A blow to Israel’s heart

Jan McGirk
15 August 2006

In a bitter twist of the month-long war in the middle east, one of Israel's most prominent peace activists, David Grossman, now is grieving for his middle son, Uri, who was killed in the closing shots of the Israeli ground offensive in Lebanon.

The 20-year-old tank commander died on Saturday 12 August, less than forty-eight hours after his father, a world-renowned and outspoken novelist, had called on prime minister Ehud Olmert to declare an immediate ceasefire and to negotiate directly with the Lebanese.

Speaking in Tel Aviv alongside the distinguished Israeli authors Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua, David Grossman had been eloquent in his pleas for peace, even though he had supported this sudden retaliatory war against Hizbollah guerrillas in the days following the group's initial cross-border assault on 12 July.

Jan McGirk is a journalist based in Jerusalem. She was formerly southeast Asia correspondent for the Independent

Also by Jan McGirk in openDemocracy:

"Israelity check"
(31 July 2006)

During the first fortnight of the war, the bespectacled pacifist had toured bomb shelters in the northern frontier provinces to read his whimsical stories to families huddled underground while air-raid sirens sounded and thousands of second-world-war-era Katyusha rockets whistled over their usual playgrounds.

Grossman's 1989 children's book, entitled Uri's Special Language, describes a boy who communicates using only the suffixes of words. It was inspired by his inventive son, staff-sergeant Uri Grossman, who was due to be demobbed in November and planned to unwind by backpacking for a while before studying theatre.

Finally last week, while air strikes reduced Lebanese villages to rubble even as guerrilla rocket fire from them redoubled, David Grossman concluded that the war should go on no longer. He urged a negotiated end to the bloodshed that had been convulsing Lebanon and northern Israel for a month. Perhaps the pen could prove mightier than the sword, if politicians could sign off on a peace plan devised by the Lebanese. "This solution is the victory that Israel wanted", Grossman said.

He envisioned catastrophe if the fighting was prolonged and told an audience: "Hizbollah wants us to enter deeper and deeper into the Lebanese swamp; should the current conflict continue Lebanon will collapse, chaos will ensue and Hizbollah will take over. This disastrous scenario can be prevented right now."

Two days later, young Uri Grossman was among the two dozen casualties in Israel's eleventh hour push to reach the Litani river, after a missile pierced his Merkava tank.

Few of the Israeli conscripts were even conceived back in 1978 when Israeli fighters of their fathers' generation pushed the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) fighters north of the Litani river; many were little more than babies when Israel launched its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the prelude to an occupation of the south of the country that would last eighteen years.

By the time a belated truce was implemented on the morning of Monday 14 August, Grossman was burying his son, and Israel's army had lost 118 of its 30,000 troops (as well as thirty-nine civilians) – along with its aura of invincibility. Each military man and woman was mourned, but the sacrifice of the peace-activist's son and holocaust-survivor's grandson touched the entire nation with its perverse pathos.

Israel's wounded pride

The trio of bookish Israeli doves raised their voices only after prime minister Olmert's security cabinet voted overwhelmingly on 11 August to use thousands of ground troops to chase Hizbollah fighters beyond the Litani river, thirty kilometres beyond the frontier. They were dismayed by Israel's belligerent answer to the seven-point peace plan devised by Lebanon's prime minister Fouad Siniora and proposed at the Rome conference on 26 July; this included an offer to deploy the Lebanese army to patrol a narrow southern buffer-zone, with the approval of Hizbollah political leaders. The ability of Lebanese troops to ferret out the well-concealed missile-launchers was a troubling factor.

Still, the broad consensus supporting the new war in the north began to unravel when the government rejected all possible compromises out of hand and its war effort began to splutter. International rhetoric about proxy enemies started to rankle Israel's leftists, who saw the Lebanese peace plan as a viable starting-point. Amos Oz, a veteran Peace Now activist and literary giant, fumed that "the idea of defeating the 'axis of evil', creating a 'new middle east' and changing the face of Lebanon seems delusional to us."

AB Yehoshua, who is widely celebrated as a Hebrew equivalent of William Faulkner, risked travelling from Haifa to Tel Aviv under a hail of rockets to advocate negotiation. "We are at a crossroads between the green light given for continuing military operations and explorations for a political solution", he said.

Aaron J Klein, an intelligence expert who examined the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre in his book, Striking Back, pointed out that "at that press conference, David Grossman had argued strictly out of principle, and he never even mentioned that his boy was on the frontline." Grossman, who has for decades urged conciliation with the Arabs and ending the occupation of the West Bank, did not display his personal angst or make emotional appeals. His calm words were in stark contrast to the coruscating prose in his novels, which dissects personal and national morality, trust, and truth.

Before the most recent "cessation of hostilities", Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) claimed that they had killed 550 Hizbollah militants; the figure is disputed by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who insists that just eighty of his fighters perished, while the rest are still entrenched in the caves and smouldering Shi'a villages of southern Lebanon. Since this grudging ceasefire was inked, a further six Hizbollah militants have been gunned down in "self-defence", and the IDF has promised to cede some forward positions to United Nations forces in the next couple of days, and begin withdrawing from Lebanese territory.

"Hizbollah will not finish as a huge hero, but with its tail between its legs", deputy prime minister Shimon Peres announced on army radio after Israel agreed to the United Nations truce. But his government now is facing a political backlash for the appearance of turning tail after such a fierce month of fighting. The pride of Israel is profoundly wounded.

As funeral processions got underway for Uri Grossman in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Tzion and at twenty-three other venues, my taxi pulled up to a red light. I did a double take at the slogan freshly stencilled in black paint on the building beside us: "I ♥ WAR", it read. I hoped this was ironic black humour, and not the zealous scrawl of one of Israel's teenage warriors.

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