The cease-fire is holding. The sirens have stopped, the bomb shelters are being closed, most of the reservists have returned home. This weekend, for the first time in months, Israelis (like Gazans) will finally be able to exhale.
But the press, quite rightly, is reminding Israelis that peace is almost certainly not at hand. “Gaza war? Merely a blip on the Mideast radar,” Haaretz’s headline read this morning.
The two sides have battered each other into a stalemate. Both accepted terms their leaders insisted they would never abide. Civilians on both sides have suffered, both have buried loved ones. Both are exhausted, utterly spent. And on both sides, the leadership is trying to convince its “constituency” (one of which votes, while the other cannot) that the gains were greater than the losses, that the other side has “learned its lesson.”
But these surface similarities notwithstanding, there are enormous differences in the mindsets of the two sides; perhaps nothing captures those differences better than each side’s most basic dread.
Life for most Gazans (though not for all, for there is also a privileged class there) is bleak. So for Gazans (and for West Bank Palestinians, as well), the dread is that the status quo will remain. They fear that there will be no airport, no seaport, no relaxation of Israeli control over imports, no Palestinian State. What they most want is for things to change.
Israelis have the opposite fear. They worry about the status quo slipping away. What Israelis dread is not the idea of a Palestinian State or a Gazan seaport, but the possibility (likelihood?) that those are just stepping-stones to a horrifying goal: the eradication of Israel altogether. Why would Israelis think that? Because Palestinian leadership makes it explicit.
Abbas Zaki, a member of Fatah's central committee -- Fatah, the party of Mahmoud Abbas, by the way, and not Hamas -- made it clear that every Israeli is a target. “There are,” he said, “no innocent Israelis.”
And how does Hamas plan to improve the lot of Palestinians? Not by ending the siege, not by making peace. Hamas’s goal, Israelis know, is the obliteration of the Jewish state. Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’s political head now hiding in Qatar, promised the other day that this was not the last campaign to liberate Palestine. Not Gaza, but Palestine. It is not open borders he wants, but no borders at all -- with Israel gone.
Israelis believe him.
Ismail Haniyeh, the former head of the Hamas regime in Gaza, sounded a similar theme. Despite the losses, he promised, Hamas would get the siege on Gaza lifted, and then would continue the battle to “liberate Jerusalem and Palestine from the neo-Nazi occupier.”
Israelis believe him.
This battle to “liberate Jerusalem and Palestine” from an “occupier” evokes the common Palestinian claim that Israelis are nothing but “Crusaders.” The point is clear. “You’re here now,” the Palestinians mean, “but the Christians eventually retreated, and we’ll get rid of you, too.”
Israelis hear that language, and know their enemies are serious.
Crusaders, in fact, are back in the news. When an Israeli Defense Forces officer was hit this week by a bullet fired by battling factions in Syria’s never-ending civil war, Israelis were worried about more than the question of whether the shooting was intentional or not. Aligned with the rebels, they know, are al-Qaeda units. “Al Qaeda on the Syrian border,” was the lead headline on this morning’s YNet, one of Israel’s most-read news websites, “Israel watches with worry.” Attached to the article was a picture of Benny Gantz, the IDF chief of staff, looking out at the Syrian border through powerful binoculars. The newest Crusaders are just over the border.
Al-Qaeda, like Islamic State, make no secret of its ultimate intentions. Israelis read, and Israelis listen. And Israelis believe them.
The battle with Hamas, as painful and as devastating as it was, was but one agonizing subplot in a much more ominous narrative. There’s the Muslim Brotherhood (temporarily stymied) in Egypt, Hamas (battered but not defeated) in Gaza, Hezbollah (awaiting Tehran’s command) in Lebanon, al-Qaeda on the Syrian border and Islamic State creeping ever closer. Israelis know what that means and what they will have to do to survive, whatever the international community may say or think.
It is thus no accident that one old but much-beloved song was played often on the radio here during the long summer weeks of war. “I Have No Other Country,” it is called.
I have no other county
Even if my land is burning
One Hebrew word
Enters my veins, penetrates my soul
With an aching body and a hungry heart --
This is my home.
Israel is a country battered and angry, mourning and hurt. But it also a country filled with people who know that they have nowhere else to go, and that the Jewish People’s battle to stay in even part of their ancestral homeland may just be beginning all over again. Those in the international community who were troubled by Israel’s determination and firepower in the latest Gaza conflict will undoubtedly like even less what may be in store, just around the corner.
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