My country has just gone through a war. This was not the kind of war where (on the Israeli side) there are very many casualties; let alone one in which it is a question of life and death. Nevertheless it was war. So let me try to tell my readers a little about the way an ordinary citizen experienced it.
Israelis have always been a nation of news junkies. As one would expect, during wartime this is even more the case. Many people checked the news several times an hour. Almost everybody did so several times a day. The media dealt with little else. Modern war is enormously wasteful in terms of ammunition and the present one is no exception. But compared to the number of images displayed, words uttered, and ink spilt, that of bullets, shells and missiles fired was as nothing.
Many of the images, words and ink were occasioned by the rockets. There is no defense against the short-range mortar shells and they have caused quite some casualties. That apart, though, the alarm system functioned very well. Depending on how far from the Gaza Strip one lives or works, the time one has to seek shelter varied from about thirty seconds to a couple of minutes. Israeli houses built after 1991 are obliged by law to provide a so-called mamad, a room made of reinforced concrete and provided with a heavy steel window. People, presumably the majority, who inhabit older structures had to be content with strairwells etc. Drivers caught on the road were told to “stop safely” on the shoulders (which quite some roads do not have). Though doing so was against the regulations, many used the opportunity to get out of their cars and watch the show in the sky. How typical.
As I have written before, the combination of effective civil defense and the by now famous Iron Dome system explains the small number of civilian casualties. In fact more people were killed and injured while rushing to shelter than by the rockets themselves. The impact varied with distance. Most heavily hit were the twenty or so kibbutzim along the border. They became ghost villages, deserted by practically all their inhabitants except for a handful of caretakers. Towns within a 25-mile range of the border, such as Ashkelon, were targeted sufficiently heavily to make normal life all but impossible and force the evacuation of children. Elsewhere the impact was sporadic, even negligible. Further to the north there was hardly any impact at all.
Each night the Army spokesperson announced the number of soldiers who had died that day. It has long been the Israeli method not to release names until the families are informed. Informing them is the task of so-called Hiob Patrols. Though their composition varies, normally they consist of an officer, a physician and a rabbi. They receive special training for the job. Seen from the outside the system seems as well-thought out and as humane as it can be made. What it feels like from the inside only those who participate in it or receive the news it brings know.
Each day there were funerals, a few of civilians, the majority of soldiers. Most dead soldiers were young, even very young. War has always been, and still remains, what the Germans call Kindermord. How does one describe the pain? The military funerals followed the normal rules, more or less. However, ceremonial has never been the strength of the Israeli army or, for that matter, the rather undisciplined character of the people in which it is rooted. During previous conflicts TV used to show the dead soldiers’ comrades crying like babies over the graves. This time they did not do so. Good.
In much of the country life was and remains far quieter than usual. There was less traffic. Normally driving from Jerusalem to Mevasseret Zion (the town where I live, some four miles away) can take half an hour and more. During the war one could cover the road in a few minutes. Supermarkets, restaurants, movie houses and hotels were half empty. Nor is it only Jewish facilities that suffered. A town like Abu Gosh, a mile away, which in ordinary days makes it living by catering to Jerusalemites on Saturdays when their own everything is closed, was also hard hit. Safety considerations forced the cancellation of many cultural events. Almost every day one heard of some foreign artist or group that decided to skip.
Crime seemed to go down. The number of patients visiting doctors definitely went down. War has a way of making people forget many minor and some major problems. By way of compensation, quite some cars suddenly sprouted flags. Normally they are limited to the days before Independence Day. One saw signs carrying slogans such as “Mevasseret Zion hugs its solders” and the like.
Intolerance, even fanaticism, was and remains in the air. Some self-appointed vigilantes tried to shut up their less hawkish opponents. More than one person who dared say anything against the Israeli Operation, or in favor of the Palestinians, was disciplined and fired. Considering that it is the first duty of universities to protect freedom of speech, one of the ugliest incidents took place at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. When a faculty member dared say that he was sorry not only for Israeli children but for the Palestinian ones as well, he was formally reprimanded by the dean. To be fair, a kindergarten mistress who wrote “death to the Arabs” on Facebook is also supposed to be tried for incitement.
Here and there words turned into violence as Jews attacked Arabs and Arabs, Jews. Thank goodness, though, the number and scope of such incidents has been limited. Furthermore the situation is better than in Gaza where there has never been any form of democracy and where Hamas simply executes whoever dares protest against it.
What will the outcome be? Here I can only repeat what I have been saying ever since the war broke out. The war will end with a triumph for Hamas. Not in a military sense, but in the sense that they will be able to push through some of their political demands. To this I would add, as I wrote last week, that such an outcome would not necessarily be bad either for Israel or for the Middle East. Eventually it might lead, if not to peace then at any rate to calm.
A final word. Since 1990 or so Israel’s feminist lobby has become one of the most virulent on earth. Probably this is not unconnected with the fact that, while the country still has its problems, the days when it fought for its existence against overwhelming odds are long gone. The Israeli army in peacetime is 25-30 percent female. Since there are few female reservists and few of them are ever called up, in wartime the figure goes down very sharply.
Nobody doubts that female soldiers do their jobs properly. Still the war caused attention to be focused almost entirely on the fighting formations, and rightly so. It is they who suffer casualties and deserve to be celebrated. As the fact that no female Israeli soldier so far has been killed shows, where there were bullets there were no women and where there were women there were no bullets. As a result the feminist “discourse,” consisting of endless complaints about everybody and everything, suddenly became muted.
Unfortunately it won’t last.