Saturday, July 22, 2006

Letter from Israel

The following is from a friend in Jerusalem

Everyone keeps asking what life is like here for us now, what our experience is, so I decided to write this.

It is indeed an extremely distressing time for our country, one that we have been thrust into with no notice. Yes, admittedly, we saw the Hizbollah's gradual arms and outpost accumulation in southern Lebanon across our northern border, but we were unprepared for the bold border crossings and kidnappings of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were abducted by Hizbollah in the north, and of Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Palestinian militants on Israel's border with Gaza. These soldiers are not POWs who fell into enemy hands while invading others' territories – they were audaciously kidnapped from our own land where they were guarding our internationally-recognized borders!

We had no time to prepare for this war, like we did before the Gulf War. The civilian population is still reeling from the shock of the rocket attacks' very existence, shock at the jarring interruption of our seemingly routine lives, shock at the casualties that will undoubtedly intensify as this continues. I say "seemingly routine lives," because the threat of attack from the terrorists around us is always lurking underneath the surface, as you know.

Perhaps what is hardest to accept is that no one the world over has adequate solutions for the threat of terrorism, not in Lebanon or Gaza, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, not in western countries where covert terrorist movements thrive underground. The only way to wipe out Hizbollah in Lebanon is to harm countless innocent Lebanese citizens who have been infiltrated and victimized by the terrorist organization for years. We could not live with our conscience if we caused such massive bloodshed to our Arab neighbors; although the Hizbollah has no compunction doing so. If the Hizbollah cared for its Moslem "brothers" as much as they say, then the organization would not put blameless children and families in jeopardy by launching rockets from their homes and hiding in bunkers underneath them. Of course, we ourselves are also not willing to pay the high price of losing countless soldiers in this war.

Another difficult aspect of the current conflict is the involvement of areas of Israel that have not been directly hit since the Yom Kippur War or beforehand. That means that many parents of young children have never experienced anything like this, although seasoned grandparents are pulling their old war stories out of the dust.

Faced yet again with another war we did not seek, Israelis are buckling down for an unknown period of hostilities simultaneously on four fronts – the thunderous northern border with Lebanon that is now at the focus of international media, but also the ongoing turbulent border with the Gaza Strip in the southwest, and the quieter but still volatile West Bank, and, finally, the long-term battle against suicide bombers in our cities.

Millions of citizens in northern Israel, like their counterparts in Sderot, are now experiencing daily bombardments of haphazard rocket shelling into their cities, kibbutzim, and neighborhoods. They sit, cramped, in long-unused, stifling air raid shelters, for those who have them. Or in specially-constructed "safety rooms" if their homes were built more recently. Or in basements away from windows and doors, if neither of the other options are available. They have been told to lie prone, to minimize injury from shrapnel. They await the sirens, they await the deafening "boom," up to 100 each day, and they pray that the katyusha rockets will fall into open areas and not directly hit their homes. They await fate.

So, life is mostly at a standstill for millions of regular citizens as they remain close to, or inside, shelter. No work, no summer camp, no shopping malls, no amusements for children on summer holiday. They only make fearful sprints to the local grocer (mandated to stay open by the homefront security agency) for minimal provisions. A friend of mine in Haifa hazarded a shopping excursion on a relatively "quiet" day after a week of ransacking her cupboards, but found herself standing helplessly with other shoppers as three rockets fell close by. She returned home safely, but stunned and shaken.

In the rest of Israel, however, we are, surrealistically, living our lives almost as usual! Except for ardently keeping an ear to the media, and carrying our heavy hearts, we continue to work, our children attend camps and go to movies, we meet with friends, we go out. Metropolitan Tel Aviv was put on rocket alert a few days ago, under the assumption that, when desperate, Hizbollah leader Nasrallah will unleash his long-range missiles of destruction for one last stand. But, for now, in typical Israeli "sabra" style, all of us in central and southern Israel are moving about in our regular routines, living our lives, motivated by the desire to show all terrorists that they cannot succeed in diminishing our morale and cannot bring us to an economic and social standstill.

