Israel and Hamas The 12-Step Ping-Pong Survival Kit
Michael Even-Esh, a Livnot educator and tour guide based in the Golan Heights, gives his assessment of the summer’s Gaza war between Israel and Hamas
Sitting in a synagogue in America recently, I heard tunes from the days when I had to be forced to go to services. Then came the Torah reading. The portion discussed laws of war, ethics, how to behave during times of conflict. Since, only days before, a cease-fire began between the IDF and Hamas, I thought this would be a great opportunity to draw the lines connecting the dots between the Torah portion and IDF’s urban warfare methods. But the rabbi decided to focus on other subjects.
Was his silence due perhaps to his being embarrassed by Israel’s behavior in this past war? Many people were indeed embarrassed by Israel, and many were furious at her. How does the IDF, who claims to be so ethical, commit such atrocities against innocent civilians? How is it that the vast majority of casualties in Gaza were civilian ones?
You didn’t have to be a prophet to have known the outcome of this past war before it even began. And you know why? Because we’ve been there before. And because this same template is ‘gonna happen again.
In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, Israel used to fight armies. That was easy. Civilians were not on the battlefield, and every army wore a different uniform and used different weapons and vehicles; “ethics in combat” usually became relevant only if you had to deal with prisoners of war or wounded.
But in this neighborhood, wars between armies are a thing of the past. One reason is that it never worked in our neighbors’ favor.
Now there’s a whole different ways of fighting, and it’s been going on for many years already. I call it “The 12-Step Ping-Pong Plan”, and this is how it goes:
1. A terrorist group in a neighboring country shoots rockets into Israel (for various reasons).
2. Israel gets upset, warns she will retaliate, but does virtually nothing.
3. Some terrorist rockets get through, and Israelis are killed.
4. Israel starts an aerial attack, mainly on terrorist infrastructure and terrorist leaders. It’s not very effective, and is not a game-changer.
5. Until this point, the world doesn’t take much notice; those countries who do, call for restraint from both sides.
6. The rockets keep coming, and more Israelis are killed. Israel seems to run out of patience and sends in ground troops.
7. The ground troops are very effective in finding and killing terrorists, although rockets continue to fall on Israel. Civilians are killed in the fighting. Soldiers, mainly commanders, fall in battle.
8. The media reports that civilian casualties in said neighboring country are rising. Words and pictures are circulated that focus on this.
9. Leaders, officials, spokespersons, and the media begin to use the word “atrocities” and “war crimes” when referring to Israel.
10. The more the IDF succeeds in finding, stopping, and killing terrorists – and the more the civilian casualty rate rises – the more world pressure mounts on Israel to stop the ground attack, and settle for a cease-fire.
11. There is a cease-fire. There isn’t a cease-fire. (Repeat a number of times.) There is a cease-fire.
12. Post-war voices rise in the world condemning Israel for over-reacting, using non-proportional violence, unnecessary roughness (facemasking?), and for killing innocent civilians instead of the bad guys. Most Israelis, on the other hand, while feeling very frustrated at the world for its criticism, are very proud of their achievements: self-defense with relatively low civilian casualties for anti-terrorist urban warfare. And yet, peace seems farther away than ever.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslav composed some of the most amazing stories ever told. In his epic story, “The Seven Beggars,” he tells of some disabled and maimed people. He describes their physical disabilities, and then tells what their strengths are. And lo and behold, what are their strengths? Their strengths are their very disabilities! In other words, what the entire world believes is their *weakness*, is actually their *strength*!
“The stutterer said: ‘You think that I am heavy of speech. But in fact, I am not really a stutterer at all! In fact, I am extraordinarily eloquent; I am a master of poetry and speech.’ “
“The beggar who had no hands, said: ‘You believe that my hands are stumps, but they are really quite sound! In fact, they are extraordinarily powerful.’ “
I firmly believe that this is true of Israel. They very characteristic we are accused of – lack of combat ethics, and total disregard for human life – is in fact our greatest strength!
Oy, if only I could take you with me to a terrorist battlefield (a city). But I can’t. Perhaps one day every IDF soldier will have a GoPro camera on their helmet, and a super-computer will produce one single combination video with subtitles below it. Every target will have a label. The truth will come out (of course, this will only really be effective if the terrorists are wearing these cameras, too).
Yes, the IDF makes mistakes. Yes, the IDF can still do more to lower the rate of civilian casualties. Yes, there were children killed on a beach while they were playing, and that is terrible. But please understand what urban warfare is like. It is like nothing else. It’s not like a video game. You are walking into a trap and you know it. No matter what you do, and how you act, you will get somebody upset, including the world, your country, your buddies, yourself, and your family (if you get killed). Have you ever been shot at by someone who was using a human shield? Can you even imagine being in such a situation?
