Editor’s Notes: Home truths about Gaza

By David Horovitz April 10, 2009

Are we losing the capacity to distinguish between what we know from our own experiences to be true or credible and what others would have the world believe about us?

In a Jerusalem Post supplement that will appear next week to mark the end of Pessah, Esther Wachsman, whose son Nachshon was kidnapped by Hamas in 1994 and killed in a Palestinian village not far from Jerusalem as the IDF tried to come to his rescue, describes poignantly how the family came to choose his name.
The family’s third son, he was born at Pessah time in 1975, and they decided to name him in honor of Nachshon the son of Aminadav, the man who had the guts to trust God and test the waters, the man who leapt into the Red Sea confident that his people would be able to cross, the man who showed the children of Israel the path to their destiny.
Israel cries out for such a figure today… or such a mindset: the confidence to set a path of national destiny, to unify behind it, and to pursue it for our own benefit and that of like-minded nations, leaving our enemies helpless in our wake.
Israel has faced, and faced down, more daunting hostile challenges in its brief modern history than those posed today by the toxic mix of demonization and violence championed by Iran and offshoots such as Hamas and Hizbullah. Surviving the first moments of statehood in 1948, when a few hundred thousand pioneering Israelis prevailed against armies drawn from surrounding populations in the tens of millions, was only the first of many improbable victories.
It was a series maintained through the decades, notably including the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, all the way through to the second intifada, when the Palestinians dispatched suicide bombers in a calculated, strategic onslaught that was designed to terrorize our nation and encourage us to take the only sensible course of action – to flee. Yet even with buses and cafes and shopping malls blown up week after week, and much of a watching world branding us the architect of our own misery because we had resisted suicidal terms for Palestinian independence, the people of modern Israel did not flee; we stayed, we rethought, and we learned to protect ourselves more effectively.
But in the years since then, those who seek our demise have rethought as well. We sought to construct hermetic physical barriers to the suicide bomber onslaught. From south Lebanon and Gaza, Hizbullah and then Hamas simply cleared those obstacles by firing missiles over them, and every effort is being made to do likewise from the West Bank.
Protecting Israel cannot now be achieved by walls and fences and defensive measures; the rockets have to be stopped at source – and the source of the rockets, as ruthlessly determined by the Palestinians who manufacture and launch them, lies in the heart of the civilian populace. By cynical design, those who would kill our citizens thus ensure that their people are killed when we try to thwart the attacks – so that we are forced to fight not only to protect ourselves, but to protect our good name and our legitimacy as we do so.
This creates a somewhat complex reality – in which war footage and death tolls emphatically do not tell the full story of our conflicts, and yet that story is told, and is misunderstood, largely in a mix of misleading images and statistics. Still, internalizing the true picture – of an Israeli nation seeking to defend itself against a cynical, dishonest Palestinian terror leadership whose religiously inspired loathing for us far outweighs its concerns for the well-being of its own people – is not impossibly challenging, not for those with the earnest will to look a little more carefully.
Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s turn-of-the-year military effort to halt the rocket fire from Gaza, however, seems to have marked something of a turning point as regards the willingness to look a little more carefully, to probe beyond the daily images of war and the casualty tolls.
Indeed, the furor surrounding purported testimonies from a small group of soldiers back from the war – the soldiers whose stories were compiled by the Rabin pre-army program’s Danny Zamir – would suggest that a growing proportion even of our own people, we Israelis, are losing the capacity to distinguish between what we know from our own experiences to be true or credible and what others would have the world believe about us.
THE IDF is a people’s army which directly touches us almost all of us. We all serve in it ourselves, and/or have relatives and friends and colleagues who do.
Almost all of us knew soldiers who directly experienced the Second Lebanon War, and came home with sorry tales of inadequate training, equipment and supplies. Almost all of us know soldiers who served in Operation Cast Lead. And what we didn’t hear directly was supplemented by what we saw and heard and read about in the media.
We knew that the IDF was drawn into a civilian theater of war by an enemy that had placed rockets inside mosques, booby-trapped schools and deployed snipers in apartment buildings. We knew, too, because IDF commanders were permitted to say so publicly, that the army had changed tactics in the wake of events such as the ambush in Jenin refugee camp in 2002, in which 13 soldiers lost their lives, and that there was a readier resort to fire power in areas of military operation.
We knew, for instance, that the IDF leafleted areas where it was tackling Hamas, and urged Palestinian civilians by radio and in countless phone calls to leave. If it then came under fire from a particular building in such an area, we heard commanders detail, rather than send in soldiers to their possible deaths, it called for air support and, if necessary, took the building down.
We knew that mistakes were made – how could they not be in so densely populated an area at a time of war? Somewhere amid the self-flagellation of the Zamir soldiers’ stories, we seemed to forget that the IDF killed several of its own soldiers in the bloody chaos of conflict. Inevitably, there were Palestinian noncombatants, many Palestinian noncombatants, killed in error in a conflict in which teenagers and the elderly were known to be potential suicide bombers, in which Hamas gunmen fought out of uniform and sometimes fired from within civilian crowds, in which any notion of Palestinian fighters following rules of war was nonsensical.
Credible sources, furthermore, suggest that, post-war, there has been considerable debate within the IDF about the difficulties of reconciling traditional IDF military ethics with the problematics posed by the nature of the civilian- theater conflict Hizbullah and Hamas have concocted: Where is the correct path between safeguarding troops and minimizing harm to civilians, and was it followed this time?
This newspaper, when news broke of the Rabin academy graduates’ ‘testimonies,’ sought to measure their credibility by traditional journalistic standards. How dependable was the source? Were the testifying soldiers named? Could they be contacted to verify their accounts?