Yet, despite the stark contrast between the hard-hit areas being shelled and the rest of Israel, an amazing thing has happened. For the first time that I can remember in all my 25 years in this country, people from all walks of life and political orientations, including those who are now being exposed to the relentless threat of violent attacks on their pastoral countryside up north, are today united in their support of the government's and the IDF's actions, both military and diplomatic. We even see injured Israelis climbing out of rubble from rocket attacks on their homes, who, despite their personal losses, immediately cry out their support of the current IDF airstrikes on Hizbollah nerve centers and operation bases in Lebanon.
Israelis generally have a very positive attitude toward the Lebanese people and their beautiful country. We have no ill will toward her citizens, unless they collaborate with the Hizbollah guerrillas trying to attack us. We are grateful to the many Lebanese who helped us for years to combat terrorism in southern Lebanon (many of whom received sanctuary here in 2000). But now, across the board, we are all committed to the notion of eliminating the terrorist threat that has been constantly looming over our northern border since we pulled out of Lebanon six years ago. We all want the Lebanese government to stand up for itself against Hizbollah's Iran- and Syria-based infiltration of its land. We want the Lebanese government to take control and evict the terrorists from their midst, like they ejected the Syrian army last year. Unfortunately for the Lebanese, many are frightened of the fanatic Hizbollah and cannot refuse the terrorists' demands to use their homes and workplaces as launching pads for their rockets. They are in danger of harm from our air strikes then, yes. But to protect innocent citizens as much as possible, Israel announces its attacks beforehand (via the electronic media and dropping flyers from the sky) to warn residents to evacuate, and provides humanitarian aid to Lebanese victims. (Unfortunately, our public relations experts are not sufficiently getting this point across over the media.) For comparison, you should know that the rockets being launched into Israeli residential areas are loaded with tiny steel balls, nuts, bolts, bearings, etc., which aim to exacerbate the deadly effect of the explosions – to kill and maim more civilians, much like the suicide bombs.

Israel is sick and tired of being attacked without provocation on our northern border and on our border with Gaza. How would U.S. citizens feel if rockets were being launched into Texas from Mexico and into Montana or North Dakota from Canada? Or if Mexican or Canadian terrorists crossed over into the U.S. and kidnapped soldiers on border patrol? The U.S. would surely act to try to eliminate this threat once and for all. And for once, during the current conflict, George W. Bush has shown real backbone in supporting our operations in Lebanon. As have so many other world leaders, especially the powerful G8. We've been surprised but very pleased to gain the world's overwhelming support of (or at least quiet acquiescence with) our fight against Hizbollah and Hamas terrorism. Especially encouraging have been the voices of moderate Arab nations like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia criticizing Hizbollah and calling for a return of our kidnapped soldiers.

It seems that, as many newspapers have been commenting over this past fortnight, the world is realizing that our fight is the free world's fight, against totalitarian regimes who want to destroy the western way of life. Iranian president Ahmadinejad has made it unmistakably clear that he wants to annihilate Israel. The world agrees that he and his associates are behind this entire conflict, trying to distract the world from Iran's nuclear proliferation, with the ultimate goal of eradicating Jews and Christians alike in the name of "Allah's holy war" against heretics.
I hope that you have been attending the rallies in your cities in support of Israel, and doing your part over the web, in online polls, and in private or public conversations, to prevent supportive world opinion from eroding, as it inevitably will. The pictures from Lebanon are heartwrenching, and our own citizens' suffering looks minute in comparison. Without knowing the whole context, the world will not understand why we do what we do.

I don't know what the consequences will be of the battles raging around us. The Hizbollah has prepared well for this day and is deeply entrenched in a labyrinth of bunkers and underground tunnel systems for their arsenals and militants. It's hard to say how effective the IDF will be at disarming the Hizbollah or how successful the diplomatic channels will be at finding a feasible peaceful solution for southern Lebanon. But I do know that we have to try.

And in the meantime, the Israeli people's conduct during this 10-day-old war has strengthened and inspired me to no end. Homes all over the country have been opened up to displaced families from the north. Volunteers are slipping up north to entertain bored children, confined for days in crowded public shelters. Recreational parks have offered discounts and free activities to northern children. Psychological agencies, welfare organizations, charities, non-profit organizations, and the like have coordinated efforts to provide hotlines, treatment, support as well as food and other staples to families cut off from normalcy.

A friend of mine, a professor at Haifa University, described to me the funeral she attended of one of the soldiers killed in the tank ambush on that first day of fighting (his mother is an educator who works with my friend). She told me that she didn't expect anyone to venture outdoors to the military cemetery, but she found that hundreds of people braved the air raid sirens and possible rocket strikes to attend. They must have all felt that the family who had suffered this ultimate tragedy needed their caring and support, and they were all willing to put themselves at personal risk to grant the family that support. Indeed, just as the rabbi was singing the soulful "El male rachamim" (Merciful God) traditional prayer over the fresh grave, sirens started to wail, and the soldiers broke out of ceremonial position to try to move the mourners under cover, but no one would budge. They wanted to give that family, and that soldier who died for his country, the last respects he so deserved. Fortunately, that time, the rockets landed at a distance. But this story touched my heart because it epitomizes the strength of our community and of our people. In day to day life, we may each be preoccupied with personal concerns, but at times of need, the true underlying strength of the Israeli people emerges.

Take care, everyone.
Love and kisses from Jerusalem

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