From Rafah to Sachnin

By Leonard Fein

Published May 28, 2004, issue of May 28, 2004.
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Call them juxtapositions, call them contradictions — Israel overflows with them. Three examples from my recent six week-long visit there:

During a week in which international attention was focused on events in Rafah in southern Gaza, the attention of Israelis was divided. The destruction in Rafah was impossible to avoid, and the controversy over what was happening there — what Israel was doing there, to be more precise — was searing. At the same time, the papers and the television were flooded with the grand news from Sachnin, an Arab town whose soccer team had just won the national championship.

“Arab town” conjures up a variety of images, but for sure the innocent observer will not have supposed that the soccer team fielded by this Arab town includes three Jews, a Brazilian, a player from Guinea, one from Cameroon and a Jewish coach along with its Israeli Arab majority. Sachnin’s opponent in the final game was Hapoel Haifa, which has three Israeli Arab players in its starting lineup, one actually from Sachnin. Some 30,000 fans from Sachnin and neighboring towns came to Ramat Gan, just outside Tel Aviv, for the game, as did the president of Israel, Moshe Katzav, all the Arab members of Israel’s Knesset and assorted other dignitaries.

Sachnin’s victory instantly became a day of celebration and self-congratulation throughout the country. For Israel’s Arab citizens — roughly 20% of the nation’s population — it was a day to take their place in the sun. Mostly, their weather over the years has been less hospitable — clouds, sometimes rain and even hail. But now? The champions, and television interviews and the promise of product endorsement, now even — perhaps — the long-awaited government allocation that will enable Sachnin to have its own soccer stadium.

For some number of Israel’s Jews, a genuine joy that there was at last cause for their fellow citizens, the Palestinians, to celebrate; for many more, one suspects, a feeling of relief: “See, we are not so bad. We really welcome coexistence.” Given the dismal history of such coexistence, it’s not hard to understand that reaction and even, in a sense, to welcome it. It does reflect, at least, an understanding that coexistence is the desired norm. Israel’s failure to live up to that norm has long been a scandal, largely ignored though widely known. Sachnin’s victory doesn’t change that, but it does show that the failures of the political echelon can now, and perhaps again, be overcome in other sectors of society.

The next example of odd juxtapositions comes from the two monumental traffic jams in which I was caught up during my last week in the country. The first, which lasted more than two hours, was on my way back to Jerusalem from Ramot, a northern suburb. The problem, it turned out, was that the intelligence agencies had specific information regarding a suicide bomber headed for Jerusalem, and so all access to the city from the north was blocked. Never have I seen such large numbers of police and soldiers; the information may have been specific, and the inspection of each car and driver on the busy highway through French Hill was meticulous. And so we did not move, not at all, for the whole time.

Several days later, a bit south of Nazareth, I was stuck for an hour and a half. This time, however, the occasion was quite different: a bicycle race through the Emek, the Valley of Jezreel, the hundreds of racers followed by thousands of fellow bicycle travelers. Appropriately, the first tie-up was at night, the second in brilliant daylight.

Finally, and disturbingly, there’s the strange but not inexplicable contradiction of Prime Minister Sharon’s policy regarding Gaza. On the one hand, he wants Israel out of the place. He seems quite intent on that, and this time there’s no reason to doubt his determination. What the Likud members rejected in a recent referendum will now, repackaged, be brought to the government for approval.

But while awaiting that approval, or the Cabinet reshuffling that perhaps will precede it, Israel has attacked the refugee camp at the southern end of Gaza in a particularly punishing way. The army has acknowledged that its intention is to demolish as many as 3,000 homes in Rafah; the world, including, this time, the United States, has voiced its criticism/condemnation of the destruction and the death of innocents that are its inevitable accompaniment; Tommy Lapid, Israel’s justice minister, has described how the television coverage of an elderly Palestinian woman on her knees, searching through the rubble of her demolished home for her medicines, reminded him of his grandmother’s fate during the Holocaust — for which injudicious remark he was, of course, widely condemned.

The principal stated purpose of the Israeli assault was to widen the dirt road that separates Gaza from Egypt, under which Palestinians have dug extensive tunnels through which they smuggle arms from Egypt. The obvious question is why the government has chosen this time, a time when talk of withdrawal is everywhere, to attempt the road widening. Israel might have done that six months ago, or 12; why now?

The only plausible answer is that a week after Gaza’s terrorist organizations killed 13 Israeli soldiers, thereby enabling them to claim that the withdrawal, when it comes, will have been their victory — much as Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon was Hezbollah’s victory — Israel was determined to show that it was withdrawing of its own volition, that it was fully capable if so it chose to make life even more hellish than it already is for the Gazans.

Which seems, and is, a wretchedly inadequate reason to lose your home or your life, or to kill another.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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