These are bleak days for progressive Israelis. The offensive on Gaza, which should never have been launched, has left a trail of death, trauma, destruction and despondency. The after-effects of those horrible three weeks are most obvious in Gaza, where the monumental task of emotional and physical rehabilitation is an Israeli as well as a global responsibility. They are also evident within Israel, where bravado and intolerance threaten to eat away at the country’s democratic core and consume its internal moral compass.
When my phone started ringing on December 27 with the news that Israel was bombarding Gaza, I was shocked but far from surprised. I had opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005 because I feared that a pullback without an agreement on the transfer of authority would breed political anarchy. And indeed, the ascendance of Hamas and its takeover of Gaza immediately afterward verified the foolishness of the unilateral approach. The Israeli siege on Gaza, accompanied by rocket attacks on Sderot and targeted killings by Israeli forces, fueled an escalation of violence that transformed Gaza into an enormous, impoverished, dangerously armed cage governed by religious extremists. Its continuous victimization, far from exposing Hamas, has sustained its dominance.
The failure of the six-month truce, brought about by the continuous smuggling of arms into Gaza and Israel’s violation of its commitment to open the crossings, was predictable. Sadly and inexcusably, so too was the timing of Israel’s assault: during the last days of the Bush administration and on the eve of yet another general election in Israel. Under immense public pressure to “do something,” which saw Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu soar in the polls, the Olmert-Livni-Barak governing trio banded together to salvage their reputations and perhaps their careers under the guise of protecting Israel and reasserting its deterrent capacity.
All these thoughts and more raced through my mind in those first hours as I watched Israeli fighter planes surgically pulverizing buildings and their occupants on Israeli television. I rebelled, almost instinctively, against the resort to massive force. Regardless of the immense provocation rendered by the rockets showered on the Negev, Israel had done little to exhaust other options. The post-Annapolis talks during the preceding year were marred by the fundamental asymmetry between Palestinians and Israelis and Israel’s unwillingness to address the roots of the conflict. And the shortsightedness of the military initiative was infuriating; too many people believed that what couldn’t be achieved in the past through diplomacy and coercion in the West Bank and Gaza could be accomplished through the application of more force.
That very evening I helped to draft the first of several antiwar appeals, signed on to others and found myself, once again, in the street protesting what shouldn’t be and what it would unleash. I had no inkling that the next twenty-one days would prove so emotionally hellish, intellectually discombobulating, politically stultifying and socially polarizing.
The first hint came in a closed discussion in an avowedly leftist forum. I was taken aback at the extent to which some of my companions justified the attack in light of the ongoing Hamas rockets. The counterargument–that no amount of missiles could excuse the severity of Israel’s assault, which would yield countless civilian casualties–fell on deaf ears. The widespread sense that there was “no choice” has permeated and deeply divided the Israeli peace camp ever since.