Identity and the Intifada

Josh Linehan

JERUSALEM – To understand life in Israel as the calendar flipped to 2002, you had to see the sign posted on the balcony of a second-story apartment facing the pedestrian square on Ben Yehuda street downtown.

The square, once the center of tourist foot traffic, stood nearly empty on a Friday afternoon. With locals headed home for the beginning of Shabbat and no tourists to speak of, the message printed in black on white posterboard echoed in the silence.

It’s been 16 months since the intifada started, and Israelis and Palestinians alike are tired. Twice in the past month – once at the Sbarro Pizzeria around the corner and once at the Rimon Steakhouse down the street – Muslim shahid have detonated thunderous bombs, leaving only deafening silence.

It’s been 10 months since Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli Defense Minister who led the country’s now-infamous offensive into Lebanon, was elected Prime Minister, signaling a massive political shift to the right.

This sign – directed at Sharon – doesn’t represent the views of all Israelis, but is emblematic of their plight. A nation of differences fumbling for an absolute identity, all the while being cast in direct opposition with another. Like Israel, this sign clings tight to its contradictions and refuses to resolve them. It begs for strength.

Many viewed Sharon’s election as an omen of a failed peace process, as a complete vote of frustration by the Israeli people. He was widely blamed for allowing Lebanese Phalangist troops to massacre nearly 1,000 Muslims in the settlements of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Israel turned to a military man, a man who had proven his courage, if not his diplomatic credentials.

A chapter in Thomas L. Friedman’s 1989 book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” is titled “Hama Rules.” It explains the provisions for holding power in a region still known for its constant unrest. The title is taken from 1982 massacre of approsimately 25,000 people in Hama by then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. After the murders, Syrian bulldozers plowed over entire sections of the city, leaving bodies, buildings and blood paved into a smooth surface.

Near the end of the chapter, Friedman offers this: “I am convinced that there is only one man in Israel Hafez Assad feared and that is Ariel Sharon, because Assad knew that Sharon, too, was ready to play by Hama Rules. Assad knew Sharon well; he saw him every morning when he looked in the mirror.”

Now this sign overlooks the stagnant commerce and final resting place of Israeli teenagers, twists the words of John Lennon and announces a political position unthinkable before September of 2000.

“Ariel:” it reads, “All we are saying is give war a chance.”

***

The fluidity and confusion of this place and this time are evident the moment you get on the plane. As El Al Flight 8 flew somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I awoke to a cacophony of voices speaking a language I couldn’t understand. Still a little jumpy after a day spent clearing what seemed like endless security checkpoints, my head whirled around the cabin. Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker flashed on the small screen installed in the seat in front of me. Near the emergency exit at the plane’s middle, a group of Orthodox Jews prayed, facing east. I checked my cell phone, but no service was available. I had no idea what time it was in Jerusalem.

Yossi Klein Halevi isn’t sure either, but he thinks it’s getting late. The Israel correspondent for The New Republic and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times made no apologies for this state of confusion when he addressed 14 college newspaper editors from around the United States. Klein Halevi attempted to set the scene for the group, just beginning a 10-day seminar in Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

With his opening breath, Klein Halevi said, “I hope you’re surprised by the general normalcy of this place.” In the next 10 minutes, however, he would launch into a political and sociological explanation for the situation pulling us – those who are supposed to understand and explain to the masses – here for an explanation.

The sentiment behind the sign in Ben Yehuda reflects pendulum partisan politics within the country, Klein Halevi said, which has effectively crippled Israel for much of its existence. The nation, founded by U.N. mandate in 1948, has yet to complete a constitution. “Israel has become an ideological twilight zone – neither left nor right,” he said. Indeed, even when speaking about the conflict over the disputed territories – Gaza and either the West Bank or Judea and Samaria, depending on whom you support – Klein Halevi sees just another argument.

Though he says the current occupation is untenable, he seems genuinely bewildered as he outlines what he calls “concentric circles of siege,” where the Arab world surrounds Israel, which in turn is occupying the Palestinian territories. “How can Israel cede land when it makes them more vulnerable in the region?” he asks. We all look up from our notebooks, waiting for the question to be answered as our expert continues his lecture. After all, this is the issue supposedly holding Israel together. The pause owns the room.

Klein Halevi really wants an answer. But in Jerusalem, there are always more questions.

