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Sol Salbe: Middle East Round-Up

Sol Salbe: Middle East Round-Up

From The Daily Briefing

Middle East round-up

In his usual humane and considered way, Sol Salbe once again provides significant and useful insights into what is currently happening in the Middle East. One point TDB in particular would agree with. Sol links to, and recommends, a column by novelist Etgar Keret in the NYTimes and says of it: "Keret’s article is the best exposition of the Israeli psyche that I have read in recent years.[And today’s top recommended article.]" Since TDB had already selected the article for inclusion in today's email, perhaps as top of the pile, all that's left to be said is: "read the whole thing".

Media attention in Australia has concentrated on the plight of Australians caught by the fighting in Lebanon. But even the Israeli media could not maintain the same focus forever. As the War on Two Fronts gets well into its second week it has started to ask more questions and the first notes of Israel’s not being able to achieve its aims have crept in .

The media wasn’t being all that original. Government communiqués started backtracking, toning down the aims of the war. The fighting itself, while continuing unabated, has so far, not resulted in any decisive victories for Israel. The 23 tonnes of bombs dropped on the supposed bunker holding the Hezbollah leadership have had no affect with the leaders emerging unscathed according to David Bilu in Einyan Merkazi(Hebrew.) The same website reports that in the few clashes on the ground, so far the Hezbollah has acquitted itself well and even the elite Israeli units have suffered badly in those clashes. Haaretz reports eight soldiers being hurt in the last one a few hours ago. (The English headline talks about “eight Israelis”). Einyan Merkazi slips in that three wounded soldiers were taken to hospital – perhaps this is an attempt to bypass the censors and suggest that five soldiers were killed?

Regardless, the war is not suffering from lack of support. The figures compiled by the country’s most respected pollsters, Mina Tzemach suggest a staggering 86 per cent of the population supporting the war. A further breakdown of the next step suggested that 58 per cent would prefer to keep on fighting till Hezbollah is “wiped out.” Only 17 per cent wanted to stop and negotiate.

This is a higher rate of support than there was at the time of operation Defensive Shield in March-April 2002. The Month of March 2002 saw about 130 Israeli civilians being murdered by suicide bombers. The month before this operation saw NO Israeli civilian being killed. Superficially the higher rate of support for military action now does not make sense. Why is support higher now when there are no civilian casualties?

One explanation is psychological. Terrifying as they are, suicide bombing do have a pattern. People therefore feel they have some control over whether or not they engage in what they perceive as high-risk activities. You can stop going to coffee shops. You can ban your kids from going to the shopping malls. There is an element of choice there. [Of course you are poor you have no option but to take the bus to work but that’s a different issue.] The Hezbollah rockets on the other hand are inaccurate and can hit anywhere anytime. They are far less lethal than the suicide bombers but one feels very little control. After all if two young Muslim children could be killed outside their home in an Arab town, as they were on Wednesday, where can anybody be safe?

Psychology plays a role but the main factor is political. Robert Rosenberg of Ariga summed it succinctly: “There is a general and genuine national consensus in Israel in favor of delivering a crushing blow to the Hizbollah, a consensus that runs much deeper than the one the government claims to exist for the attempts to crush Hamas. For one thing, many Israelis understand that while Israel left Gaza, it has not relinquished control over the Strip and in effect imprisoned the Gazans. But Israel really did quit Lebanon, down to the last centimeter, in May 2000, and Hizbollah's attacks -- and its stockpiling of rockets as a 'deterrent' threat against Israel -- is intolerable for Israelis.”

An even better insight to the Israeli psyche was provided by young Israeli Novelist Etgar Keret in a New York Times article. Keret’s article is the best exposition of the Israeli psyche that I have read in recent years.[And today’s top recommended article.] But it also reflected another interesting feature of this war: people both sides of the fence have been forwarding the very same items. Thus, for example, I received Ehud Olmert’s Knesset speech both from the Women from Palestine and from a less-than-critical pro-Israeli woman. Both sides think the item supports their view. There have been several such multi-purpose items articles. But if I were to award a prize for an item confirming one’s own view (whatever one it is) then this week’s prize would have to go to the Member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby for his speech at a pro-Israel rally last Monday. No doubt it will get a pride of place in both pro- and anti-Israel web sites but for the time being it is best to check it out at the Australian Jewish News.

