Life in a War Zone

OK, “Life in a War Zone” is something of an exaggeration.

One rocket that landed six miles from my home and caused no damage to anything or anyone doesn’t exactly make Jerusalem a “war zone.” My wife and I went out to dinner this evening and the crowds may have been a little thinner than usual, but not wildly so. I still had trouble finding parking downtown.

Yesterday at about 5pm I was walking to the synagogue when I heard the sirens go off. I really didn’t understand why. Not half an hour before, I was trading an IM with a colleague – who jokingly asked whether I should be running for cover. I told him, “no, they never shoot at Jerusalem; it would be too embarrassing if they hit the Dome of the Rock.” Not to mention 200,000 Arabs live in greater Jerusalem. Well, so much for that prediction!

Anyway, when the siren went off, it didn’t really register on me that it might be an incoming rocket. The only times I ever heard the sirens before were for drills, or for the moment of silence we observe on somber occasions such as Memorial Day. Residents of the south of Israel know all too well what the sound is, and what to do – run for cover. On the street in my Jerusalem neighborhood people seemed confused. Some started running, but not clearly running for shelter. Some just kept walking as if nothing was happening. I saw one guy with kids who was presumably walking toward synagogue abruptly turn around and head the other direction. I thought about ducking for cover somewhere, but really didn’t see anywhere to go. Meanwhile, at home, my wife did the OPPOSITE of what you’re supposed to do: instead of heading for the basement, she headed for the terrace on our top floor to see what was going on. Not a good idea. We’ll respond better next time.

Not seeing a place to find cover, I just kept walking. About thirty seconds after the siren stopped I heard a pair of distant “booms.” Later I learned the booms were from rockets landing in an open area near Tekoa, about six miles from where I was standing.

After hearing the explosions (faintly) I debated whether I should turn around and go home to be with my family, or continue on to the synagogue. I decided in favor of continuing to shul. I thought about a story in the Talmud – a fox sees some fish swimming rapidly from one place to another. He asks them “what are you running from?” The fish respond “from fishermen who cast nets to catch us.” The fox says, “why don’t you come up here on land, and we can live together peacefully like our ancestors did.” The fish reply, “They call you clever? If we’re afraid here, in our natural environment, we’d be even more afraid out there in the air which is deadly to us!” There is a certain comfort that comes with sticking to our “environment,” and I did appreciate bringing in the Sabbath with singing in the company of friends. I later learned that at the synagogue they had been singing sufficiently loudly that they didn’t even hear the sirens!

What difference should it make that Hamas is now targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? Shouldn’t it be enough that the hundreds of thousands of residents of southern Israeli cities like Beersheba, Ashdod, and Ashkelon have been targets? That all of those people have not been able to live a normal life for weeks?

On the one hand, it shouldn’t make a difference. Their lives are as valuable as mine. On the other hand it makes all the difference in the world.

Targeting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is a MAJOR escalation on the part of Hamas. As empathic as I like to think I am, when I personally hear the siren, and personally hear the booms, I take it a lot more personally – and a lot more seriously – than when I read about it in the papers, or hear about it from friends. I apologize to my friends who live in the south – but it’s human nature. And now millions of Israelis are taking Hamas’s aggression much more personally.

I’ve had friends from the US ask what’s going on. In this post I’ll try and answer three questions:

  1. How are we doing?
  2. Why is this happening now?
  3. What’s my prediction for the outcome? Where’s it leading?

The first question is the easiest to answer. We’re doing “OK.” The residents of the south, sadly have somewhat gotten used to living in a war zone, and for them it’s no joke, it is a war zone. The occasional rocket to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem isn’t enough to change life here, so things are going on pretty much as normal. School, work, entertaining, life is going on pretty much as usual outside of the southern areas closest to Gaza. It’s not completely “business as usual” – we are obviously worried about what’s going to happen, we have sympathy for our brethren in the south, and I even have sympathy for those living in Gaza. It must be hell there right now. But for people in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and north, for the moment at least, life is still pretty normal.

As to why this is happening now, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories. Take your pick. Emanuel Shahaf’s piece in The Times of Israel brings the “it’s all about the Israeli election” theory. Those who hate Obama, like Breitbart, manage to blame him for this too. And then there’s the theory I prefer: Hamas started a fight to re-establish their credentials as the “real” leaders of the Palestinians as the PA prepares a bid for statehood at the UN on November 29. You can see a piece sharing this perspective here.