Professor Nafez Nazzal, from Brigham Young University, raises some when he outlines his views on the conflict. He too has theories about the Israeli identity crisis. And though he wished his country had taken the deal offered at Camp David in 2000, he focuses his attention across the bargaining table.

“Israelis are very difficult negotiators,” Nazzal said, his voice rising and his hands waving for emphasis. Throughout the trip, every Israeli we speak to will say the deal Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat – with President Bill Clinton proudly presiding – is the best Palestinians will ever get. It also seems to meet most demands of anything less than a militant Palestinian: “They have suffered very much, and to be a Jew is to trust no one.”

Nazzal preaches now: “Being a Jew is a pathology. And being a Jew is a psychological problem. One thing the Jews are not willing to do is forget or forgive. They tell us this! Here we have a democratic state living in the shadow of the Holocaust! You cannot forget!”

Later, anger will give way to calm resignation, and Nazzal will acknowledge an identity crisis on both parts. He will say the peace process has failed largely because the Palestinian leadership isn’t ready to stop being revolutionaries and concentrate on making sure the sewers work and the trains run on time. And he will tip his cap to the elephant in the room the Western media makes sure stays out of the camera’s eye: The Arab-Israeli conflict masks the real and unattended chaos in the area.

“In a war Israel is unified, in peace divided. The same goes for the Palestinians and this is the problem,” Nazzal said. “I have been depressed for the last 15 months. We cannot continue the situation as it is. We are so exhausted. But we are so proud. Too proud to admit defeat. And we lack courageous leaders.”

The parting shot at the region’s leadership is more than a throw-away line. Unspoken is the question: Will this intifada finally force Sharon and Arafat to face the hard questions, or will things end as they have since the time of Christ and the Romans, with more blood in the streets of Jerusalem?

 

***

The cream-colored rock is smooth to my touch, polished by the sweat and oil of a million human hands. A light breeze blows on an overcast December day and my left hand reaches out to steady the satiny kippa I have been asked to wear out of respect for custom. But I keep my right hand where it is. Staring at the height of the ancient stone arrangement, I stand for what seems an eternity, my hand never leaving its anchoring position against the Western Wall.

I stare at the uneven, craggy surface, where occasional weeds and brush have pushed through, and am reminded of a bas relief of the badlands of my native South Dakota. But mostly I stare at the tiny bits of paper, scribbled on and folded and mashed together and folded on themselves again and clutched in sweaty palms and finally slid, prodded and wedged into one of the wall’s crannies where they remain, a testament to this nation and this city as the land of a million different dreams.

I wonder how many are for material goods and how many are from infertile couples begging for children. How many are from tourists like myself, and how many are actually from the Orthodox, who pray all around me, men and women separated by a barricade to my right. I wonder how many are for soldiers, how many Israeli mothers stood here and prayed for their sons and daughters – who all serve mandatory military service – to come safely home from the Negev and the Golan Heights and Syria and Egypt and the West Bank. I wonder how many of those prayers were answered. Then I look up to my left, where the gleaming Dome of the Rock overlooks the plaza.

In September 2000, Sharon and his bodyguards visited the Temple Mount. They would be the last Jews or tourists to do so until now. The day after Sharon’s visit, after Friday’s Muslim prayers, riots erupted there, and the intifada hit the ground running. I turn to walk away, showing my back to the wall, an act considered heresy by the Orthodox all around me. As I drop my borrowed kippa in the bin at the entrance, I turn for a glimpse of the wall and the dome, easily viewable together. The dome is higher and much more visually impressive than the wall. But the wall is part of the structure holding up the dome. They are built on top of each other. I head for the bus, ready to take us to another speaker who will present another problem or angle on this story. But in my mind I stay at that wall for most of the afternoon. I wonder how many of the scribbled prayers were for peace.

I am not a religious person. Later, drinking Maccabee beer at the outdoor plaza of the Inbal hotel, a strange sense of hypocrisy creeps up my spine about having a spiritual experience at the wall. But as the trip wears on, I come to realize I am not alone. Secular Jews and tourists alike flock to this spot.

For me, the power of Old Jerusalem comes not from a belief that this is where David’s Temple stood or Mohammed ascended into heaven or even where Jesus was crucified and buried. I believe none of this.

The feeling of awe that washed over me at the Western Wall is just as important, however. I stood and stared at the birthplace of the Western narrative. Here is where the stories started. Christian, Muslim and Jew alike, they all come here to see the physical places which began the process of the writing of the story you are now reading.

