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Editor’s Page

Israel – Eyeless in Gaza?

As I write this Israel has again been blasting Gaza with tons of deadly missiles and has invaded with ground forces. By the time you read it the ashes will be cooling and the body count rising. Why are they doing it? Well, because Hamas has been increasingly lobbing rockets into Israel’s backyard for months now and, although casualties are few, the provocation is real. Is Israel right in attacking again? Ah, that’s another question. Let’s go back a few years to when I used to visit Israel fairly frequently on business.

That was before the suicide bombers and Hamas, but there was always tension. Soldiers in uniform went to the beach in Tel Aviv with their weapons, stacked them in the sand, undressed and went swimming. Tourism flourished, although the national airline, El Al, was prohibited from flying from Friday at sundown till Saturday sundown, because it was the Sabbath. The El Al officials I knew were furious at the “bearded ones” (they didn’t say it, just made a downward sweep from their chins). They meant the fanatical conservatives who had just enough power in parliament to prevent El AL from flying on the most popular and profitable days of the week. Islam has its fanatics, but the Jews have them too. And fanatics are always dangerous. Although the Israelis insisted that the capital is Jerusalem, all foreign embassies were located in Tel Aviv, not only for political correctness, but also to avoid the danger of bombs and/or assassination. A propos airlines, El Al was – and probably still is – the safest airline in the world. You have to check in hours before flights and everyone is thoroughly searched and questioned before boarding and upon arrival. They even inspect cargo, something no other airline does, as far as I know.

The first time I flew from Geneva to Tel Aviv I was red-flagged by the smiling security girl. After all, my U.S. passport was issued in Germany and my residence was in Switzerland; the name Smith doesn’t inspire much confidence either. She beckoned a shaved-headed security monster, about twice as big as me, who escorted me to the Station Manager’s office who was most cordial, offering me a chair, coffee and a cigarette. I declined the last two.

“Why are you going to Israel, Mr. Smith?” He asked.

“Business,” I answered. I gave him my IATA (International Air Transport Association) card. “I’m going to a meeting of airline representatives there.”

“I see, and what is the subject of the meeting?”

This was getting annoying, but I didn’t want to miss the flight. “Tariffs, fraud prevention and security.”

He smiled. “Ah, maybe you can do something to allow us to operate on Saturdays.”

“Not on the agenda,” I said.

“I didn’t think so.” He looked down at my passport again, with its myriad entrance and exit stamps. “Just one more question. Will El Al be at the meeting?

“Of course. El Al as national carrier will chair the meeting.”

“Yes, of course. And who is the El Al Representative?”

That’s more than one question, I thought, but answered it: “Dov Adiv.”

“Ah yes, I know him. Very funny chap.”

Dov had lived in New York and knew all the Jewish jokes, and he never failed to repeat at least one at meetings. “That’s a matter of opinion,” I said.

The Station Manager laughed. “I see that you know him.” He handed me my passport, nodded to the security goon and wished me a pleasant fight.

One evening I got away from the King David Hotel and was strolling in a nearby middle-class residential neighborhood. The people on the streets looked like me and were dressed like me (so what else is new?) I passed a barber shop with a large open window and saw about ten chairs, half of them full. Why not, I thought, I didn’t really need a haircut, but would in a week or two, it would be much cheaper than in Switzerland – and I could get to know the “people”. I walked in and was about to pass a desk at the entrance, when a young woman seated at that desk said something to me in Hebrew. She pointed over her shoulder at a hand-printed sign – words in Hebrew, then numbers and the sign for shekels. There were three categories, the cheapest one amounting to about 50 U.S. cents, then 75 and one dollar. “Do you speak English?” I asked her. She smiled and shook her head. I mimed cutting my hair – clip-clip – with my fingers. She pointed to the first category. I gave her the 50 cents in shekels. She scrawled something on a piece of paper that I assumed meant haircut, handed it to me and pointed to the empty chairs. I chose the one with the prettiest girl…always do, whether barbers or waitresses. She smiled and said something in Hebrew. I lifted my hands and said in English that I don’t understand Hebrew. She nodded and went to work. A middle aged man came over to us, looked me over and said something to her, pointing at the right side of my head. My barber nodded and snipped some more from the left side. Finally it occurred to my dense neurons that I was in a Barbers’ School. I didn’t scream and run away though, just sat there stoically hoping for the best. The guy came over again twice, always pointing to some part of my head and the girl clipped the other side, to the point where I was pretty much scalped.

It was dark by the time they released me, so a few blocks away I sat at a table outside of a small restaurant hoping for something to eat. There was a menu covered in plastic on the table, with helpful pictures of each item. A waiter came and I pointed to the pictures of a pizza and a beer. He nodded and went back to the kitchen. I could hear them speaking what I thought was Spanish with an Argentinean intonation. When the waiter returned I asked him, in Spanish, if he was Argentine. No, he said with a slight frown, Uruguayan. (Little Uruguay has a little brother complex in respect to its big neighbor Argentina.) Are you Argentine? he asked me. I explained that I am American but had lived in Argentina. That seemed acceptable and the conversation developed. He and his family – wife and two small children – had been in Israel only a few years and the going was tough. “You really have to work to get by here,” he told me, “but most everyone does work hard.” “Not like in Uruguay?” He laughed. “Uruguay is like Argentina in that respect, so that answers your question.” I asked what made him decide to come to Israel where hard work was necessary. “You know what it’s like there for Jews,” he said. He was again intimating that I already knew the answer. There was and still is a good deal of anti-Semitism in Argentina and Uruguay, and especially at that time when military juntas ruled both countries.

