Required Reading

So now what? Does Israel dig in and prepare itself for a state of escalating, interminable siege? Does it try to get back to the negotiating table with Yasser Arafat? Does it do both?

Among the millions of words pouring out over the conflict of late, I found two pieces uniquely powerful. One appeared in USA Today on Tue., Oct. 24. Reporter Jack Kelly accompanied an Israeli army detail on patrol in the West Bank town of Ramallah just as Hamas unleashed a furious, well-coordinated attack. Kelly’s eyewitness account proved what Palestinian spokesman have denied all along: ambulances are being used to ferry rocks and guns to fighters. Children are being used as cover for snipers. The attacks are strategically coordinated and controlled, not spontaneous. The Israelis followed orders to use measured firepower (tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, then live fire) as Hamas attackers fired, “with such intensity that bullets can be seen bouncing off the street.”

Most media reports of that skirmish mention only that 60 Palestinian youths had been hospitalized and at least one died. Then again, as Kelly noted, the journalists who did the reporting were largely behind the Palestinian line. When they left at sunset, the Palestinians did too. That’s not a shocker: politicians orchestrated much of the peace process for TV cameras; why is it surprising that the fighting should be as well?

The other piece arrived a day earlier, by e-mail, bearing the subject line, “The most devastating story I’ve heard out of Israel.” It came via a friend in L.A. from Yitzhak Frankenthal, who lives in Israel. I met Frankenthal once, when he was visiting L.A. to raise money for a peace group, Oz v’Shalom, comprised of Orthodox Jews. Besides being a bright and articulate man, a man of seriousness and great substance, he carried with him tragic credentials. On July 7, 1994, his 20-year-old son Arik’s body was found dumped in a village near Ramallah, riddled with bullet holes and stab wounds. The soldier had been hitchhiking home on leave when he was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists. “Since Arik’s murder,” Frankenthal told me, “nothing upsets me. When I wonder if what I’m doing is right, Arik reaches out to me and says, ‘Thank you, Dad.'”

In his e-mail, Frankenthal explained that he and his close friend, Roni Hirshenzon, had just returned from Mt. Herzl cemetery. Five years ago Hirshenzon went there to bury his eldest son, Amir. Amir was a 20-year-old soldier when he was killed in the Beit-Lid bombing, in January 1995. Two weeks ago Hirshenzon went back to Mt. Herzl to attend the funeral of his son Elad’s best friend, David. David, also a soldier, had been killed in the fighting at Netzarim, the Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Several days ago, despondent over his best friend’s death and his brother’s, Hirshenzon’s son Elad killed himself. After Elad’s funeral, Roni Hirshenzon asked Frankenthal to write an open letter to the Jewish settlers in Netzarim. Here’s a good chunk of it:

“To the Netzarim residents, I am writing this letter from the bottom of my heart, shaking with fury, and my soul is trembling from the sound of the sand sacks being emptied over the coffin. Look what has happened to our people and country owing to the absence of peace. The absence of peace has killed Amir in an act of terror, my own son Arik was killed by Hamas in July 1994 and many others have fallen due to the absence of peace. In the past month, over 100 people were killed due to the absence of peace. Elad’s best friend has also fallen in Netzarim due to the absence of peace. And now, Elad has taken his own life only because his best friend David fell in Netzarim. Any sane individual knows that Netzarim will be evacuated when peace will be reached between ourselves and the Palestinians, just as Yamit was evacuated, just as the Sinai was evacuated. Why in God’s mercy do you continue to inhabit this cursed place that has demanded so many lives? Where is your mercy on the children who are in peril? Where is your mercy for a mother who buried two of her children? Is God’s spirit within you? Is your God the belief in a messianic settlement that has nothing to do with the security of Israel? It is virtually paganism that children are being sacrificed to false gods.

“…You really believe that you are protecting the security of Tel Aviv, but this is just a myth. The citizens of Tel Aviv do not need your protection; what they need is protection from you. Do you really think that security will prevail in Israel without peace, that there can be peace without very painful compromises? In any case, the current state of affairs where still there are settlements in the Gaza Strip is not acceptable. It is so unlikely that you shall live in your standard of living whilst your neighbors live at a level equivalent to the one maintained in the ’40s? Had we been in the place of the Palestinians, would we have not done more and more acts of terror in order to get our own state? Why should the Palestinians be any different?

“Again, please don’t tell me that I am a defeatist and that I am prepared to surrender Mother Earth and that I want peace at any cost and that I do not understand the course of history. Not at all. I have been ‘fighting’ for peace together with Roni for many years, not just recently, and we have been doing so in order to prevent more and more unnecessary deaths. For us, the Land of Israel is very important and beloved. A land where our children can live, not a land that consumes its children. Is land more important than a human being? What makes you believe that this forsaken damned hole – Netzarim – that has cost so many lives, is worth bringing our children to the slaughter? … We understand that peace will prevail only if we make painful compromises, but we also know that most of our settler brothers will eventually be annexed to Israel and will become an inseparable part of the State of Israel. Even if we have to compromise on Jerusalem in order to make peace, even if in the Old City only the Wailing Wall and the Jewish Quarter will remain under Israeli sovereignty, and the rest will come under Palestinian sovereignty, the price of peace is worth paying because the People of Israel have never worshipped any sovereignty but God. … I rest the full responsibility for this terrible bloodshed, where our children are killed in Netzarim, solely at your door, residents of Netzarim. …

“Finally I want to quote Miri, Elad’s mother, who cried at her son’s grave, ‘Who ever heard of a mother that buries her son, and who ever saw and heard of a mother that buries two sons? Instead of leading my sons to the chuppah, I am burying them. Whom shall I cry for first, Amir or Elad? I have brought children into the world to give them life. I sent them to the army alive and they returned dead. Who ever heard of a country that gives up its children to indulge the land? Don’t pour soil over Elad, don’t soil his hair. Only a week ago I bought him a new pair of shoes, and he had not yet worn them. I am a mother that cares for her children, how can I leave Elad here? How can I eat whilst he is in his grave? I had five children, and I am left with three. Ever since David died in Netzarim 20 days ago you wrote him a daily letter. How can I be at home whilst Amir and Elad are here on Mount Herzl? Whose grave shall I visit first? Amir’s or Elad’s? I have lost the strength to go on living. What for? Who ever dreamt that I will be visited twice?

“‘Thank you, Netzarim’s settlers: a straight red line is drawn from Netzarim to Mount Herzl. I have brought up my children to contribute to the country, and what did I get in return? Two coffins, two graves, and they were only 19, didn’t even reach the age of 20. I will not be ironing any more shirts for them, won’t make their beds, two empty rooms at home.’

“Before we left the cemetery my beloved Roni turned to me and asked to send you a letter. I hope I have succeeded, even partially, to convey to you the painful feelings we foster on the loss of our sons. I beg you, please, take your belongings and come back to Israel. Come back and help build a democratic society that will address the terrible social hardships we face. You have an enormous potential to become leaders of brotherhood and friendship in the country, but today you act as Angels of Death to our children. Today you are the messengers of the devil, who says, ‘Better land than man.’ Please, wake up, before God forbid we will bury more children.

“With heartache and terrible disappointment at you,

Yitzhak Frankenthal.”

Frankenthal’s letter was published in Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharanot. Jack Kelly’s story appeared in USA Today. They are both, I believe, required reading.