That was another unusual feature. With Israelis swinging behind their government in quite a substantial way, Diaspora Jews are nowhere as keen. I was about to dig through my pile of back copies of the AJN for a comparison of the numbers at rallies, when I picked up the new hard copy of the paper. None other than Sam Lipski devoted his monthly column to it. Lipski, chief executive of the Pratt Foundation and former editor of the AJN wrote: “But at the risk of generalisation, and granted that the Australian Jews are among the exceptions, it’s the dissonance , at least thus far, between the resounding consensus and determination of an unusually unified Israel –left and right, secular and religious – and the muted, uncertain, even ambivalent Diaspora reactions this time around which are striking. And disturbing.”

If the Jewish communities are ambivalent, the anecdotal evidence suggests that in the non-Jewish communities the situation is even more pronounced. The Australian is again editorialising this morning criticising the badgering tactics used by Israel’s fundamentalist (in the political sense) advocates, particularly the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.

Several themes are taken up by those advocates that Israel is not seeking revenge is probably getting top billing.

As for revenge one need not search further than Israeli media: Reviewing the news and current affairs programs of the day of the capture of the two Israeli soldiers Ehud Ashri wrote in the daily Haaretz: “Frustration and humiliation emanate out of every interview, every picture and every face. The mood in the studios does not leave room for any other option, except revenge and the settling of accounts.”

The second point concern civilian casualties. Both sides have been far from glorious on this subject. Both have heavily targeted both civilian and military infrastructure. Human Rights Watch is just one of the observers to slam that as a war crime. Despite the greatest accuracy of the IDF weaponry the vast majority of those hurts have been civilians. What is untrue is the suggestion that Hezbollah has targeted only civilians. Many of the rockets were aimed military and key infrastructure targets which are close to civilian populations. Both sides have been operating from among the civilian population as well risking their lives. This is a point shown vividly in the presence of Israeli children at an artillery unit. (They were photographed writing messages on the shells – pictures of which were transmitted around the world.)

A third theme has been the issue of proportionality. Anyone checking a letters column in any Australian newspaper would have seen the outcry against the very notion. Thankfully in this country we have not seen the worst of it. But this is what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown reported in the Independent: “Speaking on BBC 1's This Week on Thursday, that national treasure Maureen Lipman responded thus when asked about the disproportionate reaction of Israel to Hamas and Hizbollah provocations: ‘What's proportion got to do with it? It's not about proportion is it? Human life is not cheap to the Israelis. And human life on the other side is quite cheap actually because they strap bombs to people and send them to blow themselves up’.”

The strongest counter-argument was again published in the Israeli media. Haaretz’s Ze’ev Schiff says that not only is it possible to be disproportionate Israel is about to pass that threshold. [Israeli and Australian media reports since indicate that the mass exodus of villagers from the south is already in progress.]

For those of you unfamiliar with Schiff’s reputation he has been described as “Israel's leading defence columnist” by none other than AIJAC. Their bulletins link to his article rather frequently.

His first paragraph is worth quoting in full: “In summing up the seventh day of the war against Hezbollah, there is no avoiding the conclusion that things are getting complicated. The best evidence of this is the decision to drive hundreds of Shi'ites from villages in southern Lebanon merely because Hezbollah hid missiles in them. This would be a strategic mistake. If implemented, it would mark the first time that Israel could justifiably be accused of a disproportionate military response. Israel does not need to take this kind of measure as a defensive move against a terrorist organization.”

Unfortunately the one area to have gone under the media’s radar has again been Gaza. The killings have been going on with dozens more Palestinians (both those engaged in combat and civilians) dying in Gaza. But for all the vaunted operations, the Qassam rockets (aimed at exclusively civilian targets) have kept on coming across the border with 22 being the highest number for one 24-hour period.

Allow me to end such a depressing column with something slightly more light-hearted. Every day at 6.00pm a Yiddish word of the day lands in my in-tray. On Monday with bombing at is most intense one arrived as usual. I have no idea whether it was accidental, unconscious or deliberate but it summed it all up in one word: Meshugeh – Crazy.

- Sol Salbe/The Daily Briefing


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