Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Traveling Back

From the East, flights to London always seem to demand getting up at ungodly hours.  Flying from Israel is no exception, even when the airplane’s departure time is a not unreasonable 07:30. 

My alarm had been set for 02:30 but as it happened I was awake way before that.  Working offshore without a back-to-back means one has to be ready to work when they need you.  A couple of nights previously I had started my surveying at midnight so my sleep patterns, having to switch on demand from day to night and back again, do get messed up.

The taxi was ready at 03:00hrs outside my hotel.  The night receptionist had kindly made me a cup of hot instant coffee, which I carried into the leather-upholstered Mercedes cab.  A good job it was, as I managed to spill some of it onto the front seat.  Not a good start but many apologies and the use of a ‘wetwipe’ later, we were off.

I didn’t get the name of my driver but like all those on contract to the oil company, he is from Ashdod in the south of Israel.  He had already had a two-hour drive up to Haifa but at least Ben Gurion Airport, just outside Tel Aviv, was en-route back home. 

The radio was tuned into a late night phone-in show to which the driver was listening intently.  Being in Hebrew, I had no idea as to content, so I asked him what the topic was.

“It’s about Gaza,” he replied.  “It’s people phoning in from all over the world.”

“What are they saying?”

“It is messages of support.  Prayers for the safety of our kids who are fighting and hope that the rocket attacks are stopped.”

“What do you think of the attack on Gaza?” 

There was a silence for a while.  I thought that he would not reply but then an answer came.

“I live in Ashdod with my family.  I have four children, the eldest of which is eleven.  Three boys and a girl.  Ashdod and the other towns have been closed for business in the past week. No schools, nothing.  Nobody goes outside because of the rockets.  My wife says to me tonight “Don’t go!  Stay inside where it is safe.”  But I have to work.”

I agreed with him that life has to continue but didn’t he think that it was heavy-handed for the IDF to be killing so many when Israeli casualties had been so low?  At that point in time, four Israeli deaths had been reported.  Of course, that was four deaths too many.

“Yes, but you have to understand we have been getting rockets every day, every day for the past six or seven years.  Our argument is not with the Palestinian people but it is with Hamas.  They hate us and it has been worse when they came to power.  What else can we do?”

This fatalism by the Israeli people seems to be the attitude of pretty much every Jewish person I spoke to on the subject.  The new bout of blood-letting seems to be accepted as part of the cycle of things.  “What else can we do?” is the usual reply from pretty much every Israeli I have heard voice an opinion on the topic.

I have been wondering about this attitude of acceptance.  On the Friday night before travelling I had met a couple of guys in the Bear Bar in Haifa, Anwar and Carmel.  Really nice lads; age-wise probably in their late twenties, maybe early thirties. Anwar had been a commander in the IDF for five years.  But as their names may suggest, they are not Jewish, rather they come from the local community of Druze Christians.  In childhood they had not been sold any dream of ‘a little piece of land for our own.’  But I am certain that if they had still been in the military, they would have played their required part in Operation Cast Lead.

It seems to me that it is their time in military service of the state that unites the people of Israel, regardless of ethnic or religious background.  Those three years (minimum) does more than anything else instil a sense of nationhood and solidarity.  It also allows individuals in Israel to look on at the suffering of their closest neighbour with detachment because these people do not have that shared experience.  They are in effect, “other.  Not one of us.”  After all, that is exactly what military training sets out to achieve.  I cannot see what else it can be because otherwise the Israeli people are warm, friendly and so hospitable.

The killing in Gaza has been continuing all week now.  Since the friendly-fire incident of a few days ago, I have not heard any news of further Israeli casualties.  Really that is a good thing.  But I so wish I could say the same about casualties and suffering of the Palestinians of Gaza.  The Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ron Proser, was on the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4) this morning, defending the IDF’s attack on the UN school which killed sixty and injured many more.  He made the claim that several days prior to the attack, Hamas had used the school compound as a site for mortar battery.

Meanwhile, in this morning’s Independent, Robert Fisk has written these lines

And I write the following without the slightest doubt: we'll hear all these scandalous fabrications again. We'll have the Hamas-to-blame lie – heaven knows, there is enough to blame them for without adding this crime – and we may well have the bodies-from-the-cemetery lie and we'll almost certainly have the Hamas-was-in-the-UN-school lie and we will very definitely have the anti-Semitism lie. And our leaders will huff and puff and remind the world that Hamas originally broke the ceasefire. It didn't. Israel broke it, first on 4 November when its bombardment killed six Palestinians in Gaza and again on 17 November when another bombardment killed four more Palestinians.”

At least the BBC presenter on Today had the gumption to question the ambassador on who had really broken the cease-fire.  But really even that is missing the point.  The real question should have been “why was there a siege around Gaza to begin with?”  Let me offer a possible answer.  In recent history a blockade has been used to “soften up” a country or territory prior to war being waged against it.  Iraq is the best example of this.  So, with this in mind, it can be presumed that eighteen months ago, Israel knew that they were going to attack Hamas in Gaza at some point in the future.  The ceasefire of the past summer held reasonably well; at least the rocket attacks upon the southern towns were much reduced.  It was only following the two Israeli attacks in November (killing ten Palestinians) that the vast majority of the three hundred or so rockets were fired before the cease-fire was officially ended.

There is an election due soon in Israel.  Before Operation Cast Lead, the ruling coalition looked set for defeat.  Now the polls show that they have a fighting chance of being re-elected.

There is nothing more cynical than politicians laying down the lives of people simply to win an election. 

Cited report:

Robert Fisk in the Independent newspaper, 7th. of January 2009.

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