Friday, August 18, 2006

Pondering, Discussing, Traveling Amid and Defending the Inevitable War


When I arrived in Israel, it was the anniversary of the day the Spanish Civil War began. It was 70 years ago that the Spanish generals set off the war — civil, ideological and international — that the fascist governments of the time wanted. And I could not help thinking about this as I landed in Tel Aviv. Syria in the wings. . .Ahmadinejad’s Iran maneuvering. . .Hezbollah, which everyone knows is a little Iran, or a little tyrant, taking Lebanon and its people hostage.. . .And behind the scenes, a fascism with an Islamist face, a third fascism, which is to our generation what the other fascism, and then communist totalitarianism, were to our elders’. As soon as I arrived; yes, from the very first moment I visited with my old friends in Tel Aviv, whom I had not seen so tense or so anxious since 1967; from my first conversation with Denis Charbit, an ardent peace activist who did not, it seemed to me, doubt the legitimacy of this war of self-defense; from my first discussion with Tzipi Livni, the young and talented Israeli foreign minister, whom I found strangely disoriented in this new geopolitics, I sensed that something new, something unprecedented in the history of Israeli wars, was being enacted. It was as if Israelis were no longer in the framework of Israel and the Arabs alone. It was as if the international context, the game of hide-and-seek between visible and invisible players, the role of Iran and its Hezbollah ally, gave the whole crisis a flavor, a look, a perspective that were entirely new.

Before I went to the northern front, near the border with Lebanon, I traveled to Sderot — the martyred city of Sderot — to the south, on the border with Gaza. Yes, the martyred city. Because the images that reach us from Lebanon are so terrible, and because the suffering of Lebanese civilian victims is so unbearable to the conscience and the heart, it is hard to imagine, I know, that an Israeli city could also be a martyred city. And yet. . .these empty streets. . .these gutted houses, riddled by shrapnel. . .this mountain of exploded rockets piled up in the courtyard of the police headquarters, all of which fell in the last few weeks.. . . Even that day (it was July 18), a rain of new bombs fell on the center of town and forced the few people who wanted to take advantage of the summer breeze to scurry back down into their basements.. . .

And then, finally, piously pinned on a black-cloth-covered board in the office of Mayor Eli Moyal, these photos of young people, some of them children, who have died under fire from Palestinian artillery. One thing obviously doesn’t erase the other. And I’m not one to play the dirty little game of counting corpses. But why shouldn’t what is due to some also be due to others? How come we hear so little, at least in the European press, of those Jewish victims who have died since Israel pulled out of Gaza? I have spent my life fighting against the idea that there are good deaths and bad deaths, deserving victims and privileged bombs. I have always agitated for the Israeli state to leave the occupied territories and, in exchange, win security and peace. For me, then, there is a question here of integrity and fairness: devastation, death, life in bomb shelters, existences broken by the death of a child, these are also the lot of Israel.

Haifa. My favorite Israeli city. The big cosmopolitan city where Jews and Arabs have lived together ever since the country was founded. It, too, is now a dead city. It, too, is a ghost city. And here, too, from the tree-covered heights of Mount Carmel down to the sea, the wailing of sirens forces the rare cars to stop and the last passers-by to rush into the subway entrances. Here, too, it is clear that this is the worst nightmare in 40 years for Israelis.

Zivit Seri is a tiny woman, a mother, who speaks with clumsy, defenseless gestures as she guides me through the destroyed buildings of Bat Galim — literally “daughter of the waves,” the Haifa neighborhood that has suffered most from the shellings. The problem, she explains, is not just the people killed: Israel is used to that. It’s not even the fact that here the enemy is aiming not at military objectives but deliberately at civilian targets — that, too, is no surprise. No, the problem, the real one, is that these incoming rockets make us see what will happen on the day — not necessarily far off — when the rockets are ones with new capabilities: first, they will become more accurate and be able to threaten, for example, the petrochemical facilities you see there, on the harbor, down below; second, they may come equipped with chemical weapons that can create a desolation compared with which Chernobyl and Sept. 11 together will seem like a mild prelude. For that, in fact, is the situation. As seen from Haifa, this is what is at stake in the operation in southern Lebanon. Israel did not go to war because its borders had been violated. It did not send its planes over southern Lebanon for the pleasure of punishing a country that permitted Hezbollah to construct its state-within-a-state. It reacted with such vigor because the Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped off the map and his drive for a nuclear weapon came simultaneously with the provocations of Hamas and Hezbollah. The conjunction, for the first time, of a clearly annihilating will with the weapons to go with it created a new situation. We should listen to the Israelis when they tell us they had no other choice anymore. We should listen to Zivit Seri tell us, in front of a crushed building whose concrete slabs are balancing on tips of twisted metal, that, for Israel, it was five minutes to midnight.

