The terrible responsibility of being an Israeli citizen

Posted: Monday, January 05, 2009

JERUSALEM - "I just heard on the news that Gavriel's base has been shelled," my wife, Sarah, said to me last Tuesday, referring to our 19-year-old son, a member of an Israeli army tank unit waiting on the Gaza border for the order to enter. And, she added in a deliberately calm tone, "A soldier was killed." We texted Gavriel, and within five minutes he called, safe. How, Sarah asked, did families survive war before cellphones?

For days we waited for a cabinet decision: Will there be a land invasion or a new cease-fire? The politicians began to bicker while our soldiers waited on the border, in the rain and the mud. Anything but this, I said to Sarah. Not another Lebanon War, which, like Gaza, began with an impressive show of Israeli air power but ended with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah predicting the imminent end of "the Zionist entity." If we don't win this time - deliver an unambiguous blow if not topple Hamas entirely - our deterrence will further erode, inviting more rocket attacks and encouraging the jihadist momentum throughout the Middle East.

And then I caught myself: How can I be hoping for an outcome that will send my son into battle? This is my first experience as the father of a soldier, and now, after 26 years of living in Israel, I finally understand the terrible responsibility of being an Israeli. I had assumed that I'd become initiated into Israeliness when I myself was drafted into the army as a 34-year-old immigrant in 1989. But perhaps only now have I become fully Israeli. Zionism promised to empower the Jews by making them responsible for their fate; the price for that achievement is to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for one's commitments.

I know Gaza from a previous conflict. During the first intifada of the late 1980s, when Palestinians revolted against the occupation, I was part of a reservist unit that patrolled Gaza's refugee camps. There I learned that there is no such thing as a benign occupation, as Israelis had once deceived themselves into believing. Our unit not only arrested terrorist suspects but also dragged people out of their beds in the middle of the night to paint over anti-Israel graffiti and rounded up innocents after a grenade attack just to "make a presence," in army terminology. At night, in our tent, we argued about the wisdom of turning soldiers into policemen of a hostile civilian population that didn't want us there and which we didn't want as part of our society.

• Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land."



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