Letter from Tel Aviv – Hilla Dayan and PW Zuidhof
Why do Israelis support a costly ground invasion of Gaza?
The summer in Israel was planned long in advance. Eager to go, our three small children were excited to start their Lego themed summer camp. We landed in Tel Aviv in steamy mid July, just when the current violence started. As a Dutch-Israeli family from Amsterdam that travels frequently to Israel we are used to being teased in calmer times about why, for our own sanity, we do not choose a real holiday destination instead of a conflict zone. Friends and relatives in the Netherlands are now worried. They inquire politely as to our safety and wellbeing. On facebook they see our shared images of dead and wounded children in Gaza, war horrors, anti-war demonstrations, international condemnations, outraged op-eds and petitions calling for immediate ceasefire. Pictures from home of smiling blond kids in green parks and sunny beaches are flickering in glaring contrast to the barrage of depressing feeds from our “vacation.”
Our family here knows we are appalled by the war and condemn the atrocities in Gaza but there is no point talking about it with them. As Israeli and Dutch citizens who want to see an end to the occupation our politics combined with the fact that we don’t live in Israel makes us outsiders, if not outright “traitors.” We are naïve if we don’t see that hitting Gaza hard is necessary in response to the existential threat of Hamas. The weight of the overwhelming support for the war descends upon us daily, heavy and inescapable like the 90% humidity in the air. In Kindergartens, Pilates studios, hairdressers, office building signs are posted as people collect goodies for packages to send to our soldiers in the front. Soldiers are on everyone’s mind since the first smiley profiles of dead young man appeared in the news. At night many Tel Aviv restaurants and bars are empty or closed. Summer events and music concerts are cancelled so our sister and sister-in-law doda (aunt) miki the producer has plenty of time to spoil our children. This is war.
One of the many ironies of this “war vacation” is that the war and the vacation do coincide. Unlike many Israelis we are privileged to be able to take off for several weeks each summer. We got lucky with a house swap and stay at the very heart of Tel Aviv, complete with its Bauhaus glory and shady broad boulevards. So we take the kids on evening strolls on Rothschild Boulevard; hang out at Habima square, go to the beach and the pool, occasionally dine out. Our war amounts to spending a few minutes in a friendly meet and greet in the staircase of the apartment building if we happen to be home with the children when the siren is on. At night we do not disturb the kids’ sleep and skip the neighborly meet and greet, like last night when the siren went off. It took us few rather disorienting days here to slowly come to the conclusion that the palpable collective fear is disproportionate to the actual threat.
Government propaganda, lies and deceptions to galvanize support for the war is relentless and the Iron Dome system, the system that intercepts Hamas rockets, is just part of it. An expert opinion according to which the Israeli population is almost 100% safe even without it because of the inferiority of Hamas’ weapons and the abundance of shelter infrastructure seemed credible. Deep inside, we believe, everyone knows that the chance something will happen to you here is statistically negligible. It can happen, like the chance of dying in a shocking aviation disaster as what happened this summer to hundreds of Dutch citizens, but it is very unlikely.
One commentator rightly said that Iron Dome functions as the Deus-ex-Machina of this war. Everyone but us is convinced it saves lives. We see it more as a psychological warfare device. Curiously, much of the explosion sound that gets people so worked up here is largely produced by the Iron Dome system itself. What is striking if not outright suspicious is that there is hardly any information in the aftermath of interceptions; we know nothing about it and nobody cares. The threat of warheads in any case gradually subsides as we write giving way to fear from terrorist infiltration from the Gaza tunnels. This shift happened within days from the ground invasion, which marked a notable decrease in the number of Iron Dome alarms.
How come everyone, even in our leftie circles, is so psychologically affected by this war? Why are they so afraid? earlier rounds – the second Intifada with buses and markets exploding – were much more terrifying. Of course far too many are first and foremost afraid for the lives of their loved ones, soldiers and reservists in Gaza. In my family a distant relative was wounded; the brother of a friend is “inside”; The ex of a friend, who I know way back from our military service during the first Intifada, was drafted. With more than forty soldiers dead, it appears that the imaginary threshold of a war too costly to wage has not been crossed.