We should also listen to the bitterness of Sheik Muhammad Sharif Ouda, the leader in Haifa of the little Ahmadi community, a Muslim sect; his family has lived here for six generations, and he welcomes me into his home, in the hilly Kababir neighborhood, dressed in a Pakistani turban and shalwar kameez. Hezbollah’s crime, he says, was its decision to strike indiscriminately. It was to kill Jews and Arabs alike — consider the massacre at Haifa’s train depot, where there were 8 dead and more than 20 wounded. And it was also to establish a climate of terror, of anxiety every instant, as in Sarajevo, where people used to speculate about the fact that all it took was a stroke of luck, a change of plans at the last minute, a meeting that went on longer than expected, or that was cut short, or that miraculously changed its venue, to escape being at the point of impact when a rocket landed. Creating such conditions is a crime.

Ouda insists, however, that there is another crime: Hezbollah has in effect relegated the Palestinian question to the background. As indifferent as the traditional Arab leaders may have been, in their innermost selves, to the fate of the inhabitants of Gaza and Nablus, at least they still pretended they cared. Whereas the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, doesn’t even try to pretend. The suffering and rights of the Palestinians are no longer, in his own Islamo-fascist geopolitics, either a cause to fight for or even an alibi. You just have to read the very charter of his movement, or listen to his proclamations on Al Manar, the Hezbollah TV channel, to see that he has little concern with that relic from ancient eras that is Arab nationalism in general and Palestinian nationalism in particular. (Only the naked hatred remains.) Instead, he dreams of a reconciled Islamic community, a new umma, with Iran as the base, Syria the armed branch and Hezbollah the invading spear tip. He will employ the means of war without the usual practical goals of war. There remain the three neglected casualties of this new Iranian-style jihad: Israel, Lebanon and Palestine.

ore rockets. I have traveled from Haifa to Acre and then, along the Lebanese border, to a succession of villages and kibbutzes and other cooperatives that have lived, for 10 days by this point, under Hezbollah fire. There’s a veritable rain of fire today over these biblical landscapes of Upper Galilee, not to speak of a storm of steel. “I’ve never really known what you should do in these cases,” Lt. Col. Olivier Rafovitch says to me, forcing himself to laugh, as we approach the border town of Avivim and as the noise of the explosions seems also to be coming closer. “You tend to speed up, don’t you? You tend to think that the only thing to do is get away as fast as possible from this hell.But that’s stupid, really. For who can tell if it isn’t exactly by speeding up that you come right to where it’s. . .?” In response, we speed up all the same. We rumble through a deserted Druze village, then a big farming town and a completely open zone where a Katyusha rocket has just smashed up the highway.

The damage these rockets can do, when you see them up close, is insane. And insane, too, is the racket you hear when you’ve stopped talking and are just waiting for the sound they make to blend with the noise of the car’s engine. A rocket that falls in the distance leaves a dull thud; when it goes over your head, it creates a shrill, almost whining detonation; and when it bursts nearby, it shakes everything and leaves a long vibration, which is sustained like a bass note. Maybe we shouldn’t say “rocket” anymore. In French, at least, the word seems to belittle the thing, and implies an entire biased vision of this war. In Franglais, for example, we call a yapping dog a rocket, roquet; the word conjures a little dog whose bark is worse than his bite and who nibbles at your ankles.. . .So why not say “bomb”? Or “missile”? Why not try, using the right word, to restore the barbaric, fanatical violence to this war that was desired by Hezbollah and by it alone? The politics of words. The geopolitics of metaphor. Semantics, in this region, is now more than ever a matter of morality.

