Fear and loathing in the Middle East

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All Photos - Chris Watt

In a country that feels constantly under attack, what progress can peace make? Chris Watt heads to Israel to investigate teenage conscription and militaristic attitudes in the region

Sixteen-year-old Asher is tring to grow a moustache, but he’s not doing a very good job.

At his stage of life you might expect him to have pretty mundane priorities — passing his exams, picking a university and maybe finding a girlfriend at the same time.

For Asher, though, growing up in one of Israel’s most troubled regions, there are more pressing problems — the Kassam rockets that slam almost daily into his hometown, the young soldier, Gilad Shalit, held hostage by Hamas militants inside the nearby Gaza strip, and the fact that he will have to join his country’s army in just two years time.

Skiving school to hang around the marketplace in Sderot, a small and troubled town in southern Israel, he is happy to talk about his concerns.

“The most important thing is the Kassams, the army and Gaza. It’s the fight against Hamas,” he says. “Israel should go into Gaza again and get Gilad back with the army.”

Asher’s are popular sentiments in a town known for little other than rocket fire and its proximity to Hamas territory. His friend Azzan, also aged 16, is quick to agree — even if his face betrays lingering doubts.

“At first I didn’t want to go to the army but now, after I’ve seen what they did in Gaza, I want to join,” he says, seeming to convince himself with every word. “I think it’s good for Israel, and we have to fight them. Sure I want to serve my country, and I feel good helping my country to survive.”

The fighting talk among young Israelis exemplifies the patriotic anger that has built up in Sderot during eight years of shelling from Gaza. Israeli flags adorn every item of street furniture, and the election posters around town are almost all for hawkish, right-wing parties.

Sderot is a focal point of the reactionary, vengeful wrath that has gripped swathes of the Israeli population; a microcosm of the forces governing Israel.

It’s a fact often overlooked in Scotland that most Israelis feel wholly justified in the occupation and bombing of Gaza. Awkward questions about civilian deaths, heavy-handed tactics and international law are met with bewilderment at best, righteous anger at worst.

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Touring Sderot’ bombsites with Israeli Defence Force spokesman Captain Ron Adelheit it is the latter emotion that dominates. He says that 6000 bombs have fallen on Sderot — a town smaller than Dumfries — in eight years, killing 13 citizens. Writing this from Glasgow one week later, I have to stop myself writing only 13.

Dozens of rockets stored in the police station car park — just a couple of months’ worth — give some idea of the bombardment’s intensity. The rusting archive comprises a combination of Kassams, small homemade explosives with a gauge of 90 to 115mm and a wildly unpredictable trajectory; and also the larger Grads — factory-made in Iran, I am told, and more than capable of demolishing a home, as I am shown later that day.

Ron, as he introduces himself, says the recent campaign in Gaza destroyed hundreds of the tunnels used to smuggle rockets into the region and sent the majority of Hamas’ arsenal up in smoke. He smiles confidently as he states that “the operation was definitely a success”.

It is confusing then to say the least that Sderot’s weary population was roused on the morning of our visit by the familiar wail of sirens as yet another rocket pulverised a car on the town’s outskirts. Does that seem particularly successful, I wonder?

Ron, like almost everyone else I speak to during six days in Israel, is at pains to point out that the objective of Operation Cast Lead was neither to topple Hamas from power nor to completely destroy its military.

Were the subject less serious, the IDF spokesman would be a comical character. He rolls up on his motorbike, aging military body stuffed into a tight olive uniform, and manages about half an hour of amicable sightseeing — his civilian job is, in fact, as a tour guide — before persistent questioning frays his patience and awakens the anger aroused by a delegation of “patronising” student journalists.

The question is put bluntly: would he call Israel’s force in Gaza proportionate to the threat?

“I’ll put something else in proportion,” he replies. “We have one soldier sitting in the Gaza strip for almost three years. Hamas wants a thousand terrorists for one soldier. Is that proportionate?”

Well no, obviously not, but can he please answer the question?

He believes he has. “That is the answer. Proportion is that we will open fire to make sure the source of fire will not fire again. And we’ll do it fast, quick, with the necessary force to close their fire and we will not have any casualties on our side.”

Perhaps sensing scepticism, he moves on.

“I’ll go somewhere else. Say a bank robber with a gun runs into a bank, and takes a person as a hostage. The person is definitely a hostage. A policeman comes in. He’s with a gun, the robber is with a gun, and the policeman knows, ‘In two seconds he’s shooting at me’. So he takes out his gun and he tries to shoot the robber. The hostage gets killed. There’s a court case afterwards. Who is charged? The robber with murder, because that is the case — that is international law. If somebody takes a hostage, that person is responsible. Hamas is taking the people hostage.”

I protest, but Captain Adelheit’s message (he no longer seems like Ron) is somewhat obscured when he shouts over me: “Aren’t the morals and standards that

Israel is holding in this conflict much higher than any other country’s standards in any other place in the world? Think about it.”
But the idea of Palestinians as Hamas hostages is aired time and time again by people across Israeli society, though the initial means of Hamas’ ascent to power — a democratic election — rarely comes up.

Dr Adriana Katz, the director of Sderot’s Centre for Mental Health and Trauma, is adamant that European visitors cannot understand the forces that govern Israeli minds.

Originally from Italy, Dr Katz says: “The people living in Gaza are basically hostages in one way or another. I have a lot of conversations with people who end up on this side, and they tell me how life there has no value, and how many terrible things the people over there have gone through. You start to look at it slightly differently [when you live here], and I don’t see any solution. You just have to survive.”

