A Necessary War (Extract)

Calling the Gaza campaign 'an act of brutality,' renowned novelist and peace activist A.B. Yehoshua maintains that it was nevertheless unavoidable

22ab224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Toys are scattered on the floor and the walls are filled with framed photographs of grinning children in A.B. Yehoshua's Ramat Gan apartment. A resident of Haifa, Yehoshua uses this place for weekends to host his six grandchildren, all of whom live nearby. Seated comfortably on a striped sofa, he awaits their arrival with particular anticipation this weekend, the first since his sons, aged 34 and 39, have returned home. Both were called up for reserve duty during Israel's recent offensive in Gaza (though neither entered the Gaza Strip). "I feel a great sense of calm and relief," says the acclaimed author of nine novels, who taught comparative literature at Haifa University for many years. Over the last few weeks, Yehoshua, 72, a longtime member of the peace camp, has written articles in newspapers abroad and at home justifying, in principle, the Israeli operation. The author, who vehemently objected to Israel's first Lebanon war, has often been seen as the ethical voice of the leftwing, together with fellow writers Amos Oz and David Grossman. The local daily Haaretz featured a passionate exchange of letters between Yehoshua and left-wing columnist Gideon Levy, who accused the Israel Prize-winning novelist of having lost his conscience in supporting the offensive that claimed the lives of so many Palestinian civilians and destroyed much of Gaza. Dressed casually in a black turtleneck and black pants that contrast strikingly with his shock of silver-white hair, Yehoshua speaks with conviction, waving his hands frequently for emphasis. While he has no pangs of guilt for his position, he feels the force Israel employed in Gaza was greatly exaggerated and even constituted "an act of brutality." Yet he maintains that the war itself was unavoidable and believes that ultimately it may well bring peace and a two-state solution a step closer. "This war was necessary," says Yehoshua emphatically. "A million people can't be under the constant threat of rocket fire. It was a type of insanity, an impossible situation that was paralyzing Israel. I believe any other country would have acted the same way we did out of a moral responsibility to defend its people from rocket fire." In recent days, some observers, including even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself, have said that they cannot rule out the resumption of rocket fire from Gaza. But Yehoshua believes the war achieved its goal of restoring long-awaited quiet to southern Israel. "I believe that as a result of the enormous destruction, the residents of Gaza understood that this way doesn't lead anywhere. When the construction starts - with funds from Europe, Saudi Arabia and other places - and people rebuild their houses, I don't believe they will agree to place rocket launchers there the following day. "Look at the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War," he continues. The Hizballah made lots of threats but didn't fire a single rocket this time. Why? Because the residents of south Lebanon whose homes were destroyed said, 'For what? Why start this again?'" Yet Yehoshua noted, as he has in the past, that the Palestinians of Gaza are destined to "be our neighbors forever." He would like to see them return to work in Israel and maintains that "we must be cautious and measured in our relations with them." But how did Operation Cast Lead, which reduced Gaza to shambles and killed entire families, fit the bill? "There is no doubt," he says, "that in this war the army used an enormous amount of firepower in an exaggerated and even brutal way that resulted in the deaths of civilians." Indeed, Yehoshua, whose latest novel is entitled "Friendly Fire," points to the number of incidents in which IDF soldiers were accidentally killed by their comrades as evidence of a lightness or lack of restraint in the use of firepower in Gaza. The author, whose works frequently delve into the primitive forces that drive people, invokes fear to explain - "although not justify," he emphasizes - what he views as Israel's excessive and sometimes indiscriminate use of firepower in Gaza. "After the shortcomings of the Second Lebanon War, the soldiers were afraid, the Israeli population was afraid, the media warned it would be a harsh and unprecedented war. Hamas said: 'If you enter Gaza, we'll make this your cemetery; there will be mines and ambushes everywhere.' So there was real fear. That fear caused us to strike out excessively." Much of the destruction could have been avoided had Hamas expressed a willingness for a cease-fire, he suggests. "Let's not forget - and this is one of the most astonishing things in the war - that Hamas did not ask for a cease-fire once in these three weeks despite all the destruction and death in Gaza. It seems as though they don't have much mercy for their own people. If, after the first or second week, Hamas had asked for a mutual cease-fire, believe me, I would have gone from door to door to recruit people to come and hold a huge demonstration at Rabin Square to stop the war. Their cry would have brought the peace camp out." In assessing the destruction in Gaza, Yehoshua puts the conflict in a broader international perspective. "There is no doubt that harsh things happened here. But then when you compare it with recent battles around the world, it is not that extraordinary," he says, citing fighting in Georgia, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. He notes that in Fallujah, for instance, about 6,000 people or 2.3 percent of the population of that Iraqi town were killed by American forces "and the Iraqis never shot at Washington or New York." By comparison, he continues, the number of casualties in Gaza was very low. "Nevertheless," he says, "for us, this was an act of brutality, which included a lack of proportionality and while I understand the reasons for it, I can't justify it." He hopes the IDF will examine its actions in order to give a detailed reckoning of instances in which the force used was necessary and instances in which "we erred. God is in the details, and justice is also in the details." Yehoshua, an outspoken critic of the settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, says he is particularly angry at Hamas for "torpedoing peace." Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.