Israelis see their own nation as neighborhood bully

You can see Lebanon from my sister’s backyard. She and her family and thousands of others in northern Israel live with a constant roar of gunfire — mostly from Israeli cannons aiming to kill Lebanese, occasionally from a Hezbollah shell that might land on them.

But the real threat to Israel doesn’t come from Lebanese rockets. The real threat comes from the Israelis themselves — and the rest of the world — forgetting how and why this war started.

Israel does not go to war just to retrieve kidnapped soldiers. In the past, it has been ready to ransom them by returning Palestinian and Lebanese captives that it holds, just as the kidnappers ask. So why war now? For answers I’ve turned to Jewish writers in Israel’s top newspaper, Ha’aretz.

Last month the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, agreed to form a united government and offer Israel a plan for permanent peace. A Ha’aretz columnist observed at the time that the peace offer “should have sparked a wave of positive reactions from Jerusalem … But Jerusalem’s ear as usual is blocked to any sound that might advance the peace process.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert still insists on his unilateral “convergence” plan, which is merely “a plan to perpetuate the occupation, only under conditions more convenient for Israel. Moreover, at the end of the plan, if it is ever executed, even more settlers will live in the occupied territories than live there now.”

For the Israeli government, another Ha’aretz columnist wrote, “it is best that the Palestinians remain extremists because then no one will ask the government of Israel to negotiate with them. How do we ensure that the Palestinians remain radical? We simply strike at them, over and over.” So Israel responded to the Palestinian offer of negotiated peace with an all-out assault on Gaza. That’s how and why it all began.

Now words from Jewish writers in Ha’aretz in the past week:

“The Israel Defense Forces once again looks like the neighborhood bully. … One and only one language is spoken by Israel, the language of force. The IDF absorbed two painful blows, which were particularly humiliating, and in their wake went into a war that is all about restoring its lost dignity.”

“The camouflage concealing the war’s real goals was ripped off by this defense minister [Peretz], who says what he means: ‘[Hezbollah leader] Nasrallah is going to get it so bad that he will never forget the name Amir Peretz,’ he bragged, like a typical bully.”

“[Prime Minister] Olmert’s cocktail of remarks has included threats (‘We’ll grit our teeth and knock them silly,’ and ‘We’ll have these Hamas leaders weeping and wailing. No one who messes with us is going to get off scot free.’)”

“Lior Horev, Olmert’s strategic adviser, says: ‘Such fundamental issues as self-image and standing in the international arena are critically challenged.’”

“Releasing prisoners will make us look like suckers.”

“Another generation of impassioned youngsters is growing up around us and screaming over the Internet: ‘Stick it to them.’ … On television there still will be the same generals, with the same conception, with the same short and limited range of strategic understanding, and they will win the same enthusiasm from the public that just wants to ‘stick it to them.’ This trigger finger thought in terms of ‘who will stick more to whom.’”

“While we’re in no hurry to get to the negotiating table, we’re eager to get to the battlefield and the killing without delay, without taking any time to think. That deepens suspicions that we need a war every few years, with terrifying repetition, even if afterward we end up back in exactly the same position.”

Why need a war every few years? Turn for a moment from Ha’aretz, often called the Hebrew equivalent of The New York Times, to the real New York Times, where Israeli novelist Etgar Keret pulled back the curtain. Among Israeli Jews, Keret wrote, after the attack on Lebanon began, “there was a small gleam in almost everyone’s eyes, a kind of unconscious breath of relief. … We long for a real war to take the place of all those exhausting years of intifada when there was no black or white, only gray … Once again, we’re a small country surrounded by enemies, fighting for our lives, not a strong, occupying country forced to fight daily against a civilian population. So is it any wonder that we’re all secretly just a tiny bit relieved?”

The idea of Israel as a tiny victim fighting for its life may be comforting for Israelis, but it is an illusion. My sister and her family are obviously scared, with good reason. Some Israelis have died, and every life is precious. But she goes to work every day as usual. It sounds like her biggest immediate problem is her dog, who trembles and whimpers at the continual sound of Israeli gunfire. “Massive wave of Katyushas strikes northern Israel; No injuries reported,” she reads in the latest Ha’aretz headline.

On the other side of the border, my brother-in-law writes, “most of the Shi’ite villages and towns that have been pounded are destroyed. … The Israelis have continually pounded the Shi’ite Dahia neighborhood [of Beirut], a Hezbollah stronghold, into rubble. The entire population, numbering perhaps up to 200,000 people, were compelled to abandon their homes.” Well over 200 civilians [over 300 at press time] have already died, and the Israeli Air Force talks about weeks more of the same.

The best writers in Ha’aretz know that some day Israel must give up its bullying, and that means giving up its illusions: the fiction that Israel is an innocent victim, merely responding to unprovoked aggression, and the vain hope that brutal force can restore an insecure bully’s wounded pride. As long as that lethal brew of illusion dominates Israel’s public mind and mood, Israeli bombs will keep on killing in Lebanon and Gaza, and the victims will fight back, endangering Israeli lives too.

Ha’aretz readers have been told the bottom line truth. The cause of this war — and all of Israel’s problems — is its refusal to negotiate an end to the occupation of Palestine. “On the southern [Gaza] front we have continued waging a dubious war with no clear objective, wrapped up with intercessions and excuses that do not manage to hide our refusal to speak with the Palestinians.” “There is no basic justice in adhering to occupied territory.” “The siege on the Hamas government is not weakening it. On the contrary, it is boosting support for it.”

“Israel has no option in the long run other than withdrawing from the territories and from the occupation. … Israel’s interest is for the Palestinians to live a life of plenty and well-being.” But if this Israeli government “sinks into the destructive, meaningless routines that characterized its predecessors, the rest of the decade will turn into a disaster zone.”

Ira Chernus ( is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This article is reprinted from with permission of the author.