The Israelis aren’t saints. Obviously they are capable in war of Machiavellian stratagems, operations, even denials. In this war, though, there is a sign that they did not want it and that it landed on them like an evil fate. And this sign is the Israeli government’s choice of Amir Peretz as defense minister: a former activist for Peace Now, long committed to the cause of sharing the land with the Palestinians, Peretz was head of the trade union Histadrut and was in principle much better prepared to organize strikes than to wage war. “I didn’t sleep a wink all night,” he tells me, very pale, his eyes red, in the little office in Tel Aviv where he welcomes me, along with Daniel Ben-Simon, a writer for the Israeli paper Haaretz. This office is not at the ministry but at the headquarters of the Labor Party. “I haven’t slept because I spent all night waiting for news of a unit of our boys who were caught in an ambush yesterday afternoon in Lebanese territory.” Then a young aide-de-camp who also looks like a union activist holds out to him a field telephone. Without a word, his eyes lowered, his big mustache trembling with ill-contained emotion, Peretz receives the news he has been dreading. He looks up at us and says: “Don’t spread the news right away, please, since the families don’t know yet — but three of them died, and we still haven’t heard about the fourth one. It’s terrible.. . .”

I have known many of Israel’s defense ministers over the past 40 years. From Moshe Dayan to Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and others, I have seen heroes, demi-heroes, tacticians of genius and talent, skillful or poor or mediocre men succeed one another. What I have never seen before is a minister who was so — I won’t say “human” (the sanctification of the life of every soldier fallen in combat is a constant in the country’s history), or even “civilian” (Shimon Peres, after all, didn’t really have a military past either), but one so apparently unprepared to command an army in wartime (wasn’t his first decision, unique in the annals of Israeli history, to cut the budget of his own ministry by 5 percent?). What I have never seen before is a defense minister answering so exactly to the famous saying by Malraux about those miraculous commanders who “wage war without loving it” and who, for this very reason, always end up winning.

Amir Peretz, like Malraux’s commanders, will probably win. He’s facing a tougher enemy than expected; he will experience heavier casualties as well; there will be growing doubts, throughout the country, about the wisdom of his strategy; but he will probably win. And in any case, the point is here: the very fact that he was appointed to the post shows that Israel believed that after withdrawing from Lebanon and Gaza it was entering a new era when it would have to wage not war but peace.

I met another war leader, also a member of the Labor Party and a supporter, like Peretz, of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. It was in the field that I met him, near the Lebanese border, in a place called Koah Junction, which means “junction of the force” and is for the kabbalists one of the places where, when the day comes, the Messiah will become manifest and pass through. His name is Ephraim Sneh. In his youth he was a medical officer with the paratroopers, the commander of an elite army unit and then commander of the Southern Lebanon Military Zone from 1981 until 1983. And he has the air of a calm father, at once friendly and gruff, that reserve generals often have in Israel when they come back to the service — which in the present circumstances takes the form of a kind of inspection mission for the defense committee of the Knesset. Why this meeting? Why here, in this landscape of dry stone, brought to a white heat by the sun, to which he has invited me but where I can’t see a living soul aside from ourselves? Does he want to show me something? Explain to me some detail of army strategy that would be visible to me only here? Will he take me to Avivim, less than a mile north of here, where a battle is taking place? Does he want to talk to me about politics? Will he, like Peretz, like Livni, like almost everyone in fact, tell me about Israel’s disappointment with France, which could have played a great role in the region by pushing for the refoundation of the Land of the Cedars and for the disarmament of Hezbollah, as demanded by United Nations Resolution 1559, but which prefers, alas, to confine itself to opening up humanitarian corridors?

Yes, he does tell me that. A little of it. In passing. But I quickly see that he had me come here to talk, first of all, about a matter that is not related, at least apparently, to the present war: nothing other than my book about the kidnapping, captivity and decapitation of Daniel Pearl.. . .A conversation about Danny Pearl at a stone’s throw from a battlefield.. . .An officer with a literary bent deciding that, with our two cars immobilized in the blazing scree, nothing is more urgent than discussing jihad, enlightenment Islam, the trouble with Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations, Karachi and its terrorist mosques.. . .I had never seen anything like this before — for it to be conceivable, it took this expedition to the front lines of a war in which Israel and the world are entangled as never before.