By definition, such assessments have to be made rapidly, decisions taken against the pressures of deadlines, and all newspapers inevitably get some of them wrong. But since the soldiers themselves were not named and not contactable, and since doubts about the accuracy of their accounts surfaced almost immediately, it was rapidly decided to carry those initial stories on the inside pages of the paper.
Danny Zamir’s unexpected declaration to this newspaper on Tuesday that he had been horrified by the worldwide controversy sparked by his soldiers’ accounts was, to put it mildly, hard to reconcile with his earlier stance and expressions. Now, Zamir says that the IDF ‘tried to protect civilians in the most crowded place in the world. There were no orders to kill civilians or any summary executions or things like that. There were problems, but problems the army can deal with.’
The narrow focus in his own op-ed article (reprinted on Tuesday in the Post) on The New York Times in particular and the international media in general is disingenuous, too; it was parts of the Hebrew media, notably Haaretz and Ma’ariv, that first splashed the damming accusations he had compiled of permissive rules of engagement producing specific incidents in which civilians were deliberately shot dead. It was a Haaretz reporter who flatly stated that ‘the soldiers are not lying, for the simple reason that they have no reason to… This is what the soldiers, from their point of view, saw in Gaza.’
Except, it turns out, they didn’t. Their ‘testimony’ was hearsay, and untrue.
FROM ISRAEL’S front-pages, in the sadly predictable rat-pack world of what passes for global journalism these days, Zamir’s compilation became the most prominent story on earth for a few days – headlining major newspapers, leading global newscasts, demolishing yet more of Israel’s legitimacy, turning Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi’s insistence that the IDF is a ‘moral army’ into an international bad joke.
With newspapers closing down, resources evaporating and reporters’ buckling under ever-heavier pressures of work, it should be understood, there is no profound process of evaluation that determines whether a story like this will dominate the global agenda. What happens, rather, is that a hostile-to-Israel story in the Hebrew press is deemed credible simply by virtue of its having appeared in the Hebrew press: The Israelis are saying nasty stuff about themselves. Networks such as Al-Jazeera have an ideological interest in pumping up any such stories. Rival networks don’t want to be left behind. Once the story is running on TV, in turn, the print news agencies feel obligated to cover it, because otherwise their clients will complain that it’s on TV but not on the wires. Hey presto. World headlines.
The highly dubious nature of this and certain other items that made world headlines relating to the Gaza conflict, I have been told, prompted considerable unrest in the newsrooms of several international news organizations, with some staffers loudly protesting the apparent suspension of more rigorous journalistic standards – to no avail and, I suspect, to no lasting effect.
Entirely unsurprisingly, infinitely less global media attention has attended Zamir’s contention to the Post this week that ‘the international media turned the IDF into war criminals,’ that he had no way of knowing whether the alleged shooting incidents ever took place, and that ‘Operation Cast Lead was justified; the IDF worked in a surgical manner. Unfortunately, in these types of operations, civilians will be killed.’
FROM THE Israeli perspective, among the more troubling aspects of this dismal affair was emblemized by a letter we received, and published in Wednesday’s paper, from a reader in Tel Aviv who took the Post to task for believing that ‘the IDF ‘investigation’ [of the purported killings] is gospel truth’ and for ostensibly ignoring what he called ‘the flood of testimonies coming from Gaza – almost on a daily basis – about IDF soldiers shooting innocent men, women and children fleeing their homes, about killing medical personnel, about a civilian death toll much higher than Israel claims, all backed with strong evidence.
‘No, the Palestinian side of things will always remain a lie for you,’ the letter writer concluded, ‘and evidence [of] grave wrongdoing is not for a once-honorable paper that is rapidly becoming a mouthpiece for the propaganda of the most moral army in the world.’
Far more worrying than the criticism of this newspaper was the assertion of a ‘flood of testimonies’ backed by ‘strong evidence’ that IDF soldiers shot the innocent, and the cynical description of the IDF as ‘the most moral army in the world.’
Skepticism is an essential tool in the armory of any journalist, and indeed of any member of the public in assessing what is presented as fact. Again, the IDF is itself agonizing about the ethical parameters within which to wage war in Gaza.
What was so sad about this reader’s letter was the mix of elevated skepticism regarding what the army has to say about its own practices, and the suspension of such skepticism as regards the worst allegations being leveled against it. And what is so dismaying is the degree to which that skewed mix was widely manifest not only in this episode, but in much of the way that Israel is generally viewed from afar and, increasingly I fear, in the way we are coming to view ourselves.
WE ISRAELIS need to constantly ensure that our actions are moral and just. In that context, Zamir’s allegations emphatically should have been – and indeed were – carefully investigated and handled as he told the Post this week he’d hoped they would be: His soldiers had ‘talked about what was difficult and painful in the war,’ and he took their accounts ‘to the army because I expected them to deal with the issues raised.’
More broadly, with the dilemmas posed by Gaza as with all challenges to our capacity to live here securely, we need to shape military and diplomatic tactics and strategy to best ensure that we can both hold true to our core values and survive.
We live in a region where hostility and hatred are not easily redirected toward conciliation. We are battling in a largely unsympathetic international climate and must defend ourselves, physically and intellectually, against those who seek our demise. Critically, we cannot afford to become the prisoners of others’ distorted sense of our reality, our behavior and our challenges.
These are national imperatives and they require a cohesion of purpose that Israel has yet to achieve. Internally riven and all-too intolerant, we remain as far as ever from a consensus over what our goals should be and the means we should employ to realize them.
We have left Egypt and reached the promised land, but not yet fulfilled our destiny. We await our Nachshon.

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