I moved to Israel from New York in 1982, during another summer of fighting, and Israeli society was tearing itself apart. Palestine Liberation Organization forces were firing Katyusha rockets at Israeli communities in the Galilee; the Israel Defense Forces had invaded Lebanon, in Israel’s first asymmetrical war against terrorists in urban neighborhoods. As the civilian casualties in Beirut mounted, Israelis raged at each other in the streets. On Rosh Hashanah, I saw then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin emerge from a synagogue in Jerusalem, to be greeted by leftwing demonstrators shouting, “Murderer!”
This summer Israel again fought an asymmetrical war, with rising numbers of civilian deaths on the other side. But this time there were no protesters stalking the prime minister, or any real opposition from the left. According to one poll, fully 95 percent of Jewish Israelis backed the war with Hamas—this, in a country where there is rarely consensus on anything.
Beyond Israel’s borders, this unanimity has been interpreted as hysterical overreaction. Compared to Gaza, after all, Israel has suffered little devastation. The Iron Dome anti-missile system has been remarkably effective in thwarting Hamas attacks. Why, demanded our critics, couldn’t Israel show restraint?
But that critique only reveals just how deeply the world misunderstands Israel’s predicament. A new ceasefire may have finally ended this summer’s fighting. But for Israelis, the Gaza conflict is only the latest round in a highly effective war on civilian Israel—a war that began in September 2000, with the collapse of the Oslo process, and that continues, with prolonged ceasefires between battles, to this day. And the goal is to undermine Israel’s long-term viability in a radicalizing Middle East.
In the early years of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab world tried to destroy Israel through conventional military attack. But that illusion ended with the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Arab armies surprised Israel on two fronts but were beaten back within two weeks.
The first phase of the war against civilian Israel was the four-year wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that ended in 2004. Those were arguably the worst years in Israel’s history. Numbed from constant terror attacks, we became a society of shut-ins, avoiding congregating in public with too many of our fellow citizens, afraid of becoming tempting targets.
During those years, my wife, Sarah, and I were raising two teenagers in Jerusalem. Both repeatedly came close to being caught in bombings; both lost friends. Sarah, a convert to Judaism, said to me: “Now I finally understand what my rabbis meant when they warned me I was risking the lives of my future children by becoming a Jew.”
Israel came close to losing the battle against the suicide bombers by forfeiting to them our public spaces. Pioneering Israel had become a post-modern society of shopping malls, whose people bought the latest gadgets and vacationed abroad. Did we still have it in us?
In the end we surprised ourselves and our enemies with our renewed resolve. Belatedly, we won that first phase of the war against the Israeli home front through a combination of military initiatives, targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders and the beginning of the construction of the West Bank security barrier. But ever since the question has lingered: How much longer can consumerist Israel hold out before we begin to break?
Our enemies are asking the same question. When Islamist leaders from Gaza to Lebanon to Iran mockingly declare that Israelis love life while they love martyrdom, they are reminding us that this is a war of wills.
In July 2006, Hezbollah launched a month-long rocket assault on Israeli towns and villages along the Lebanon border. The IDF performed poorly. And though some Israelis insisted we won, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s taunt lingers: Israel, he said famously, is “weaker than a spider web” that appears formidable from a distance but collapses when swiped.
Meanwhile, throughout this last decade, Hamas has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli communities along the Gaza border. A commander at an army base near Gaza once told me bitterly that Hamas never fires rockets at his men, only at the civilian communities around them.
The goal of these multi-front attacks on civilian Israel is to undermine Israelis’ confidence in the ability of their government and their army to defend them. That is why it is of secondary importance whether the rockets Hamas launches are sophisticated or home-made, or even whether they actually kill anyone. Their success isn’t measured by death toll but by psychological impact. Dead Israelis are a bonus; the purpose is to terrorize. As Yasser Arafat, the late PLO leader and master of psychological warfare, once put it, the goal of terrorism is to provoke Israeli despair, which would ultimately result in the wholesale emigration of Israel’s middle class and the collapse of the Jewish state.
