“Just Get Out”?

This (with quotation and question marks added) is the title of today’s lead editorial in the English-language Haaretz as it appears on haaretz.com. The editorial notes that Israel’s security cabinet is now divided, with a substantial minority of four members voting to stop the operation and withdraw from Gaza. It goes on to say in no uncertain terms, “The fighting needs to stop now and the IDF should exit Gaza immediately.”

And it ends, “Israel must withdraw from the Gaza Strip and seek an agreement that will secure a long-term cease-fire and prevent the rearmament of Hamas,” through the auspices of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European Union, Egypt, and the United States.

The editorial comes hours after the UN Security Council voted to call for an immediate cease-fire. The vote was unanimous except for the United States, which could have blocked the resolution as it has for two weeks, but which instead chose to abstain. Hamas rejected the resolution. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel declared the cease-fire unworkable and, with the support of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, continued the air and ground assault in Gaza.

Those of us who love and defend Israel are having a more difficult time of it every day. Of course, this is nothing compared to the difficulty faced by Israelis, much less that faced by Palestinians in Gaza. A few days ago a wonderful family I once stayed with over a peaceful Shabbat in Israel lost a son in the fighting; he was Major Dagan Wertman, 32, known for his devotion to the men serving under him.

At his funeral, “One officer said he was the kind of commander who worried that his soldiers had enough money and who stayed up all night talking with them. He would go around for days with red, swollen eyes from lack of sleep.” He had returned from a two-year break in his army service to join the Gaza fighting. Two of his brothers are also in the army.

His father, Eli, remembered often putting a blanket over the boy when he fell asleep with his clothes on: "’But I didn’t take off your shoes, because you would not let me,’ Eli said, his voice broken with tears.” He went on to tell his dead son that the family would be unified and strong. The grief of Dagan’s gentle parents—his father is a distinguished neurologist, his mother a dedicated social worker—is echoed by many who loved their son and his family.

It is also, of course, mirrored by that of hundreds of Palestinian parents who have lost sons and daughters, including many small children, in the tragic war in Gaza over the past two weeks. The images of their deaths, their grief, have been transmitted instantaneously around the world. They are now the image most strongly associated with Israel in the minds of not millions but billions of people.

The deaths of civilians are inevitable in war, and for the first week of this conflict it was possible to point to the exceptional care taken by the IDF to prevent and reduce such deaths. In the second week the balance of public opinion has changed. Israel’s effort to protect the innocent by warning them to flee to safer places has backfired in major ways at least twice. A home in which over a hundred people were taking shelter was bombed by the IDF, killing at least thirty.

And, with what looked like flagrant disregard of international law and custom, Israel shelled a United Nations school in which it had encouraged civilians to take refuge, killing and wounding many. Israel claimed that mortar fire was coming from the vicinity of the school and that it returned fire. The UN representative stated that a preliminary investigation made him “99.9 percent certain” that no such mortar fire had occurred.

Let’s say we believe Israel—let’s say that in both cases Hamas was hiding among the civilians and using them as human shields, as it has often done in other situations. Let’s say even that Hamas plotted to make this happen, to draw Israeli fire upon places of refuge, including a United Nations school.

This would be a point of great moral importance, but of no importance at all in the battle for hearts and minds. The spectacle of a UN representative and an Israeli spokesman arguing bitterly on CNN over what happened at the school is a no-win situation for Israel, and those of us who defend its legitimate interests look increasingly insensitive and difficult to believe.

Despite a daily three-hour lull in the fighting, despite scores of truckloads daily of humanitarian aid being allowed into Gaza, the situation for the 1.5 million people who live there is increasingly dire. Yesterday the UN suspended its aid operations, citing the risk to its personnel, and saying that the IDF had fired on aid trucks, killing one driver and injuring two others. Yesterday too, the Red Cross accused Israel of breaking international law by allowing children to starve to death in Gaza.

The Israeli group Physicians for Human Rights is trying to raise $700,000 for desperately needed medical and surgical supplies for Gaza, but has only been able to raise about $100,000 privately. Yesterday Ari Shavit, a journalist who supported the incursion into Gaza, called upon the Olmert government to simply give PHR the rest of the money; it did not.

Israel is now losing a huge, worldwide battle for hearts and minds that has long-term strategic importance. It was obvious to all from the beginning that this would have to be a time-limited operation, and that world opinion would ultimately set the limit, just as it did in many of Israel’s wars. The US has been able once again to delay the inevitable, but now there is a UN cease-fire resolution, and the President who gives Israel all the rope it wants will be gone in 12 days.

The justification of this war was easy to accept for many of us, and it was not even very difficult to rebut the argument of “disproportionate” response. To justify ongoing operations at the daily cost that Israel is inflicting—inadvertently or not–on innocent Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, on its own best and brightest young people, is far, far harder.

American airmen were once dragged through the streets of Somalia, their bodies mutilated and brutalized, their country humiliated. This is now happening to Israel’s moral standing; it is being dragged day after day, mutilated and brutalized, in the metaphoric streets of the whole world.

