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Going Out to Meet Our War

The number of Israelis killed in the Hamas attack is 1,200 and counting. It is as if more than 40,000 Americans were killed. This gives us a hint of the level of rage all Israelis now feel.
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October 11, 2023
IDF soldiers guard near a waving Israeli flag outside Kibbutz Kfar Aza where dozens of civilians were killed days earlier in an attack by Hamas militants. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

My favorite poet, the late Yehuda Amichai, wrote a sonnet starting with “My father fought their war four years or so,” meaning his service in the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War. He metaphorically carried his future son Yehuda in his knapsack, hoping that Yehuda wouldn’t be forced like him and his generation to go to war. “He was mistaken. Like them, I must go out and meet my war.”

Like Amichai’s father, I went not only to one but to four wars: The Six Day War, the War of Attrition, The Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War. Yet this didn’t spare my children from going to their own wars. And on Monday morning, I drove my granddaughter Maya to her military base. As a paramedic in the reserves of the IDF, she was called back to service.

We drove in unusual silence, absorbed in thoughts. Maya’s war is different from ours, I thought. While war is a violent act, aimed at inflicting on the enemy great losses and forcing him to change his policies or even surrender, there are limits on the use of violence, dictated by basic human values and international law. Already in 1625, the Dutch jurist and scholar Hugo Grotius, in his masterpiece On the Law of War and Peace, stressed the need to distinguish between soldiers and civilians, and to minimize the harm caused to the latter. One of the developments emanating from this distinction was the dictum that soldiers should wear distinct uniforms, which would distinguish not only between them and the civilians, but also between friend and foe.

Terrorism blurred that distinction. Suddenly the enemy became invisible, elusive, not wearing uniforms and hiding among civilians. Israel had to learn the hard way how to fight this, without harming civilians more than military needs required.

Except that on October 7, Hamas militants raided southern Israel dressed in uniforms and carrying the Hamas green flags. Their targets, however, were not military, but purely civilian. These barbaric people slaughtered whole families, took hostages and left scenes that made the rugged Admiral John Kirby, spokesman of the National Security Council, break in tears on CNN. Then they retreated to Gaza and disappeared among the local civilians. How should Israel respond to this unprecedented, outrageous and confusing scenario?

There is not much that Israel can learn from the American experience. Following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States went into a three-and-a-half-year war in the Pacific, against the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. But then, at the end, firebombs were dropped on Tokyo, followed by the two nuclear bombs which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Israel can’t do that.

Then came 9/11, and what was the American response? Out of rage, it attacked a state with a regular army, Iraq, which was hardly the right response to the challenge of Al Qaida.

Talking about Pearl Harbor and 9/11, then the numbers of Americans killed in both cases were 2,400 and 2,900, respectively. The number of Israelis killed in the Hamas attack is 1,200 and counting. If we multiply that by 35, one gets the proportion of this crime against humanity: It is as if more than 40,000 Americans were killed. This gives us a hint of the level of rage all Israelis now feel.

Back to the question: How do we strip Hamas from its capability to do that again? Frankly, I’m not sure, mainly because of the sensitive issue of the 130 Israelis held hostage by Hamas. In the meantime the Israeli Air Force is pounding Gaza, again trying to limit the harm to civilians. It might well be that ground forces will move into Gaza soon, and then Maya would have to treat the wounded.

As we approached the gate of Maya’s base, a guard ordered us to stop. His grey hair, oversized belly and old-fashioned uniform told me immediately that he was one of those crazy Israelis, who, when the sirens of war go off, leave everything and report to their reserve unit, even at the age when they should long be retired.  As Maya shouldered her knapsack, he mused: “All right, now we’re talking business.” As I handed her to his watch, we exchanged the look that only two veterans of the Yom Kippur War can understand: Yes, we were taken by surprise, we are angry, we are confused, but now it’s time to get down to business and win this war.


Col. Uri Dromi, IAF (Ret.), is Founder and President of the Jerusalem Press Club

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