The terror war has another, no less crucial message to Israelis: There is nowhere to hide. During Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks against Israeli cities in 1991, Tel Aviv residents fled to Jerusalem, which Saddam avoided hitting, presumably because of its Palestinian population and the Haram el Sharif, the Temple Mount. But now Hamas has fired missiles at Jerusalem, to remind Israelis that no place is safe.
Periodically, whole parts of this small country have become uninhabitable. When the rocket barrages aimed at southern Israel become especially intense, as in recent weeks, entire communities empty, their residents fleeing to the north. And when Hezbollah has fired barrages at the north, residents there have fled to the south.
The images of Israeli dislocation are hardly as heartbreaking as the images from Gaza. But the psychological consequences of the repeated if temporary uprooting of large segments of the Israeli population—and the implications for Israel’s long-term viability—are profound. This summer the voices of Israeli despair were heard regularly on the radio, with call-ins from residents in the south, where Israelis in some communities have for years arranged their lives in a such a way so that they are always within seconds of a shelter. The common refrain was: We can’t take it anymore.
There is a real possibility of a permanent mass defection from communities in the south. And if Israelis can’t live on the border with Gaza, the same may prove true at some point for those who live on the border with Lebanon. Many Israelis will inevitably draw the conclusion anticipated by Arafat: There is no future here.
This psychological war against Israeli resolve has an additional goal: to undermine Israeli deterrence, prove that one can hit Israel’s most sensitive targets and prevail. Hezbollah made a point of firing the final shots in 2006, and Hamas did the same now, firing rockets even as the latest ceasefire was supposed to take effect. I’ve lost count of how many ceasefires were negotiated this summer, but they all shared this in common: Hamas violated every one of them (except, for now, the current one). The point was that Hamas, rather than the mighty Israeli army, would dictate when the fighting ends, just as Hamas determined when the fighting began. After violating yet another ceasefire, Hamas declared that it alone will decide when Israeli residents in southern communities will be able to return to their homes.
In demonstrating Israel’s inability to stop Hamas from firing at population centers, the message to the Middle East was: Don’t be afraid of the spider web.
Where the world sees an invincible Israel, we know how quickly our military advantage can be neutralized. The other day several rockets were fired from Lebanon into the Galilee. The rockets caused little damage and weren’t considered newsworthy abroad. But here the incident made headlines: Was Hezbollah about to attack? If Hezbollah, with its tens of thousands of missiles, does renew attacks against the Israeli home front, then the Iron Dome will be largely ineffective.
For decades Israel’s security doctrine, shared by left- and right-wing governments, was to prevent terrorist enclaves from being established on our borders, within reach of Israel’s population centers. That was the rationale behind Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But that doctrine has collapsed, and Israelis live with a growing sense of tightening siege. On the Lebanon border, there’s Hezbollah; on the Syrian border, units of Al Qaeda; to the south, Hamas and more Al Qaeda—in Sinai, battling Egyptian troops and every so often firing rockets into Israel. Meanwhile, the Islamic State marches on Baghdad and approaches the Jordanian border. And further on, Israel’s worst nightmare: a nuclearizing Iran, staring down a feckless West.
There’s one more date, this one directly related to Gaza, that explains why Israeli Jews perceive this war, despite the overwhelming power advantage to Israel, in existential terms—July 2005, when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza to the 1967 border. The rocket attacks that continued after the withdrawal convinced Israelis that the Palestinian national struggle will not stop at the 1967 line even if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank too—that the ultimate goal is the replacement of the Jewish state with a Palestine “from the river to the sea,” to quote the slogan being chanted these days in pro-Palestinian demonstrations around the world.