For the above you can see that I have (had?) a lot of sympathy for Israel and the Israelis, not only because of its history but also because of how they turned a near desert into a productive, thriving democracy. But if I were having the same conversation now, with my Uruguayan friend and others I had met there, I’d ask them if they agreed with the Israeli Armed Forces latest incursion into Gaza resulting in the death of so many innocents. I would first explain that I knew the putative reason – Hamas sending rockets into Israel. But was the massive response, a massacre some say, justified. I imagine there would be differing answers. Some would say no, it was completely unjustified and shameful. (That opinion does exist there.) Others would say that there was no choice, how else could we stop them from attacking us? Answering a question with another question which you’re pretty sure your interlocutor can’t answer is always a good tactic.

If you haven’t yet guessed what I think, here goes. No, it was not justified, and it was a massacre of innocents. Furthermore, it was stupid, and I thought the Israelis were smart. Well, but they are saddled with a weakness not particularly limited to them: politicians. Perhaps they will gain some breathing room free of rocket attacks, but for how long? Does Hamas give a damn about civilian casualties? I think not. They may even welcome them so that hatred of Israel in the Muslim world will increase, so that respect and support for Israel from the West will decrease. Are the rocket attacks not a provocation, one they knew would result in Israel again overreacting, just like Lebanon. And the Israeli government fell for it. As in the rest of the world, even here in Argentina, where the Israeli embassy and other Jewish institutions were the victims of terrorist attacks probably initiated by Iran, there are anti-Israeli demonstrations.

Everyone seems to favor the “two-state solution”. I have serious doubts whether that would be any kind of solution. There are presently 230 Israeli settlements with a population of 275,000 in the West Bank, who have no intention of going anywhere. Even with their own state, the Palestinians would be economically dependent on Israel, and the latter dependent on Palestinians for labor. And the West Bank is geographically separated from Gaza. How could a viable independent Palestinian state exist under those conditions? Hasn’t the India-Pakistan partition disaster taught us anything?

In yesterday’s New York Times there was an article by the Libyan dictator Muammar Qadaffi, of all people, in favor of a “one-state solution” according to which the Palestinians would be allowed back into Israel.

“The history of Israel/Palestine is not remarkable by regional standards — a country inhabited by different peoples, with rule passing among many tribes, nations and ethnic groups; a country that has withstood many wars and waves of peoples from all directions. This is why it gets so complicated when members of either party claims the right to assert that it is their land.

The basis for the modern State of Israel is the persecution of the Jewish people, which is undeniable. The Jews have been held captive, massacred, disadvantaged in every possible fashion by the Egyptians, the Romans, the English, the Russians, the Babylonians, the Canaanites and, most recently, the Germans under Hitler. The Jewish people want and deserve their homeland.

But the Palestinians too have a history of persecution, and they view the coastal towns of Haifa, Acre, Jaffa and others as the land of their forefathers, passed from generation to generation, until only a short time ago.

Thus the Palestinians believe that what is now called Israel forms part of their nation, even were they to secure the West Bank and Gaza. And the Jews believe that the West Bank is Samaria and Judea, part of their homeland, even if a Palestinian state were established there. Now, as Gaza still smolders, calls for a two-state solution or partition persist. But neither will work.

A two-state solution will create an unacceptable security threat to Israel. An armed Arab state, presumably in the West Bank, would give Israel less than 10 miles of strategic depth at its narrowest point. Further, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would do little to resolve the problem of refugees. Any situation that keeps the majority of Palestinians in refugee camps and does not offer a solution within the historical borders of Israel/Palestine is not a solution at all….”

Whatever Qaddafi’s motive, probably a nefarious one, frankly I think he is right - or close to right. In fact it seems so obvious that many years ago I asked some knowledgeable people in Israel why they don’t try it. The reason is simple, they said. The Palestinian birth rate is fourfold greater than that of the Israelis; therefore, in a few generations the Jewish state would cease to exist. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but it certainly is feared. Perhaps the question is whether a “Jewish” state has become an anachronism. We criticize Arab countries for wanting Muslim states, but ignore Catholic states, perhaps because the Church’s influence is declining in those countries where it is the official religion, South America for example. Furthermore, freedom of religion is guaranteed and the evangelists are making serious inroads. It should also be recognized that even where statistics say that 90% of a country is Catholic, that is on paper only, and those practicing the religion have become a minority. So a secular state – separation of church and state with religious and spiritual freedom – as is the case in the United States whose people are probably more religious than in countries with official religions, may be the only lasting solution for Israel and Palestine. Difficult? Yes, exceedingly so. Possible? Anything is possible, but it depends on the players and the shedding of prejudice and hatred.                       

An even more encouraging and perhaps practical solution would be an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation based on the Swiss model in which representatives of both groups would meet in a parliament based on population in a house of representatives and on “cantons” covering areas. For example, an Israeli canton would exist for the Israeli West Bank settlements, and a Palestinian canton for the rest of the West Bank; a Palestinian canton for Gaza and several cantons for the rest of Israel. So even if the Palestinian population some day exceeds the Israeli one, the existence of the Jewish cantons would be guaranteed. There is even a group (which I just discovered through Google) that advocates an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation. It’s worth checking out.

I wish George Mitchell luck and wisdom as President Obama's special envoy in his efforts to mediate a solution, and I hope he is at least as wary of the "two-state solution" as I am.

Frank Thomas Smith


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