History more than repeats itself

All of the below words are taken from Israeli author Jacobo Timerman‘s book The Longest War, written during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon (Operation Peace for Galilee) and first published in Britain in December 1982. Timerman returned to Argentina, where he had grown up, in 1984 and died in 1999.…  On 4 October 1982, his son Daniel was confined to a military prison for 28 days for refusing to return to the Lebanese front:

The first day we were dulled by the news, the second by the victories; the third we were certain that the operation could last only a few hours more.
On the fourth day we tried to extract from the news and from conversations some indication of what was actually happening.
Why couldn’t war be avoided?

None of the rational explanations I have heard satisfies me. Yet I have reached a conclusion that doesn’t settle the problem but at least helps me: when an army is convinced of victory, its capacity for transmitting this conviction is overwhelming . . . Even the most peaceful people are tempted by the possibility of winning.
A man walks among those ruins, carrying in his arms a boy or a girl of ten . . . Yet we are forbidden to equate today’s victims with yesterday’s, for if this were permitted, the almost unavoidable conclusion would be that yesterday’s crimes are today’s.
It was more or less the fourth day that the guilt began.
Finally, if by chance the cautious Israeli television network let slip some footage and the screen showed a Lebanese child killed in a war in which (according to film shown in Israel) there are no victims, the prime minister did not lack the 1,500,000 Jewish children sent to the ovens by the Nazis, and, as a last resort, the pathetic memory of his own family . . . He is an intuitive politician who is in perfect harmony with the mood of his natural audience: the Israeli voter.

This very morning, the twenty-third of the war, the Jerusalem Post’s Hirsh Goodman writes: “Three Israeli military correspondents were surrounded by officers and men of four top fighting units, who accused them…  . . . of lying to the public . . . of allowing this war to grow out of all proportion to the original goals, by mindlessly repeating official explanations we all knew were false.”
When certain critics accuse us of being Nazis, they do the defence minister a great service. Truly, we’re not Nazis. But the accusation serves the defence minister to discredit the accusers and serves him to claim his innocence. Yet we are not innocent.
Neither the explanations of stored weapons, nor the training camps, nor the terrorists who threatened us can justify the destruction of this city. I try to follow the logic of my companions and compare danger against danger, threat against threat, death against death, and still I cannot understand why we have laid waste to Tyre.

If it is true that the possibility of a small PLO group remaining in Beirut . . . indeed threatens the security of Israel, then the lives of 150 soldiers are a small sacrifice. But what if the threat doesn’t exist? Still, if the threat is there, is war the only answer? Or the best of all?
Boas Evron . . . Writing in a Tel Aviv newspaper, reflects on Israel in these times: “The image of this country, in which all the talent is devoted to the battlefield, is that of a country which thinks all solutions come from the tank and the bulldozer . . . This country, is it still ours?”
It is ours without a doubt, which is why we are the ones who must change it.

If criticism of and accusation against Israel for the invasion are going to be dismissed as expressions of anti-Semitism because they contain verbal images which correspond with Nazi crimes against the Jews, we will become alienated from the world in which we live. Even the anti-Semitic expressions of some critics of Israel’s policy do not invalidate the essential facts, nor do they justify our actions in Lebanon.

It makes no sense to argue that the Palestinians fighting Israeli invaders in Lebanon are terrorists. Yet it’s clear that even if we accept they are terrorists . . . the military suppression of 10,000 guerillas (or terrorists) who arose from the heart of a population of 4 million Palestinians will give us at most a tenuous five-year interlude, until the next generation of guerillas (or terrorists) is ready to resume the armed struggle. History tells us that the new wave of fighters will be more radical, better trained and more desperate.
Many of us, surely a majority of the Israelis, want the Palestinians to vanish physically from this region, want them banished from our presence.…  Nothing assuages our anguish better than to repeat three long lists to ourselves:
The crimes of humanity against the Jews.
The crimes of the Palestinians against Israelis.
The slurs of the anti-Semites who now have taken up the Palestinian cause to advance their lunatic interpretation of Jewish presence in history.

When I have finished drawing up all these lists, I weigh and reweigh them . . . but once again the Palestinian emerges, each time a stronger and more defined outline.

