Friday May 12, 2023 –תשפ”ג כ׳ אִיָיר
הַבּוֹנִים בַּחוֹמָה וְהַנֹּשְׂאִים בַּסֶּבֶל עֹמְשִׂים בְּאַחַת יָדוֹ עֹשֶׂה בַמְּלָאכָה וְאַחַת מַחֲזֶקֶת הַשָּׁלַח׃ (נחמיה ד:יא)
“Those who were rebuilding the wall – The basket-carriers were burdened, doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon.” – Nehemiah 4:11
At the time of writing, rockets are falling on a 40km range from the Gaza strip, and Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Islamic Jihad targets continue as part of “Operation Shield and Arrow.”
The Israeli news is filled with images of people running to shelters, huddling together, and covering each other in-between parked cars. And, of course, we see the fireworks display of deterrence as the Iron Dome and David’s Sling technology intercept and destroy the rockets and mortars being shot at Israeli cities, towns, and villages from Gaza.
In a natural almost automatic reaction many Israelis have reverted back into full-on solidarity mode. People in the North are opening their homes to those fleeing the South, popular musicians are freeing up rows of their concerts for those under attack, and messages of unity are abundant. If one were to watch this moment in isolation, it might not be obvious that the country is at one of the most divisive moments in its history with weekly protests against the coalition’s legislative agenda,
The cynics among us accused Netanyahu of “wagging the dog,” as there’s nothing quite like being under attack and demonstrating toughness and strength as a response to the rockets to boost his popularity. PM Netanyahu’s ratings in recent polls, by the way, have sunk to record lows.
Israel deemed this mission a success as it was able to take out Ali Ghali, the senior commander of the rocket-launching force of the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as a handful of senior IJ operatives. Ghali was responsible for all rocket fire by Islamic Jihad at Israel, including the barrage of hundreds of rockets fired over the last few days.
The current military escalation with IJ in Gaza, and last month’s terror incidents in Jerusalem and the West Bank – with expected tensions next week during the Jerusalem Day Flag March – all accentuate the reality that the Palestinian front calls for constant attention, reminding us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tinder box which can easily ignite.
The big question is: What will happen with the pro-democracy protests this coming Saturday night?
After the terrible tragedy a few weeks ago in which three members of the Dee family were murdered, the protests began with a moment of silence to acknowledge their deaths, which is a possible precedent.
One of the protest organizers in New York commented to me:
“The cannons roar and the muses are silent?’ We will not be silent. And in Israel, they will not be silent. They are trying to obscure and take down the protest. There is no reason to do that. Our friends in Israel will do everything to protest, and if they have to sit in shelters, it will be a significant comfort for them to know that we continue [our protests] here. We cannot be accused of this being a protest against the [current] operation, or against Israel, because we are waving Israeli flags, so I think we will get through this in peace.”
In addition to our feelings of national solidarity in the midst of this conflict, there is an important moral question also on the table. The large number of Palestinian civilians killed (the wives, children, and neighbors of the Islamic Jihad targets – 19 overall at the time of writing) raises difficult questions about the moral and legal aspects of such military operations like “Shield and Arrow .” This isn’t the first time Israel carried out missions in Gaza with the hope of eradicating the terrorist infrastructure there. Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, to put it mildly, is not ideal – indeed, it’s insanity, as the saying goes. I’m not a military strategist, nor here to tell the Israeli Defense establishment how to operate. However, Israel is already on thin ice in the international community as the government is perceived as dismantling its democracy, so another moral crisis will not help Israel’s image abroad.
It’s not only a question of “Should the protests take place?” It’s also a question of “Should the protests break with the solidarity of the moment and protest the military strikes?” Anat Kam shared her thoughts on this in Haaretz:
“These days of untargeted assassinations in Gaza, which is followed by rockets, which are followed by more assassinations and dead children, are exactly the time for the protest to say out loud that the fight against the regime coup is only part of a bigger picture. The fight for the image of the State of Israel is not only internal. It’s about the way the state treats its citizens …and about the way it treats the Palestinians around it whose lives depend on its actions.”*
The moral question must go both ways. While there is no lack of voices quick to jump down Israel’s throat on account of the “collateral damage (בין בזדון ובין בשגגה),” I believe that the world also needs to ask the Palestinians – and this time it’s Islamic Jihad while other times it’s Hamas – a simple question:
Why are you shooting rockets at Israel?
What is it that you hope to achieve by this?
Israel’s response is always under a magnifying glass, but the Palestinians have something better than Iron Dome. They can choose not to shoot rockets. In response, Israel won’t shoot at Gaza, nor carry out targeted assassinations, nor destroy buildings. That may not quickly solve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza nor improve the situation for the Palestinians nor inspire greater sympathy for them on the world stage, but it will prevent the loss of innocent lives.
What happens now, as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant explained this week, is up to Islamic Jihad and its terrorist big brother Hamas, which controls Gaza.
David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel answered the early question with broader reflection:
“Ever since Hamas seized power in Gaza and turned it into a terrorist state, it has underlined that 75-year-plus message from our implacable enemies that opposition to Israel is not about our presence in areas captured in the 1967 War, but about our very existence, in any territory. It is a rejection, that is, of Israel itself in any configuration.”
That’s what this moment is about. Whether or not Israel remains a democracy, we will still have to live by the sword. If it does not remain a democracy, we can be sure that we will not make any progress vis a vis the Palestinians. Horovitz is right that shooting rockets into Israel is not about the Occupation, but that doesn’t mean we are free to desist from doing all we can to end the Occupation and work for a secure and democratic Palestinian State alongside a secure and democratic State of Israel. We can forge ties with as many other Arab countries as possible, but that will not change the situation in Gaza nor will it bring the Palestinians closer to their acceptance of the Jewish State.
While we pray for peace and quiet, we must also internalize the notion that these protests, now closing their 19th week, are not just about keeping, or changing the rules of the game within our system. This is a struggle to define the character of the Jewish State in the most fundamental way. We must state loudly and clearly that we want Israel to be an enlightened, progressive, liberal, egalitarian nation, open to the world, and not a separatist, religiously coercive, dark and insular island; and exist as a nation that will dwell alone, and heathens will not be counted. As Nehemiah teaches us, we can have one hand on our weapons (tanks, fighter jets, and iron domes, etc…), but one hand must also and simultaneously continue building under the canopy of peace.
*Translation from the Hebrew by the author