The Last Stand of the West

Mary Katharine Ham

7/25/2008 12:03:00 AM - Mary Katharine Ham

Note: America—and the West as a whole—cannot afford to ignore the battles waged, lessons learned and indignities suffered by the Israelis who share our values and fight to preserve them in the most inhospitable of climates.The following article is from the June issue of Townhall Magazine.  To subscribe to twelve issues of Townhall Magazine and receive a free copy of Andrew Learsy's Over a Barrel: Breaking Oil's Grip On Our Future, click here

In the hilltop neighborhood of Gilo in south-western Jerusalem, the chilly spring wind sweeps up through the town of Beit Jala below, bringing with it the stinging sands of the West Bank.

An eight-foot-high wall takes the brunt of the dusty breeze, as it wings harmlessly up and over the modern barriers of a conflict as ancient as the sand it carries. The wall was built in 2000 to protect Israeli children in their schools from sniper fire from the valley just 100 yards below.

In the days of the second intifada, Gilo was hit 400 times over a two-year period by Palestinian militants, injuring residents and causing major property damage. Palestinian terrorists, moved by Yasser Arafat’s call to arms, had forcibly overtaken the homes and schools of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank town of Beit Jala to send terror into Israel, as indiscriminately as the desert winds that whisper through the quiet valley.

Decorated by Israelis with cartoon animals and idyllic family scenes, the high, concrete sniper wall of Gilo embodies the struggle of a people to protect children while preserving childhood. The wall is a struggle to be both safe and free.

The struggle is the same in Metulla and Qiryat Shemona, where the goal of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Northern Command is to give Israeli citizens near the Lebanon border a “liveable life” within sight of the bright yellow flag of Hezbollah.

The struggle is in the small town of Sderot in southern Israel, where children play soccer on short fields, the better to rush to a bomb shelter. They have only 15 seconds to run when a Code Red alarm warns of another Qassam rocket from the Gaza Strip.

It’s in Tel Aviv, where parents let their children walk out the door, hoping they don’t walk into a club or a bus whose name will live in infamy, such as the Dolphinarium (21 dead, 100 injured in a suicide bombing, 2001) or Bus 5 (22 dead, 50 injured in a suicide attack, 1994).

A Shared Enemy

It is easy in this, the 60th year of Israel’s existence, to believe blithely that the Middle East’s tiny besieged bastion of Western thought will continue to endure simply because it always has. But, what four hijacked American jetliners brought home to the United States in a horrific, towering blaze of national tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, is that we are engaged in the same struggle.

Radical Islamists had tried to send the message before: when Islamic Jihad bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, killing 63, and bombed a Marine barracks killing 242; when Hezbollah killed 19 servicemen at Khobar Towers in 1996; when al Qaeda struck two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998; and when the same group drove a dinghy into the U.S.S. Cole, killing 16 in 2000.

We neglected to draw the line from Sayiid Qutb’s short educational stint in Greeley, Colo., in 1948 to the holy war waged against us in 2001. We did not see that the cranky Egyptian scholar observed American culture with disdain. It was, after all, the year Israel won its independence by defeating four invading Arab armies—the Arabic word for the war is “The Catastrophe”—that Qutb first developed his distaste for the West.

We did not know that his almost comic dyspepsia would eventually metastasize into a declaration of all modern society as jahiliyya—the unredeemed period of history before the founding of Islam—making it open season for jihad on Jews, Christians, Westerners and even secular Muslims complicit in the maintenance of modernity itself. Qutb’s “scholarship” boasted such famous acolytes as Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, and fueled the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a branch of which now runs the Gaza Strip after wresting it violently from the more moderate Fatah party of the Palestinian Authority in summer 2007. That branch is Hamas, and it now smuggles tons of explosives per month into Gaza and has shot more than 2,700 rockets into the civilian population of southern Israel since disengagement.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the other father of radical Islamist thought and Qutb’s Shia counterpart and contemporary, founded an Islamic state in Iran that now unites the causes of extremist Islamists of all sects by funding the wars of Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel and the terrorism of extremists in Iraq against Iraqi and American forces.