We were told that the PLO would be destroyed, that terrorism would disappear, that the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza would submit passively to our authority, that Lebanon would have a strong, stable and democratic government allied to Israel, that a whole gamut of new political, diplomatic and strategic opportunities were opening up in the Middle East for us and the United States, our ally.
We enter the eighth week. What remains?…  Not even new opportunities in the region. We are barely participating in the diplomatic moves and our ally has not changed its relationship with the Arab world.…  Just as before the war, America is striving to strengthen the same countries, seeking new alliances, and its leaders know that in both pursuits what they achieve will depend more upon their attitude towards the Palestinian issue, towards the Palestinian people, than all the military might Israel…  can deploy.
Those telling us about our presence in Lebanon seem to respond more to their obsessions with the international press than to our questions and uncertainties. We have returned to the ghetto . . . where survival meant knowing that the other hated us, meant defeating the other. Why has Israel, which was created to forget the ghetto, recreated it? And why is it that we have locked ourselves into a ghetto once again, waiting for the rich uncle from America to help us endure?

Yet if we add up all the triumphs of all the wars, including the present one, we’ll understand that in order to achieve that definitive security we so anxiously desire, we shall have to go halfway down the road that separates us from the Palestinians…  . . . we will be forced to employ our power to guarantee his security, without which we cannot guarantee our own.
It’s true that peace is made between enemies, and many people maintain that, because we’re enemies, peace can be achieved. Yet what keeps us fighting is not a war but a conflict over equal rights. A peace agreement won’t be enough. We’ll have to resolve the conflict over equal rights. And Israel has the strength to accomplish this.
The word “enemy” is never used; the plans of those whom we have attacked with such effectiveness and success during the entire week are never mentioned, nor what are the real threats (if any) to us.…  In this vast haze, they are the terrorists, six to eight thousand in number, and we are left with the impression that each bomb hurled against Beirut lands on the head of some terrorist without ever affecting the daily routine of hundreds of thousands
of the city’s inhabitants. Later, when we learn through the foreign press that between 500 and 1000 civilians were killed in the bombing raids, we are told that the terrorists sought refuge among them.
Who gave us the right to decide that those civilians must die because they did not know how or could not escape from the terrorists in time? Where did we get such omnipotence?

On my return to Tel Aviv I am informed that the army’s chief rabbi, General Gad Navon, is distributing a map on which Lebanon is marked as the territory that was occupied in antiquity by the Jewish tribe of Asher. The city of Beirut has been Hebraised, appearing as Be’erot.
In 1947, the terrorist Menachem Begin blew up the British officers’ club, killing 13 persons . . . Begin’s terrorists cached their weapons and grenades in schools, synagogues, under the beds of children. When a British patrol arrived unexpectedly at the home of a friend of mine who was a member of a terrorist group, he hid his pistol under the skirt of his aged grandmother.

From now on our tragedy will be inseparable from that of the Palestinian. Perhaps some of us will try to sidestep the Israeli moral collapse by resorting to statistics and comparing Auschwitz to Beirut. It will be in vain. The victims of Auschwitz would never have bombed Beirut. Our moral collapse cannot be diluted by statistics. Abba Eban writes:
“There is a new vocabulary with special verbs: to pound, to crush, to liquidate, to cleanse, to fumigate . . .…  It is hard to say what the effects of this lexicon will be as it resounds in an endless and squalid rhythm from one day to the next. Not one word of humility, compassion or restraint has come to the Israeli government in many weeks: nothing but the rhetoric of self-assertion, the hubris that the Greeks saw as the gravest danger to a man’s fate.
“These weeks have been a dark age in the moral history of the Jewish people.”

The peace movement has lost a historic opportunity. A first step towards our own salvation would be assuming responsibility for what we have done in Lebanon. I see no mechanism of conscience for the Israeli people other than the act of repairing what we have destroyed.

In Israel many people complain that this drama was exaggerated throughout the entire world. On the contrary, we should worry about its lack of impact . . . Amsterdam, New York, Rome, Paris and London peace militants should have tried to break the Israeli Navy’s blockade of Beirut, should have allowed their boats to be sunk by Israeli cannons. They should have proclaimed: “We’re all Palestinians.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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