Much Shooting, Little Crying (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Israeli voices of protest were almost mute in the recent Gaza offensive, which had the blanket support of the country's Jewish population. From her home in Sderot, Nomika Zion watches the dancing in streets decorated with reams of Israeli flags and streamers. Women hand out flowers to passersby, car horns honk merrily. The scene, says Zion, is the equivalent of ten Independence Day celebrations rolled up into one. The war is ostensibly over now that Israel has declared a cease-fire and has moved its troops out of Gaza. But Zion, a longtime resident of this battered southern town that has endured rocket fire for eight years, says she has never felt less like celebrating. "What are we so happy about?" asks the educator, social activist and founder of the urban kibbutz situated in the heart of Sderot. "I look around me and I feel scared by what I see." Zion is one of the small minority of Israelis - and an even tinier minority of Sderot residents - who either opposed Israel's military strike from the outset or turned against it later, as they witnessed the scale of carnage and destruction wrought by the army in Gaza. During the third week of the operation, she published an article "War Diary from Sderot," in which she expressed outrage over the war. It quickly circulated on the Internet, was translated into four languages and was picked up by media in Israel and around the world. "Not in my name and not for me did you go into this war," she wrote in her open response to a cabinet minister who had asserted that the offensive boosted the spirits of Sderot residents. "The bloodbath in Gaza is not in my name nor for my security." She acknowledged her terror of living under the threat of Qassam rockets, but expressed her sense of the futility of the military operation and her horror at the massive destruction of Gaza. "I knew that in writing this I might well become 'the enemy of the people' but I was willing to pay the price of social isolation," she tells The Report. Isolation is indeed the overriding sense that members of Israel's peace camp felt during the 22-day Operation Cast Lead and in its immediate aftermath. "I have never felt more alienated from the majority of the population and government than I have in the past few weeks," says Galia Golan, a veteran leader of the Peace Now movement and a professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. Golan recalls participating in, and helping to organize, protests against previous wars, including the landmark 1982 demonstration against the Sabra and Shatilla massacres (in which Christian Phalange militia, who were allied with the Israeli army, killed hundreds of Palestinians in two Lebanese refugee camps) - an event that galvanized Israeli opposition to the first Lebanon War, bringing 400,000 protesters to the streets of Tel Aviv. But this time around, the largest demonstration, organized jointly by Peace Now and the New Movement-Meretz Party - which supported the operation when it was launched - lured less than 1,000 people to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and even that event took place two weeks after the start of the military campaign. If it had been held earlier, it is doubtful the organizers would have managed to mobilize even that number of demonstrators, acknowledges Golan. "Even the peace camp was split this time with many initially supporting the war. That made a protest impossible at first," she says. That split was felt not only in the peace camp as a whole, but also within the hearts of individual members. "I was torn within. I know we had to attack them, but on the other hand the massive scale of destruction we caused is terrible," says Israel Prize winning historian Zeev Sternhell, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a founding member of Peace Now. The more radical left, including the Communist Party, many non-Zionist groups and Israeli Arabs in different locales, held small demonstrations right from the start of the war. "Eventually, some of the Zionist peace camp came around and called for an end to the operation," says Golan, recalling the Meretz-Peace Now demonstration on January 10. "But there is no question that the opposition to this war was smaller than the opposition to any previous military campaign in Israeli history, including both Lebanon wars." Indeed there was near-blanket support for the operation in Gaza, with some polls, such as one conducted by Tel Aviv University during the second week of the war, showing as much as 94 percent of the Jewish public in favor. (The same poll showed that 80 percent of Israeli Arabs opposed the operation.) "It has left me feeling increasingly isolated from the mainstream," sighs Golan, who opposed the war right from the start. Some analysts argue that Golan and her comrades in the Israeli peace camp have Hamas to blame for their marginalization. If the second intifada dealt a crippling blow to the left, then Hamas delivered a near fatal one, says Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University professor of political science and senior fellow, emeritus, at the Israel Democracy Institute. "The two main wings of the Israeli peace movement have been profoundly disabled by Hamas," argues Ezrahi. "The mainstream wing of the peace movement was based for years on the formula of land for peace. But in the wake of the disengagement from Gaza, that formula gave way to another one: land for missiles. That destroyed public confidence that conceding territory to the other side guarantees peace. It's a process that began with the buses exploding in the wake of Oslo and absorbed a near fatal blow with the missiles aimed at southern Israel. "The other wing of the peace movement consists of liberal humanists who didn't talk so much about returning territory, but about objecting to the use of violence, in particular against civilians," continues Ezrahi. "This group has not been able to answer the question: What happens when Hamas shoots from houses full of children?" The result, says Ezrahi, is that the peace movement's credos - land for peace and protecting the rights of civilians - are nice principles that don't work in practice. "When you can't apply your principles, they begin to sound hollow. The peace movement looks more utopian than realistic for most Israelis," he asserts. Golan admits that Hamas has dealt a major blow to the camp. But like other members of the dwindling peace camp, she still fervently believes that there is no military option to resolve the conflict, and that while Hamas is a "cruel terrorist