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