I reject the first two theories. I’m no fan of Netanyahu, but even Netanyahu wouldn’t launch a war for political reasons, especially since history shows that such wars don’t always favor incumbents. I don’t blame Obama, because, frankly, this isn’t about Obama. The escalation came from Hamas (and yes, conspiracy theorists argue over the “timeline” and claim it’s actually Israel that provoked this round. I’m not convinced by that). Hamas needs to establish itself as the “real” leader of the Palestinian people, and with the PA heading toward being recognized as a “non-member state” of the UN come November 29, they were in danger of being sidelined. Hamas’s reckless escalation means there is clearly going to be a ratcheting up in the level of violence. They probably hope – but are probably not naïve enough to expect – that this could draw others into the fight such as Hezbollah or even Egypt.

I’m appalled at how little Hamas cares for the destruction they are causing to rain on their own heads. Their missiles can’t even hit Tel Aviv. Our missiles can differentiate between hitting the men’s room or the ladies’ room of a particular building. What are they thinking picking this fight? It’s suicidal. So far three Israelis have been killed and 40 Palestinians. My heart goes out to the poor people living in Gaza, but they have got to get Hamas to stop shooting rockets at Israel. No country could put up with that.

As to where this is heading, sadly, this seems like a rerun of 2008 to me. One analyst said that the conflict with Gaza is like “cutting the grass.” You’re never done. It’s a regular chore you need to attend to. Maybe at times the grass grows faster and at times slower, but you’re always going to have to mow it once in a while.

Unfortunately, that’s probably an accurate metaphor. There is no military “solution” that will stop Hamas “once and for all.” The Israeli public does not have the stomach for a long term military presence in Gaza itself, which would no doubt result in 10 to 20 Israeli soldiers dying every month, which would be the only military solution. The only viable long term solution would be diplomatic, and neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have political leadership that is aggressively pursuing a diplomatic solution, so this kind of military standoff is likely what we are going to have for another cycle or two. At least. Hamas starts shooting rockets at Israel, Israel goes in and seriously kicks their butt, and things are quiet for a couple of years until something else triggers the next round of violence.

It’s sad, depressing, tedious, and pointless, but it’s probably what’s going to happen. As Pete Seeger sang, “When will they ever learn?”

As Psalm 122 says, “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” And all of Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Middle East. We seriously need those prayers.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

2 thoughts on “Life in a War Zone

  • Rachel Port

    Barry, thanks for the view from Jerusalem. It seems to me that both Hamas and the Israeli government are gaining from this, and both peoples are losing hugely. It looks from here like a ground war is inevitable.

    It seems to me tragic when more children than soldiers die in a war, and sadly that is what the last war was like, and this is likely to be even worse.

  • Abigail

    Netanyahu would not launch a provocation? Maybe not. But I would not be surprised if he did. Barak would. He has everything to gain. Again it is election time. Like Cast Lead was four years ago. I do not believe in coincidence nor am I naive. And about raining rockets. Ahmed Jabril was not accidentally killed. They knew him as a moderate negotiator in the eighties (forbidden officially for the public to know of course) and now. So why kill him and cast him as a dangerous terrorist? This was clearly a provocation and not only that. Cynical and politcal and highly dangerous. To us Jews not in the least. Unconscionable. But so is seizing other’s land, demolishing homes at random, making it impossible to build a house legally, arresting children preferably in the middle of the night with a lame accusation, routinely incarcerating innocents (including adults), torturing people systematically, administrative detention, imprisoning innocent people for years without charge or defense counsel, defending destructive settlers, shooting at rando. All with impunity not to mention imprisoning and oppressing millions of people and keeping them dependent (aid) on Europe who greatly benefits as well from the occupation (multinationals inside the settlements and war industries). Yes, Sderot pays the price and nothing is good about that. But putting that under a magnifying glass forgetting the years of 1000 pounds bombs on residential areas, routine strikes and incursions by a high-tech army (our own) for politicial reasons (and perpetual war for a war industry including the one from the USA) makes a bad story and conscience. So much for poor little us, they attack us and we have to respond. Yeah, right.
    Now that Hamas (created by Israel in the eighties to counter the PLO) has rockets (crude and primitive ones nothing like IDF’s) that can reach inside Israel maybe, maybe there is a slight chance we might wake up. What we caused to happen by our own actions since 1948. http://www.zochrot.org if you do not believe me.


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