At home in war and peace

The latest military campaign has some quintessentially Israeli aspects to it.

sderot shelter 248.88 (photo credit: Esther Nussbaum)
sderot shelter 248.88
(photo credit: Esther Nussbaum)
Two fathers picking up their sons from a Jerusalem judo club last week - a welcome local variation of American hockey moms - grumbled that naming the campaign against Hamas in Gaza "Operation Cast Lead" had forever ruined the Hanukka song about a solid-metal dreidel. This led to a general discussion by various assembled parents on the names of military operations and reservists' call-up codes. It's the sort of conversation that could only take place in Israel. Indeed, much about this latest military endeavor was quintessentially Israeli. Combining concern over the lack of water and military tactics in one sentence, a former general being interviewed on Israel Television this week noted that while the rains "are a blessing," the clouds are the opposite, limiting the IAF's operational capabilities. From the way the old commander was talking, the judo dads might not have to worry long about the code name of the counter-attack on Hamas. Something tells me that quite soon it will have a new appellation: The War in the South? The Hamas War? For make no mistake: Israel is at war. Hamas and its allies started it some eight years ago. There are definite signs that this has gone beyond being a regular campaign. Signals close to home. While the Egged bus drivers haven't suddenly become uniformly courteous - considered a sure sign of war - in truly "only-in-Israel" style the Chief Rabbinate last week published the Prayer for Soldiers in the Hebrew press. After all, as much as we worry about citizens being hit by missiles in places increasingly distant from Gaza - Beersheba, Ashdod and Yavne - we lose sleep over the soldiers: the sons, brothers, husbands or friends of someone we know. This is such a collective weak spot that it is widely believed that the government didn't declare war on Hamas until now - despite the high cost being paid for years by residents of Sderot and the surrounding areas - because it was scared of military casualties. At one point, there was a rather surreal discussion about evacuating some IDF bases close to Gaza to remove the soldiers out of the danger zone: The civilians, on the other hand, were expected to stay put. SINCE THE start of the operation, much has been made by the foreign press of the "disproportionality": that "only" four Israelis died in the first few days compared to close to 400 Palestinians (most of them Hamas fighters or leaders). At the beginning of December (which suddenly seems a very long time ago), I felt like the party-pooper at a UN-sponsored peace seminar in Vienna where I reminded participants that every time we've seen the light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out it is being held by a heavily armed Hamas terrorist. As many of these tunnels were being destroyed, a reader forwarded me photos of IDF soldiers helping the Hamas men out. Of course, in the Photoshop age almost anything is possible, but if these have been fixed, someone put great effort into creating images of the enemy receiving medical treatment and hot drinks after being, in effect, rescued by those very soldiers they had been hoping to kill. It is a battle of images, after all - and we're not winning it. I e-mailed an Egyptian journalist I met at the Austrian conference to ask her about how she saw the situation in Gaza. Al Arabiya TV Cairo bureau chief Randa Abul-Azm - using words like "inhumane," and "unjustifiable" - replied: "I understand that there were rocket attacks against Israel, but is one Israeli worth 300 Palestinians? Each life is so precious." Unlike most of her Israeli counterparts, who hold that Defense Minister Ehud Barak delayed the campaign for fear it could negatively affect his race for the premiership, Abul-Azm saw Israel's military efforts as part of "a short-term goal of winning an election" and warned "what is happening now will only deepen the hatred of the Arab world to Israel... Israeli survival in the region will never be achieved this way." How can you explain that the reason that more Israelis haven't been hurt is not Hamas magnanimity but the fact that many have spent years half-living in shelters? And many more are now discovering what a miserable existence that is. Even some hospitals are operating in reinforced basements. Perhaps another sign of war is that Israelis in the ever-dwindling "safe" areas are offering their homes to complete strangers from the South who need some respite from the rockets, which in many cases leave worse psychological scars than physical ones. GETTING TOGETHER to light candles for the last night of Hanukka on December 28, some girlfriends and I discussed the usual: kids, men, fashion - and our wartime experiences in Lebanon I, Lebanon II and the 1991 Scud War. My friend from Sderot inadvertently provided the conversation stopper when she expressed her fear of red traffic lights. She can't stand being still on the roads, given that a Kassam could fall at any moment. We also talked about politics, but the eerily united front currently being maintained by most Knesset members is a definite sign that this is war. The late Amiram Nir once wrote a piece entitled "Sheket! Yorim" ("Quiet! They're shooting"). There will obviously come a time when experts and amateurs analyze every aspect of this war - the preparedness, operational and political sides. But right now, there's a war going on. And it is very close to every home in the country. The "told-you-so" voices of those who opposed disengagement from Gaza warning it would result in missiles on Ashkelon and Ashdod are muffled: They'll sound louder when they can shout outside their shelters and protected rooms. (For that matter, does any other country have a concept of "protected rooms" literally built into its construction codes?) Even in Jerusalem, where my son continues to go to judo and my family was looking forward to an amateur production of The Yeomen of the Guard, the war is not far from our minds. And it somehow feels strange that it is not the main story everywhere in the world. Peter Stano, head of international news at Slovak Radio, whom I also met in Vienna, told me in an e-mail last week that for most of the media in Bratislava "it is not opening story. I think people here are not bothered too much - they tend to take it as another bloody battle." Stano says most of his colleagues try to keep the coverage neutral: "But of course [people] feel more sympathy when they see bombed buildings and bleeding children." Israelis also hate the sight of wounded children. That's why we don't use them as human shields. Hence, kids in the South didn't go to vulnerable schools last week, let alone extracurricular activities. International criticism will inevitably mount as the campaign continues, but here on the home front it is clear that Israel is fighting for its very existence. And we are fighting in style, our way.