Gaza conflict: Israel in times of crisis is a mix of routine, solidarity

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: When threatened or attacked, Israel's disparate parts have always come together.

 PEOPLE IN Ashkelon stroll on the promenade on Monday, soon after a ceasefire was declared between Israel and Islamic Jihad (photo credit: FLASH90)
PEOPLE IN Ashkelon stroll on the promenade on Monday, soon after a ceasefire was declared between Israel and Islamic Jihad
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in a slim work in 2000 titled Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places, had this to say about Jewish history:

“Perhaps familiarity with our past gives us confidence in the future. Nothing takes us by surprise. Whatever happens, we have been there before.”

“Perhaps familiarity with our past gives us confidence in the future. Nothing takes us by surprise. Whatever happens, we have been there before.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Those words came to mind this week watching the commendable way in which Israelis coped with the three days of fighting in Gaza; three days that left hundreds of thousands of people within easy range of Islamic Jihad and Hamas rockets staying close to their bomb shelters in case of a siren, and millions more in the center of the country and Jerusalem who went on with their lives even knowing that their cities may be targeted by indiscriminate missile fire.

Despite the real fear in the Gaza border communities and the palpable anxiety among those in cities further afield that have been targeted in the past, life went on, and the country rallied not only around the military, which launched a preemptive strike inside the Gaza Strip, but also around the residents of the South living in real time under the immediate threat of a rocket crashing into their children’s bedrooms.

One would think that rocket fire on major – and even minor – population centers would stir panic and create mayhem. But it didn’t. Why not? Because we’ve been here so many times before, because we know what to expect, and because we generally have a pretty good idea about how it will all turn out in the end.

Or, as Sacks said about Jewish history, “Nothing takes us by surprise. Whatever happens, we have been there before.” And when it comes to rocket fire from Gaza and IAF action inside the Gaza Strip, that is abundantly true.

Gaza: Rockets and conflicts

 PEOPLE IN Ashkelon stroll on the promenade on Monday, soon after a ceasefire was declared between Israel and Islamic Jihad (credit: FLASH90) PEOPLE IN Ashkelon stroll on the promenade on Monday, soon after a ceasefire was declared between Israel and Islamic Jihad (credit: FLASH90)

OPERATION BREAKING Dawn is the name the military gave to the most recent round of fighting in Gaza. It is the fifth major campaign that the IDF has launched in Gaza since then-prime minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israel from the coastal strip 17 years ago this week. There was Operation Cast Lead in December-January 2008-2009; Pillar of Defense in 2012; Protective Edge in 2014; Guardian of the Walls in 2021; and now Operation Breaking Dawn.

And in between there have been about 10 other “minor” campaigns to retaliate against rocket fire or to strike at terrorist leaders (some may wish to place the most recent campaign into this category). These minor operations began just two weeks after the withdrawal from Gaza with Operation First Rain, triggered by heavy Qassam rocket fire on Sderot, and over the years included operations with names such as Summer Rains, Autumn Clouds, Warm Winter, Closed Garden and Black Belt.

Because the campaigns and operations have been so numerous, they all tend to meld in the mind into one, to lose their unique qualities. Israelis who have lived through this period would be hard pressed to remember when each one took place, or what triggered it. Instead, they just know that every few months or years, there is going to be some kind of fight with Gaza that will lead to a few days of being glued to the radio, deep fear and anxiety, and relief when it finally ends.

The same is likely to happen with the most recent operation. In a few years – if not months – its details will have been largely forgotten, and in the mind it will be lumped together with all those other Gaza campaigns that break out from time to time.

What the sheer volume of the Gaza campaigns over the last 17 years has done, in addition to mixing them all up in the mind, is to make them routine.

The upside is that if events, even traumatic ones, become routine, they become easier on a national level to cope with; they don’t have the power to completely knock the country off kilter.

The downside, however, is that there is something deeply troubling about hundreds of rockets shot off toward Israel’s population centers becoming routine.

