(All praise be to ____, since I started writing a few days ago much has changed, and the â€ścurrent situationâ€ť is now â€ślast timeâ€ť in the Israeli vernacular. A cease-fire is in effect. My sister and many other refugees are back home. But donâ€™t start singing Age of Aquarius just yet.)
I try to avoid talking about the â€śsituationâ€ť (the current one or the general status quo) in Israel, especially with people who donâ€™t know the background. Mostly this is because Israel is more complicated than most people understand. Most foreigners donâ€™t know much about Israelâ€™s history (or any Middle Eastern history, for that matter) and make up their minds at some point that they will support one side or another without many doubts. And I can understand that, because our minds donâ€™t really deal well with doubts. We like black and white situations, no middle ground, no confusion. We like to know who the bad guys are. We want our good guys to wear white hats, just in case we forget their faces. The problem is, there arenâ€™t any white hats and black hats here, just a bunch of guys in different shades of gray, and every one of us who lives here has some metaphorical blood on his hands.
In my experience, if you think you have a conclusive answer about who the good guys are in the Middle East, you donâ€™t know enough about it. This is obviously true of foreigners, but equally true of Israelis, Palestinians and all our neighbours. No matter how good our intentions, we all start putting on blinkers at some point. We all have a moment at which we begin to tell ourselves â€śyes, but they started it.â€ť
Yes, but we were defending ourselves.
Yes, but they bulldozed our house.
Yes, but they killed kids in their Purim costumes.
Yes, but they closed the roads so none of us could work. For two weeks.
Yes, but we needed a homeland.
Yes, but they displaced thousands of us to get it.
Yes, but remember the Holocaust?
Yes, but remember the Crusades?
And on and on. Itâ€™s endless. There literally is no beginning to this, and no end in sight. You either pick a side to believe in, or you tear yourself apart. So I can understand that the news coverage of the current â€śsituationâ€ť has to pick some kind of bias, because readers and viewers will just get frustrated and tune out if they canâ€™t find a guy with a white hat somewhere in the crowd.
And honestly, I can accept that given the current situation, the easiest white hats to designate are the poor Lebanese refugees, the civilians caught between the radical Hizbollah and the terrifying Israeli war machine. And I know quite well that their plight is real and they deserve all the sympathy they can get. I have more sympathy for the Lebanese people than you probably think. Iâ€™ve seen their perpetually ruined towns. I have seen their walls knocked into rubble, phone lines torn down, roads chewed up by tank treads. Itâ€™s all real. I was driving the tank. If I believed in a God, I would ask Him to have mercy on my soul, but as an atheist, Iâ€™m fucked. Iâ€™m just happy I was able to avoid service in the Palestinian Territories, because there are worse things than property damage, and I heard a lot of stories that Iâ€™m glad I wasnâ€™t a part of. We wore berets, not white hats.
Hizbollah arenâ€™t Boy Scouts. We were in Lebanon to enforce a security zone, to prevent squads of Hizbollah and other groups from walking right up to the border and lobbing mortar shells into Israel or just coming through and shooting people with Kalashnikovs helpfully provided by our friends in Syria. And these things happened, too. Even while we were there, they happened.
And at last we come to my motivation for writing this, now. It seems that at some point in the totally justifiable shock and horror over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, while gaping at pictures of terrified Lebanese civilians fleeing the destruction, the world forgot that there was a Yes, But. And it is absolutely crucial to remember the other side of this story: there are Israeli civilians, too. And they were under attack.
They are still under attack.
This matters to me, because it isnâ€™t an abstract concept. The people in the Hizbollahâ€™s sights arenâ€™t hypothetical for me. My entire family lives right next to the Israel-Lebanon border. During the current crisis and for as far back as I can remember, rockets have always been hitting their kibbutz. Most of the time, they come once every couple of months, and the family spends the night in a â€śsecure roomâ€ť thatâ€™s supposed to be able to protect them from near misses. Ever since this unholy mess began, the rockets have come two or three times a night, and the secure rooms have been largely abandoned in favour of real bomb shelters.
My stepfather has been ill for years, and it keeps getting worse. He canâ€™t run to the bomb shelter. He and my mother have to stay in the secure room, and hope that the near misses keep missing, praying that their luck never runs out.
My sister couldnâ€™t stand it after a couple of weeks. She went into shock one night when the rockets were going off every hour all night long. A day later, she and her family joined the steady stream of people abandoning their homes in the North, fleeing to a relativeâ€™s house in central Israel, where the only thing you have to worry about is an occasional bomb on a bus.
Itâ€™s a very odd feeling when you realise that your sister is technically a war refugee. Took a while for that one to sink in. The occasional shelling is such an ingrained fixture of life on their kibbutz that at first I couldnâ€™t take her shock seriously. But sheâ€™s not alone. My mother has been sending all of the overseas family nightly e-mails for the last three weeks or so, reporting on the situation, and the situation is damn bleak. Random blackouts. Things going boom at random intervals all through the night. Shipping disrupted. Hundreds of near misses every day, constant property damage, and every once in a while somebody dies to remind you that itâ€™s real and itâ€™s deadly, even if we do have a lot more firepower than they do. Itâ€™s been impossible for people to get any work done. Many people arenâ€™t showing up for work at all. Several of her neighbours have gone south. You try not to drive anywhere, because the worst possible place to be if a rocket hits near you is a car.
The animals are going berserk. My family are all animal people, and my sister left birds, cats, and a dog behind on the kibbutz. My mother has been feeding them, but thereâ€™s nothing she can do about their constant hysterical panic.
And I can feel the constantly rising tension in her messages, as well. She is stronger than most people I know, and I believe she will never abandon her home no matter how many of her relatives in the safe old USA encourage her to. But she is breaking down. There is supposed to be a cease-fire on now. Hizbollah have already made it clear that the most useful thing you could do with that cease-fire is use it to wipe your ass, because they sure as hell mean to. I donâ€™t know how much longer this can go on without reaching a boiling point, especially now that most of the extremist Arab groups have declared this a victory for Hizbollah.
And the world seems to have forgotten this side of the story. The New York Times keeps running pictures of Lebanese civilians looking at their ruined homes, Lebanese refugees fleeing north, Lebanese refugees returning to their abandoned homes, but I havenâ€™t yet seen a picture of my mother walking down to my sisterâ€™s abandoned house to feed the cats during a lull in the bombing.
Yes, but there are many more Lebanese refugees and casualties than Israeli ones, and the Israeli forces outnumber and outgun the Hizbollah, says the objective observer. Thatâ€™s why we focus on them. And I say, yes, by all means focus on the group that is suffering most, but donâ€™t focus so tightly that you forget they arenâ€™t the only ones. These are human lives we're talking about here. Every one of them counts... for someone.
Like I said, this crisis is now officially over. But in these parts, â€śthe fighting is overâ€ť mostly means â€śtoo much heat on us right now, we need to regroup and buy more ammunitionâ€ť. It wonâ€™t be long before my mother is back in the secure room. But you wonâ€™t even see it on the news, because it will be just another minor Hizbollah attack, nothing major, and certainly nothing worth confusing the viewers with because arenâ€™t the Israelis supposed to be the ones in the black hats?