This article is from the June issue of Townhall Magazine.  To subscribe to twelve issues of Townhall Magazine and receive a free copy of Andrew Learsy's Over a Barrel: Breaking Oil's Grip On Our Future, click here

President Bush has always advocated, wisely, taking terrorists at their word, famously using Osama bin Laden’s words in a 2005 speech to stress that among terrorists “there is no debate” about Iraq being central to the War on Terror.

In that spirit, these are the words of Hamas MP and Cleric Yunis Al-Astal preached on Al-Aqsa TV in April: “Very soon, Allah willing, Rome will be conquered. … Today, Rome is the capital of the Catholics … this capital of theirs will be an advanced post for the Islamic conquests, which will spread through Europe in its entirety, and then will turn to the two Americas, and even Eastern Europe.”

Make no mistake, it is the same fight. From the craggy hills of the West Bank to the lush heights of Golan, Israel is a testing ground for their tactics, a proving ground for their martyrs and a potential foothold for their bloody philosophy. The West cannot afford to ignore the battles waged, lessons learned and indignities suffered by those who share our values and fight to preserve them in the most inhospitable of climates.

Close Quarters, High Stakes

As an American, standing in Israel in 2008, it is hard not to simultaneously despair at the conundrum of our ally and admire the determination of its people.

From the desert hills of the West Bank, one can see Jerusalem, the sky-line of Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea, a mere nine miles across the country from an area filled with its mortal enemies.

If one could look overhead and see the missile ranges of Israel’s neighbors painted red against a brilliant blue sky, they would be as inescapable as the sun’s blaze. Hezbollah’s Zelzal-2 reaches 130 miles, deep into Israel’s south where it meets up with the 12– to 24-mile range of Katyushas in Gaza. The entire country and surrounding regions are easily inside Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities and nuclear aspirations.

“You can literally fight a battle in the morning and pick up your kids from kindergarten in the afternoon,” said a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Army.

Those are the stakes.

The proximity has advantages and disadvantages. Israeli forces have cultivated human intelligence of varying ethnicities and Arabic dialects for years. Today, U.S. Marines travel to Israel twice a year for desert warfare training with the IDF, and the two countries share both intelligence findings and techniques, but there have been times when the U.S. has not always learned the lessons it should have from its old friends.

Gideon Ezra, former Deputy Head of the General Security Services in Israel and a current member of the Knesset with the centrist party of Kadima, knows well the value of human intelligence and the dangers of operating without it.

“I knew when you went into Iraq, you didn’t have enough Arabic speakers,” he said, shaking his head ruefully. “Without intelligence, you can’t learn. Intelligence is No. 1. We know, personally, everyone there,” he said, referring to Israeli operations in the West Bank and Gaza.

When Israel makes a mistake, either in tactic or negotiation, the consequences are visited immediately upon its civilian population. Israelis don’t have the luxury Americans are sometimes accused of indulging in—“going to the mall while the Marines go to war.” The Jerusalem mall could become the front lines within seconds.

“The departure was three years ago and then our lives changed,” said Sderot resident Chen Abrams of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. “More than 60 missiles a day. … Life stops and it stops for a long time,” said the mother of one, who has decided to stay despite the barrage, though 10 percent of the town’s population has already left and more than 60 percent say they would if they had the means. Experts are afraid the ever-increasing threat of a nuclear strike from Iran could have the same effect on the entire country, effectively eliminating the state of Israel without having to nuke it.

In 2005, Israel ordered about 8,500 Jewish settlers to evacuate 21 settlements in Gaza, land occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967. The process was gut-wrenching, grown IDF soldiers weeping as they pulled fellow countrymen forcibly from their family homes. The cost was high, but the reward was a chance at peace.

Standing in Sderot today, one can see just two miles away the flat, dirt expanse left by the razing of Jewish settlements is now filled with Hamas training camps.

“Today, to say that Gaza Strip should be demilitarized, it sounds like a bad joke, ” said Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser of the IDF Reserves, with a bitter laugh.

