I am in love with Israel. Yet the events off the shores of Gaza last week, in which Israeli commandos stormed a blockade-busting aid ship and killed nine activists, were a painful reminder that I also belong to a class of Israelis that is deeply concerned about the direction of our country. Increasingly, our conflict with the Palestinians is separating us, not only from our moral faculties, but also from the rest of our senses.
The patterns are clear: more people are getting killed in shorter periods of time, and we care less and less. According to Israeli data, it took 22 days for the Palestinian death toll to hit 1,100 in the last big round of violence between “us” and “them,” the 2008–09 Gaza incursion. The same number of casualties accumulated over a full five years in the first Palestinian uprising (1987–93), which was then the largest Israeli-Palestinian clash since 1949. Over time, our hearts have grown harder. In the first intifada, Israeli military police launched internal investigations whenever Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. Yet there have only been a handful of such investigations during the last decade, and none is likely to take place over last week’s killings.
Israel’s almost complete lack of empathy for the “other” has not always been the case. In a noted 1923 article, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of Israel’s hardline revisionists, effectively acknowledged the logic of Palestinian resistance to Zionism. He wrote that the Arabs, like every other indigenous people, “view their country as their national home…and will not willingly agree to new landlords.” Sixty-three years later, in a similar vein, Ehud Barak admitted that if he’d been born a Palestinian, he would have joined “one of the terrorist organizations.” Yet no contemporary Israeli leader, Barak included, would dare to show similar understanding of the Palestinian plight today.
This hardening of the heart is not limited to our leaders. They, after all, merely reflect popular attitudes. In September 1982, after Christian militiamen slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, 10 percent of Israel’s total population took to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest Israel’s indirect responsibility. Only a few dozen Israelis demonstrated 26 years later, when the Israeli military was directly responsible for a similarly large number of Palestinian civilian casualties in the 2008–09 Gaza conflict.
It is not only the spread of moral insensitivity I fear. As Dean Acheson observed, there’s something worse than immoral policy: erroneous policy. The apparent inability of Israeli leaders to connect our goals and our means puts the country in long-term jeopardy. Our most profound problem is that 130 years after young Zionists began immigrating to Palestine with the hope of creating a safe place for Jews, we’re still relying on force to secure our existence. Ironically, more Jews have been killed since 1945 in this “safe haven” than in any other place. A future Iranian nuclear device, which may be hard to stop if Israel can’t muster international support more effectively, will take this Zionist failure to new lows.
Actions like the killings aboard the Gaza aid ship do nothing to ameliorate this situation; they only create new sources of resistance. The blockade that brought about the flotilla is dehumanizing, barely justified on security grounds. It is imposed against the same people who hold the key to our legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the millions of Arabs who surround us. The killing of several Turks deeply corrodes Israel’s relationship with Istanbul, the only capital in the region that did not wait for Palestinian approval to engage in a meaningful relationship with the Jewish state. Wide international condemnation has already slowed efforts at the United Nations to tighten sanctions on Iran. How long can our modern-day Sparta live by its sword, when the sword creates new difficulties?
The emotional burden of these and other contradictions is shared by many. “Most Israelis, myself included, love this country, are proud in its achievements, and want to live in it. Many are ready to risk their lives defending it,” Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amos Lapidot, former commanding officer of Israel’s venerated Air Force, wrote on April 19 in Haaretz newspaper. “And yet, recently there is a growing feeling that something basic went wrong…can the state of Israel as it looks today survive for years to come?” Others feel tension between tribal loyalty and notions of universal justice. Activist Udi Aloni wrote on June 1 for the online paper YNET that he almost boarded a “ship that brought food and hope to Gaza,” but decided against it in order to avoid “clashing with the servicemen from the military branch I served faithfully thirty years ago.”
I, too, have my loyalties. I have wonderful teenage memories with someone I’ll call H, who now commands a Special Forces unit. His unit was probably deployed in the Gaza operation, though it was not involved in the killings. But the unit was accused by human-rights groups of being involved in extrajudicial killings in the West Bank earlier this decade. With our joint history, I feel as if H and I were cut from the same cloth. The thought that some may perceive him and his men as war criminals is extremely hard to accept.
And so I have chosen, for now, the coward’s way. I drag out my studies far away from home in order to avoid adjudication between my heart and my mind. The only prescription I have, at least until I head back home, is a very personal one. I seek to change my approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. I think now that we must break through the language of strategic calculations and allow basic human decency to shape our positions. Some of my friends back home may think I’m regressing from our past understanding that we need to deal with the Mideast as it is—hard, brutish, and dangerous—to a more naive approach. But I do not think it’s naive. I think it’s the only way left.
Eiran is a major in the IDF reserves and worked for Israel’s attorney general and on Prime Minister Barak’s foreign-policy team. His book The Essence of Longing: General Erez Gerstein and the War in Lebanon was published in Israel in 2007. He is currently a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.