Israel Goes to War With an Iron Fist

As Beirut is reduced to rubble under a barrage of Israeli bombs and residents of northern Israel flee constant Hezbollah rocket attacks, the prospect of a cease-fire seems remote. Meanwhile, the rest of the world looks on as the latest Middle East catastrophe unfolds.

An Israeli missile explodes in the Lebanese village of Marun E-Ras.
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An Israeli missile explodes in the Lebanese village of Marun E-Ras.

He is a wrinkled, tiny old man with a ring of thin, snow-white hair encircling his bald head. His delicate moustache vibrates when he speaks, his voice thin and fragile. When he is asked a question, the old man seems to shrink away, as if he believed that he could somehow make himself invisible, could survive the worst by offering as little resistance as possible.

Zwi Shalit, 79, is a Jew who has mastered the art of coping with misfortune, but not by choice. If there is a God, Shalit has always experienced Him as an angry God, not as some benevolent deity. And if there is a God, He has picked his Chosen People to bear more than its fair share of the world's suffering.

As a child, Zwi Shalit was driven from his home. Born in the city of L'viv in Galicia, a former province of Austria-Hungary and today in western Ukraine, he and his family lived peacefully in a community of Jews, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Armenians. The family attended a synagogue next to a Catholic church. There were no tensions among the region's religious groups, at least not until Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. Under the Nazis, L'viv's Jews were literally slaughtered, suffering as many as 800 deaths in a single day. "We were not one hundred percent Zionists," says Shalit, but in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism fueled by the Nazis, no one cared how devout a Jew was. "Mother took us to Palestine, to safety, we believed."

That was 65 years ago.

As an adult, Zwi Shalit lost his son. When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Arab agitators promptly declared their aim to "drive the Jews into the sea." The Shalit family survived, Zwi married and joined the coastguard, and his wife gave birth to twins, Noam and Joel. Like all Israelis, the two boys were drafted for a three-year stint in the military. In October 1973, when Syrian and Egyptian troops invaded Israel on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Joel's unit was sent to the Golan Heights. The Syrians outnumbered the Israeli forces, and Joel burned to death in his tank.

That was 33 years ago.

And now, as a grandfather, Zwi Shalit has lived through the kidnapping of his grandson. It was on a Sunday morning when Shalit, now retired, heard a report on the radio that an Israeli guard post at the border to the Gaza Strip had been attacked. Zwi Shalit was alarmed, because he knew that his 19-year-old grandson, Gilad, was stationed there. By noon, his worries had turned into bitter reality. Gilad had been kidnapped by Palestinian militias and was now a hostage, gone without a trace.

An undated picture of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

An undated picture of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

That was four weeks ago.

The attacks against Zwi Shalit and his family are getting closer -- in more ways than one. He lives in Kiryat Ata, a town near the Israeli port city of Haifa, only about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Lebanese border. He sits in an old armchair, looking at photographs of his loved ones and listening to the rumble of artillery. What he hears is the sound of Katyusha rockets, launched from territory controlled by Islamic militants from Hezbollah, impacting only a few kilometers from his house. Although no one was hurt in the seemingly random strike -- unlike the deadly attacks in Haifa that have claimed several lives -- it triggered yet another wave of panic among residents.

That was last Wednesday.

Whenever Zwi Shalit hears the sirens warning of each new rocket attack, the old man and his wife hurry into the living room in the interior of the house, as far from the windows as possible. The house has no basement, and the 60-second warning the air raid sirens supposedly provide doesn't leave enough time to reach the nearest bomb shelter. "We are at war again," says the man, who has been dealt more than his fair share of grief, but has no other choice but to persevere. "But haven't we always been at war? And what have we done to deserve this?"

Israel the victim

Israel -- the permanent victim. Israel -- the homeland of the Jews and a country whose very existence is constantly under threat. Israel -- a state on the brink of disaster, surrounded by enemies intent on its destruction. Forced to unite as a nation, set aside its internal battles and respond to external threats by defending itself at all cost. This is the essence of a widespread Israeli credo.

Click on the map for a larger view.

Click on the map for a larger view.

In the eyes of many Jews, their history is a tale of near constant suffering. The murder of millions during the Nazis' extermination campaign has forged a strong belief into the minds of the Jewish people: We shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter! This Auschwitz syndrome allows many in Israel to feel justified in placing their faith in the country's ever-growing arsenal. Israel has long been the strongest military power in the region, equipped with the most state-of-the-art and deadly weapons -- including nuclear ones.

Many Israelis see their worst nightmares confirmed by the kidnappings in the Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants and, even more so, by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia's unprovoked attack on an Israeli border post, which caused the death of eight soldiers and led to the kidnapping of two others. Hezbollah responded to Israel's large-scale retaliatory attacks by launching a hail of rockets on Israeli territory.

The ensuing escalation is more serious than anything that has happened in the Middle East in many years. Contrary to widely held beliefs, Israel's enemy is not only capable of striking villages in its northern border region, but also Haifa, the country's third-largest city, and Nazareth and Afula, more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Lebanese border. To make matters worse, Iran has supplied Hezbollah with even more sophisticated rockets with ranges of up to 75 kilometers (47 miles), which would enable the militants to strike beyond Haifa, well into the Israeli heartland. Hassan Nasrallah, the militant leader of Hezbollah, once said: "The Zionist entity is like a cancer in this region, and when a cancer is detected is must be wiped out." His Iranian ally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, clearly agrees, having said that the state of Israel should be "wiped off the map."

Can Israel survive under these circumstances?