organization," Israel holds some responsibility for bringing the group to power by consistently weakening the more moderate Fatah and ensuring that its leaders had no concrete achievements to show the Palestinian people. She continues to believe that "the only way to defeat terrorists is by reaching an agreement." But voices like Golan's were rarely heard during the military campaign. The atmosphere in Israel, particularly the local media coverage, reflected and even reinforced the overall consensus regarding the war, which was viewed as completely justified and unavoidable, given Hamas's failure to renew the cease-fire agreement that ended in December and its resumption of rocket fire. While viewers around the world watched horrific scenes of destruction in Gaza, Israel's two television stations showed only small clips of the carnage, instead highlighting the reports of the IDF spokesman showing successful air force hits, and sympathetic interviews with frightened residents of southern Israel fleeing rocket fire. The dominant themes were solidarity and patriotism. "The media in this war clearly took a side. It didn't give an equal voice to the Israeli and Gazan sides in its reportage," Channel 2 foreign news editor Arad Nir said on a panel on the media's role during the Gaza fighting at the IDC Herzliya's Sammy Ofer School of Communications. Zion says one of the reasons she wrote and publicized her letter was to stir public debate. "I felt that it was my civic responsibility to challenge the monolithic discourse regarding the war, and that if I sparked some debate that would already be an achievement," says Zion, who is director of activities at the Jerusalem-based Van Leer Institute's Center for Social Justice and a member of Other Voice, a grass-roots non-partisan group of residents in Sderot and nearby communities, who call for a creative, non-violent solution for the region. In her open letter, Zion acknowledges that Hamas is "a bad and terrible organization," but writes that "behind this accursed leadership live human beings." She questions the premise that Israel exhausted every option before launching the offensive. "I have no responsibility for Hamas, and therefore I ask our leaders, 'Did you leave no stone unturned in order to achieve a continuation of the period of calm? ... Did you go to the ends of the earth to find suitable mediators? And why did you wave away the French initiative for a cease-fire after the war already broke out, without batting an eyelid?'" She also questions how much "quiet" the latest offensive will buy her fellow residents in Israel's south. Zion was overwhelmed by the responses she received. There were those who castigated her, as she predicted. "But there were also hundreds of phone calls, letters, and e-mails from Israelis who said: 'We felt we couldn't dare speak out against the consensus. Thank you for expressing what we felt too afraid to say.'" But, in some cases, the intolerance for other voices took the form of a violent attempt at suppression. When Eric Yellin, 43, also a member of the urban kibbutz in Sderot, expressed reservations about the war during an interview with an Israeli television station conducted on a Sderot street, he was verbally attacked by one passerby, while another one grabbed the microphone. "People were furious that I dared to raise questions," says Yellin, a computer software specialist who has lived in Sderot for 20 years. In Beersheba, social activist Leah Shakdiel, a lecturer in Jewish and Social Studies at Sapir Academic College near Sderot and at Ben-Gurion University, held a quiet vigil with a dozen others to protest the bloodshed on both sides. There was no megaphone, says Shakdiel, 57, and the signs were parve (innocuous) with slogans like "In Gaza and Sderot children deserve to live." But when a passerby cursed her group, and tried to grab one of their signs, police immediately pounced on the protesters - but not the attacker, she says - and dragged her and five others into a patrol car. At the police station, they placed leg shackles on one of the protesters. Shakdiel, an Orthodox grandmother and former member of Yeruham's religious council, was placed under house arrest for ten days - along with five others. The Association for Civil Right in Israel (ACRI) says this was not a lone incident but part of a pattern. "According to information and testimonies received by ACRI, since the beginning of hostilities in Gaza, the police have arrested and detained for questioning many demonstrators who took part in legal protests… In some cases, there was no evidentiary basis for these arrests and detentions… It was also reported to ACRI that demonstrators were summoned for interrogation by the General Security Services and the police and 'warned' against taking part in such protests," according to ACRI Attorney Auni Bana, who wrote an urgent letter on January 1 to Attorney General Meni Mazuz documenting the cases and calling on him to instruct the police and General Security Services to "respect the constitutional right to freedom of expression, before taking any steps against demonstrators in a protest." "I've been in the left for 33 years, and nothing like this has ever happened to me before," Shakdiel, speaking from her Yeruham home where she is still confined, tells The Report. "There is a frightening climate of intolerance." Even when the local media presented some of the destruction in Gaza, many Israelis were hardly disturbed. In the second week of the war, Ran Fine, a salesman from Tel Aviv, watched the local newscast, which showed a Palestinian woman standing in the rubble, where her house used to stand and where some of neighbors are now buried. She turns to the cameraman and tearfully asks "Why? Why have they done this to us?" Fine, looking annoyed, snaps back at the woman on the screen: "Why? Why do you think?" A former Meretz voter who supported the disengagement from Gaza, he switches stations and mutters: "Maybe she should have thought about this before she elected Hamas." Fine's reaction was not unusual. Another hallmark of the war was the Israeli Jewish public's indifference to the massive destruction in Gaza, and the suffering of civilians on the other side. In past wars, such scenes have sometimes been enough to spark protests in Israel - as in the case of the accidental shelling of Lebanese civilians in Kafr Qana in 1996 (which led to a cessation of military operations), during the first intifada, and in the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla - which was not even perpetrated by Israeli forces. Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.