“Sadin Adom! Sadin Adom!” (“red sheet”) rang out the agreed-upon code word—signaling action—in the war rooms and the tank leaders’ earphones, in the improvised command posts, the makeshift supply depots, all along the tense border with Egypt, at 08:00 hours forty years ago today. The long-awaited order was given, and after three interminable weeks, in which the nerves of many an Israeli—let alone brother and cousin, sister and niece in the Diaspora—were frayed by the loud baying for our blood coming from every radio station and packed crowd in every city square throughout the Arab world, the siege was about to be forcibly broken; Sinai taken, once again; Jerusalem liberated and united; all land between the river and the sea in Jewish hands; and the brooding Golan Heights, from which for so long death had rained down on the villages and kibbutzim in the valley, taken and turned into a tourist and travelers treasure.
All in the space of Six Days of War, as Michael Oren entitled his book—in a war fought against all odds, coming a mere twenty-two years after the Holocaust ended. Were Israelis on the right and left alike, and their American and other counterparts in Jewish communities everywhere, to be blamed if they came to feel (as did Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his remarkable words at the time) that something miraculous, meta-historical had just happened? Some saw the impending arrival of the Messiah, if only we kept—and settled—our ancestral lands now liberated; others saw peace at the door, if only we offered the right concessions. Some of these honest, strong, yet ultimately fantastic hopes still linger, and can be seen at work on both sides of our political divide.
But at the end of the day, history did not come to a halt. True, the Six-Day War:
- Gave us the enduring gift, not only of survival, but of a united, functional, troubled but ultimately peaceful—and beautiful—Jerusalem, “shel zahav,” the “golden,” as Naomi Shemer’s prophetic song dubbed the city.
- May have been, as Natan Sharansky argues, the torpedo under the waterline that undermined and ultimately sank the Soviet Union, in more ways than one;
- In regional terms, undid the pride and prospects of pan-Arabist nationalism—at least in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s version—and created the conditions for the breakthrough to peace (after two more wars, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War) with Egypt in 1979, which remains the cornerstone of regional stability, despite its many faults and shortcomings.
Nevertheless, a new generation of haters has been raised—like the children we saw last week graduating from a Hamas kindergarten, clad in mock uniforms and swearing to die as jihadis—based not on the old (and virulent) mix of national socialist ideas but on a modern (much as this adjective might sound surprising in this context) totalitarian perversion of religion: from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran to the would-be incinerators of JFK Airport in Queens, they view an apocalyptic conflagration as a matter of joy, not fear. What they would do if given real tools of mass destruction is a frightening thought. What they do now, on Israel’s border, is to act out their fantasies of destruction and revenge in small measures—a “drizzle” of Qassam rockets and makeshift mortar shells—which have come to pose daily, painful dilemmas for the people who live under this threat and have learned to await with dread the call of the alarm systems, “Tzeva Adom!” (“Color Red”—the original codeword for a Qassam attack was “Shachar Adom,” “Red Dawn,” but as Shachar happens to be a beloved first name in Israel, for both boys and girls, there were protests against such an ugly association and the code was changed.)
Ed Rettig, the associate director of our Israel/Mideast office—who won vital experience in carrying out this mission during the Second Lebanon War—joined me this week in touring the stricken areas: the town of Sderot, and the local councils of Hof Ashkelon, Sha’ar Ha-Negev, and Eshkol. We found real and pressing needs. Ed, an artillery man in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and I may agree that launching a Qassam, as such, against a town of 25,000 people or a village nearby is—professionally speaking—ineffective fire. But for a child cowering in an unprotected kindergarten, or a person tending the wounded in an infirmary with a flimsy roof above it, or a volunteer manning an emergency information center in a prefab hut that serves as the local council office, the knowledge that they will soon have some reinforced concrete over their heads can make quite a difference.
We also found some aspects of the situation, particularly in the local councils, offered a stark contrast to the sheer irresponsibility, the culture of self-destructive lawlessness, and deadly impulses that mark the way our neighbors in Gaza are mauling their own future. (The day we were there they attacked with mortar shells the Israelis operating the Erez crossing—which exists to facilitate the entry into Israel, under severe security measures, to be sure, of Palestinians who need medical or other help from our side; one can hardly think of a more self-destructive measure.) The people we met wherever we went impressed us as resolute, practical, and as the “mission statement” of the Eshkol Council states—everywhere in Israel nowadays, this corporate habit stares at you—still hopeful that one day they will build a peaceful relationship with their Palestinian neighbors. Meanwhile, we learned:
- The Emergency Economic Board—“Meshek le-She’at Herum” or “Melah” in its Hebrew acronym—is run by people who are truly “melah ha’aretz,” salt of the earth. These old soldiers, now mobilized again for the good of the country, are practical, sensible, quick to the point, and effective. Had more of them been activated last year, the civilian side of the war would have been a different affair.
- The Kibbutz Movement, sometimes given up for dead or at least irrelevant, is still not only effective but offers a backbone of steely determination and resolve, a major asset for areas under fire in the zone surrounding the Gaza Strip.
- Many of the 2005 evacuees from Gush Katif and other parts of the Gaza Strip, who held out against the Disengagement until the last moment, are now rebuilding their lives in this zone: some in the improvised township in Nitzanim (with rather limited success), but others, and as it happens, those who came from the most radical communities, such as Netzarim and Atzmona, deep in the dune desert under the Eshkol Council. They bitterly fought the government—but now they are once again playing a constructive role, reviving the tomato hothouses that made them famous. Even in the Qassam zone, hope springs eternal.
Over the last few days, there has been, in fact, a decline in the intensity of Palestinian attacks: The mix of measures the government chose (plus some degree of Egyptian pressure) is having an effect, even if it seems meager and disappointing to Israelis who wanted to see a robust response and the restoration of Israeli deterrence. But this may well prove to be a temporary lull. As our borders burn once again—this time, under fire from groups and gangs, not the artillery of neighboring states—we shall need, in 2007 and beyond, the same resolute support and outpouring of commitment that we received with such generous abandon in 1967.