Living in Scandinavia
Living in Scandinavia: One day, when this war is over, there will be an investigation as to how Hamas managed to kill more than 1,400 Israelis and take 240 hostages back to Gaza. Michael Doran, in a recent article in Mosaic Magazine about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, writes, “Israel’s collective memory immediately conceived of the war as neither a victory nor a defeat but as a colossal blunder. The word it chose was meḥdal, which technically means an act of omission or neglect that leads to great harm. Israelis remember the Yom Kippur War not just as a meḥdal, but as ‘the meḥdal’—the meḥdal par excellence. The identification is so total that the phrase “Yom Kippur” has become a synonym in Hebrew for ‘blunder.’”
The meḥdal of 2023 was no less colossal. About three years ago, one of my sons served part of his mandatory army duty on the Gazan border. He told me that the Gaza Wall was perfect for preventing small groups of terrorists from crossing into Israel, but it was never intended to stop a horde of 3,000 terrorists. How did this meḥdal happen?
Daniel Gordis, the former Head of Shalem College, proposes a source of the meḥdal: “Perhaps even more fundamental, though, is the question of how do we defend ourselves? The emerging sense is that we can no longer be the bunker in the villa in the jungle – protecting ourselves better and better while allowing a hostile entity to metastasize on our borders.” While it is clear that in retrospect, it was a bad idea to defend ourselves against a growing terrorist presence with a wall, no matter how high-tech infused that wall may have been, I suggest that the meḥdal began years before the Gaza Wall was built. I suggest that the meḥdal was a result of years of Israelis convincing themselves that their enemies were a version of themselves, people who wanted nothing more than to put food on the table for their families. I suggest that the meḥdal is a result of years of Israelis convincing themselves that they lived not in the jungle that is the Middle East, but in the pine forests of Scandinavia.
Israel’s first misstep was in 1993, when Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by a renowned terrorist, Yasser Arafat. The first step in the Oslo Accords was the “Gaza-Jericho Agreement,” offering limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within five years. The key idea behind the accords was that the PLO had morphed from a terror organization into a political party. Its leaders were no longer terrorists – they had become state men. This would become a recurring motif. But Arafat had not changed. Speaking in Arabic, he told anyone who would listen that signing the Oslo Accords was a strategic move and that the PLO had in no way abandoned violence. Arafat was true to his word. In the second intifada, which began in 2000, more than one thousand Israelis were murdered.
As part of the Oslo Accords, Israel promised to withdraw from the Jericho region in the West Bank and partly from the Gaza Strip within three weeks of signing. This bears repeating: Israeli troops left Gaza in 1994. The only Jewish presence in Gaza was limited to two small enclaves of settlements that were eventually evacuated in 2005. One year later, in 2006, the PLO, which had taken on the more palatable “Palestinian Authority (PA)” moniker, were voted out of power by the Gazans and replaced by the Hamas terror organization.
For seventeen years, Israel lived with Hamas belligerence and rocket fire, always maintaining that Hamas was beginning to understand that they needed to provide for the citizens of Gaza. And so Israel allowed Qatari money to finance the Hamas. They allowed Gazan workers to enter Israel. Every so often, Israel had to “mow the lawn” by bombing Gaza, while never intending on defeating the Hamas. And yet Hamas never had any intention to govern or even to work. A recent article quotes Moussa Abu Marzouk, a prominent Hamas leader as saying, “The Tunnels in Gaza Were Built to Protect Hamas Fighters, Not Civilians; Protecting Gaza Civilians Is the Responsibility of the U.N. and Israel.” Gazan laborers who worked in Jewish towns near the Gazan border took notes – How many people lived in each house. Who locked their doors. Who had dogs. When the Hamas terrorists entered these towns on October 7, they knew precisely where to go.
The West Bank and Gaza were not the only areas that Israelis were eager to leave. Since the first Lebanon War in 1982, Israel had maintained a security buffer in southern Lebanon. As a result of mounting deaths of soldiers, amplified by a protest group called “Four Mothers,” Israel pulled out of Lebanon one night in June 2000. The idea was that the Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy terrorist organization, was no longer interested in terrorism. To govern Lebanon, they would need to provide food, water and electricity to its citizens.
