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They say silence is golden. "They" may have a point but there is more than one kind of silence. In a country in which being loud is more a way of life than a fact of life, the nearest Israel gets to total silence is Yom Kippur.
Sure there is the sound of kids on their bikes, prayers being fervently sent to a Heavenly address, and the occasional greeting of passersby in the street, but no cars, no loud music, and none of the aural distractions that are usually so prevalent that you donÂ¹t even notice them until theyÂ¹ve stopped.
There is also the relative silence of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day. While the siren sounds, the country comes to a halt for one uncanny moment. Silence here is surrealistic. It can also be menacing. There is a dreadful quiet between the sound of a bomb exploding and the start of screaming ambulances. And there is the metaphorical silence known as waiting for the other shoe to drop: that inevitable second thump after the sound of one shoe falling overhead. That type of silence is resounding after major terrorist attacks.
Israel even occasionally operates what is known as "Hagal hashaket" ("The quiet channel"), a radio station that broadcasts absolutely nothing except in an emergency when news and official announcements can be made. This enables Orthodox Jews to leave the radio on during the Sabbath and holy days knowing that the silence will be broken only if necessary.
Israel has lately been both noisier and quieter than usual. For a start there was the refusal by the prime minister, chief of staff and police chief to grant the press the traditional Rosh Hashana interviews. This led the media instead to fill pages and programs with discussion about the meaning of the quiet. General opinion held, in the words of one analyst, that no one has yet regretted the interview they didnÂ¹t give while plenty of leaders have been sorry about opening their mouths and kicking themselves as they put their feet in. Our policy-makers apparently decided that this year it would be better to keep shtum.
Although clearly there was a lot to talk about. The country Â¬ indeed the whole region Â¬ was busy guessing what (if anything) actually transpired over Syrian skies on September 5. The silence in this case was deafening.
Damascus was trying to create an uproar and the Israeli public was whispering Â¬ after the tense quiet of the summer Â¬ that war on the northern front was again a real possibility. But not a word was heard from the folks in charge of the country. Not only the Israeli press tried in vain to get a response. The Syrians did their best to provoke some kind of statement, goading that any successful military operation would have been followed by Israeli boasting, so whatever happened must have been a failure. Lately, however, if the political and defense establishments have managed to keep a secret, it could be considered a success in its own right.
There was also the uncharacteristic silence over what took place in Gaza on September 7 and why. According to Palestinian reports, elite Israeli forces penetrated deep into the heart of Rafah and nabbed Mohawah al-Qadi, a senior member of Hamas's armed wing and a commander in the Executive Force believed to be connected to the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Schalit 15 months ago. Praising the IDFÂ¹s "unusual bravery and incessant work," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, not usually the reticent type, told the cabinet: "The nature of this work is such that not always can its details be disclosed to the public."
Unexpected silence indeed from a premier who last summer boasted that the war in Lebanon was over when, as we were painfully to discover, it had barely begun.
At a weekly editorial meeting here at the Post, journalists discussed the possibility that the strange silence and nature of the Syrian and Gaza incidents can be attributed, in part, to Ehud BarakÂ¹s return to the Defense Ministry.
As defense reporter Yaakov Katz has pointed out, the last known time Israel kidnapped a high-level terrorist connected to an MIA was in 1994, when Mustafa Dirani, a former senior official in the Lebanese Amal group believed to have held missing IAF navigator Ron Arad, was abducted from his home in Lebanon in a daring raid by IDF commandos. Barak was chief of staff at the time.
The style of the September 7 operation, as reported by Palestinian sources,
is definitely reminiscent of BarakÂ¹s modus operandi as a former commander of
the IDFÂ¹s General Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal). Barak famously
dressed up as a woman in Operation Spring of Youth when "The Unit" in 1973
attacked PLO buildings in Beirut and other locations throughout Lebanon in
response to the Munich Olympic massacre.
Creativity and covertness could certainly come in handy now. The September 11 Kassam attack which wounded some 70 IDF soldiers at a training base near Ashkelon left the Israeli public clamoring for action.
It is a strange Israeli characteristic that in the army MumÂ¹s the word in a non-verbal sense. As soon as news of the attack broke out, worried mothers, fathers and even grandparents hurried down to the Zikim base and called for action to be taken. "The army has a duty to protect our kids," cried one mother down a radio microphone, ignoring in the emotional heat of the moment the fact that actually the army's duty is to protect civilians, while not taking undue risks with soldiers' lives.
Parents called, not for the first time in the history of the Kassam-prone Zikim base, for its evacuation.
What, one wonders, would that contribute to the safety of Sderot, Ashkelon and other Negev communities under Palestinian fire?
The silence of the country's leaders while evidently carrying out some kind of clandestine activity is aimed at sending out a message. The message is one of deterrence. The question is, how clearly is it being picked up by the country's many enemies?
Noisy discussions on the possible ways to stop the Palestinian attacks from Gaza have been held in Israeli homes, on the street, on buses, and countless television and radio talk shows. The options include renewed targeted killings; cutting off Gaza's electricity and fuel supplies; completely closing the crossings with Gaza and telling the Egyptians to open their border to their Palestinian brethren and to stop the flow of arms and terrorists at the same time; and the obvious aerial and ground attacks.
As these lines are being written, it is not clear which approach the government will take. But one thing is for sure: We have reached a stage when we canÂ¹t just go on suffering in silence.
Something has to give. Although what we yearn for above all in the new Jewish year is the sound of peace and quiet.