Sunday, August 21, 2005

A quick note from Gaza during the withdrawal

[An email written to Katie, my wife, on August 17, from Gush Katif]

KT - It's about 1pm on Wednesday, I have a few minutes between assignments, thought I'd put a few thoughts and observations down in writing, about my activities and feelings.

From a personal perspective, my overwhelming feeling is one of pure helplessness and despair. Not, mind you, from the same sources of the many residents being evicted or those protesting the expulsion locally or elsewhere - not because I believe we should be here permanently. But because I just don't see the point, not now, not with the way things are in this region - no peace, no security, no Palestinian democracy or reform in the Pal Authority. Hamas and even Qurei in the PA say "first Gaza, then Jerusalem & the West Bank" (Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the others say "all of Palestine" of course). The timing is terrible and wrong - they killed enough of us and now we're running away. Hence my despair. My helplessness comes from our own political system's failings - Sharon was elected in direct and fervent opposition to Mitzna's campaign for a 'unilateral withdrawal' from Gaza - Sharon's slogan was "Netzarim and Tel Aviv are equal" - and so many people feel completely disenfranchised by the lack of legitimacy of the withdrawal policy. Though it followed the legal process it was and is utterly anti-democratic. But this isn't the place or time for political ramblings.

All that is at the strategic level of thought and government policy. At the personal level of feeling, my helplessness and despair are more palpable, and I assume more understandable. I stand outside Ganei Tal, where our friends Machla and Pinchas have lived and raised their family for 28 years, where we've spent almost every Shabbat Chanukah in the past two decades and many other happy times, and can't believe I'm at all involved in this operation. I certainly don't feel like I'm protecting my State or my community or my family and children, which I have always felt in over 15 years of military service. I thought I'd be able to help by offering a slightly broader perspective to the media - but I'm not sure at this point, in the middle of it. My influence is minor and tangential. I can't help Machla; even my sympathy seems pathetic. I bring a journalist to hear her story and it's clear I'm on the 'other side' even as I make every effort to get her story heard. I am far away from the minor outbreaks of violence in Neve Dekalim and therefore helpless to fulfill my other promise to myself, to step in and block police brutality if I am witness to it; perhaps today or tomorrow.

An observation: As you know, units of young soldiers who have guarded these communities continue to do so, patrolling and guarding the gates - against the danger of Palestinian Arab terrorists. These units have deep and wonderful relations with the communities they serve; families 'adopt' the soldiers and the relationship between the boys and the families are strong and emotional, lasting years after an individual soldier moves on. And now other soldiers are coming to evict these families from their homes. Sitting outside Ganei Tal, I observed a fascinating phenomenon. Adults and youth, and children, some as young as 4 or 5, demonstrated an amazing sophistication in discriminating between a "good" soldier (for lack of a better term) and those coming to throw them out. As I approach the gate, the children look at me with suspicion and hostility; a moment earlier and later, they're playing with the soldier guarding the gate. And he's the one with an M-16. (All police and soliders involved in the withdrawal in or near the communities carry no arms.) It reminds me of Yonatan at around age 5, coming up to an Israeli soldier in the street, saluting him and reciting the kindergarten-version of the prayer for soldiers of the IDF, and of the pride I always had - and you had, and, I think, my family had - of my own service. I had tears in my eyes watching the kids at the gate play with the young chayal.

But I don't want to leave the impression that the soldiers involved in this transfer operation are in any way "bad". Quite the opposite; you've seen the many images of soldiers - including officers - crying with the residents they're evicting. At this point, Wednesday early afternoon, we're still at the "talking" level in most of the communities, despite the announced deadline of midnight last night and the declaration of the initiation of the "forced evacuation" stage as of this morning. We are making every effort not to move into the arena of coercive force - though in isolated cases we must of course. And in responding to the demonstrators - as opposed to the residents - whose goal is to interfere in the process, the IDF is certainly forcing them physically onto busses and literally driving them out. About 300 were arrested in Neve Dekelim yesterday, of which about 50 will be charged formally. I wonder if some of our friends or their teenagers are among them.

