It’s Yom Hazikaron here in Israel. The day when most of the country comes together and remembers the sacrifices that this country has required. The ceremony in Rabin Square varies little from year to year, sad songs interspersed with the stories of the those who have fallen. Those stories are always well done and moving with often parents or other loved ones talking about the fallen. Tonight I was struck by the number of stories of those who perished in the Yom Kippur War or the time before and after. Very often soldiers who were close to my age. In almost every one of these cases, it was a brother or a friend from the unit who spoke, for by now the parents are gone.
Its hard hearing the stories and thinking of the kids who were my age, but never got to live the life that I have had. Never got to have children and grandchildren. It’s hard to realize what so many sacrificed so that we could live here in freedom.
Tonight’s events come one week after Yom Hashoah, and in some ways put the sacrifice of Israelis into perspective. The 23,646 soldiers who died represented a terrible loss. However, I can still remember my Mother talking about all of her first cousins (probably 40 out 45)who died during the holocaust and never got to live, and then I think of the 1 million children who perished, a number that is simply too big to understand.
So here we stand 70 years after the establishment of the State. The State of Israel that we the Jewish people dreamed of and the founder of Modern Zionism took the steps to make it a reality. That state in many ways has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders. We are a wealthy country with a strong economy who despite our small size leads the worlds in many areas. And yet in one way it has not succeeded at all. Our children like us still have to go into the army. We fear that next year when we commemorate Yom Hazikaron the number of those we remember will have gone up.
Tomorrow night is Yom Hashoah and I will be filing an appropriately somber article to Newsweek on the holocaust and the events in Syria in the last few days and years. But tonight a totally different sort of event was taking place here in Tel Aviv. In Rabin Square, over 10,000 mostly young people (20’s and 30’s ) showed up for a unique show. A pre-Eurovision concert where representatives of 30 countries came to preview their songs that they will sing in two months at the Eurovision contest. Singers from throughout Europe and from Australia previewed their songs to an enthusiastic crowd. I am sure that many in the crowd imagined that they were standing in the middle of a city in Europe and not 40 miles from Gaza and 90 miles from the Syrian border.
Events seem to be moving ever faster- As I write this post I am listening to Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the Senate, while my twitter feed just informed me that the Russians have vetoed a US proposal to create an independent commission to investigate the gas attacks in Syria.
Iran today promised that it would retaliate for the alleged Israeli attack on an Iranian base in Syria, in which a significant number of Iranians were killed. It would seem that the Iranian installation that was attacked was significant and the attack was very successful. Israel is taking the Iranian threat seriously and is preparing accordingly.
Tonight Ehud Barak was interviewed on the news. He somberly stated that while in his opinion at any given time there is a 1% chance that a miscalculation could bring about a full-scale war, recent events have brought that number to 10%, something that he thought was way too high. Barak stated that while the army was ready for a potential war, the country as a whole is not.
So here we are a week before Israel’s 70th anniversary, and on one hand, we celebrate our success and reach out as part of the larger world community. At the same time, it’s becoming clear that there exists a very real possibility that war is a very real possibility.
The Gaza Strip is located a mere 40 miles from Tel Aviv and yet, for most Tel Avivans, it could be as far as the moon. Yes, many of the residents of Tel Aviv (those over the age of 30) can remember being in Gaza as part of their military service, and many others have children (or in some cases grandchildren) who are serving on its borders. Nevertheless, the daily life of Gazans is foreign to almost all of us. Of course, almost everyone in Tel Aviv remembers the summer less than four years ago, during which Hamas fired missiles at Tel Aviv almost daily. However, the fact that Israel’s anti-missile system intercepted every single one of them has minimized the potential threat from Gaza.
Which brings us to the events that began this past Friday. If the demonstrations/riots had been about improving conditions in Gaza — i.e. that Israel should provide more water, more electricity, allow more Gazans transit via Israel to other countries, etc. — most Israelis would have been sympathetic to the cause. The leader of Hamas, a man who has publicly committed to the destruction of Israel and whose organization has been ruling Gaza for the last 11 years stated at the start of the march: “The ‘March of Return’ will continue… until we remove this transient border.” The protests “mark the beginning of a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle on the road to liberation and ‘return’… Our people can’t give up one inch of the land of Palestine.” In other words, the goal of the march was to destroy the border fence and allow the millions of Palestinian who live in Gaza to return to the homes their great-grandparents
had, in what has been the state of Israel for the last 70 years — a demand rejected by at least 75% of the Israeli public, if not more. Consequently, as Palestinians approached the fence on Friday, the Israeli public was not particularly sympathetic.
