Israel Digs In for the Forever War

Some years ago, soon after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and shortly after the renewal of the Gaza “troubles” (to borrow phrase from the Irish), my wife and I visited friends in the small, Gaza-adjacent town of Shaar Hanegev. We were sitting in the dining room, eating dinner, when the table shook, ever so slightly. Once, and then again. It felt like the mini-tremblers we had gotten used to in Los Angeles, only these were accompanied by a faint but clearly audible “boom.”

“What was that?” I asked, naively. “Tank fire,” our hostess replied matter-of-factly, with a “what in the world did you think it was?” tone. It was quiet for a moment, and then her husband said, “What you’re really hearing are the sounds of the latest battle in the War of Independence. They’ve still not accepted that this country exists. They still really just don’t want us here.” And with that, the conversation turned to something else.

It’s been almost a decade since that evening, but I remember the setting as if it were yesterday. Baked fish and white wine, where we were all sitting. But most of all I recall the impact of the realization, as a then-relatively recent immigrant to this country, that our host was probably right -- this was simply never going to end.

Hang around these parts, and stay quiet long enough just to watch and listen, and you sense it everywhere. Yes, now that Hamas is using mortars that Iron Dome can’t shoot down, hundreds of families from villages and towns on the Gaza border are demanding to be relocated, and the government is trying to accommodate them. But for the rest of the country, a kind of sad, accepting routine has set in.

Like many other news websites, YNet -- among Israel’s most popular -- uses a graphic banner for each new story it’s covering. When three teenaged boys were kidnapped in mid-June, YNet posted a graphic with their three faces. When the hostilities began, it switched to “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s official name for what was unfolding. Some weeks later, even though the government had made no official change in the nomenclature, YNet changed the graphic to “The Gaza War.” The government could call it an “operation,” but Israelis knew better.

Now the graphic has changed again. “War of Attrition,” it says, referring both to Hamas’ threat to drag this out and to Israel’s long-forgotten 1969-1970 War of Attrition with Egypt, which lasted for almost a year and a half and cost many hundreds of Israeli lives, soldiers and civilians alike. There’s nothing innocuous about YNet’s new banner. Its point is clear: This is not going to end soon -- get used to the new normal.

This week, the national symbol of our collective mourning is Daniel Tragerman, a five-year-old boy with a cherubic face, killed at home by a mortar in the long-symbolic Kibbutz Nachal Oz. At Daniel’s funeral, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said to the residents of the area, “No one has a right to ask you to stay here.” The country cannot protect them; even the president is admitting it. And no one expects that to change very soon.

Meanwhile, those Arabs I wrote about who’d abandoned the soccer field in our neighborhood? They’re back. At this point, people are more resigned than angry, they apparently -- and correctly -- calculate. They’ll be left alone, so they might as well play soccer.

The moment that the three boys were kidnapped in June, our synagogue added a few psalms to the daily liturgy in prayer for their safe return. When they were found dead, those psalms were dropped, but other psalms -- for the safety of the State of Israel, added in times of crisis -- were recited instead. Now, though, those additional psalms have been dropped, too. We’re back to the regular old liturgy; we’re in this for the long haul.

There’s a sense of sadness that pervades the country, but no real sense of surprise. Deep down, we knew, something like this was bound to happen -- because my friend was right: the War of Independence is still being fought.

Three or four years ago, we were at the wedding of a colleague’s daughter. Yair Shamir, now minister of agriculture but then chairman of my university's board, was also there. Shamir’s father, Yitzhak, had been the head of the Lechi, one of the underground paramilitary groups that fought the British before 1948, and eventually became prime minister. Yair, formerly a fighter pilot, was then a successful businessman, considering entering politics.

We were all milling around on a gorgeous lawn just off the beach not far from Caesarea, overlooking the Mediterranean, cocktails in hand, when Shamir and I saw each other. We began to speak first about our work at Shalem, and then about whatever round of violence had recently erupted. I no longer recall whether it was Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, Lebanon or Syria. But things were somber. I mentioned to him my sense that people were getting antsy.

He looked at me, a bit surprised by my worry, and referenced a quote from the Second Book of Samuel, “You know, people always ask, ‘Must the sword devour forever?’ ”

“Yes,” he answered himself, “it will. It just will.”

I didn’t know what to say. So he raised his glass as if to make a toast, and said, “Look, it’s beautiful here. So have a good evening, and enjoy the wedding.” And with that, he walked away, and blended into the rest of the crowd.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem.

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