A couple barricaded themselves in their house with their two kids earlier this morning, threatening violence; they were patiently and professionally talked out. Similarly a young boy on a ledge outside his home. And reports of many other instances continue to flow in to our command center, where I am now. In light of my unhappiness with the overall policy as well as the way it's being carried out on the macro-level, I am at least comforted that on the micro-level, in each individual case, great care and sensitivity is being displayed by our forces, on the whole. In fact, one of my most emotional moments so far occurred prior to the inauguration of operations, in our briefing. Every commander who spoke to us - from the head of Southern Command through the commander of the police and of course the head of the Spokespersons Unit, as well as the lower-level unit commanders and other officers, not to mention the Chief of General Staff on the radio - spoke emotionally and eloquently of this being an operation unique in the history of the IDF. Almost all mentioned that these are our brothers and sisters; that they'd been sent here by governments both Left and Right; that they embody the true spirit of Zionism. All stressed the sensitivity and empathy central to all of our activities; many used the word "love" repeatedly.

The initial operation, BTW, from Sunday through Tuesday, was called "Operation Lending-a-Hand" or, more literally, "A Hand to Brothers" ("Yad L'Achim").

On another level, logistical challenges are overwhelming and the results are unimpressive, if not disastrous (from a media perspective). I spent over 14 hours yesterday (from 2am until 4pm) with 35 increasingly hostile journalists from around the world and from every media who were placed in a 'holding pattern' in 40-degree heat outside the entrance to Ganei Tal, denied entrance to the Moshav by the community's leaders, waiting for officers to come deliver eviction notices... who never came. But the IDF operations branch didn't bother to let the Spokespersons unit know they weren't coming. On less than 2 hours of sleep, after 10 hours in the burning sun, it wasn't easy to manage the frustration and anger of the press on the bus.

More on that angle perhaps another time.

Another issue: Earlier today Palestinians fired on Neve Dekalim. You recall Sharon's declaration "we will not withdraw under fire"? Well - since no injuries were reported, the IDF is not responding. I wouldn't want to live in a society where murder, rape & robbery were punished only when successful. If there are no consequences for attempted rape/murder/robbery, what real deterrence is there? Our strategic position having been decimated by this withdrawal, now our tactical position becomes weakened at every passing moment. Sorry for the pessimism; I think it's justified.

One more little thing, just to give us perspective. I played with Efrat's little 2-year-old, Shalem, in Machla's living room, surrounded by boxes, while Machla spoke to the reporters. We haven't seen her since Moriyah's Bat Mitzvah - you can't believe how similar she looks to Efrat - whom we met, of course, at that age exactly. She (Shalem) is a bright, cheerful, friendly ball of laughs; I bounced her on my leg - army boots are great for that at that age. She kept saying "sus!" (horse) and laughing. It wasn't only a nice break and the obvious "cycle of life" ideas going through my head. At that very point, Machla was talking to the reporters about her 25-year-old sofas, and being photographed sitting on them, and about how one the one hand she says to herself "just leave them, what do I need them for, they're so old, I'm moving on...". But then she says "These sofas are part of my life; I brought them here into my home, they're part o f me and who I am; I can't envision my living room without them." And I thought, and later told Machla, how I remember playing with Efrat, and Shaiki, and Tuli, and Merav, on those sofas. (You remember - they're pretty flat and solid and firm, great for bouncing kids on your knees.) Playing with Shalem in the same way, and the fact that Machla's taking the sofas with her, says something to me about continuity, about the flexibility of the human condition in spite of so many hardships, I don't know, it just comforted me somehow.