The Israeli army faced a dilemma regarding the Gaza protest. The IDF knew that the true goal of March was to get as many Palestinians killed, in order to gain the world’s attention and depict Israel in the worst possible light. Missiles were no longer making an impact; Israel was systematically destroying the tunnels Hamas constructed, financed with millions of dollars from the aid it had received; and their attempts at reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, without agreeing to give up its weapons had failed, as well. The first demonstration, of what has been promised to be a series of many marches, was scheduled for the eve of Passover, a time that under normal circumstances, the Israeli Defense Forces gives leave to as many soldiers as possible, to allow them to be home with family. Instead, this year, the IDF reinforced the border with elite ground forces, including as many trained snipers as possible. The Army warned demonstrators not to come within 300 meters of the border fence and prepared for the worst.
30,000 Gazans, about 2% of the population, turned out to demonstrate on Friday (approximately the same size as many of the demonstrations in Tel Aviv). 95% of the demonstrators stayed away from the border and far out of harms way. However, a few hundred approached the border fence, many trying to damage it. To address the minority who did not heed prior warnings to remain at a distance from the border, Israeli snipers were given orders to shoot at the legs of anyone who was unaffected by the tear gas that had been dispensed from drones flying overhead and shoot to kill anyone carrying a weapon. However, soldiers were ordered not to shoot to kill women, children, or the elderly — under any circumstances. The snipers did their jobs and only shot at people who approached the border-fence, forcing them to flee. Some were wounded by shots to the legs, some were impaired by the tear gas and 17 young men were killed. Hamas proudly displayed many of their identities, as members of their military wing, who gave their lives. I
Hamas succeeded in gaining at least a bit of attention from the world — and obtained a video of young man being shot, while retreating. However, the world is awash in tragedy and death at the moment. Photos of young men who are clearly acting provocatively being shot is unlikely to gain much of the world’s attention. Such actions certainly will gain no sympathy from the Israeli public. The IDF and the Israeli government can be satisfied that the border was not breached and no women or children were killed.
Still, nothing has changed, and nothing seems likely to change in the coming months, or years. The slow motion suffering of the residents of Gaza continues to steadily worsen, as the water table recedes, and gets ever more polluted. Work is impossible to find in Gaza. The hopes that accompanied the Israeli withdrawal are long gone, snuffed out by years of Hamas rule, and the resultant severing of almost all economic ties with Israel, and with much of the world.
Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2006. The hope then was that Gaza might develop economically, and provide a model for a potential peaceful future between the Palestinians and Israelis. But that aspiration never came to be, as Gaza represents the very fundamental problem in the Israeli– Palestinian saga. In 1947, before the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence, there were approximately 60,000 residents living on the Gaza Strip. That year, the United Nations voted to created two states, in what was British Mandatory Palestine — a Jewish State and an Arab State.
The Jews in Palestine accepted the United Nations plan, while the Arabs did not. In the subsequent war, 600,000 Palestinians became refugees, many of whom fled to the Gaza Strip — which was occupied by Egypt, while others moved to the Jordanian occupied West Bank, (part of the area the UN proposed to become the Arab State), and others fled to Lebanon. During that period, the world was awash in refugees; some from World War II, with others from the division of the Indian sub-continent into a primarily Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan.
The United Nations had created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to deal with the over 50 million refugees in the world. The Commissioner’s mandate included helping to resettle the refugees as permanent residents in the new lands to which they had moved. However, when it came to the Palestinian refugees that organization was considered unsuitable, since the Arab states did not agree to the resettlement of the new refugees in their lands. Instead, a new organization — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) — was created with a different mission, i.e., that of helping the refugees until such time when they could return to their lands. This also meant that unlike the UN Refugee Commission that only recognized the individuals who had themselves fled from one land to another, the refugee commission for Palestine chose to recognize all descendants as refugees themselves.
So today, 70 years later, the approximately 200,000 refugees who entered the Gaza Strip in 1948 has grown into a population of 1.5 million people. Most have been sustained by international aid — especially after they were no longer allowed to work in Israel, following the bombings of the Second Intifadah. Gaza has no economy to speak of, and no prospect for a better future which they can look forward to.
There have been innovative proposals made over the years to bring some relief to Gaza residents — e.g. construction of an offshore port and airport for Gaza (an outstanding idea that seems hopelessly bogged down in internal Israeli and Palestinian politics); or the purchase some land in Sinai from the Egyptian to settle some of those in Gaza (another idea that has gained no traction). However, doing nothing is not an option, some innovative solution to dramatically improve the lives of those in Gaza is imperative. Until one is found, the cycle of violence will continue. Israel will continue to prosper, even as its sons and daughters are drafted to spend the prime of their lives serving in the army, and the Palestinians will sink ever deeper into despair — a despair that is unquestionably dangerous for all.