Kuperwasser, after years of hopes lifted and crushed, has the same assessment of the West that Churchill had of Americans: It “can always be counted on to do the right thing ... after it has exhausted all other possibilities.”

In the north of Israel, civilians watched the same thing happen in Lebanon. When Israel withdrew to the internationally recognized borders from its security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, it precipitated the arms build-up by Hezbollah that led to the 2006 war.

Though five weeks of fighting dented Hezbollah’s capabilities and sent Hassan Nasrallah to “live like a worm in the ground,” according to a major in the Israeli Army, withdrawal has allowed a build-up of rockets that will not go unfired.

This article is from the June issue of Townhall Magazine.  To subscribe to twelve issues of Townhall Magazine and receive a free copy of Andrew Learsy's Over a Barrel: Breaking Oil's Grip On Our Future, click here

Even so, news broke this spring that Israel, working through Turkey, may be willing to restart peace talks with Syria. The cost to Israel would be the Golan Heights, captured in the ’67 war, a strategic and aesthetic high point of Israel’s holdings. The reward, ostensibly, would be peace with a longtime enemy, though the outlook seems grim.

This is the twisted, exasperating road to peace in the Middle East, lined with potholes, corkscrews and roadside bombs, and Israel walks it because it must. They will not kneel in front of enemies, but they have determined they’ll be ready to sit down with them.

For most citizens, the withdrawal from Gaza illustrated Jewish willingness to endure pain for peace. The Left supported it at the time, the Right opposed it. Today, Left, Right and Center are joined in seeing the aftermath of disengagement as an illustration of Palestinian willingness to endure pain to prevent the very thing they claim to want.

Hamas regularly bombs border crossings where Israel ships humanitarian aid to Gazans. It attacks the fuel depot inside Israel, which supplies 70 percent of the power to Gaza. It threatens the Palestinian Authority’s grasp on the West Bank and renders negotiations meaningless.

“The people we’re dealing with don’t believe in solutions,” Kuperwasser said. “There’s a game going on. Everyone has a role and reads from the script, but everyone knows it’s just a game.”

Winning Like Westerners

And yet, Israel continues to practice restraint with Palestinian communities and other Arab neighbors who seem more and more willing to cast off the two-state solution in favor of a single solution for the Jews.

The security fence between the West Bank and Israel is a counterin-tuitive example of their attempts to coexist. Israel’s critics call it the “apartheid wall” and bemoan the separation it causes between the people of the region. But it was not the wall that caused the rift.

The first suicide attack of the second intifada happened in December 2000. In March 2002, 100 people died at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, the worst an attack on a Passover seder at a hotel in Natanya killing 29 and wounding 140.

They sent the traditional murderers—angry young men, unemployed and marginalized—but they also sent 17-year-old girls to blow up supermarkets, two brothers of 12 and 8 to blow up a Gaza settlement. All of Israel stood agape at this new form of evil.

The assault was particularly shocking given that Prime Minister Ehud Barak had moved further in the direction of Palestinian demands at the recent Camp David talks than any of his predecessors, even putting the division of Jerusalem on the negotiation table. Palestinians refused sweetened deal after sweetened deal without even a pause in the violence. It was a barbaric gambit to bring the West to its knees by bringing death to its door.

By 2004, Israel had decided to block its doorway. Today, a 400-mile barrier prevents 95 percent of Palestinian terror attacks, according to Israeli Defense Force officials.

In the center is an electronic intrusion-detection fence, which warns the IDF of breaches.

When a would-be terrorist trips the fence’s detection system, the IDF is signaled and responds within minutes. In many cases, the tracking is done with the help of Bedouins and Druze, tribal desert denizens who are part of Israeli society and offer their ancient expertise in reading the desert’s clues to the modern task of counter-terrorism. Most recently, the Bedouin Desert Battalion foiled an attack from Gaza on Passover Eve.

A mere 4 percent of the barrier is made of concrete, though that’s the section of it you’ll see most frequently in news reports. The concrete wall is reserved for densely populated areas and along highways where motorists would otherwise be subject to sniper fire.