I passionately promoted (including in The New Republic) the unilateral withdrawal. And despite all that’s happened since, which validated the apocalyptic warnings of the right, I have no regrets. Except this: Gaza’s fate could have turned out very differently if the Palestinians had taken advantage of the opening created by the Israeli withdrawal. The notion that Israel’s siege left Hamas no choice but to fight is an inversion of chronology. The siege began only in 2007, two years after the Israeli pull-out, when Hamas violently seized power and intensified rocket fire on Israel. Hamas seeks to end the siege and build a port not to improve Gaza’s civilian infrastructure but its capacity to terrorize. Port Tehran, as one Israeli commentator put it, is a channel for more advanced weaponry. The siege didn’t cause the war; the war caused the siege.
Because Hamas’ goal in this war isn’t military but psychological victory, its leaders can look at the devastation around them and still proclaim victory. In fact the devastation is an essential component of Hamas’ strategy—to rouse world opinion and hamper Israel’s ability to defend itself, increasing despair among Israelis. (In the first days of the war, Hamas activists were caught disseminating images of atrocities in Syria and Iraq and attributing those to Gaza, trying to jump-start international outrage.)
Those manipulations have only hardened Israeli resolve. The hysterical accusations of genocide and the lynch mob atmosphere against Jews on the streets of Paris and Berlin have reinforced a reciprocal Israeli contempt for the world’s judgment.
Israelis know that the IDF does not deliberately kill civilians. We know this because we are the IDF—because our sons, our neighbors’ sons, have been fighting in Gaza. We know that dead Palestinian civilians serve the interests only of Hamas, not Israel, whose military operations in the past were either curtailed or halted altogether by an errant shell that exploded in a classroom or a refugee shelter. We know that mistakes happen in war because, unlike many of Israel’s critics in the West, Israelis know war. We know that houses in Gaza were booby-trapped, that schools and mosques concealed arms caches and entrances to tunnels and were repeatedly used as launching pads for rockets.
And we knew, from previous experience, that the Hamas figures of civilian casualties, uncritically adopted by most of the media in the first weeks of the war, would turn out to be lies, and that the real proportion of civilian to combatant deaths would become clearer. In early August, The New York Times and the BBC noted the disproportionate number of combat age males among the almost 2,000 deaths then recorded in Gaza. But those predictable revelations have come too late to change widespread perceptions about Israelis as baby killers.
Despite the attempts to criminalize Israel, many here recognize that there are fair questions to be asked about some of Israel’s tactics. Should the IDF target terror leaders even if that means killing family members? What should the IDF be doing to prevent civilian casualties? How should we respond to fire from schools? Did we go too far—or not far enough?
The notion that Israel didn’t go far enough wasn’t only being raised by the right. The most dovish member of the Israeli cabinet, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, has argued that Israel should consider toppling Hamas to strengthen Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, a prerequisite for renewing peace talks.
The war has already renewed the Israeli debate—all but dormant in recent years—about the future of a two-state solution. What are the political conclusions Israelis should draw from Gaza? Labor Party opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog says that Israel should negotiate with Abbas and be prepared to give up most of the West Bank, as the only way to prevent it from becoming another Hamas base.
I ran into an old friend, a well-known journalist, whose son had just emerged from the fighting in Gaza.
So what do we do now? I asked.
“I’m ready for almost any deal,” he said. “But even if Abbas were a serious partner, I worry that he’d be overthrown by Hamas if we pulled out of the West Bank. When Bibi said that we can’t give up security control there, I actually found myself agreeing with him.”
“I have two nightmares about a Palestinian state,” I said. “That there won’t be one and that there will be one.”
Meanwhile, we try not to ask ourselves too many questions about the future, because it is too terrifying. The only good news from this terrible summer of 2014 is that we’ve once again surprised ourselves with our resilience. When Hamas released a video of a song (sung in bad Hebrew) threatening terror attacks, Israelis countered with YouTube clips of young people dancing to the catchy Hamas tune in the streets of Tel Aviv. Other young Israelis went into battle singing the Hasidic song, “The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid.” It was a psychological message of its own: We’re here to stay.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a New Republic contributing editor and a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His most recent book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the 2013 Book of the Year award of the Jewish Book Council.