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A Week in the Holy Land By: Al Kaltman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, May 22, 2008

The cemetery at Neve Allon is small, only two rows of graves, so it was easy to find Danny’s. His was one of two graves on which the Israel Defense Force (IDF) emblem had been carved. Since it was the day before Israel’s Memorial Day, the IDF had placed a small bouquet of purple flowers and a memoriam candle on the grave, and had tied a black ribbon to the flagstaff of the small Israeli flag that stood at the foot of the grave. The stone read that Daniel, the son of Harvey and Sandra, was an immigrant from the United States who had died at the age of 19 while doing his duty.

Compared to the thousands killed in a single day by the recent cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China, the 22,000 who like Danny died while serving in Israel’s armed forces and the 1,600 civilians who were killed in terrorist attacks over the 60 years since the foundation of the state are small numbers. But unlike a single catastrophe which shocks us so that we immediately send rescue workers and relief supplies to the scene, Israel’s catastrophe is like a slow bleeding wound that never heals, and we fail to notice the unending stream of casualty reports just as the Israelis themselves become inured to constantly living in a state of war that sometimes seems remote and sometimes near at hand.

Two days after visiting the cemetery at Neve Allon, Israel celebrated its independence. Israeli fighter jets spelled out Shalom (Peace) in the sky over Jerusalem, but the prospects for peace are as insubstantial as the smoke with which the word was written. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s President, citing Israel’s failure to drive Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, called Israel “a dead rat.” He greeted Israel’s Independence Day celebration with these words: “Those who think they can revive the stinking corpse of the usurping and fake Israeli regime by throwing a birthday party are seriously mistaken. Today the reason for the Zionist regime’s existence is questioned, and the regime is on its way to annihilation.” 

Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Olmert’s Office had announced that he and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had made significant progress toward reaching a peace agreement. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, responded with a statement denouncing Israel and claiming that no progress whatsoever had been made. Meanwhile, the Egyptian intelligence chief, General Omar Sulieman, announced that he had gotten the twelve armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip to agree to a six month truce in exchange for Egypt reopening the Rafah border crossing between Sinai and Gaza, and on condition that Israel cease its military operations in Gaza and the West Bank. Mahmoud Zahar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, claimed that the Israelis had asked the Egyptians to seek a truce, and threatened that Israel would suffer if it did not accept the Egyptian proposal.

Hamas has been hurt by recent Israeli military operations, and it needs a cease fire so that it can rearm and regroup.  As Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas, explained, the truce is nothing more than “a tactic in conducting the struggle.” In an effort to get the international community to pressure Israel to accept a cease fire, Hamas has taken steps to increase the suffering of the residents of Gaza. On April 9, Hamas attacked the Nahal Oz terminal which supplies fuel and gasoline to Gaza. In the last week of April, it prevented the delivery of fuel to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and hospitals in Gaza, and on May 4, IDF vehicles carrying food and fuel to Gaza were unable to deliver their loads because they were fired upon. Anyone who believes that Hamas will renounce terrorism and acknowledge Israel’s right to exist is self-delusional.

The week that Israel mourned its war dead and celebrated its independence saw a mélange of events that in many ways capture the complexities of the situation. Shimon Peres, Israel’s President, noted that “loss and agony” is the same for Israelis and Palestinians. Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, spoke of Israel’s commitment to a two state solution. Alluding to the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank she said that “tough decisions” would have to made and added that Israel seeks peace and is “ready to sacrifice for it.” Yet earlier that week, the IDF had agreed to the creation of two additional settlements in the West Bank because of the strategic importance of their locations.

Haredim, ultra-orthodox Jews, who believe the creation of Israel is a mistake, attacked and beat a man who walked into their neighborhood of Jerusalem carrying an Israeli flag. In the Knesset, Arab members of parliament (MPs) accused Jewish MPs of being unwanted racist immigrants, and Jewish MPs accused Arab MPs of supporting terrorists. As it had the week before for Israel’s commemoration of the Holocaust, on Memorial Day and Independence Day, the IDF closed the border crossings between Israel and the West Bank stopping thousands of Palestinians from going to their jobs in Israel and preventing pilgrims and tourists from visiting Bethlehem. 

Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel from Gaza, and the IDF continued to carry out targeted killings in Gaza and the West Bank. Conscious of criticism by U.S. and Western European media, the IDF reiterated its position that its actions were in keeping with the doctrine of “proportional response.” With a total Jewish population of only 5.5 million, “proportional response” sounds like a recipe for Israel’s self destruction.

 A Palestinian court in the West Bank sentenced a man to life imprisonment for helping the IDF identify Palestinians who had carried out attacks on Israelis. Earlier this year, the court had given another man the death sentence for helping the IDF try to prevent Palestinians from killing Israelis.   

Israel’s Independence Day is the Palestinian day of catastrophe, Nakba. Near Nazareth, the Israeli authorities permitted a march by hundreds of Israeli Arabs to commemorate Nakba.  The march turned into a riot when shouts in praise of Hezbollah, condemnations of Israel and calls to kill Jews inflamed a large number of Arab youth.  Two police officers had to be hospitalized and six people were arrested. Unlike the Israelis, the Jordanian authorities banned Nakba commemorations. In March, Jordan had prevented the relatives of Ala Abu Dhaim, the Palestinian who murdered eight students at a Jerusalem yeshiva, from publicly mourning him. The relatives complained that the Israelis had permitted his relatives in Jerusalem to mourn him in public and to fly Hamas and Hezbollah flags when they did.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the week was the way Israelis and Palestinians carried on their daily lives, as if the events of the week were just par for the course, the price one pays for the privilege of living in the Holy Land.

Al Kaltman served in the U.S. Air Force as a Chinese linguist. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University, and is the author of Cigars, Whiskey and Winning: Leadership Lesson from General Ulysses S. Grant and The Genius of Robert E. Lee.

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