Israelity check

Jan McGirk
30 July 2006

The standard greeting here in west Jerusalem is Shalom (Hebrew for "peace"), while in the eastern half of the city, Arabic speakers echo the same sentiment with Salaam aleykum ("peace be unto you"). The ritual incantation still comes from the lips of traders in Jerusalem's labyrinthine souk – Jews, Arabs, or Christians alike – but most seem reluctant to mention this summer's new war to the diminishing number of souvenir shoppers. Instead, as conflict rages in the north and across the Lebanese border, as the dead of Qana are buried and mourned, and as the siege of Gaza inflicts starvation, humiliation and misery on its beleaguered residents, many of Jerusalem's three-quarters of a million people will refer obliquely only to the "situation" on the northern frontier.

The reticence and the euphemism are by-products of a difficult phase in Israel's latest conflict. Almost three weeks since the Hizbollah raid of 12 July that precipitated the "situation", both victory and a lasting truce remain elusive. Yet the opinion polls show that most Israelis still support the policy of targeting Hizbollah militants, even when they are emplaced in the midst of civilian communities. Many observers, scholarly experts and cafe pundits alike, dismiss condemnations of Israel by European and Arab leaders of Israeli as overly sentimental, and argue that there can be no "disproportionate" response to the Hizbollah abductions of Israeli soldiers.

The criticism of Israel was severe even before Sunday 30 July's pre-dawn strike at Qana that killed at least sixty civilians, including dozens of handicapped children, as they slept. Before it, United Nations humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland had called Israel's bombing campaign against densely populated areas in Lebanon a "violation of humanitarian law"; after it, Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora talked of "this horrible crime, this crime against humanity, this terrorism at its worst".

Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed regret for the loss of life at Qana, but was adamant that no massacre was intended, and said warnings had been issued to local people to evacuate the area days before the bombs fell. One bellicose Israeli senator argued (off the record) that any community sheltering Hizbollah militants must suffer the consequences, because terrorists "must be exterminated." This Knesset member insists that air strikes, even at the cost of slaughter of civilians, are the only efficient way to root out the Shi'a rocket-launchers from Tyre and Beirut and to ensure Israel's long-term survival. With additional United States-supplied "smart bombs", the military's precision will get better, he promised.

Israel belatedly responded to the world's collective disgust about Qana by declaring a halt to all air strikes for forty-eight hours to give time for a full investigation into the incident to be launched (though that did not stop a further round of aerial bombing in southern Lebanon on 31 July). An IDF spokesman, Guy Spiegelman, announced that a preliminary probe on the Israeli side indicated that the three-storey house in Qana in whose basement two extended Lebanese families had taken refuge may have "pancaked" because of bad construction or a weapons cache, not directly because of Israeli shelling.

Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice's second visit to the region since the crisis began was interrupted by the Qana atrocity (a nasty reminder of the 1996 massacre when Israeli artillery fire killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians taking refuge at a UN peacekeeping base there). With no immediate truce in the offing, Fouad Siniora abruptly withdrew the welcome mat.

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

Also by Jan McGirk in openDemocracy:

"Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand" (April 2005)

"Bali's message of dialogue" (August 2005) – this article contains the full text of the interfaith "Bali Declaration" of July 2005

"Bali's agony, Thailand's turmoil" (October 2005)

"Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake"
(October 2005)

"Thailand's endemic insurgency"
(November 2005)

"Western NGOs and the tsunami test"
(December 2005)

"Thailand’s rising tide" (February 2006)

"Thaksin Shinawatra: the end of the affair" (April 2006)

"Thailand's king and that democracy jazz"
(June 2006)

A time of troubles

If there a national consensus in Israel, it remains the longing for a swift and decisive victory over Hizbollah. Most Israelis take enormous pride in the invincible reputation of the IDF, and more than 80% of them have rallied behind the government policy of hyper-retaliation in Lebanon. But the fallout from Qana is only the latest indication that this time, expectations are becoming harder to meet.

There have been several earlier signals. Israeli squadrons have not been able to rumble in to southern Lebanon unimpeded, as tanks are highly unsuited to the stony hills and cave-riddled terrain of the frontier zone – especially one landscaped with a maze of Hizbollah tunnels and concealed positions. Forced to dismount, IDF troops are vulnerable to ambush. In the largest loss of Israeli life so far in this "situation", nine soldiers were killed by guerrillas in Bint Jbeil on 26 July.

Some of the latest Israeli gear is decidedly less high-tech than the expensive new imported weaponry deployed overhead and in the field. One Israeli Defence Forces supply-train uses llamas as bizarre beasts of burden, after veterinarians determined that these Andean pack animals were ideally adapted to traverse the area.

Ehud Olmert and his generals initially maintained that no immediate plans for a large-scale ground invasion of Lebanon are underway. True, the Israeli army did push into two Lebanese border towns, Bint Jbeil and Maroun al-Ras, where Hizbollah guerrillas – emboldened by memories of resisting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 – had had six years to create their defensive systems. But the IDF's very experience of combat there, as well as its shelling of a United Nations frontier outpost that killed four unarmed peacekeepers sheltering in a bunker at Khiam, led to a shift of approach: defence minister Amir Peretz announced that Israeli forces would stake out a two-kilometre "security zone" in southern Lebanon. This buffer-zone will be maintained under Israeli control if a multinational force "with enforcement capability" cannot be mustered. The French and Lebanese armies are tipped to lead international peacekeepers.