Some argue that if we didn’t accept these rounds as routine, then we would take pains to end them once and for all. The counterargument is that this is something that you can’t end once and for all; that there are always going to be terrorists out there who want to destroy Israel; and that the healthy and positive response is to just try to minimize their ability to do so as much as possible – through, for instance, periodic military campaigns – and live under this shadow in the most constructive and productive way possible, something Israel has proven wonderfully adept at doing.

ALONG WITH THE seeming routine of these campaigns, something else has become routine as well: Israeli solidarity in their wake.

One of the old saws about Israel is that as divided as it is in times of relative quiet and calm, when it comes under attack or feels threatened, it comes together as one to deal with those threats. This has been demonstrated time and time again going back to 1948: the hopelessly splintered country in times of peace showing amazing solidarity when under fire.

This was true in 1948, in 1967, in 1973 (the divisions then appeared after the Yom Kippur War, not during the fighting), during the height of the Second Intifada in 2002, during the Second Lebanon War, and during the various Gaza campaigns.

The one big exception was the First Lebanon War when the IDF went beyond the stated goal of pushing the terrorists 40 kilometers from the border, at which time many perceived that Israel was no longer fighting a merely defensive war.

But when Israel is under attack, or has preempted to fend off an impending attack, the country rallies together.

What inevitably happens when those periods end, when the guns fall silent, is a collective sigh that says, “Why can’t we show such solidarity during times of peace? Why is there unity when there is war, and when there is peace we are at each other’s throats?”

That refrain was heard clearly this week during statements both Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz delivered on Monday evening, some 20 hours after the ceasefire went into effect and a day after the Tisha Be’av fast commemorating, among other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, the destruction of the First and Second Temples as a result, according to rabbinic teaching, of baseless hatred and frightful disunity.

“The end of Tisha Be’av, together with the end of Operation Breaking Dawn, is a good opportunity to remember the fact that our enemies are from the outside, not within; we must avoid senseless hatred and remember that the best way to face the challenges before us is to face them together,” Lapid said.

Gantz also visited this theme.

“Yesterday we marked the Tisha Be’av fast. In these days of mourning and remembrance of the destruction of the temples, we all demonstrated solidarity and displayed national resilience,” he said, adding that this showed that all of Israel is indeed responsible for one another.

“My hope is that we know some of that same spirit throughout the year. Only in this way will we be able to deal with the challenges that we face,” he said.

In other words, if only we could be as unified in peacetime as in times of war, then everything would be just peachy.

But we can’t. That’s not who we are as a people, nor has it ever been. One could even argue that Jewish creativity has been fueled over the centuries by a lack of unity of opinion. Perhaps unity presupposes a certain sameness that need not necessarily be the goal.

There is a difference between unity, which is unattainable because people are not all going to think the same thoughts or feel the same emotions, and solidarity.

Israelis are not unified in thought or opinion even in times of war, but what they do demonstrate, and demonstrated this time as well, is tremendous solidarity. This solidarity can be defined as a deep empathy one for another, mutual responsibility, a willingness of the individual to mobilize and even put himself at risk for the common good, and a belief in the rightness of the cause for which the country is fighting.

That Israel demonstrates this consistently during times of security crisis and war is a blessing and critical in rebuffing the enemy.

Throughout Israel’s 74-year history, its enemies have mistaken its lack of political and social unity for weakness. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah did it in 2000 when he looked at internal schisms inside Israel and concluded that Israel was a “spider web” that could be easily blown away, and Iranian and Hamas spokesmen have done so recently, crowing that the Jewish state’s political disunity shows that it is weak.

Wrong. The political disunity shows that it is politically not united. But when threatened or attacked, those disparate parts have always come together. Political disunity has not resulted in any loss of the people’s resolve.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could take that spirit of solidarity that exists during times of crisis and, as Gantz said, see that seep into everyday life during normal times as well? Sure it would be nice.

But seeing as that is something that is simply not in our nature, we should at least be thankful that in times of crisis the country taps into deep resources of solidarity that are vital in repelling the enemy and have proven much more important to the country’s survival than an elusive unity in times of peace.

This is a case where it would be wise to be more thankful for what we have, than be aggrieved by what we do not.