As we write this, carnage in Gaza and the death of scores of soldiers is authorized to continue. Why? The Israeli narcissism that concerns itself only with IDF casualties while hundreds of bodies pile up in Gaza is nothing new. The logic of war normality we experience here in Tel Aviv just confirms it. The soldiers die so that we can live “normally.” Violence is inevitable because Israel is under attack. One has to be here to understand fully that the legitimacy of this war is not just manufactured top down by the Israeli government. It is a genuine and widespread social reality. Everyone, even those few hundreds opposing the war, us included, take part daily in its production. Take for instance the dynamic of normal routine interrupted regularly by sirens. In no time, these interruptions themselves became a normal routine. We all got used to the “pending emergency” situation. We are all on an emergency-normality switch mode. People stop cars in the middle of the road to seek shelter in nearby buildings only to go back behind the wheel and honk impatiently at the other drivers as if nothing happened; In cafes people nervously react to suspicious sounds, jump from their seats to the sound of sirens, and return seconds later to their relaxed posture sipping their espressos and so on.
Many Israelis, including very young children, incessantly consume updates on strikes and interceptions through the “red color” app. The app with the red icon on their smartphones is decorated with a sound radiation sign resembling the nuclear danger logo. Authorities, institutions, employers, all heighten security procedures, producing signs, road signs and flyers with instructions on buildings “safe spaces”. Municipalities put on giant billboards with patriotic slogans, one more offensively patriotic than the other. We received a leaflet to parents from the kids’ summer camp advising us on how to maintain “emotional safe spaces” for our children. On TV mainly men talk: brain-dead, repetitive, militaristic tactic-talk. The blogger Idan Landau once aptly called this tsunami of public appearances at times of war zman hagvarim – “the time of men.” At the same time, the witch hunt of dissenters has reached epidemic proportions, targeting many, and women especially, who dare speak their minds against the war. Orna Banai, Gila Almagor, Shira Gefen are famous celebrities who were vilified for speaking out; a Palestinian psychologist working for the Lod municipality and many like her got fired for what they posted on facebook.
The Open House LGBT organization in Jerusalem came under attack after Elinor Sidi, its director, took a stance against the war. In academia, university presidents published statements warning that they monitor staff and students expressions on social media and will resort to sanctions if they express “too extreme” opinions. This blunt assault is what happens publicly. In private, we know from our friends, many who are politically colored as unpatriotic or anti-Zionist pay a great personal price. Candidates for jobs are asked to write letters renouncing their political opinions. University presidents intervene personally to block “controversial” appointments. Ron Shoval, former leader of Im Tirtzu organizations called to put to use the boycott law, from its sinful inception no more than a dead letter law, to preemptively prosecute and jail human rights defenders. The idea is to prevent human rights organizations from reporting to an international investigation like the Goldstone commission after operation Cast Lead. This witch hunt did not begin yesterday, but the war made things much worse. We encounter both this white fascism running through the main echelons of Israeli society, and the street fascism, those small but well organized gangs of the extreme right who mobilize to beat and intimidate anti-war protestors when they take to the street. In the cultural war raging here it is the Mizrahi face of the extreme right chanting “death to Arab” on the street that grabs all the attention. Haaretz is covering this Mizrahi extreme right extensively. Indeed, it is perceived by lefties especially as menacing, as the “sewage” flooding civilized Israel. But, the white fascism of university presidents or Im Tirtzu is far worse, far more dangerous. One Ron Shoval is more effective in crushing dissent than a thousand street gangs. Those are the people who really hold the key to a complete breakdown of the façade of Israeli democracy.