I can't in good conscience bring myself to think, or to feel, or of course to say to Machla or anyone, something as trite as 'life goes on' - but in a Frankel type of way, I guess I do feel that, from a Jewish perspective, even a Zionist perspective, Efrat's daughter Shalem, like our children, represent a certain staying-power, a permanence unrelated to where exactly we put down our roots.

Anyway - must finish up here. Am briefing a small group of journalists in 15 minutes and have to get up-to-date; am being interviewed by BBC radio at 3pm - tell your folks to tune in, if they want, around 1pm their time.

I send you my love - it was nice to speak to you this morning.


Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The “Gulf” in Zionism

“Fragmented beyond repair,” wrote Gershon Baskin in the Jerusalem Post July 26 about Israeli society. He may be right; he is dreadfully wrong as to the nature of the problem. Saying his worldview is “different” from the settlers’, Baskin purports to represent true Zionism. In fact, he betrays the very essence of our Zionist principles. He represents, in effect if not intention, the “post-Zionist” anti-Jewish ideology preferred by Israel’s enemies.

Baskin decries the settling of thousands of Israelis – observant and non-observant – in the areas Israel has administered since June 1967. He writes of “saving Zionism from those who have tainted the noble aspects of its cause since 1967” with no recognition of two critical facts: That cause, in all its “aspects”, is the same as it was in Herzl and Ben Gurion’s days; and the vast majority of “those” settlers were sent by their Zionist leaders, Left and Right, to fulfill the Zionist mission: settling the land and claiming sovereignty over it.

Baskin writes: “Zionism is not about occupying the West Bank and Gaza,” and “continuation of the settlement enterprise is an act of suicide for the Zionist dream.” People may disagree as to the political correctness or feasibility of “the settlement enterprise” in the disputed territories, but Baskin and others like him twist history and ideology when they suggest that settling the Land of Israel is anything other than the most basic means and goal of Zionism.

A Zionist believes in the Jewish right to the Land of Israel. Quirks of history dictated the provisional borders of the State of Israel. Zionist leaders accepted the UN Partition Plan of 1947 reluctantly, not as the fulfillment of the dream to create a Jewish State in all of the Land of Israel, but as the best they could get. Neither the Partition borders, nor the eventual armistice lines of 1949, were seen as permanent borders. It was the beginning of the fulfillment of the Zionist dream -- not the end.

The Jewish claim is based on legal and historical foundations including the Balfour declaration, the League of Nations Mandate to Britain, and Israel’s acquisition of the territories in a war of defense as defined by the UN Charter, over and above the continued Jewish presence in the area for over 3500 years and the moral and religious underpinnings often cited. If in response to practical and political realities over the past century Zionist leaders have made territorial compromises, that claim remains legitimate, despite not being pursued.

This includes accepting the unilateral decision by Great Britain to create an Arab state in eastern Palestine in 1922, TransJordan; accepting the UN’s recommending another Arab state be established in western Palestine with Partition in 1947; and relinquishing control of the Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria including Hebron and Shechem, cities of our Patriarchs, as part of the Oslo process in the 1990’s.

A true Zionist acknowledges this reality even though he or she may agree to waive that right in favor of a competing Palestinian claim. While not asserting our claim to the Land of Israel, we do not surrender it. The “close settlement” of the Land of Israel was and is a defining theme in Zionism. Yet Gershon Baskin and others (including most of the world) view this land as the Palestinians’ – calling it “their” land. True Zionists, if they have any intellectual integrity, recognize and publicly affirm the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, rather than accepting and strengthening the use of biased terms for the disputed territories like “occupied territories”.

Judea and Samaria, the “west bank of the Jordan river”, has had no legal sovereign accepted by the UN or the western world since Britain renounced its mandate in 1947. Israel has at least as powerful a claim to these territories as do the Palestinians, who did not exist as a separate Arab “nation” until at least the founding of the PLO in 1964. If we Zionists don’t remind the world of this fact, even if we support the Palestinians’ claim, how can we expect others to recognize our sacrifice or acknowledge our own legitimacy?

