Website of Rabbi Shai Gluskin


Haaretz op-ed piece, Thursday, March 7, 2002

Balata Has Fallen
by Ze'ev Sternhell

There was something surreal about the television appearance, last Saturday night, by the commanders of the two brigades that operated in the refugee camps of the northern West Bank. The commander of the Paratroop Brigade declared: Balata camp has surrendered. Indeed, the refugee camp was "conquered" by elite forces, using state-of-the-art weaponry, and backed up by tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters. If the whole thing were not sad and grotesque, it would be amusing.

But this is a story that is characteristic of the road that has been followed by heroic little Israel, which was admired by the whole Western world, until this terrible period. There were times when the paratroopers were known as the fighters of the Mitla Pass, Ammunition Hill and the Chinese Farm. The Golani Brigade used to be famed for breaching the fortifications of Rafah, as the fighters of Tel el Faher and the Hermon outpost. Their sons and grandsons have fallen to the level of breachers of walls in shacks built of blocks and boards. And they are no longer ashamed to speak of war when what they are really engaged in is colonial policing, which recalls the takeover by the white police of the poor neighborhoods of the blacks in South Africa during the apartheid era.

There was a time - on the first day of the 1967 Six-Day War - when the commander of a tank company in 7th Brigade, Avigdor Kahalani, stopped his tank column in the midst of advance to contact near Rafah so he wouldn't run over two frightened Bedouin children. He waited until their mother came to collect them. Later that day, Kahalani's tank was hit and he suffered extensive burns. To the division commander, Major General Israel Tal, the behavior of the young officer, and not just his fighting, was exemplary.

Today, again in Rafah, army men of a different generation watch as children play next to a booby-trapped bomb that was placed there by the IDF and don't lift a finger. It must have been clear to all of them that if the children touched the bomb it would explode, with loss of life. When the military advocate general finally decided to launch an investigation into the incident - in which five children were killed - the division commander did everything in his power to prevent the probe from taking place.

In colonial Israel, and more especially the Israel in which advocates of "transfer" sit in the government, human life is cheap - and therein lies the most serious danger to our future. A society in which dozens of children are killed as a result of army operations can easily lose its last remaining moral inhibitions. The fact that the Palestinians are also killing indiscriminately cannot absolve us of responsibility for what is going on in the territories. The killing of innocent people is gradually becoming a norm, and that norm is being implemented in the service of a goal that seeks to deprive another people of its freedom and its human rights: The Sharon government is turning the territories into one huge jailhouse, and is turning its citizens in warders who are called upon to suppress a prisoner uprising. That was not quite the purpose of Zionism.

If the army is dominated by shamelessness, and if purely military actions by the Palestinians, such as successful attacks on army outposts and checkpoints, are included under the rubric of terrorism, the settlers' camp is doing all it can to label our inability to cope with the Palestinians' war of independence as the "Rosh Hashanah War." This half-baked attempt to create symmetry between a just war and a campaign of colonialist suppression is not merely a curiosity: It is the desecration of the memory of those who fell in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It won't be long before we are told that the battle in which tank crews risked their lives on the banks of the Suez Canal and the effort in which an Israeli tank destroys a Palestinian car containing a mother and her three children is the same war.

We should take note here of an interesting phenomenon. The number of Israeli civilian casualties in the past year is far greater than the number of soldiers who have been killed or wounded. When all is said and done, the army is waging a deluxe war: It is bombing and shelling defenseless cities and villages, and that situation is convenient for both the army and the settlers. They are well aware that if the army were to sustain casualties on the same scale as occurred in Lebanon, we would now be on our way out of the territories.

We perceive the death of civilians in shooting attacks or at the hands of crazed suicide bombers in the heart of our cities, including the extinction of whole families, as a decree of fate or as a kind of act of nature. However, the death of soldiers immediately poses the critical question: What are the goals of the war? For what end are the soldiers being killed? Who sent them to their death? As long as the conscript troops do not pay too heavily, as long as the reservists are not called up in massive numbers to protect and defend the occupation, the question of "why" does not dictate the national agenda.

However, the atmosphere in the country is rapidly approaching the boiling point. More and more people are beginning to understand that the Israeli reprisal operations only engender despair, and despair gives rise to suicide bombers. Today, when the whole political system is paralyzed, it looks as though it will be possible to bring an end to the madness that is raging here, only if people take to the streets en masse and demand an immediate start to negotiations.