Saturday 10 January 2009

Not Déjà Vu

When I heard the news on Thursday morning that bombs were landing on Nahariya, it felt like déjà vu. It took my mind racing back to the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 when bombs were raining down on the northern parts of Israel.

But this is no déjà vu. Almost two weeks into the Gaza War, I can safely say that this war bears no resemblance to the Lebanon War whatsoever. And I am really happy to be able to say that. In retrospect, the Lebanon War was not a loss for Israel, but it was certainly not a victory. It contained certain aspects that none of us were proud of. Some of the problems experienced during the war could be felt even by civilians, and these feelings were borne out in the findings of the commission of enquiry that was established to investigate the conduct of the war by Israel. Suffice it to say that this war was not Israel's proudest military moment.

In saying this, I should add that I am no military expert or commentator. In military terms, I am a complete outsider and novice. I made aliyah at an age when the military was not interested in my services. As such, I have little or no understanding of the internal workings of the IDF, of military terms, tactics or strategies at all. My comments are being made in my capacity as a citizen of the State of Israel who expresses a purely amateur and uneducated view on military matters.

From the very outset, the Gaza War seems to have been conducted in a highly professional manner. Everything about it seems to have been well thought-out, communicated and executed. The initial strike took Hamas by surprise. The politicians were well prepared in their addresses to the Israeli and foreign press. Their messages were consistent, the text well drafted and well presented. This is a welcome contrast to the haphazard briefings during the Lebanon War, many of which came too late and with poor language and message choice. The Minister of Defense at the time, Amir Peretz, was a poor choice during peacetime. During a time of war, he proved to be hopelessly out of his depth and a disastrous choice.

During the Lebanon War, there was a constant stream of complaints coming from serving soldiers and reservists alike. The equipment was inadequate, old and outdated. Soldiers were not being provided with food and water required for a basic survival. The military plans appeared poorly thought out, and many soldiers felt that their lives were being unnecessarily placed at risk by being sent into operations that had no prospect of success. This amounts to negligence on the part of the military leaders as a minimum. Private individuals and organisations were raising funds to buy their loved ones, and fellow members of their units, protective military equipment to compensate for the extremely poor way in which the soldiers were equipped. The call went out up and down the country for food and water to be provided to feed our soldiers and to quench their thirst. This does not leave a country feeling confident that its military is "on top of things" and ready to defend the nation. In fact, quite the opposite, it left the army with low morale, and the citizens with a view that they army could not be depended upon. On a daily basis, the citizens of Israel had the impression that the military actions taken by our army were having little or no impact upon our enemies. I have no doubt that the lack of preparedness also cost lives of soldiers and civilians.

The messages coming back from the front-line this time are completely different. Soldiers are well equipped with all that they need including military gear, food and water. Organisation of the call-up of reservists has been good, including training and preparation work done after the call-up. Morale on the front-line is high, and the nation is right behind our military in supporting them emotionally as best we can. There has been loss of life including some soldiers unfortunately killed by friendly fire. But there is no sign of the haphazard way in which things were previously done. On the contrary, we have the feeling that our soldiers are able to influence and impact the behaviour of our enemies, albeit not stop them entirely - yet. We are being told how the protective equipment has saved numerous lives and injuries. Overall a most positive picture which indicates the best is being extracted from our military effort under enormously difficult circumstances.

So what has happened in 18 short months since the last war, that can make this one feel so completely different? Ironically, we have the same Prime Minister at the helm. Olmert is what would usually considered to be a lame-duck Prime Minister in the final days of his tenure. He has been smart in keeping a low public profile during the course of the war, and has preferred to give Tzipi Livni (Foreign Minister) and Ehud Barak (Defense Minister) greater public roles. We cannot escape from the fact that Olmert, lame-duck or not, is leading this effort. Whatever one may think about Olmert (and he has provided significant food for thought), he seems to be doing an admirable job on this occasion. Barak and Livni are new to their roles since Lebanon 2006, and have presented themselves excellently. Barak is a breath of fresh air in comparison to Amir Peretz. Not only has he been well prepared, he is a military man who engenders a sense of comfort in the population by his actions and confidence.

Most significant since the summer of 2006, is the fact that the Chief of General Staff, and almost the entire upper echelon, of the IDF have been replaced. With those changes have come new training methods, additional equipment and a new approach to fighting terrorism and groups like Hamas. The army has been well prepared and well equipped for the task. The results of these changes are evident in the method of approaching the task, the morale of the soldiers and the casualties that we have suffered to date.

But I do not have any illusion that this war will lead to any greater prospect for lasting peace in the Middle East. On the contrary, I see it as yet another battle in the ongoing war for Jewish survival. It is said that there will only be peace when the Arabs recognise Israel's right to exist. With groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, whose main objective is the demolition of the State of Israel and it citizens, this will not happen any time soon. Golda Meir's famous quote is as relevant today as it was when she first stated: "We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for making us kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us."

Until that day comes, our army will defend our right to exist in this land, and protect our Jewish freedoms. It is my prayer that each of our soldiers will return safely to their families after having safely seen off this latest threat to our existence.

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