Damaged and Desensitized

By Leonard Fein

Published September 05, 2003, issue of September 05, 2003.
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One of the more remarkable aspects of the human species is our capacity to become inured. What begins as a shock comes eventually to feel quite routine, if repeated often enough. Think, for example, of airport security, each new upward ratcheting disconcerting at first but soon enough absorbed, no longer worthy of comment.

So also in Israel. Step by step — or is it misstep by misstep? — the nation changes, the once unmentionable becomes conventional, the outrageous becomes the norm. Herewith, two examples, one tiny, the other huge:

The first regards what now passes as summer camp in Israel. Arutz Sheva, the indefatigable “news” service of the settler movement, reports with a sense of celebration that “The seventh and last round of an ideological summer camp arranged by Metzudat Yehuda ended this past Wednesday, and ‘a good time was had by all.’” (Metzudat Yehuda is an ultra-right wing organization with links to the Kahane Chai and Kach movements, the offspring of the late Meir Kahane.)

The report continues: “The campers, who hailed from all over Israel… were treated to activities and sessions dealing with the importance of the Land of Israel, building up outposts, how to tend sheep, and even how to behave during a Shabak (General Security Service) interrogation.”

One might have supposed that a summer camp where Jewish children are taught “how to behave” during a security “interrogation” by Israel’s security service would provoke a national scandal — but this is Israel in 2003, moving ever closer to the tipping point, which may in fact be a capsizing point.

Consider Israel’s current campaign against Hamas. Almost every day now we read of yet another “targeted assassination.” And why not? Hamas is surely a terrorist organization. It has proudly claimed responsibility for many of the most barbarous attacks against Israeli civilians, and most recently it has published a poster depicting, a la the United States in Iraq, a card deck of “most wanted” Israelis — including not only Prime Minister Sharon, but also, among others, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Yossi Sarid.

The apparent strategy of the Israeli defense establishment is to generate sufficient panic by its attacks that the Hamas leadership is rendered inoperative. Israel has conducted six attacks from the air during the last two weeks, killing at least 11 Hamas activists, including several top leaders of Hamas. Under the prevailing circumstances, it is a remarkable and intimidating accomplishment of Israel’s intelligence service that it is be able to identify the cars in which Hamas activists are riding and to call in helicopter gunships to destroy those cars and their passengers with Hellfire missiles. And we do indeed now hear reports that the Hamas leaders have scattered, are in hiding, afraid to use cell phones or otherwise disclose their location. The Israeli campaign, it seems, is a success.

A success? The sheriff rides into town, not on a horse but in a helicopter, and he and his posse search out the bad guys and pick them off, one or two at a time. (Forget about the bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up as “collateral damage.” Israel’s readiness to fire its missiles even on a crowded street is evidence of its determination. In the very successful attack on September 1, in which one or two Hamas people were killed, 26 bystanders were wounded.)

The logic of this Wild Mideast strategy is deeply flawed, its apparent success ephemeral. If Israel stops its attacks, the remaining activists — there is, alas, an ample supply — will return to their murderous activities. At the moment, at best, those activists are fearful; they are surely not chastened. It is quite as likely that with each attack more young Palestinians are ready to sign up with Hamas as it is that Hamas will now run into recruiting troubles. Accordingly, Israel cannot stop its attacks.

But surely such attacks cannot go on endlessly. Gaza is not a sleepy town with two taverns, Hellfire missiles are not six-shooters, the Middle East is not the Wild West and Ariel Sharon is not John Wayne, much less Gary Cooper. Even President Bush, who has been so remarkably indulgent toward Israel, will at some point say “enough!” to the Israelis.

Israel has every right to be furious with Hamas; its indignation is entirely righteous. But it cannot suppose that it can destroy Hamas by its current tactic.

Therein, of course, lies the frustration, a frustration remarkably similar to what the United States is experiencing in Iraq. Israel is a highly developed technological society; it is capable for the time being of defeating any combination of its neighbors in war. But the war with Hamas is an asymmetrical war, high-tech forces against guerrillas and homicidists.

America learned — or should have learned — in Vietnam, and is learning once again in Iraq, that such wars are not easily winnable, if winnable at all. The resolution of such conflicts can only be political; it cannot be military. Therefore, the question that must be asked regarding Israel’s targeted assaults is whether they conduce to such a resolution.

But before we ask that question, there is another, and in a way more troubling, question: Why is there no discussion of all this? Why have we so easily, so readily, become inured to these attacks, including the “collateral damage” they cause? Alas, the answer to that question has less to do with the evil of Hamas than it has to do with our own (here I mean we Jews, both in America and in Israel) desensitization. And that, too, must be counted as a kind of collateral damage.

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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