The struggle is constant to minimize its impact on Palestinians while protecting Israelis. The fence boasts 44 gates to provide Palestinian farmers access to their crops. Israel has replanted thousands of olive trees for Palestinian farmers, to protect them from the route of the fence.

The very route of the fence is open to petitioning by Palestinians. In 2004, the Israeli Supreme Court sided with eight Palestinian communities over the army, ruling that the fence had to be moved to prevent further interference with the lives of Palestinians. There was a legislative attempt to get around the ruling, but then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared, “There is a court ruling, and we shall will it out.”

Palestinians have access to the Israeli Supreme Court, to an almost ludicrous degree, in fact. An IDF legal adviser—the equivalent of an American JAG—tells the story of a 2 a.m. bombing of a suspected weapons cache in Gaza interrupted by a last-minute petition to the Supreme Court by the owner of the house to be bombed. IDF troops were on the ground, evacuating the area and wiring the building when a secretary of the Supreme Court called the legal adviser to halt the operations. A Supreme Court judge had to be roused from sleep to hear a telephonic brief about the target in question and decide whether to grant an injunction stopping the operation.

“I think we play really safe,” the legal adviser said. “But even with all these limitations, we win.”

A “Liveable Life”

For Israel, that’s the bottom line: to defend itself while preserving its values, to win while remaining Western. Even the more cynical of Israeli military commanders will tell you as Kupperwassen does, “I believe in the West. I believe we will prevail.”

On the northern border, a major with the Northern Command is determined to provide a “liveable life” to the citizens in his charge. He looks to the hills of Lebanon and says that the second intifada had shown them the worst they could see, and they had survived.

In Jerusalem, a 17-year-old aspiring musician slumps in his chair over Sabbath dinner when he talks about putting his dreams on hold to serve his required stint in the Israeli Army. His mother shrugs her shoulders and explains that he was born into a world of war. When she took him home from the hospital, it was during the First Gulf War. The hospital provided her with a tiny baby gas mask for him.

They are not resigned to this life, but ready to live through it to another, more peaceful time. They are not inconsolable in the face of busted negotiations, but interested in reaching new ones that last. The struggle of Israel and the West in this fight is not about despair, but determination. It may also be about patience, a virtue about which the Jewish people have plenty to teach to other Westerners exhausted by seven years of bloody conflict against radical Islam.

As Yaacov Lozowick, Israeli scholar and archivist at Israel’s Holocaust Museum wrote in his, “Right to Exist:”

“My own opinion is that we have 150 years to go. The Muslim world resisted the Crusaders for 200 years until they finally gave up and left. From their perspecive, we are a second wave of Crusaders, uncalled-for invaders from West. … We have resisted their pressure for 50-plus years, which is more than they expected, but they remember that the first time around it took longer, and they can wait. Perhaps we will need to outlast the Crusaders before they begin to understand that we are another story—that for us, 200 years is as nothing when compared with 2,000. If that’s what it takes, so be it.”

For Americans, 200 years is all we know. In the years to come, when missiles may gain range, grievances may gain ground and enemies may gain new tools of destruction, we will see the lessons of Israel’s long struggle echoed in our tactics. We will see her technology echoed in our tools and her call for restraint echoed in our debates. And, if we are successful, we’ll always see the spirit of that colorful sniper wall in Gilo reflected in our determination to remain safe and free, to walk the frustrating line between security and freedom even when our enemies do not, and to do it well enough to win. Until one day, at long last, all the wind carries from Beit Jala to Gilo, from Gaza to Israel, from the Middle East to America, is sand.

Editor's note: Mary Katharine Ham's feature, "Last, Long Stand of the West," which appeared in the June issue of Townhall Magazine was written with information and interviews gathered during a March trip to Israel for American journalists paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation. The AIEF is a supporting charity affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  

Note: America—and the West as a whole—cannot afford to ignore the battles waged, lessons learned and indignities suffered by the Israelis who share our values and fight to preserve them in the most inhospitable of climates.This article is from the June issue of Townhall Magazine.  To subscribe to twelve issues of Townhall Magazine and receive a free copy of Andrew Learsy's Over a Barrel: Breaking Oil's Grip On Our Future, click here