Israel’s retreat made her look weak, emboldening the Hezbollah, who set up camp right across the border, dug tunnels that could be used to enter Israel, and created what the IDF called a “Nature Reserve,” an underground storehouse of rockets and rocket launchers that would lead to the deaths of 55 Israelis in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The worst effect of Israel’s withdrawal was made evident on October 8, 2023, when all Israelis living within 2 kilometers of the Lebanese border were evacuated from their homes because the IDF could not guarantee their safety. More than 30,000 Israelis, including nearly the entire city of Qiryat Shemona, were evacuated to the south of the country. When, or even if, they will return home is anyone’s guess.
What happened? Why for the past thirty years has Israel repeatedly handed over security of her borders to terrorists? The answer lies with a statement made by then-Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in June, 2006. Olmert was outlining his plan for the unilateral evacuation of parts of the West Bank, a continuation of the evacuation of Gaza a year earlier. He told President Bush, “We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies.” Olmert had a point. Let me try to put things into perspective. When I did my last stint of reserve duty in the late 1990s, I was doing 45 days of reserve duty a year, as were most Israelis. Reserve duty was divided into two parts: two weeks of training exercises and one month of “Active Reserve Duty,” usually spent in South Lebanon, guarding one our border’s border, or in some town in the West Bank. Reserve duty was not only difficult, but it was also often deadly. Dozens of soldiers died each year in Lebanon and in West Bank towns of Nablus, Jenin, and Hebron. The impact of reserve duty on family and livelihood was not inconsiderable. Add to this that the “High Tech Boom” of the early 2000s supercharged Israel’s economy, heralding the birth of the “Startup Nation.” Israel wanted to be that Startup Nation. We wanted to work 70-hour weeks. We wanted to go overseas twice a year, skiing in Austria and spending Black Friday in Manhattan. Prime Minister Olmert was right – We were tired.
Our way of life simply did not mesh with our goals. We needed to try something different. Nevertheless, we could try something different only if we made certain assumptions about our enemy. We had to assume that our enemies shared our values. We had to assume that they wanted the same things – some Middle Eastern version of baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. We had to assume that a terrorist could change into a statesman, because that’s what we would do given the same situation. And so we pretended that we lived in Scandinavia, that our enemies were Danish and Norwegian. That they no longer wanted to destroy us. That all we had to do was to separate from them and they would take it from there. We knew that it would take time and we expected pockets of resistance and so we built a wall around Gaza, a border fence to our north, and “separation wall” around the West Bank. We turned the IDF into a “small smart army.” We built Iron Dome and David’s Sling to protect ourselves against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. At the same time, we reduced mandatory conscription from 3 years to 32 months and plans are afoot to reduce it even further to two and half years. We reduced reserve duty to about one week each year, usually in exercises to refresh battle skills. And then we waited. We waited for them to grow, to become what we knew they could become, to become what we had become.
And then came October 7, and reality slapped us full force in the face. We were back in the jungle. The truth is that we had never left the jungle and believing that we had left the jungle had left us vulnerable, existentially so. There is nothing that Israel can do, nothing we can give, no compromise we can make, that will be acceptable to Hamas or to Hezbollah. They will settle for nothing less than the destruction of the State of Israel. This is the reality of the situation. And so after this is all over, after all the shouting has died down and the guilty have gone home, Israel will become very reminiscent of the way it was thirty years ago. Our youth will be conscripted for three full years. We will continue to reserve duty until age 40, possibly even longer. We will continue to patrol the streets of Jenin and Hebron and potentially Gaza City as well. There is a high probability that our soldiers will serve in some sort of security buffer in South Lebanon. This will happen because there is no other way. For better or for worse, we live in a part of the world that requires fighting, courage, and the clear understanding that our enemies must not be subdued – they must be utterly defeated. All this comes at a cost. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Our Sages put it slightly differently, “The Land of Israel is acquired through struggle”.
The challenge is great, but so is the reward.