“It’s the stage set of the greatest story ever told,” said Stuart Schoffman, commentator for The Jerusalem Report as well as a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “People can find it on a map, and those who can’t don’t need to. Because they have it on a meta-map in their own minds.”

The American feeling of confusion I felt, wondering why these people fought over small slices of land, as well as my smug assertion that if these people could just give up their religions they would be exponentially better off, melts away.

Despite all the fighting, the holy narratives of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are remarkably alike. They obviously borrowed heavily from each other, and it doesn’t matter which was written first. The power of a good story, well told, has never seemed so immense. Everyone’s fighting to see how the tale ends.

 

***

It’s hard to tell, watching across an ocean as the conflict plays out on CNN, what exactly either side hopes to accomplish. This intifada continues to stretch its own definition. The frequency of flare-ups is numbing. And social or civil conscience aside, the temptation for overseas viewers is to grab the remote and dismiss both sides as crazy, destined to spend time immemorial killing each other over a piece of turf that wouldn’t fill most Midwestern counties. Then they change the channel.

Only when seen for what they are -attempts to lead the narrative in the direction of the Israelis or the Palestinians – do the pictures have meaning. After I touched down in Minneapolis, reading the headlines became like watching a devilish dance, both sides spinning, advancing and pirouetting to the music of an unseen band. A Palestinian kills an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. Days later, Israeli soldiers pull off an amazing midnight raid of a PLO ship that contained almost 60 tons of weapons. Later, Israeli troops would bulldoze houses in an Arab settlement.

They would also push tanks into an occupying position around Arafat’s Ramallah compound. Never mind that Arafat had been imprisoned in Gaza by army checkpoints since the IDF destroyed his helicopters months ago. The tanks won their battle. They were photographed, and the pictures made their way onto CNN.

Mission accomplished.

Sometimes, even the cameras aren’t necessary. Standing behind razor wire at Mt. Bental – the IDF’s outpost on the Syrian border – the pop of Israeli cannons is audible in the background. Down the hill, barely visible through the fog, are red-roofed houses. “We can be shelling Damascus from here within an hour,” said IDF spokesman Mitch Pilcer. The pop and whistle of Israeli shells blasting into rusted-out hulks of Soviet T-72s grows more frequent. No doubt, the Syrians can hear this too.

Syrian tanks stormed through the pass below us on Yom Kippur 1973. Everyone in Israel who was old enough to remember has a story to tell about the sneak attack back then, about how Soviet tanks made it all the way to the Sea of Galilee, blasting through an IDF skeleton force while most soldiers spent the day of atonement at home. And about how the reserves reported in full and drove the Syrians back, across the old border, until Israel held the high ground here, where we now stand.

“This is not a border between Israel and Syria. This is a border between east and west,” Pilcer said. “And Syria is riding a tiger. It is not a matter of if it will fall apart, but when it will fall apart.”

We climb through the tunnel system and look out over the gun mounts at the road to Damascus. Our guide, Tamar, and guard, Gilad, both seem moved by this place. Tamar is wonderful, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region and its history. Gilad is quiet and somewhat unsure about his English. But that’s all right. Just out of the army, he is working as a guard to save money for a long vacation, a mental break that increasing numbers of Israeli twenty-somethings need.

Gilad walks at the back of the group and makes sure we’re all on the bus. Gilad dickers with merchants in Hebrew, saving us hundreds of shekels. Gilad carries a 9 mm pistol in the back of his jeans. And here Gilad offers one of his few unsolicited comments.

In the event of war, when nearly every Israeli must report to active duty within 24 hours, Gilad says he will report here, to this rocky outpost, where shells pop in the background and on a clear day you can see all the way to Damascus.

Suddenly, the narrative becomes all too immediate. The fight might be over a story, but the characters aren’t actors. This is real.

Later, Mitch takes us to watch the tank maneuvers. One by one, a group of five Israeli-manufactured tanks with General Electric engines take turns motoring to a man-made rise, setting their 105 mm cannons and launching shells at targets up to 5 kilometers away. Today’s exercise is part training, part show and part contest. A group of high school seniors is scheduled to watch the demonstration later.

The officers hope to recruit these kids to the 7th Brigade, 82nd Battalion, Barak company ñ the first tank brigade in Israel’s history. The soldiers in the tanks just hope for accuracy. Good marksmanship will get them a pass home for shabbat.