At the same time.. . .It would seem that history has, sometimes, less imagination than we would like, and that old generals don’t have such bad reflexes after all. For the fact is that a few miles to the south, in the commune of Mitzpe Hila, near Maalot, I will not long after experience a deeply moving reminder of the Pearl affair. I visit the home of the parents of the soldier Gilad Shalit, whose capture by Hamas near the town of Kerem Shalom, along the border with Gaza, on June 25, was one of the things that brought about this war. I wonder about the irony of history, which has placed this young man, without any special distinctions, just an ordinary individual, at the origin of this enormous affair. We are sitting now in the sun on the lawn where Shalit played as a child and where you can hear, very close, a few hundred yards away maybe, Katyusha rockets falling, to which his parents seem to have stopped paying attention. We are sitting outside around a garden table, discussing the latest news brought by the U.N. envoy who visited the Shalits just before me, and I find myself thinking that if this war has to last — if the Iranian factor will, as I have sensed since the instant I arrived, give it new scope and duration — then this modest army corporal will be the new Franz Ferdinand of a Sarajevo that will bear the name Kerem Shalom.. . .

What is happening, then? Is it his mother Aviva’s expression when I ask her about what she knows of her son’s captivity? Or his father Noam’s look when he tries to explain to me, a faint gleam of hope in his eyes, that the young man has a French grandmother, Jacqueline, who was born in Marseille, and that he hopes my government — that of France —will link its efforts with Israel’s? Is it the debate, which I can guess is raging inside Noam, between the father who is prepared for any kind of bargaining to get his son back and the former army soldier who, out of principle, will not give in to blackmail by terrorists? Is it my visit to the corporal’s childhood bedroom? Is it the house itself, so similar, all of a sudden, to Danny Pearl’s house, in Encino, Calif.? Whatever the reason, I am overcome by a feeling of déjà vu; over the faces of this man and this woman it seems to me as if the faces of Ruth and Judea Pearl, my friends, have been superimposed, the courageous mother and father of another young man, like this one, kidnapped by religious fanatics whose ideological program wasn’t very different, either, from that of Hamas.. . .

Up north again, near the Lebanese border, I travel from Avivim to Manara, where the Israelis have set up, in a crater 200 yards in diameter, an artillery field where two enormous batteries mounted on caterpillar treads bombard the command post and rocket launchers and arsenals in Marun al-Ras on the other side of the border. Three things here strike me. First, the extreme youth of the artillerymen: they are 20 years old, maybe 18. I notice their stunned look at each discharge, as if every time were the first time; their childlike teasing when their comrade hasn’t had time to block his ears and the detonation deafens him; and then at the same time their serious, earnest side, the sobriety of people who know they’re participating in an immense drama that surpasses them — and know, too, they may soon pay a steep price in blood and life. Second, I note the relaxed — I was about to say unrestrained and even carefree — aspect of the little troop. It reminds me of reading about the joyful scramble of those battalions of young republicans in Spain described, once again, by Malraux: an army that is more friendly than it is martial; more democratic than self-assured and dominating; an army that, here, in any case, in Manara, seems to me the exact opposite of those battalions of brutes or unprincipled pitiless terminators that are so often described in media portraits of Israel. And then, finally, I note a strange vehicle. It resembles the two self-propelled cannons, but it is stationed far behind them and doesn’t shoot: this is a mobile command post that you enter, as in a submarine, through a central turret and down a ladder; there are six men in it, seven on some days, and they are busy working with a battery of computers, radar screens and other transmission devices. Their role is to determine the parameters of the firing by collecting information that will be transmitted to the artillerymen. Here, at the root of Israeli firepower, is a veritable laboratory of war where soldier-scholars deploy their intelligence, noses glued to the screens, trying to integrate even the most imponderable facts about the terrain into their calculations. Their goal is to establish the distance to the target and how fast the target moves, as well as to consider the proximity of the civilians, whom they want to avoid at all cost.

