Sunday, August 06, 2006

the abrahamic war of attrition


I remember when I was a little kid, the idea of the wars in Israel was very exotic and exciting to me. I had never lived under war before, and all I knew of it was what I read in books. I was in Israel during the first intifada, during the hijacking of the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and sporadically throughout the entire first war in Lebanon, I just didn't really understand it as war. They were all incidents so far from my comprehension. I liked the idea that the war in Lebanon, "Peace in the Galilee," as it's called in Israel, started the year that I was born. I liked the idea of my country fighting a war for peace, especially since I never had to feel it.

This war isn't romantic, it's desperate and fruitless.

The fear of the defense establishment in Israel is that Hezbollah is waging a war of attrition on Israel. To Israel, this notion is absurd. It has been fighting its war of attrition already for nearly 60 years. It was born in imbalance and has not yet found security. Israel's security situation is not just one of civilians dying. Israel is suffering an existential crisis. Every attack on Israel or in Israel is a battle of the brawns between a country that is sick of trying to prove its right to exist and guerilla populations trying to prove it otherwise. Every attack on Israel is an attempt weaken it, to force it to let go of territory it conquered in war or mandate. Israel cannot coexist with its neighbors because its existence depends on territory that once belonged to its neighbors. To its neighbors, Israel can exist as a concept, but not in practice.

Israel has always responded in defense, leading it ultimately to crisis. Now that Israel has the means to not only defend itself but act as aggressor, it has jumped to the occasion. Israel does not want another war of attrition. It presents itself as aggressor to avoid every having to be in the defense position in a war of attrition. Security of it existence is its primary concern, not the safety of its citizens. Every 18-year-old is required to join the army. Every citizen has a responsibility to preseve Israel's existence.

Israel is now faced with an obstacle it hasn't seen in years, and had hoped it would never see again. It is under siege. Residents of the north have become refugees to the south. The death toll is rising. During the intifada, the fear was everywhere. Everybody feared for their life. You couldn't get on a bus without thinking you could die. Now you can't go to sleep at night without thinking that.

In Tel Aviv, we keep telling ourselves we know more than Hezbollah. They say they have missiles that can reach Tel Aviv. We scoff at that, even as missiles reach Hadera, 20 km north of here. Who are we kidding? Hezbollah is backed by Syria and Iran. If we so much as touch Syria, we will be wiped out. The war of attrition will explode in our faces, and we will find ourselves once more fighting for existence.

We still have the upper hand. This whole thing started because two soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah just two weeks after another soldier was kidnapped and two others killed by Hamas, a legitimate political leader. We felt attacked from all sides again. Not just by militants now, but by war-like guerillas. Our government is ever so reluctant to call this conflict a war, which it obviously is, because a war means one legitimate army fighting another. It means fair game for redivision of land by military means. Our right to the West Bank and to the Golan according to international agreements is by military might alone. Syria attacked us and we took the Golan. Jordan attacked us and we took the West Bank. Egypt attacked us and we took the Gaza Strip.

Now Hezbollah is attacking us, and telling us to give up Shaba farms. If Hezbollah wins, they will try to force us to cede territory to Lebanon. In all fairness, we do not have to oblige. If Lebanon gets involved, and wins, we will be forced to give them what they want.

In the Middle East we know that this war will not end until one of the populations is destroyed, or until everybody comes to their senses and stops fighting. As long as we have what they want, they will not leave us alone. As long as there are Jews living in a ruling state of Israel, the Palestinians will fight us. The Palestinians don't want to live under a Jewish state. They want to live in this territory under their own state. Our interests are impossible to reconcile.

Palestinians and Israelis share an existential crisis, of different porportions. Palestinians and Israelis both have no concept of future. We can't plan because we have no idea if our lives will be tomorrow as they are today. We know that we are living in a perpetual war of attrition. We are an impossible contradicition. We will only co-exist - each of us will only be able to exist - if we lose the ideology and remember our humanity. The Palestinians have allies, and so do we. It's all out war. May the strongest survive.


My friend Zim and I broke the cardinal rule of coexistence last week, and talked history with our Arab friend Mahdi. Zim, a Yeminite Jew, tried to explain to Mahdi, an Arab Palestinian, that he too was an Arab. Mahdi would have none of it. "It's impossible," he said. "You can't be a Jew and an Arab."

"But my grandmother's mother tongue is Arabic," he protested.

"You are either a Jew or an Arab, you can't be both," Mahdi shot back.

"But my family lived in Yemen for a thousands years," Zim told him.

"It's impossible to be both," Mahdi said.

"Can you be a Christian and an Arab?" Zim asked him.

"Yes," Mahdi answered.

"A Muslim and an Arab?"


"But not a Jew and an Arab."