We attempted to describe the regime of manufactured fear and psychological support for the war, penetrating all aspects of life in all directions. For the vast majority of the country this fear is disproportionate to the actual threat. We described also a climate of threat of violence and violence directed against any form of dissent. In an atmosphere of pending emergency dissent is forbidden and any government action addressing the collective paranoia from the threat of Hamas is seen in a positive light. Needless to say, the government does nothing to curb the climate of violence against dissenters. Instead it incites it with reckless disregard to its potentially disastrous consequences. We do not fear to go and demonstrate, we are still able to do that with reasonable safety, but staying safe on the street is a slightly more complicated task than calculating where the nearest building entrance is in case of a siren alarm. This regime of collective fear and collective mobilization in support of the war is so intense, that our “war vacation” is starting to feel like we took the wrong flight and landed in North Korea.
They are all animals” a tattooed man in his 30s muttered in our direction as we just got up to pay for our coffee. “Are you sure ALL of them are?” one of us replied later contemplating the stupidity of a casual response that could have easily provoked violence. Hamas is seen as a mortal, inhuman enemy, which must be crushed, decimated. In line with Prime Minister Netanyahu it is for many heir to Amalek in ancient times and Hitler. This is no apology but Israelis have been traumatized by the savage campaigns of suicide bombings of Hamas beginning in the 1990s, and so it is psychologically impossible for many to acknowledge that however criminal the actions of military resistance to the occupation sometimes are, in fact as soon as Hamas took power over Gaza in 2006 it became an intimate strategic partner of the militant Israeli government. Mash’al and Bibi are caught like lovers on an airplane about to crash in a deadly embrace for their own survival. Although the IDF now deals Hamas a military blow, the government is in fact desperate to keep the organization somehow alive. Military sources said from the outset of the operation that the purpose of the invasion this time is not to “break Hamas.” Hamas’ demands for a ceasefire in turn reflect just how addicted it became to the crumbs falling from the Israeli government table. The script for a ceasefire was already written before the ground invasion began. It is a matter of ending the bloody spectacle with a mere semblance of two sides mutually bettering their positions. The tragedy of course is that so many stand-ins and movie extras must die so spectacularly in vain for the status quo of occupation-resistance to continue. It may sound crazy, given all that we have said so far about Israel in the grip of fascism, but right to left people understand perfectly well the futility of the bloodshed. They already talk about the next round as inevitable. Depressed and helpless to stop it many express confusion and are simply torn between their instinct of victimization and sense of horror at the high price in human life. What is entirely lost or powerfully sublimated is the consequence of being implicated in and authorizing crimes against humanity. Israelis consider the war of position between Hamas and their government to be an existential war, and the conduct of their enemy, they feel, absolves them from any accountability. In their battle of survival, real and imaginary, it only makes sense to let the enemy die and verify the killing (vidu hariga). In this savage place no laws of war apply.
Our children’s renewed Israeli passports arrived just before the ground invasion. Staring at their pictures, Israeli IDs and passport numbers, the thought crossed our minds – why can’t they be spared this terrible burden? Why should they carry an identity associated with cruelty, horrors, war, occupation, apartheid, crimes against humanity? They are Dutch kids after all, fluent in Hebrew but with a thick Amsterdam accent. Why can’t they just sleep in their beds safely without their parents agonizing about children killed in their name? We should go home to Amsterdam or join our relatives vacationing in la Palma, a Canary island. This war vacation and the summer disaster in the Netherlands made us aware of our fragility, temporariness, and inability to control what is happening in our environment. It also sharpened our differences. At times like these mom is better off here in this normal-savage place where she is from, and where she directly partakes in efforts to stop the war. For dad it is crazy to be here, where he is surrounded by supporters of war crimes, who seem superficially normal and go about their normal lives. The kids, they just soak up the sun and enjoy themselves tremendously, their family and friends keep them happy. Their happiness and safety is comforting, but what would we say when they start asking us: mom, dad, what is war, who is doing it, and why can’t you stop it?
Hilla Dayan and PW Zuidhof