A STORY has it that Oscar Wilde once attended the premiere of a colleague’s play and every few minutes raised his hat. When asked about this odd behavior, he replied: "I am a courteous person. I raise my hat when I meet an old acquaintance."
If I wore a hat, I would have to raise it every few minutes these days when I view TV talk shows, listen to the radio or read the papers. I keep meeting things I wrote years ago, and especially things I have written since the beginning of this war.
For example: for decades I have warned again and again that the occupation is corrupting our army. Now the papers are full of learned articles by respected commentators, who have discovered – surprise! surprise! – that the occupation has corrupted our army.
In such cases we say in Hebrew: "Good morning, Elijahu!" You have woken up at long last.
If there is a touch of irony in my remark, I do apologize. After all, I wrote in the hope that my words would convince the readers – and especially people of the Israeli establishment – and that they would pass them on. When this is happening now, I am quite happy about the plagiarism.
But it is important to spell out how the occupation has "corrupted our army". Otherwise it is just an empty slogan, and we shall learn nothing from it.
* * *
A PERSONAL flashback: in the middle of the 1948 war I had an unpleasant experience. After a day of heavy fighting, I was sleeping soundly in a field near the Arab village Suafir (now Sapir). All around me were sleeping the other soldiers of my company, Samson’s Foxes. Suddenly I was woken up by a tremendous explosion. An Egyptian plane had dropped a bomb on us. Killed: none. Wounded: 1.
How’s that? Very simple: we were all lying in our personal foxholes, which we had dug, in spite of our fatigue, before going to sleep. It was self-evident to us that when we arrived anywhere, the first thing to do was dig in. Sometimes we changed locations three times a day, and every time we dug foxholes. We knew that our lives depended on it.
Not anymore. In one of the most deadly incidents in the Second Lebanon War, 12 members of a company were killed by a rocket near Kfar Giladi, while sitting around in an open field. The soldiers later complained that they had not been led to a shelter. Have today’s soldiers never heard of a foxhole? Have they been issued with personal shovels at all?
Inside Lebanon, why did the soldiers congregate in the rooms of houses, where they were hit by anti-tank missiles, instead of digging foxholes?
It seems that the army has been weaned from this practice. No wonder: an army that is dealing with "terrorists" in the West Bank and Gaza does not need to take any special precautions. After all, no air force drops bombs on them, no artillery shells them. They need no special protection.
* * *
THAT IS true of all our armed forces on land, in the air and on the sea. It is certainly a luxury to fight against an enemy who cannot defend himself properly. But it is dangerous to get used to it.
The navy, for example. For years now it has been sailing along the shores of Gaza and Lebanon, shelling at pleasure, arresting fishermen, checking ships. It never dreamed that the enemy could shoot back. Suddenly it happened – and on live television, too. Hizbullah hit it with a land-to-sea missile.
There was no end to the surprise. It was almost considered as Chutzpah. What, an enemy who shoots back? What next? And why did Army Intelligence not warn us that they have such an unheard of thing, a land-to-sea missile?
* * *
IN THE air as on the sea. For years now, Air Force pilots shoot and bomb and kill at will. They are able to hit a moving car with great precision (together with the passers-by, of course.) Their technical level is excellent. But what? Nobody is shooting at them while they are doing this.
The Royal Air Force boys during the blitz ("the few to whom so many owe so much") had to confront the determined pilots of the Luftwaffe, and most of them were killed. Later, the British and Americans who bombed Germany ran the gauntlet of murderous flak.
But our pilots have no such problems. When they are in action over the West Bank and Gaza, there are no enemy pilots, no surface-to-air missiles, no flak. The sky belongs to them, and they can concentrate on their real job: to destroy the infrastructure of life and act as flying executioners, "eliminate" the objects of "targeted liquidations", feeling only a "slight bang on the wing" while releasing a one-ton bomb over a residential area.
Does that create a good air force? Does that prepare them for battle with a real enemy? In Lebanon the pilots have not (yet) met anti-aircraft fire. The only helicopter shot down was hit by anti-tank fire while landing troops. But what about the next war everybody is speaking about?
* * *
AND THE ground troops? Were they prepared for this war?
For 39 years now they have been compelled to carry our the jobs of a colonial police force: to run after children throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, to drag away women trying to protect their sons from arrest, to capture people sleeping at home. To stand for hours at the checkpoints and decide whether to let a pregnant woman reach the hospital or send back a sick old man. At the worst, they have to invade a casbah, to face untrained "terrorists" who have nothing but Kalashnikovs to fight against the tanks and airplanes of their occupiers, as well as courage and an unbelievable determination.
Suddenly these soldiers were sent to Lebanon to confront tough, well trained and highly motivated guerilla fighters who are ready to die while carrying out their mission. Fighters who have learned to appear from an unexpected direction, to disappear into well-prepared bunkers, to use advanced and effective weapons.
"We were not trained for this war!" the reserve soldiers now complain. They are right. Where could they have been trained? In the alleys of Jabalieh refugee camp? In the well-rehearsed scenes of embraces and tears, while removing pampered settlers with "sensitivity and determination"? Clearly it was easier to blockade Yasser Arafat and his few untrained bodyguards in the Mukata’ah compound in Ramallah than to conquer Bint Jbeil over and over again.
That applies even more to the tanks. It is easy to drive a tank along the main street of Gaza or over a row of houses in a refugee camp, facing only stone-throwing boys, when the opponent has no trained fighters or half-way modern weapons. It’s a hell of a difference driving the same tank in a built-up area in Lebanon, when a trained guerilla with an effective anti-tank weapon can lurk behind every corner. That’s a different story altogether. The more so as our army’s most modern tank is not immune from missiles.
The deepest rot appeared in the logistics system. It just did not function. And why should it? There is no need for complex logistics to bring water and food to the soldiers at the Kalandia checkpoint.
* * *
THE SIMPLE truth is that for decades now our army has not faced a serious military force. The last time was 24 years ago, during the First Lebanon War, when it fought against the Syrian army.
At the time we said in my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, that the war was a complete military failure, a fact that was suppressed by all the military commentators. In that war, too, our army did not reach its targets on time according to the plan: it reached them either late or not at all. In the Syrian sector the army did not reach its assigned objective at all: the Beirut-Damascus road. In the Palestinian sector, it reached that road much too late, and only after violating the agreed cease-fire.
The last serious war of our army was the Yom Kippur war. After the initial disgraceful setbacks, it did indeed attain an impressive victory. But that was only six years into the occupation. Now, 33 years later, we see the full damage done by the cancer called occupation, which by now has spread to all the organs of the military body.
How to stop the cancer?
The military commentator Ze’ev Schiff has a patent medicine. Schiff generally reflects the views of the army high command. (Perhaps over the last 40 years, there may have been instances when he voiced opinions that were not identical with those of the General Staff, but if so, they have escaped me.) He proposes to shift the burden of occupation from the army to the Border Police.
Sounds reasonable, but is completely unrealistic. How can Israel create a second big force to maintain the occupation, on top of the army, which already costs something approaching 12 billion dollars a year?
But, thank goodness, there is another remedy. An amazingly simple one: to free ourselves from the occupation once and for all. To get out of the occupied territories in agreement and cooperation with the Palestinians. To make peace with the Palestinian people, so they can establish their independent state side by side with Israel.
And, while we are at it, to make peace with Syria and Lebanon, too.
So that the "Defense Army for Israel", as it is officially called in Hebrew, can go back to its original purpose: to defend the recognized international borders of the State of Israel.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: email@example.com.