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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Watching the war from the sidelines

Tags: Columnists Israel
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Yair Lootstein

It was strange sitting this war out. Having completed almost 25 years as a professional officer in the IDF, I wasn’t even called up for reserve duty this time round. It probably means I’m getting older.

I was, however, constantly wired, both literally and figuratively. Listening to news broadcasts, waiting in trepidation to hear names of the fallen in each day’s battles. Awakening mid-sleep to check my iPad for where rockets had fallen.

While I myself was not thrown into the fray, many of my friends’ children were. I’m an active member of a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem. At any given time, we have roughly 60 of our young people serving in the IDF, and during Operation Protective Edge, more than 20 of our boys were on active duty in Gaza, very much in harm’s way. Many phoned their parents moments before deploying into Gaza and having their cellphones taken away.

Parents were beside themselves until they heard from their sons again a week or 10 days later. I don’t remember services at our shul ever being so sombre, and never more so than when we recited together the prayer for the safety of all IDF soldiers, with each of us naming particular soldiers for whom we were praying.

Those prayers were not answered for everyone. Moshiko Davinu, the son of one of our synagogue’s nursery teachers, was killed when the armoured bulldozer he was operating while unearthing terror tunnels running from Gaza into Israel was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. 

I was shocked upon recognizing Amit Yaori’s bereft father in a news bulletin broadcast from outside their Jerusalem home one Saturday evening. Amit had been killed in a gun battle in southern Gaza. My daughter and Amit were in the same bar/bat mitzvah preparation program several years ago.

And I attended Max Steinberg’s funeral. A 24-year-old “lone soldier,” Max fought to get into the Golani Brigade soon after making aliyah from California. He was killed with six comrades when a Hamas anti-tank missile hit their armoured personnel carrier in Gaza City’s Shejaia neighbourhood. More than 30,000 people accompanied him and his family to his final resting place on Mount Herzl, ensuring he was not alone on his final journey.

In Jerusalem, we experienced just a handful of air-raid sirens, but I was more concerned about my elderly parents living in Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv, where they were subjected to several sirens daily and to loud explosions of rockets being intercepted in their immediate vicinity by the Iron Dome missile defence system. They live on the top floor of a nine-storey building, and every time a siren went off, they had 90 seconds to get down a flight of stairs to the landing of the floor below them. I worried something would happen to them as they scurried down those stairs.

The extensive support for this operation from nearly 90 per cent of Jewish Israelis was remarkable – something I don’t remember from previous wars. We’ll no longer accept even a trickle of missiles being fired into the towns and villages surrounding Gaza. When the scope of tunnels running from Gaza into bordering kibbutzim and moshavim became public knowledge, that support only rose.      

Few Israelis want innocent Palestinians to be harmed. The pictures coming out of Gaza were gruesome, and Israeli TV stations didn’t show enough of that destruction, both human and physical. As the dust settles, we will have to allow freer discourse about different aspects of this war and let its detractors speak their minds without fear of being labelled traitors. At times like these, Israel’s maturing democracy sometimes appears quite tenuous.

But dreadful images of flattened neighbourhoods, of dead children and of hospital wards filled to the brim with the wounded do not necessarily mean war crimes have been committed. Suspicions of such must be investigated and proved – by Israeli authorities.

In an era when international humanitarian law is taught in almost all law schools, Cicero’s well-known aphorism associated with the relationship between law and war, that “when the canons roar, the muses are silent,” is no longer relevant. During the latest hostilities, commentators the world over have become “law of war” experts, explaining the significance of the principles of distinction and proportionality. Many perfunctorily reported that Israeli military commanders have committed war crimes in Gaza. Not unexpectedly, the UN Human Rights Council, that bastion of international justice, has established a commission of inquiry “to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014.” Somehow, many of the commentators have overlooked the urban warfare, human shields and use of civilian locations as staging grounds for Hamas’ war of terror.  Why do I have a feeling the UN Human Rights commission will also ignore them.

Twice during Operation Protective Edge, I had occasion to be proud of also holding Canadian citizenship. I participated in a Canada-Israel rally in Jerusalem organized by former Canadian senator Jerry Grafstein. Attended by Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, and six Canadian parliamentarians (three Conservatives and three Liberals), as well as other Canadians who flew to Israel to show support at this time, most of the several hundred in attendance were Canadians now living in Israel. I have not attended such an event since making aliyah 35 years ago, but after hearing several short speeches, I found myself surprisingly moved while singing O Canada, followed by Hatikvah.

I was also impressed by Bercovici when I heard her speak at Jerusalem’s Begin Center. She explained Canada’s unique support for Israel, declaring that Canada’s “foreign policy lens views what happens on the ground. Israel is a democracy that shares critical values with Canada. We believe the conflict is a broader and global conflict between the free world and terrorism. This is why we maintain our focus despite the destruction from Gaza.” Simple words that really hit the nail on the head.

I know very little these days about Canadian politics, but at present, Israel has no better friend in the international arena.

Early one Saturday, I took my dog for a long walk in the Sataf Nature Reserve not far from Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. As we strolled through the wadi, I noticed a wild pomegranate tree teeming with tiny fruit blooms. Weeks from now, the fruit will be much heavier on the branches, symbolizing renewal and a changing of seasons from summer to fall. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah many Israelis will eat the seeds of this wonderful fruit before beginning their festive meals, adding a blessing wishing that their good deeds in the coming year will be as plentiful as the seeds of the pomegranate.

As we approach that new season, may this be the beginning of more peaceful and tranquil days for both Israelis and Palestinians, and may we both be blessed with good deeds and with creative leaders of good conscience, of wisdom and of courage. A pipe dream, perhaps, but I’ve been to too many funerals of late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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