Yoni Shumacher, a 21-year-old paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, told me about the Gaza war this week. During a telephone chat on Sunday from his home in Maale Adumim, Shumacher explained how his unit walked into the northern Gaza Strip, to a town called Atatra. The ground offensive was preceded by “a massive amount of firepower, artillery and helicopters; tanks came in with us.… Basically, there was barely anything left, it was all ruins and there was barely any resistance.”
The houses were empty; the Atatra residents had fled. Shumacher’s battalion “conquered the town” without any problems. Hamas fighters left behind RPGs, guns, mortars and rockets, according to the young soldier, who spent the first week of the ground war in Atatra.
Miluim, reserve soldiers, joined the regular army battalion after the first week. Shumacher’s battalion moved south to the outskirts of Gaza City. In the second week of ground fighting, some Hamas rifle squads shot back at the Israelis. Fire from helicopter gunships and tanks was directed at the Hamas fighters.
“Basically, we felt very superior… morale was very high for all the soldiers,” Schumacher commented.
Shumacher’s battalion then moved to the east; they got the order on Saturday night, Jan. 17, to move out. The war was over.
“On the one hand we were happy, we were all happy to go home,” Shumacher said. “On the other hand, it was like a one-sided cease-fire. We felt like we could have done more,” such as obtaining freedom for Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who has been held by Hamas for the past two and a half years.
Shumacher allowed that Shalit’s release was not a goal stated by the government at the outset of the war.
Amid reports and editorials castigating Israel for the use of disproportionate force, and the killing and maiming of civilians in Gaza, Shumacher defended Israel’s conduct of the war.
“We felt like we were very moral…. everything we did was necessary… We did use a lot of force, but it was necessary,” he said.
The problem, according to Shumacher, was that Hamas operated inside civilian areas. “They didn’t care about the lives of the civilians,” he said. “You could see that they put bombs in a house, booby-trapped a house right next to the civilians.”
Casualties on the Israeli side were relatively light, but a number of IDF soldiers died in friendly-fire incidents. That was the case with a company commander in Shumacher’s battalion. “I knew him very well,” he commented. The officer was inside a house and was killed when an Israeli tank mistakenly opened fire. “Four of my friends were injured,” said Shumacher, a sergeant, who added that the wounded soldiers are all out of the hospital now.
Shumacher acknowledges having some mixed feelings at the conclusion of the Gaza war. His feelings are shared by many Israelis, and by Jews in the Diaspora who wonder exactly what this war accomplished. Israel and the United States, along with the European Community and the United Nations, have signed on to the “road map” plan, which aims to establish a two-state solution, Israel and a Palestinian state reconciled to peaceful coexistence. Many commentators suggest that events, including the ascension of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, have made this option impossible.
On Sunday, the CBS news program 60 Minutes aired a gloomy report by Bob Simon, which cast doubt on the efficacy of the two-state solution. Simon talked to a leader of the Israeli settler movement and a moderate Palestinian official. Daniela Weiss, the settler leader, said that her group was going nowhere, so there would never be a Palestinian state established “in the land of Israel.”Â
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a former candidate for Palestinian president, told 60 Minutes: “While my heart still wants to believe that the two-state solution is possible, my brain keeps telling me the opposite because of what I see in terms of the building of settlements. So, these settlers are destroying the potential peace for both people that would have been created if we had a two-state solution.”
And the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, splashed some more cold water on the road map plan. The chance for implementing the two-state solution is “nil,” he ventured.
“The geopolitical condition that’s been created in ‘67 is irreversible,” Benvenisti told Simon. “Cannot be changed. You cannot unscramble that egg.”
He predicted that the West Bank settlers will “remain and flourish.”
The leaders of groups in the Jewish Diaspora — the unelected officials who presume to speak for the Jewish community — staged rallies and pronounced their support for Israel, in the midst of the war of Gaza. Other groups — J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, etc. — called for a cease-fire early in the war; these groups are pro-Israel and seek peace, and there are indications that they will have influence on decision-makers in the Obama administration. And I know that our readers have come to different conclusions about the recent war — which is not over, according to the Haaretz story on Page 3 about the resumption of attacks in Gaza.
The first Israeli war in Lebanon was not planned and executed by young soldiers; but young soldiers, like Ari Folman — director of the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (1.30.09 AJW) — fought in Lebanon and are left to live with their bitter memories of that unpopular conflict. Likewise, Yoni Shumacher went to Gaza in service to the State of Israel; and he is entitled to his views on the ethical nature of the actions taken by his battalion and the role of the IDF.
In America, in the Upper Midwest, I know that many Jews are deeply troubled about the increasing pace and ferocity of Israel’s wars. If Israel elects a government of the far right, or the farther right, that implements the ethnic cleansing of Arab Israelis in the Galilee, what becomes of Jewish support for Israel?
I had some questions last week for Talia Sasson, a prominent Israeli lawyer who visited the AJW offices last summer. In a lengthy e-mail response, Sasson, who is on the list of Knesset candidates for the New Movement-Meretz Party, a new grouping on the left of the political spectrum, expressed her misgivings about the war in Gaza.
As for the killing and wounding of Palestinian civilians, “this is something unbearable. The IDF didn’t allow any journalist to enter Gaza during the shooting. The only pictures that were seen in Israel came from Al-Jazeera, but only few people saw them.”
Sasson continued: “But to say the truth, many people in Israel don’t mind those casualties. It seems to me, I am truly sorry to say, that some of them are even happy about that; this is a kind of revenge. And more, many people in Israel justified the war, the feeling was that everybody is united, the army is strong and will hit Hamas… I notice at schools now that many children became fascists, hate the Arabs wherever they are, including the Israeli Arabs. This is something frustrating for me.”
Finally, as far as this editorial goes, the Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel articulated the feelings of a segment of Israelis in an opinion piece titled “A just and criminal war,” published in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz this past weekend.
According to Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, Yovel noted that for an entire generation, beginning in the 1980s, Israel has been fighting enemies without uniforms, interwoven with civilian populations. Restrictions were therefore put on the army’s actions. But many were lifted for the Gaza operation.
“The Gaza War dramatically demonstrated that the conjunction of justified combat and war crimes is not an individual instance of this war or that, rather it is becoming a permanent model for the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians,” Yovel wrote. “As long as this is a struggle between two populations, occupier and occupied, and as long as there is no peace between Israel and an independent Palestinian state existing beside it, the Israeli soul will be divided between justice and crime, holding onto each other with no way out, like two Siamese twins.”
Yovel continued: “The way to overcome this is to create conditions for peace with the Palestinians. Toward this end, Israel should mobilize all of its resources, and its supporters abroad, in order to strengthen Palestinian society and the capability of its leaders to rehabilitate its people, and to carry out effective governance. Building the Palestinian economy and government is a vital advance payment on peace, and therefore an Israeli interest of the first order.”
— Mordecai Specktor
Â (American Jewish World, 1.30.09)