusalem) and devastating sadness (the violent conflict along the Gaza border), there was so much coverage of Israel that even attentive readers of the news could be forgiven for having missed a detail of Israel’s preparation for the expected Gaza riots. Given that Hamas had warned that Palestinians would swarm the fence, cross it and end the Zionist project, residents near the border had genuine cause for worry.
“At least one of the communities closest to the border, Kibbutz Nahal Oz,” read one article, “is considering evacuating residents ahead of the riots as a safety precaution, according to spokesperson Yael Raz-Lahiani.”
To fully appreciate how chilling was that seemingly innocuous aside, we need to go back in Israeli history, both to 1956 and to 1948.
Two elements of that sentence deserve our attention. First, there is Kibbutz Nahal Oz.
It was tragedy that engraved Nahal Oz in Israeli collective memory. On April 29, 1956, 21-year-old Roi Rotberg was patrolling the fields of Nahal Oz, where he lived, on horseback. Accustomed to seeing Gazans picking without permission in the kibbutz’s fields, when Rotberg saw a group of Arabs in the fields, he rode toward them to get them to leave. But it was a trap, and as Rotberg approached the “farmers,” they shot and killed him, then dragged his body into Gaza where it was horrifically mutilated.
Coincidentally, chief of staff Moshe Dayan had met Rotberg a few days earlier. He attended the funeral and delivered a eulogy that became Dayan’s – and then, many Israelis’ – classic statement about the inevitability of a long and costly conflict between Israel and its neighbors. There was nothing surprising about Arab resentment and violence, Dayan said.
“Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today,” he said. “Why should we deplore their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.”
Yet if mere Israeli survival was going to evoke Arab anger, Dayan then warned, Israelis had better be prepared to live by the sword.
“Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us,” he continued. “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 from our hands and our lives will be cut short.”
MORE THAN 60 years later, Dayan’s words ring every bit as true, not only about Nahal Oz, but about the Jewish state. Facing that bottomless well of hatred was the fate not only of Dayan’s generation, but is ours, as well. In the years since 1956, Israel has changed and developed more than anyone then could have dared dream. Gaza has not, though, because it is hatred – more, even, than the hope for a brighter future – that animates the lives of those who live there, hatred that feeds their abiding determination to destroy the Jewish state.
As if that continuity were not enough, there is also the horrifying echo of earlier evacuations in Israel’s history. In May 1948, as it became clear that Jewish fighters defending the Etzion bloc might not be able to hold out against invading Arab Legion troops, women and children were evacuated. Ultimately, the bloc did fall, just one day before independence; the men defending it surrendered, whereupon some 15 of them were murdered by the victorious Arab fighters.
Nahal Oz is not going to fall to Hamas, and Israel is going to surrender no land in the face of this new wave of terrorism. But the mentions of both contemplating evacuation and of Kibbutz Nahal Oz ought to serve as a reminder that Israel is still fighting what it was fighting for in 1948 – recognition of its very right to exist.
Though it is commonly said that today’s conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is over lands captured by Israel in 1967, that is actually utterly false. Whether it is Mahmoud Abbas’ vicious speech last month, in which he both asserted that the Holocaust was the product not of antisemitism but of the Jews’ antisocial behavior and then denied that the Jews have any connection to the Land of Israel, or Hamas’ predictions this week that “Nakba day will be catastrophic for the Zionist project,” or the IDF’s concerns that Palestinians who crossed the border would massacre Israelis they could get to, 2018 is proving chillingly reminiscent of the battle that Israel has been waging for more than 70 years. What we witnessed this week were not only riots in response to moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem or a cynical sacrificing of Palestinian lives to divert attention from the Gaza government’s abysmal failure.
What we witnessed this week, sadly, and what we are likely to witness as far into the future as our eyes can see, was simply the latest battle in Israel’s War of Independence and its never-ending need to defend its very right to exist.The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.” He is now writing a book on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.