My Word: Elephants of war

Like the pachyderms in the Ramat Gan Safari, we have thick skins, long memories and the overwhelming instinct as a herd to protect our young.

A family of elephants (photo credit: REUTERS)
A family of elephants
(photo credit: REUTERS)
They are an unlikely bunch of heroes, but the elephants of the Ramat Gan Safari Park, close to Tel Aviv, symbolize the latest round of hostilities. Without blowing their own trumpet, they have turned into a viral hit in cyberspace and have featured in news reports around the globe.
Forget the dogs of war, the animals at the safari are proving to have an instinct that helps protect them as Palestinian rockets launched from Gaza are directed toward Israel’s major population centers.
In footage shot by safari staffer Guy Kfir, the herd can be seen reacting as the incoming rocket alert goes off. As the siren wails, one of the female elephants trumpets a rallying cry and all four adult members of the herd close ranks and huddle around the two elephant calves.
“They definitely seem to be protecting them,” safari spokeswoman Sagit Horowitz told me. Even once the apparent danger seems to be over and the siren stops, the herd continues to huddle together, clearly agitated, and walks off as a unit, sticking close to Latangi, a year-old calf, and 10-month-old Lalana.
“We think they might be reacting to the feeling that something is wrong rather than the siren itself,” Horowitz noted. “It’s similar to the way some animals seem to sense an earthquake or tremor.”
“Israeli elephants group around two young calves as bomb sirens sound,” proclaimed the headline on the British Daily Mail website. And immediately I had this terrible image of “Hamas elephants” pushing their young to the outside of the herd in the knowledge that a photo of a dead or dying Dumbo is worth even more in the battle for world sympathy than pictures of traumatized Israeli pachyderms.
But of course elephants everywhere act more humanely than that.
Excuse the cynicism. I’m a little tired. Like the elephants trying to protect their young, the latest hostilities emanating from Gaza have taken their toll. The instinct to keep an ear open for the siren, the sound of approaching danger, does not entirely close down at night, especially after a day dealing with news stories of the war (an occupational hazard).
It’s not that I tune out the suffering of the ordinary Gazans. But I blame Hamas for their distress.
It is, however, hard to get an accurate picture of what’s going on south of the border. As happened in previous campaigns – Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 and Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009 – some of the photos purporting to come from Gaza looked familiar because they had been used before. Some of the photos of dead and wounded children were taken in the Syrian civil war, for example (In Pillar of Defense, I came across the picture of a bloodied Israeli baby being paraded as an innocent Palestinian victim, minutes after her mother had been killed by a missile from Gaza).
Jeffrey Goldberg presented a perceptive analysis this week, worth reading even if your herd instinct is to avoid his commentaries. Under the title “What, Exactly, Is Hamas Trying to Prove?” – the question posed by Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas – Goldberg gives the answer: “Hamas is trying to kill as many Palestinians as possible.
“Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse, but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior, because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.”
His conclusion is “... what Hamas wants most is not a state in a part of Palestine. What it wants is the elimination of Israel. It will not achieve the latter, and it is actively thwarting the former.”
Israeli life during Operation Protective Edge (as in previous defensive campaigns and wars) goes on. It’s a matter of pride. Or perhaps a defensive mechanism. If the elephants were to charge under stress they’d risk trampling their offspring instead of saving them. So, too, Israelis, on the whole, do not panic.
The game changer has been the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Although not fail-safe, its protection affords Israelis an unprecedented sense of security. In an only-in-Israel moment if ever there was one, earlier this week I heard a brigadier-general (res.) with the IDF Home Front Command tell a radio interviewer that the best thing Tel Avivians could do for the war effort is carry on going out for coffee. The aim of terrorism is to spread terror, he noted, and the best way to combat it is to carry on as usual (while taking the necessary precautions when the siren sounds). He was talking in a pre-planned interview just minutes after an alert in Tel Aviv and its environs.
No wonder Hamas is frustrated by us. Not only have we developed (with US assistance) an effective anti-missile system allowing residents of our busiest cities to sip coffee in street cafes while discussing The Situation but we have provided a vast proportion of the country with protective shelters and taught the general population how to take cover. (Along with the elephants, it was the premie babies being moved into the special bomb-proof area in Rehovot’s Kaplan Medical Center last week who tugged at my heartstrings.) On another radio show, a cooking expert offered tips for appropriate wartime fare. The problem isn’t rationing, like Britain in the Blitz, it’s the natural urge to eat more and particularly fattening carbohydrates (spicy food, apparently, is not recommended, although I can’t imagine all my neighbors completely forgoing it).
I think that if Hamas had our Jewish sense of humor there wouldn’t be a war in the first place. Friends shared jokes and experiences (what was your most embarrassing state of dress when you had to join the neighbors in the shelter or stairwell?). A new genre of selfies grew up – photos taken in shelters – nicknamed “shelties” by the daughter of friends. People swapped stories of the sounds they had mistaken for the siren going off. (Some ambulances changed their sirens to the European one in deference to people’s reaction on hearing the regular wailing noise.) As usual during times of war (and how I hate having to use that phrase), I recommend avoiding listening to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. If you’ve never heard an air-raid siren you might not understand, but once you have it’s hard not to instantly respond to the opening bars. Fight-or-flight syndrome.
When Hamas launched an unconventional attack – hacking the Hebrew website of Domino’s Pizza – the jokes continued to fly along with the missiles. Hamas warned it was unleashing a devastating rocket attack on major urban areas. According to the Algemeiner website, wags responded with comments like “Hey, please reserve a missile for me with jalapenos, green olives, extra cheese and mushrooms. You have my address. Tell the delivery boy to activate the alarm when it is arriving, so I know to put my pants on.”
When a Hamas rocket accidentally hit an Israeli high-voltage power line supplying electricity to some 70,000 Gazans, we collectively experienced a particular poetic sense of justice. This doubled when a second Hamas rocket hit another line to Gaza. (We’ve been supplying Hamas with power all the time it bombarded us with rockets even though it hasn’t paid the Israel Electric Corporation, and there are eight lines still operating.) I would have said that the cease-fire on July 15 was nice while it lasted, but at 15 rockets an hour it didn’t last long enough for me to write more than a Facebook status, let alone a whole opinion piece.
This weekend marks the 35th anniversary of my aliya from London. And I couldn’t be happier to still be here. On the office wall of the Jewish Agency emissary who was meant to help facilitate our immigration and absorption there was a poster featuring a solitary flower surrounded by dried earth and the slogan “I never promised you a rose garden.”
In spite of the non-promise, over the years I have watched Israel grow and flourish – as if, perversely, everything bad that was thrown at it turned into manure.
Like the Ramat Gan Safari elephants we have thick skins, long memories and the overwhelming instinct as a herd to protect our young. And we have no intention of packing our trunks and leaving.
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The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.