Israeli author and peace activist Amoz Oz was recently interviewed by a German reporter. At the very beginning, Oz asked to speak.
“Question 1. What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery? Question 2. What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family? With these two questions I pass the interview to you.”
I remember this past summer, talking to soldiers coming back from Gaza (I was not there) and hearing their stories. And then reading foreign reports of what was happening. There was such dissonance. As if two different wars were going on.
And after reading foreign reports of the war, I found myself reacting like any other human-loving liberal-minded person would: “Come on, IDF, you can do better than that!” “Come on, IDF, will you please just concentrate on killing the BAD guys?”
I found myself cringing when a reporter would write, or a broadcaster would say the following: “In today’s fighting in Gaza, 94 people were killed by the IDF, the vast majority of them civilians.”
Yet soldiers were telling a different story! It took me a while to snap out of my daze and realize what was going on, and why there was such a discrepancy. The media was receiving casualty reports from the IDF and from Hamas. But also from the U.N. (as well as various NGO’s). And if you were a reporter, whom would you trust? The more objective source, of course! They are neutral compared to the other two sources, right? And then the truth came out: the U.N. (and most NGO’s) was getting their figures from the Gaza Ministry of Health. And the Gaza Ministry of Health is run by…Hamas (and I won’t even delve into the scare tactics used to intimidate journalists in Gaza).
The last time this happened, by the way, was the previous war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009). Israel claimed 709 Hamas fighters were killed; Hamas claimed only 49 fighters killed, while the rest were civilians. After a year, a Hamas spokesman said (totally by mistake) that it had lost between 600 and 700 of its fighters. Oops…
There’s really only one independent research institute that checks the names and identities of every single Gazan who was/is killed in the conflicts. It is the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. And while any center in Israel will not be seen by many as objective, can you imagine what it’s like to take the time to match the names of the dead with known terrorists? Their meticulous work showed: over 700 Hamas fighters were killed.
The problem is this: by the time they figure it out, an entire year has passed, and by then, who is listening? Who even cares?
Human beings are not statistics. Every person who dies is an entire world that is snuffed out. We have to strive to be sensitive, compassionate, and caring human beings, even if we are getting attacked. We have to learn how to get better at defending ourselves while we get better at lowering civilian casualty rates. And yet…the percentage of civilians killed by the IDF in this past Gaza War was incredibly low. Mark my words: one day, others will come to Israel to learn how to do just that – fight a defensive war while keeping civilian casualties as low as possible, and while forming some semblance of a deterrent for future conflicts. (Actually, some already have.) But I doubt you’ll ever read about it in a newspaper.
Until that day, much of the world will see a distorted Israel. But you and I – we aren’t the rest of the world. We’re us. And we have a duty to wear different glasses. Please remember this during the next war.
Yet we should also remember that this is not just about Israel. It’s much bigger than just one country. It’s about trust, about information-gathering, about how to form opinions, about how to choose your news sources, and about how to read news with a filter. It’s about judging a book not just by what reviews it received. And certainly not by its cover.
So next time you see someone who has stumps for hands, or who stutters…don’t jump to any conclusions. What you think they lack, might just be their greatest strength.
PS For those who are interested in a deeper look into the subject:
If you are a patient person, I beg you to read the most important article written about this subject by Richard Behar. It is called “Bad Math and Ugly Truths” and appeared in Forbes (see Behar’s site for the article at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/richardbehar/).
I don’t think it was fair for him to single out the New York Times; most of the world media was guilty. And I do not believe all journalists acted with malicious intent. If I was a reporter with no background in the area (i.e. most reporters), I might very well have been guilty of this, too. It’s a competitive business, with lots of scoop/deadline pressure, and murdering innocent civilians is important news and makes big headlines. What I am gonna write about and take pictures of? Israeli yuppies hiding in concrete shelters, using smartphone apps to see where the missiles fell?
The other article, which reports on malicious intent of various editors and writers in the business, is Matti Friedman’s article: “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.”
Two other journalists who have written important articles on the subject:
Tom Gross, a commentator on international affairs and a former reporter on the Middle East for the Sunday Telegraph
and Richard Miron, formerly a BBC reporter on Middle East affairs, who wrote about the subject for Haaretz (see: http://www.haaretz.com/misc/writers/richard-miron-1.613281).
For a very broad and historic look at why the world loves to hate Israel today, see the new book by Joshua Muravchik: “Making David Into Goliath”.