Mahdi told us the history of the Arabs. To him it started with Muhammed, with the beginning of Islam, when the Arabian empire took flight. He told us Muhammed was the 25th and last prophet, who followed and solidifed the visions of Christianity and Judaism. He told us that Muhammed spoke to God, and then spread the word, forcibly, to the Arabian people who had no religion or concept of God. His divine purpose was to convert everyone to see the truth and beauty of Islam.

We told him our history of world. He was not pleased about it. "Are you telling me that the Jews started it all?" he asked.

"No," we assured him, as we waxed neo-Isaacian nostalgiac.

The history of the world (or at least part of the Middle East) according to Zim and Aliyana

The Arabs and the Jews are cousins, descended from jealous brothers who were fated to spend their lives in testosterone-flared civil war. Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abram. Abram was a descendent of the Semites, and spoke a language vaguely resembling Hebrew and Arabic. He spoke to God, realized that all is one, broke his father's idols and heart, and left his home for the the Mediterranean coast. He fell in love with his cousin Sarai, but couldn't conceive with her. She gave him her maidservant, Hagar, who quickly bore him his first child, Ishmael. God had told him before pushing him into nomadism, that he would be blessed to populate the world with seed as numerous as the stars in the sky. Ishmael was the first seed.

God never told Abraham, as he became known, that his offspring would get along. When Sarah finally gave birth to Isaac, Abraham was thrilled, and Sarah was jealous. She threw Hagar and Ishmael out of her tents, and sent them wandering through the desert to Arabia. Meanwhile, Abraham showed God how strongly he believed in him, by offering his beloved son as a sacrifice upon God's request. God like that, but it was only a test.

Isaac was Sarah's child, and therefore Abraham's favorite. Ishmael was a half-orphan exiled to Arabia. Isaac stayed in Canaan, believing himself the heir to the Abrahamic dynasty. He forgot about his brother, but his brother did not forget about him.

Isaac was the father of Israel. Abraham was the patriarch of the Semites, both the Jews and the Arabs. Isaac's descendents fought for the land of Israel, received the Torah, wandered through the desert, through hardships and persecution, and emerged only a low percentage of the promised "stars of the sky," as tribes fought and divided, with 10 lost along the way. Ishmael's seed did fine.

When one of Isaac's descendents was crucified on a wooden cross, his disciples called him the ultimate martyr, the son of God, and tried to pull as many Jews as they could with them. It didn't go over as well as they expected, but they recruited a good number. They hoped to revolutionize Judaism, but with so many stubborn bretheren, they broke off, and call themselves Christians. The disciples of Jesus believed him to be not only a prophet, but physical divinity. They trotted the globe spreading their message, violently forcing Arabia and Europe to submit to their growing empire.

They encountered resistance in both. In Arabia, where the population of Ishmael had itself submitted through force to the religious empire of Muhammadism, the Christians were not welcome. They destroyed Arabian culture, razing the biggest library in the world and smashing scientific and mathematical instruments. The three sets of cousins, one a former regional power, the others budding empires, found themselves at odds. Intermarriage and conversions had run rampant along the way, but in an age of religious wars, people clung to a particular loyalty. The three super-clans divided, and civil war set in.

Jews and Christians and Muslim remained in both Arabia and in Israel. Jerusalem was conquered, and then reconquered a numer of times, switching hands between the power-hungry cousins, each vying for the Abrahamic inheritance. The victory cycle was set on spin.

The Jews living in Arabia, and in the Islamic Ottoman empire were free to worship as they chose, but were considered second-class citizens. The Christians, who had smited the Muslim one time too many, remained at war with their Ishmaelite cousins. Jews lived in the Arab world for hundreds of years, preserving their Isaacian ancestry. They were hesitantly welcome until the creation of the state of Israel - perhaps in the Arab mind Isaac's bid for renewed civil war.

*The moral of the story, according to Zim, is that the only thing separating us is our own self-created distinction. Our blood-lines mixed, we cling to our own versions of Abrahamic heritage, believing that we are the true link to God's promise. In reality, the only thing that divides us is our own self-designated divisions. We're all really African.


Mahdi was in good spirits when we told him our late night theory, but he refused to budge from his original thesis. Arabs were the descendents of Ishmael, and Jews were the children of Isaac. Arabs are mostly Muslim, but a Christian can be an Arab, too. But you can't be both a Jew and an Arab.

We live in the most sought after and expensive property in history. The Christians have given up the fight, for now, waiting for Jesus to return to Jerusalem and build the third temple. The Arabs and the Jews are back in a war of attrition.

Mahdi, an Israeli citizen, but not an Israeli, he told us, fully support the Palestinian initiative for a state, but will not move to the West Bank or Gaza. He is not an Israeli, he said, because Israelis are Jews. He is an Arab concerned with preserving his rightful place in Palestine, regardless of under whose control. "I won't leave my home," he said.


I am going to the north tomorrow. I'm scared.

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