Is the ongoing advantage of pursuing the military goals of this operation worth the cost? I don’t know, but I know the cost is enormous, and I am beginning to wonder if Israel’s leaders fully understand that cost. I also know that four members of Israel’s security cabinet and the editors of its most respected newspaper have now said, with appropriate safeguards and conditions, “Just Get Out.”

Note: I recommend the New Israel Fund as a conduit for American contributions to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel:

US residents may make a tax-exempt donation via the New Israel Fund (NIF). Checks should be made payable to “New Israel Fund”. A note with the check should be marked “donor-advised to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, ID# 5762.”

NIF Address in Washington: New Israel Fund, P.O.Box 91588, WashingtonDC 20090-1588

NIF Bank details: Citibank, 1000 Vermont Ave NW, Washington, DC20005, ABA #254070116, Acc# 66796296

12 thoughts on ““Just Get Out”?

  1. I see your pain and angst, but you are getting very close to the line that you admonish Diaspora Jews to stay away from and that is from criticizing Israeli policy.  I’m not saying I disagree with you on this point because I too think that the war has probably run its course and a cease fire that meets Israel’s security needs can probably be agreed upon.

    However Mel, you get awfully close to doing just what you say I shouldn’t be doing in this blog.  I happen to believe that you have actually crossed your self prescribed lines…and that is OK with me…

  2. Steve, Close to the line, yes, over it, no. I am citing the opinions of others within Israel who represent a very large minority at this point. And, more importantly, I am trying to raise a warning flag to those who may be interested, that it is getting much harder for us in the Diaspora to do the job Israel needs from us. Still, I am going to support the action as long as the Israeli government deems it necessary to continue.


  3. MEL:  This is a far more bloody-minded comment than I am comfortable with, but I can’t shake the feeling that the cascade of wars, intifadas and terrorism that have befallen Israel over the years is in part due to the fact that Israel has never been allowed to score the definitive military victory of which it is perfectly capable. In each instance, at a crucial moment, the UN, some ad hoc motley of nations or Washington itself, has pulled Israel up short, with nothing settled except for the moment and thus seeding the ground with what will become a new crop of evil flowers.

  4. Tom,
    I understand and to some extent sympathize with your reasoning here, but I just don’t know if that’s the answer. Surely Israel can’t raze Gaza even though strictly speaking it easily could. Since in any event most Palestinians will be left to mourn and rage, a yet more extended and bloodier conflict could also sow the seeds of yet more evil flowers, to use your powerful phrase. Which is the better strategy? I don’t think either is very good.

    Looking back to the sixties and seventies, I suppose peace with Jordan may have come because Israel hammered them so hard, but peace with Egypt (such as it is) because Israel fought to a standoff in 1973, inadvertently giving Sadat and his people a chance to win their honor back.

    I’m not sure but what something similar happened in the Second Lebanon War, which many people see as a failure for Israel. Where is the rain of Hezbollah rockets and missiles today? They were quick to deny involvement in the few that were lobbed over the other day. They’re in the Lebanese government, they remember the punishment they got in 2006, and they don’t seem to want a repeat of that now. What the future will bring, I don’t know.

    We’re all amateurs when it comes to trying to figure this out, which is why I try to leave it to Israel. But when, as now, those who know best are also divided on when to stop the flow of blood, I feel a bit emboldened, and at least I want to remind them of the cost in public opinion, which is probably the one thing I can at this distance be an expert on.

    I just hope the benefit is worth that cost–not to mention the cost in blood, and the flowers of evil that may inevitably grow up in the sons and baby brothers of the wounded and the dead.

  5. Mel–
    I mourn with you.  No death should be excusable, but doesn’t human nature allow us to learn (and perhaps survive) from our mistakes?  How many times must Israel agree to end hostilities, when they know the eventual outcome is the certainty of facing a renewed, rearmed enemy?  Do you honestly believe that any promise from a group whose intent is to exterminate them can be relied on?

    Of course it’s difficult when any person is killed.  But would you have had the US withdraw from Europe and our allies lay down their arms before liberating Auschwitz?  When does the end justify the means, and when doesn’t it?  I have to remember that Hamas is the duly-elected government.  If the Palestinian people don’t want to suffer, don’t they have recourse against those who initiate and encourage it?  Couldn’t that lead to a better solution than to continue to suffer while rockets fly over the border from their territory?

    The world news coverage makes me ashamed, but it doesn’t surprise me.  Those journalists who wring their hands over every hurt or killed Palestinian have been strangely silent as rockets flew into Israel for 8 years, not 10 days.  Should we all mourn that Hamas was not as agile at producing weapons as Israel is?  Would the world have produced an outcry if Israeli babies and kindergarteners died at a higher rate?  How many dead Jews is enough to reach them?

    You said Israel’s effort to protect the innocent has backfired.  Why blame those who at least tried to protect the innocent rather than those who purposely placed them in harm’s way?  That’s like blaming a young girl for being raped. You can’t think Israel wants to be in Gaza, wants to sacrifice its brightest and best young people for a cause they don’t think they can benefit from.