This latest Israeli military strategy has so far gained little ground, and this proposed buffer-zone will not in itself protect Israel from a continuous rain of Hizbollah rockets. Since hostilities began on 12 July, more than 100 Hizbollah rockets per day have struck the port city of Haifa, northern towns, and Israeli villages in Nazareth and Galilee, where vineyards and orchards have been left to rot at the height of harvest. Young volunteers in Jerusalem are making plans to pick grapes and retrieve honey next week even though rockets threaten overhead. Spotters on hillsides try to sound sirens in warning, but do not always act quickly enough.

On Saturday 29 July, Hizbollah fired three new longer-range Khaiber rockets, each able to carry more than 100 kilograms of explosives and to travel almost fifty kilometres into Israel. Random strikes of Katyusha and Qassam rockets unleash red hot ball-bearings that multiply the damage, and these have killed dozens of Israelis and maimed many more. Shrapnel collecting has become a dangerous childhood pursuit after the air-raid sirens go silent. It provides pocket money for surplus metal, much like recycling soda cans does for more suburban kids. Families have been abandoned or split up inside Israel, even if on far smaller a scale than in war-ravaged Lebanon.

Israel is also on the defensive in the propaganda war. The Hizbollah chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah appeared on al-Jazeera television to taunt the Israelis as "ready to halt the aggression because they are afraid of the unknown", and added: "The one pushing for the continuation of the aggression is the US." After the childless Rice depicted this new war as "the birthpangs of a new middle east", cartoons in the Arab-language press showed her as a mad midwife or a pregnant warrior.

In this as in every war, body counts are a gruesome but telling statistic. The proportion of Arab-to-Israeli dead (routinely ten-to-one) is in the latest bout of fighting even more unbalanced: roughly 600-50 at the time of writing. In Gaza, 125 Palestinian deaths have been recorded in the past month. "Friendly fire" has accounted for at least five of Israeli's casualties in Lebanon. Yet the prime minister vowed to fight for the long haul, and has called up more than 30,000 reservists for active duty as a proof of this intent.

Behind the frontline

Only a couple of thousand anti-war activists in Tel Aviv have signalled any displeasure about the brutal toll on civilians in Lebanon, or disquiet about the medical evidence that white phosphorus shells had been dropped on a convoy of civilian refugees fleeing north to escape the bombardments.

Because it is summer and schools are not in session, many Israeli families bolted from the border as soon as Olmert declared the cross-border abduction of soldiers to be "an act of war", not humdrum terrorism, and prepared the military for protracted action against Hizbollah. The lives of at least one million Israelis have since been transformed by sudden displacement.

"This is Israeli society's finest hour: the whole country has gotten behind the residents of the areas in the line of fire", says Anat Hoffman, head of the Israeli Religious Action Center. "Even Bedouin who live in unrecognised villages in the Negev have opened their modest homes in extraordinary generosity to those who are fleeing the north." As temporary shelters at the seashore fill up, schools in Israel's safe zones, located beyond missile range, were transformed into war relief centres, mostly funded by donations from synagogues abroad.

But many Israelis, who eke out a living from minimum-wage jobs or are guarding family property, have no option other than to stay in the north. In mixed Israeli settlements, the hail of rockets has sent Orthodox Jewish housewives wearing snoods to huddle inside the community bomb-shelters alongside veiled Arab women and Israeli youths clad in skimpy summer gear.

Keeping tempers in check and bored children from bickering is a challenge. Clowns and magicians visit these stifling shelters to distribute candy and games, as rockets thud outside. One entertainer from Jerusalem regretted neglecting to pack karaoke tapes in Russian or Arabic, because so few Hebrew-speakers are using these subterranean dens; most have headed out to stay with relatives in distant cities.

Jerusalem usually feels jittery in any case, and this period is no different. Yet summer festivities are in full gear, and jaded revellers seem undeterred by the fighting up north and in the south. Pistol-packing Ethiopians or Russian immigrants guard Jerusalem bistros against potential suicide-bombers, as usual. Infected Mushroom, a popular Israeli thrash band, closed its summer tour "with a bang" in the Holy City on Thursday 27 July. And World Pride, an international gay celebration expected to attract more than 10,000 participants, is scheduled to go ahead on 6-12 August, although its controversial Gay Pride march through the streets of Jerusalem was cancelled because too few security troops were on hand to protect the route from rightwing religious protesters.

"Better they cancel the war to allow our fabulous parade", joked a dreadlocked 20-something who would identify himself only as "Shlomo the Homo". "Our record is pretty good at getting people together", he added.

Indeed, a cross-section of homophobic conservative Christian groups had joined Islamic and Orthodox Jewish leaders in Jerusalem in June to demand that the city ban the event. "We are faced with the prospect of six days of promiscuity and debauchery unparalleled in the middle east", Rabbi Yehuda Levin had fumed. While the gay pride march has a rain-check, city authorities are bracing for a gay solidarity rally with Palestinians at the security fence nearest Jerusalem, plus spontaneous gatherings anywhere along the 456-miles barrier, followed by a multi-faith convocation, a film and poetry fest. It all culminates with beach-blanket Babylon in Tel Aviv – poignantly reminiscent of the urban hedonism once associated with beautiful, blasted Beirut. A lot can change in three weeks. There may be hope as well as melancholy in this fact. Shalom.

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