She has seen first hand the crippling toll of the conflict on her neighbours’ emotional state and — chillingly — believes there may be a self-perpetuating element to the fighting.

“Until the war,” she says, “no-one in the country was interested in what was going on in Sderot. There was the world of Tel Aviv and its environs, and then there was the world down here. The moment the Grads started reaching the wider area, though, they really got interested. Since then we’ve seen the same symptoms in a bigger population over a wider area — lots of feelings of anger and frustration.

“But since the war, people are willing to put up with things in the belief that there might be some sort of solution. It’s tolerable trauma, or fear. You can cope with a certain amount, and there’s maybe a little bit of optimism as well. People stop feeling passive and they start feeling active.”

Dr Katz, a pacifist who opposes Jewish settlements in Gaza and supports the creation of a Palestinian state, looks almost ashamed as she admits her thoughts on the recent conflict: “There’s a value to life, and I’m always in favour of peace. But for the first time in my life I wanted to say thank you to the commander of the air force, because living here before was totally intolerable.”

Observers and activists in the UK are quick to judge — and perhaps accurately — but what is often forgotten is that Israel has its reasons, whether or not one agrees with them, for sending its teenage conscripts into the never-ending theatres of war around the country’s borders.

The soldiers risking their lives in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and even on the streets of Israel’s cities, are the children of those men and women who give the orders for war. Everyone we speak to has served in the forces themselves and most have children either about to go to or recently returned from conflict zones. What kind of mentality must exist for a nation to send its young into such seemingly futile situations?

One senior official in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking under condition of anonymity, puts forward a discomforting hypothesis: “Imagine some kind of French resistance group was firing rockets across the Channel into London for eight years. They weren’t killing many, but the intention was there. What do you think Britain would do about it?”

I like to think the response would be measured, precise and proportionate. But would we wait for UN backing before taking action? Recent history suggests otherwise. Would we send in ground troops, accepting the risk of British casualties but minimising civilian deaths? Or would we bomb the wider area, protecting our own at the enemy population’s cost?

One recurrent argument is that Israel’s conscript army, drawing recruits as it does from every family in the country, is able to survive only because individual soldiers’ safety is held as paramount. Would the voluntary, professional composition of Britain’s forces make combat deaths more acceptable to the voting population? These are questions that, thankfully, we do not have to address right now, but the answers may not be as simple as they seem.

My trip to Israel, organised by the Union of Jewish Students and paid for by the Pears Foundation, a UK-based Jewish charity, was never going to present a completely bipartisan view of the conflict. It is not, however, as one-sided as I had expected; even within Jewish Israeli society there are deep divisions and violent disagreements over how best to pull the country out of the quicksand on which it is built. And even though meetings with Palestinians in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are both cancelled because of border problems trying to enter Israel, that situation itself says as much about the Palestinians’ plight as any interview possibly could.

But one thing the trip certainly does display is the flipside of a conflict that is, in many Scottish minds, an entirely black and white affair. However one may judge Israel’s conduct, an understanding of their concerns is essential if any progress is to be made beyond mere condemnation and futile anger.

The peace process is now at a crossroads, and there is no-one in Israel who does not want the fighting to end one way or another. It is the terms of any settlement that will pose the next obstacle, but as the new government assembles under right-winger Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership, the prospects look bleak.

Most commentators within Israel see little prospect of reconciliation, such is the public anger at incoming rocket-fire and the prolonged captivity of Gilad Shalit. It seems like more or less everyone has their own reasons for coming to the same conclusion — that any hopes of peace have been crushed in recent years.

Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz, whose right-wing English-language daily is one of Israel’s most influential media organs, states bitterly that “unilateralism is buried under the Kassam rockets”, and that the hawkish Israeli mindset has been bolstered by the election of Hamas. “There is a sense that if even the outgoing government couldn’t make a deal,” he continues, “then we’d better just try and manage this conflict and protect ourselves as well as we can.”

Khaled Abu Alia, a Palestinian born just months after the 1967 war redefined Israel’s borders yet again, is resigned to the fact that he has never seen a Palestinian state and probably never will.

“I think my three year old might live one day in a Palestinian state, but not in my time,” he says, adding that the recent conflict critically threatened hopes of negotiations.

“It’s not productive for either side. The rockets are still flying into Israel, the situation remains as it is, and conditions are going back how they were before. Nothing changed on the ground. We’ll see what the new government will bring.”

Among the bitter hawks and tragic doves on both sides of the conflict, it seems voices of moderation are rare. Robi Damelin, though, provides an oasis of hope among the charred battlefields; an Israeli Jew whose young son, David, was killed by a sniper while serving in the IDF, she has spent the last six years forging bonds across the borders and lobbying the government to enter into a genuine dialogue with Palestinian leaders. Personally scarred by the conflict, she proves that it is possible to escape the vicious circle — a term given a literal dimension in the Middle Eastern conflict — and move towards reconciliation.

What does she think is the major obstacle in the peace process?

Her answer echoes Dr Katz’s claim that fear is the factor spuring Israelis into violent action, but — unlike many of the people I speak to — she recognises that the Palestinians too have emotions and fears like any Jew.

If there is to be any hope of resolution in the years ahead, Robi Damelin’s words must be sung from the rooftops and set in stone on Israel’s borders.
“Knowing is the beginning,” she says, “and fear of the Jews is the worst enemy of peace.”

Only once Israel’s leaders understand the truth of this statement can anyone hope for harmony in the Middle East.