The shells no longer pop. They roar, not 50 yards away, and I jump a little with each blast. I see a soldier sitting on his helmet near the tent where officers watch the proceedings through field glasses. He puts his fingers in his ears and swivels his gaze to the outsiders. I quickly cover my own ears and hear the muted thunder. He grins at me.

“That’s kind of like ‘fire in the hole?'” I ask. “Yes,” he says in hesitant but perfect English. “Fire in the hole.”

His name is Roy and he’s a medic with the company. It’s his 20th birthday. So far his toughest assignments have been headaches and small cuts. But he trains just the same. He shrugs off questions about training so close to the border. “It’s a small country,” he explains. “There isn’t a lot of room for training.”

Roy does not hesitate about commenting on the status of the northern border. “The Golan Heights is a strategic point. If there’s a war and we lose this spot, the rest of Israel is in grave danger. From the Golan you can attack anywhere in Israel.”

He genuinely believes this. While Israelis are almost uniformly proud of their military, I wonder if they aren’t a little in denial about its strength. From this high point, with massive air power and vastly superior tanks, the IDF would rout Syria. And even if Syria managed to hold out for 24 hours, millions of reserves would report to duty. That’s why this border has been quiet for almost 20 years.

The high school students arrive, and a public address system is set up so they can listen to the communications between the tanks and the officers. When they are introduced to us, they are instantly excited. The boys mug for our cameras, and the girls scream and giggle as the ordinance explodes. But they seem genuinely disappointed to hear we work for college newspapers, not The New York Times or CNN. But they show no fear, no doubt in their ability as future soldiers to secure a Jewish homeland against the Arab world.

“Are you afraid of Palestinians?” one of the journalists asks a group of boys, training his video camera on them. A wide chorus of “no” rings out immediately.

“Should Palestinians be afraid of you?” This time there is a pause, followed by a few wry smiles.

“Yes.”

Later, at Netanya’s Beit Goldmintz leadership training center, a blunt woman named Yael will tell us, when asked about her impressions of Americans her own age, “I think you have a long childhood.”

Thinking of the teens – goofing and laughing, basically on a field trip – and Roy’s quiet demeanor, the way he said that he had only treated headaches “yet,” I can barely bite my tongue fast enough before I blurt out, “I think you’ve hardly had one.”

 

***

The headlines and video clips continue unabated. Monday, the IDF raided the West Bank town of Tulkarem, the largest such raid since the fighting began. There will be more fighting tomorrow. And on the ground in Israel, the 16 months of unrest have made intifada fatigue a very real problem. Students at Tel Aviv University, interviewed Jan. 3, weren’t hesitant about saying some thought of their futures completely outside the context of Israel.

It’s bad enough to produce the sign on Ben Yehuda street. Whoever hung that sign likely served in the army or has children or friends currently on active duty. But the inertia of not knowing, of daily escalating attacks and destruction of settlements has many Israelis reaching the breaking point.

The real struggle, though, goes on within the nation itself. On New Year’s Eve thousands of protesters from the Negev desert in the south surrounded the Knesset – Israel’s parliament. It was the final day to approve the biannual budget, and desert dwellers came to Jerusalem to demand the increased funding they had been promised during campaign season.

Behind a blue wall of Israeli police, the speakers proclaimed they would sleep in the streets of the city until their demands were met.

Unemployment in Israel reached 9.9 percent in November, the highest it has been in more than a decade. The Knesset voted to change the prime minister election system back to the old model after earlier changes were deemed ineffective. The overwhelming majority of secular Jews battle the Orthodox constantly over matters of public policy.

And then there is Roy, the 20-year-old medic who refused to answer all but one political question: “Should Israel give the West Bank and Gaza over to the Palestinians? Should your nation trade land for peace?”

“I live in the West Bank,” he said. “My opinion is I don’t want to give back my home. But a soldier from Tel Aviv might tell you the opposite. They might give land for peace.”

That’s the image I’m left with: two soldiers in identical green uniforms, manning a checkpoint and never knowing when the rocks or Molotov cocktails will come. One feels she is fighting for her home – not just a nation, but a house a few kilometers away. The other would gladly give it all up, abandon this post and walk away if it meant a few days without bombs and bullets. Both of them will end up losing something.

The story can only end one way.

 

Josh Linehan is the Daily’s managing editor and
welcomes comments at [email protected]