Baskin says “the Zionist enterprise is at risk as long as we continue our occupation and domination over the West Bank and its people”. In fact, the Zionist enterprise is at real risk when “Zionists” reject its essence. If Gaza and Hebron are “theirs”, illegally “occupied”, then so are Haifa, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Jerusalem and all the rest of Palestine -- which is precisely what Hamas claims, as do many of our “moderate” Arab neighbors and PA textbooks and media. The Israeli “occupation” ended in 1995 with the implementation of Oslo II, by which time 98% of Palestinians were under PA rule.

The original goal of Zionism -- the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel -- was achieved in the last century. The fundamental ideology of Zionism -- the Jewish claim to this Land and the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish State, in whatever borders are eventually agreed upon with our neighbors -- is under attack around the world, not least by the Palestinians, and by a loud and influential, if small, minority in Israel. It is this battle against those who deny legitimacy to Israel as a Jewish State which will determine the strength of Israel and the Jewish people in the 21st Century. In Israel, those who wish to see Israel lose its Jewish identity and Zionist ideals are called “post-Zionists”.

Baskin’s demagogy* targeted at “the settlers” and his rejection of the settlement idea reveal the true nature of his Zionism. He certainly claims to be a “real” Zionist -- just within the ’49 armistice lines.

Like Baskin, I came to this country over two decades ago from the USA, and brought many of my American values with me. As a Zionist, I am committed to the strengthening of Israel as a Jewish state and I assert the Jews’ right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel -- even if the actualization of that right is not possible. I also happen to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, which I advocated as early as 1989 in these pages, before even the Labour party accepted its inevitability. But my advocacy of a Palestinian state is conditional on the Palestinians’ and other Arabs’ acceptance of Israel -- de jure, not de facto.

And my support rests on that Palestinian state being free, open, and tolerant and protective of its Jewish minority. This too is a Zionist stance: If Gaza and Hebron are not under Jewish sovereignty, Jews should at least be able to live there without fear. Any other approach is not Zionist. Suggesting, as the world (and Baskin, it seems) does, that an emerging Palestine must be Judenrein, is anti-Zionist -- and irrational.

Baskin may be correct, we Jews in Israel are somewhat fragmented. But not between Right and Left, or between more-observant and less-observant. We are divided between Zionists and Post-Zionists, and following this withdrawal from Gaza our debate – and the world’s debate with us – will be along these lines. True Zionists will be judged not by their advocacy of a “Greater Israel” or of greater territorial concessions to the Palestinians, but by their commitment to Jews’ right to live in the Land of Israel, and Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State.


* Baskin blames “the settlers” for fragmenting Israeli society, equating them with right-wing religious extremists -- deepening the rift while pretending to lament it. He demonizes them with casual references to violence, whereas the reality, recognized by the media and authorities, is quite the opposite -- including multiple instances of restraint in the face of police brutality. He suggests that Islamic terror awaits “provocation” from Israeli settlers, whereas Israel and the world has seen the rise of Islamic terror based on anti-Semitic and anti-western religious themes entirely independent of the acts of religious or other settlers.

Referring to the opposition bumper-sticker slogan "Jews don't expel Jews," Baskin suggests it implies “that Jews may expel non-Jews.” This more reflects his twisted perspective than the intent of the opponents of the Gaza withdrawal and the understanding of the majority of Zionists and Israelis. The slogan refers to the others -- the many others, including our current Arab neighbors and those around the world who would see us pushed into the sea -- who have expelled Jews (or tried to) throughout the centuries. Few settlers or Zionists, and certainly no leaders, “believe they can subjugate the Palestinians” as Baskin asserts. Most wish nothing more than to live in peace and prosperity with our Arab neighbors, and the vast Israeli consensus agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the heart of the Land of Israel -- which in fact Oslo was meant to lead to, had the Palestinian leadership been more interested in gaining independence than in attacking Israel.

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