Lebanon under attack

She was a woman in her twenties, pretty and vivacious, her entire life still ahead of her. Her parents were devout Shiites, but not so devout as to forbid her from wearing a brightly colored headscarf. She became a nurse because she wanted to help others. And she was even proud of her first name, Nimra. Translated as "tigress," she felt it suited her well.

A young boy who was injured in an Israeli air strike got a plastic rifle from his elder brother as he lay on a bed in Jaball Amel hospital in southern Lebanon's town of Tyre.

A young boy who was injured in an Israeli air strike got a plastic rifle from his elder brother as he lay on a bed in Jaball Amel hospital in southern Lebanon's town of Tyre.

If there is a God, then He hasn't been easy on his charge, Nimra Bidun, from the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre. He has put the woman, who has never done anyone harm, to one test after the other.

The first came on a June day in 1982. Lebanon had once again turned into a battlefield for the proxy wars of its neighbors. The Palestine Liberation Organization had established itself as a state within a state, and the Israelis, under the command of General Ariel Sharon, occupied Lebanon to drive out Yasser Arafat and his cohorts. The roar of fighter jets filled the sky above Tyre. A woman had just given birth at Behr Hospital when the air raid sirens went off. The doctor, sensing the danger, sent Nimra to hang a white sheet from the window. "I ran back, and then everything went black," she says, remembering the incident.

The bomb was a direct hit, completely destroying the hospital. No one but the nurse survived -- not the four mothers in labor, not the babies and the not the doctor. Nimra Bidun has only vague recollections of what happened in the next few hours. She remembers men from the Red Cross lifting her onto a stretcher and Israeli medics taking her across the border into Israel, where she was given emergency care and then sent back to Lebanon.

Despite having lost a lot of blood, Bidun survived. But her leg was horribly disfigured. She was no longer able to work as a nurse. The only ones willing to look after her in Tyre were members of Hezbollah, the militant "Party of God." They waged their war from the outskirts of the city or from hideouts in outlying areas, but in Tyre their main concern was to care for the people.

Bidun found a husband, a pensioner almost 30 years her senior, a man who was not exactly attractive and no great intellectual. But as a cripple her choices were limited. She returned to her family's village, Aitit, only 12 kilometers (about seven miles) from the Israeli border. But Aitit was hardly safe and saw daily artillery fire from both sides of the border. Fearing for her safety, Bidun took a significant step and moved to the capital, Beirut. She gave birth to a daughter four years later, and her husband's pension provided just enough money for the family to live in relative comfort. Her life had begun again.

Beirut, founded by the Phoenicians and ruled over the centuries by both the Romans and the Ottoman Turks, was an exhilarating city, a pearl perched on the Mediterranean shore. And it was finally rebuilding itself, after a longer and horribly blood civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. Suddenly Beirut was filled with a new self-confidence and a lust for life. Dance clubs began popping up on former battle sites, places where Christians had smashed the skulls of Sunnis and Sunnis the skulls of Shiites. Beirut's young people were literally dancing on graves.

And then, in the wake of the "Cedar Revolution" in 2005, the Lebanese even managed to oust their unwanted foreign masters by expelling the Syrians, who by then had become comfortable calling the shots in Beirut. But despite the Syrian departure, Hezbollah continued to play an important role, partly because, in Lebanese eyes, it had "defeated Israel militarily." Amid continuing losses, the Israeli occupiers withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, giving way to the radical Islamists. And in Nimra Bidun's view, Hezbollah also began to play an important role in Lebanon's politics. Bidun even voted for the Islamists, partly because of their social welfare activities and partly in the belief that the Israelis still occupied Lebanese territory -- the disputed Shabaa Farms.

Like most of her fellow Lebanese, Bidun approved of Hezbollah's periodic pinprick-like attacks against Israel. But she prefers not to comment on the group's abduction of the two Israeli soldiers. She simply shrugs her shoulders. All she knows is that the consequences have been fatal -- for Lebanon, her country. But they have also been devastating for the 47-year-old and her family.

The first ominous signs appeared last Wednesday, when the sky over southern Beirut grew dark with leaflets falling on the area's densely packed houses. The word "Fillu" -- "Leave the area!" -- was printed on the Israeli flyers.

Bidun and her family left as quickly as they could. Her daughter ran back to the house to retrieve her doll's yellow dress. Aside from a few towels and the little girl's toys, however, they lost most of their belongings. But they did manage to make it to relative safety, despite being slowed down by Nimra's disability. They went to a public shelter in a school in Verdun, a modern area of Beirut. Now the yellow doll's dress flutters in the window. Reduced to being refugees in their own country, the people in the shelter do their best to keep their spirits up.

Smoke rises from a Hizbollah stronghold in southern Beirut after an Israeli air strike.

Smoke rises from a Hizbollah stronghold in southern Beirut after an Israeli air strike.

But every few hours the shelter is filled with the thunder of Israeli bombs hitting their targets. Based on the location of the flashes and black clouds of smoke, Bidun, the tigress from Tyre, infers that her neighborhood has been bombed several times. Bridges, power plants and government buildings have been smashed to pieces, steel beams melted, concrete crushed as if by a giant hand and power lines reduced to tangled masses of wire. Bidun doesn't want to go back to see the destruction. She knows what a sad sight it would be, a sight as distressing as the vague memories she has of the ruins of the hospital where she was wounded.

For the first time in her life Bidun, already dealt such a poor hand by fate, no longer knows whether she will have the courage and strength to start again, to build yet another new life from the ruins. Fighting back tears, this normally stoic woman asks: "Whatever did we simple Lebanese do to the Israelis? I am not raising my child so that she will have to live through all of this again and again. Someone has to end this vicious circle."


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