By Gil Troy
After the Second Lebanon War, one former tank commander sighed, "when my kids were teenagers and stumbled, I reassured them that, fortunately, the lessons learned outweighed the damage done: so too with Israel’s army." Two and a half years later, forced to confront Hamas’s rocket barrages targeting Israeli civilians, Israel fulfilled this prophecy. Great democracies like Israel can transform citizens’ grumblings into constructive self-criticism, turning officials’ failures into redemptive improvements.
Ironically, while applying many lessons learned, this war illustrated the Lebanon War’s success. Hizbullah’s inaction as Israel pummeled another Iranian proxy, Hamas, suggests Israel’s message of deterrence worked. Still, despite this gain, the civilian Winograd commission and numerous internal IDF reviews proposed clever solutions to the logistical and strategic problems that plagued the battlefront and the homefront.
This time, with Hamas’s Grad missiles reaching Beersheva, "the entire country is the front line," one radio announcer proclaimed. Still, the municipal and national governments kept citizens informed and calm, responding quickly to emergencies. In 2006, individual citizens and flamboyant tycoons compensated for bureaucratic incompetence; in 2009, the bureaucrats were the heroes.
More surprising, Israel’s governing trinity – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – avoided the Lebanon War’s bragging and mission creep. This self-discipline reverberated down the chain of command. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was the war’s Greta Garbo, often seen rarely heard. And this time, officers collected soldiers’ cell phones to thwart electronic eavesdropping or loose lips.
The military learned to be as nimble as the terrorists. In 2006 Hizbullah easily ambushed regularly scheduled supply convoys lumbering along the three border crossings into Lebanon. This time, units entered and exited Gaza via multiple routes at random times, frequently picked out of a hat, so no one knew the next move.
This time, like last time, the entire army tried minimizing civilian casualties. Soldiers – especially pilots – occasionally aborted operations, missing targets to avoid killing unnecessarily. As the world’s self-righteous arbiters of morality protested – usually marching with crass anti-Semitic slogans – Israel’s soldiers struggled to balance strategy with morality while fighting an enemy that hides behind its own civilians. Soldiers coined a new word "misgrad," linking the Hebrew for mosque, misgad, with the Grad missiles stored in too many Islamic houses of worship.
Considering Gaza’s density, Hamas’s propensity for cowering behind civilians, and the firepower Israel learned it needed to protect soldiers in urban combat, the number of civilian deaths was surprisingly low. Every innocent death is tragic. Still as one young tank commander said, "I saw an old woman hunched over with a suicide belt wrapped around her, walking into a building where our guys were stationed, what can you do…"
This soldier had just spent nearly two weeks in a tank. When encouraged, he described the cramped conditions, how cold the box of metal gets at night, the attempts to laugh at humiliating hygienic conditions. Apparently, one pair of underwear can last eight days. After two days you reverse it. Two days later turn the underwear inside out. Two days later, reverse again.
While Israel’s finest young people are forced to harden themselves amid the war’s blood, sweat, smoke, smells, fear and brutality, wars bring out a soft side in Israel’s body politic. The radio plays sappy songs, about – as one hit goes – the desire to embrace every soldier, from the Chief of Staff to the rawest recruit. Talk shows broadcast heartbreaking letters from teary mothers and fathers to their fighting "Dudus" and "Mickeys." People like Haim Avraham, whose son Benny was kidnapped then killed by Hizbullah in 2000, visit the troops, hugging them and delivering supplies of candy bars, long johns, and, mercifully, clean underwear.
An often-impatient, aggressive society becomes remarkably calm and gracious. Pilots receiving gift bags say "give it to the soldiers": reservists then offered the bags ask what about the recruits inside Gaza. Presented with gifts from the home front – or from Israel’s supporters worldwide – many soldiers were visibly moved, saying, "you strengthen us," "this is what it’s all about," "we’re fine, we’re doing our jobs, it’s the civilians in harm’s way who suffer."
Perhaps the best perspective on the war could be found in Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital, where the homefront and the battlefront meet. Despite occasional "Tzeva Adom," "red alert" sirens, the staffers worked resolutely, calmly, heroically. Many still can’t forget the heartbreaking new mothers’ shuffle, when the bombing began, leaving the maternity ward for a safer area. The pictures of Jewish, Beduin, Druze, and Muslim Israelis dressed in pajamas, some rolling their newborns in carts, others dragging IV monitors, illustrated just who Hamas targets – as did the hospital’s need to put sandbags over its sleep lab. Just outside the hospital, by its helipads, a line of stretchers stood, waiting to be filled with the day’s casualties, the whiteness of the sheets soon to be stained by the blood of young kids who would rather surf the net than fight this tragic but justified war.
At one briefing for a North American rabbinic solidarity mission, one rabbi asked: "Do the Palestinian casualties from Gaza arrive here, too?" The administrator answered, "No longer. This is now for soldiers and for locals. Gazans go to other Israeli hospitals." Here is Israel’s democratic dilemma, in all its messy grandeur. A democracy that sustains 10,000 rocket hits – especially after withdrawing from an area whose people could have then pursued peace – must defend itself. But both the rabbi and the doctor assumed – correctly – that Israel would nevertheless act as moral as possible in hellish circumstances. And here, too, is the secret to Israel’s success.
Along with the democratic capacity to improve, it has the democratic conscience to protect its own citizens while trying to minimize the enemy’s civilian casualties, too.
Gil Troy is a professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.” He is a board member of the Canadian Friends of Shalom Hartman Institute and parent of a student at a Shalom Hartman Institute high school. This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.