Does it work? And are these soldier-scholars infallible? Of course not! There is no way, everybody knows, to wage a clean war. And the fact that Hezbollah long ago made the strategic choice to establish its fighters in the most populated areas and thus to transform Lebanese civilians into human shields obviously doesn’t help matters. The fact remains that at least an effort is being made to avoid civilian targets. Here at least, in Manara, that is the Israeli approach. And, as distressed as we may be by the suffering of the Lebanese civilian population, the terrible deaths of hundreds, you cannot conclude that the Israelis have the strategic intention or the will to harm civilians.

hen I met David Grossman, it was in an open-air restaurant in the Arab village of Abu Gosh, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, which seems like a garden of Eden after the hell of the last few days — bright sunshine, the buzz of insects rather than airplanes or tanks, a casualness in the air, a light breeze.. . .We talk about his latest book, which is a retelling of the myth of Samson. We talk about his son, who was just called up for duty in a tank unit, and about whom he trembles with anxiety. We talk about a statistic he has just read, which worries him: almost a third of young Israelis have lost faith in Zionism and have found tricks to try to get themselves exempted from military service.

And then of course we discuss the war and the huge distress it seems to have plunged him into, along with other progressive intellectuals in the country.. . .For on one hand, he explains to me, there is the terrible extent of the destruction, women and children killed, the humanitarian catastrophe under way, the risk of civil war and of Lebanon burning — and the government’s mistake of, at first, setting the bar so high (destroy Hezbollah, render its infrastructure and its army incapable of doing any more harm) that even a semi-victory, when it comes, risks having a whiff of defeat. But, on the other hand, there is Israel’s right, like any other state in the world, not to sit by in the face of such crazy, groundless, gratuitous aggression; there is the fact, he adds, that Lebanon plays host to Hezbollah and permits it to participate in its government: where could an Israeli counterattack have taken place but on Lebanese soil?. . .I observe David Grossman. I examine his handsome face, the face of the former enfant terrible of Israeli literature, who has aged too quickly and is devoured by melancholy. He is not just one of the greatest Israeli novelists today. He is also, along with Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and a few others, one of the country’s moral consciences. And I think that his testimony, his firmness, his way of not yielding, despite everything, on the essential soundness of Israel’s cause, ought to convince even the most hesitant.

And then, finally, Shimon Peres. More than ever I did not want to end this journey without going, as I do each time, to visit Peres — the country’s elder statesman. I met him in the company of Daniel Saada, an old friend and founding member of the French progressive organization SOS Racisme, who has now settled in Israel and become a diplomat as well as a friend of Peres. Shimon, as everyone here calls him, is now 82 years old. But he hasn’t lost any of his handsomeness. Or the look of a prince-priest of Zionism. He still has the same face, all forehead and mouth, that emphasizes the melodious authority of his voice. And I even have the impression, at times, that he has adopted a few of the mannerisms of his old rival Yitzhak Rabin: a slight bitterness in his smile, a gleam in his eyes, a way of carrying himself and, sometimes, of shading his words.. . .

“The whole problem,” he begins, “is the failure of what one of your great writers called the strategy of the general staff. No one, today, controls anyone else. No one has the power to stop or overpower anyone else. So that we, Israel, have never had so many friends, but never in our history have they been so useless. Except.. . .”

He asks his daughter, who is present as we talk, to go to the neighboring office and find two letters, one from Mahmoud Abbas and one from Bill Clinton. “Yes, except for the fact that you have them,” he then continues. “The men of good will. My friends. The friends of enlightenment and peace. The ones who will never renounce peace because of terrorism, or nihilism, or defeatism. We have a plan, you know.Still the same plan for prosperity, for shared development, which will end up triumphing.Listen.. . .”

Shimon, a young man who is 82 years old, has had a dream. His invincible dream has lasted, in fact, for 30 years; the present impasse, far from discouraging him, seems mysteriously to stimulate him. So I listen to him. I listen to this Wise Man of Israel explain to me that his country must simultaneously “win this war,” foil this “quartet of evil” made up by Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah and clear the way for “paths of speech and dialogue” that will, one day, lead the Middle East somewhere. And as I listen to him, and let myself be lulled by his oft-repeated, indefinite prophecies, I find that, today, for some reason, those prophecies have a new coefficient of obviousness and force. I, too, catch myself imagining the glory of a Jewish state that would dare, at the same time, almost in the same gesture and with the same movement, to deliver two things at once: to some, alas, war; to others, a real declaration of peace that would be recognized as such and accepted.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosopher and writer, is the author, most recently, of “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.” This article was translated by Charlotte Mandell from the French.

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