    "Let’s say we believe Israel?"  How about let’s not always blame Israel.  You are more than willing to bend over backwards to give credibility to Hamas’ claims, and those of the UN representatives.  Sorry, I can’t go along with that.  With the UN’s record on Israel, condemning Israel almost in a knee jerk reaction, I don’t give them credibility.  Even the representative you talked about later admitted he didn’t have proof or strong evidence about the school, and there is that incriminating tape he doesn’t want to talk about.  Yes, it’s no-win for Israel, but Israel has its very existence to worry about more than reputation among those who, for the most part, are predisposed against the Jewish state anyway.

    I wonder how it is that Palestinians are starving, yet there are plenty of guns, plenty of rockets.  I wonder too how world opinion allows itself to be molded by media with a proven agenda–remember the photoshopped pictures from Lebanon?  The reports of Israeli atrocities that turned out to have happened in some reporter’s imagination?

    You would have Israel just get out.  But then what?  What happens when a Grad missile hits a heavily populated neighborhood in Ashkelon, or the power station that supplies electricity to Gaza, or, heaven forbid, the Old City of Jerusalem?  When must Israel say enough is enough and refuse to be manipulated by world opinion to act against its own best interests?

  6. Mel

    I wonder if you have discussed anywhere the idea that perhaps Israel should take the fight to the source: Iran.  Not some all-out war, presumably, but some smart way to make the trouble-maker pay more than he wants to pay.  My favorite tactic is to take out the cat cracker at Abadan, and let the aggrieved taxi drivers of Tehran do the rest.  (As I’m sure you and your readers are aware, Iran has a serious gasoline shortage and an antiquated mega-refinery at Abadan.)  

    It seems reasonable to suppose that if Iran wanted to bring Hamas to heel, it could do so.  It was rather astonishing to me that Israel restricted itself to proxy war in 2006 in Lebanon.  To play it the same way this time smacks of Pentagonitis, a disease that Israel can afford even less, much less, than we can.

    Best regards, Julian

  7. Mel – You must still be in England and reading the British papers.  The British aristocracy which favored the creation of a Jewish state, Balfour, Palmerston, and others, were remarkable men with deep religious conviction.  Their heirs have been allowed to wallow in idleness for generations.  They believe that any uncompromising ideology has more weight than their own beliefs.  As G.K. Chesterton said, (I’m paraphrasing), " The problem with not believing in God is not that you believe in nothing, but that you believe in anything."

  8. Well, a week ago my left-wing friends were angry at me, and now my right-wing friends are angry at me. Could this mean I’m doing something right?

    I don’t embrace ideologies. I saw the arguments for hitting Gaza hard from the air and then re-invading it; the rockets had become too much to bear, and needed a response. At that point eighty percent of Israelis supported the military action.

    Now major divisions are appearing in the polls, the press, and even the security cabinet of Israel. Why? Because the civilian casualties have become intolerable and because Israel, right (as I believe) or wrong, is losing a massive strategic war in worldwide public opinion in order to achieve tactical gains that increasing numbers of Israelis (forget about what I think) are questioning.

    You want to believe Israel instead of the UN? So do I, and in fact I do. Tell it to CNN. Tell it to the BBC. Tell it to the EU. Tell it to the world.

    You want to compare the rockets hitting Ashkelon to Auschwitz? I consider that even more odious than the comparison we hear daily of what is happening in Gaza with the Holocaust, and that comparison makes me sick to my stomach.

    You want to bomb Iran now and get it over with? Fine. But move to Israel first so you can take the consequences.

    I supported the action in Gaza because Israel supported it. Now many more Israelis are questioning it than were doing so a week ago. Why do you suppose that is?

    Could it be that they understand cost-benefit analysis? Could it be that they doubt the ability of the exact same government that floundered in Lebanon in 2006 to do the right and smart thing now? Could it be that they care about world opinion not because of its moral stature (of which, in my view, it has none) but because of its political power?

    Do you really think that little Israel is capable of standing completely alone? I have news for you: it never has, it never will. I hope that eleven days from now we will see a presidency in the US that is as friendly to Israel as the current one is, but I frankly doubt it. And last night even the Bush administration stopped blocking the UN Security Council from passing a cease-fire resolution. Do you think Israel has forever to complete this operation?

    I’ve said it before and will say it again: I am not telling Israel what to do, I am just reporting what I see, hear, and read. And what I see, hear, and read tells me that Israel is now divided on the question of when to stop. I don’t know the answer, and neither do you.

  9. Your blind support of Israeli government policies in this tragedy has me losing respect for your views. I urge anyone sensible reading this to go to following website and get involved in activism for promotion of peace:


  10. Dear Anonymous:

    Even as a boy I had learned that speaking and writing the truth as I see it is incompatible with keeping everyone’s respect, or even the respect of everyone who holds mine. As for keeping the respect of every anonymous person, that is a vain dream, and one to which I have never aspired.

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