By Daniel Gordis
Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel’s only major international hub, lies just inland from the Mediterranean Sea. When heading to Europe or North America, therefore, the standard takeoff route is a simple westward one; as the plane lifts off, you can look out the window, see Tel Aviv, then the beach, and then the sea as you leave Israel behind.
But that was not the route we took when I departed Israel the other day. We headed not west, but east, and then banked left, heading north, over the middle of Israel. Only when there was a fairly significant distance between the plane and the north edge of the Gaza Strip did the pilots make a left turn and head back out toward the sea.
That seemingly innocuous change is a metaphor for Israelis’ mindset after a month of war against Hamas. Hamas’s military wing, even if fairly well-trained and armed to the teeth, is “merely” a terrorist organization. Israel, in contrast, has a world-class army with enormous firepower. The Israeli Defense Force has reduced swathes of Gaza to rubble and has killed more than 1,500 people, about half of them terrorists; but it is lost on no Israelis that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who is polling exceptionally well) has not been able to fulfill his promise that Operation Protective Edge (which Israelis are calling not an Operation but a War) would stop the rocket fire from Gaza. Even commercial planes, it seems, must sneak away from Hamas before it is safe for them to head for the sea.
This is more than a war; it is a massive earthquake. Unlike Operations Cast Lead in 2009 and Pillar of Defense in 2012, both of which ended in Israel battering Hamas and winning a few years’ relative quiet, this war is likely to prove a turning point in Israeli consciousness. This battle too may end with inconclusive military results; but it will have major impact on Israeli society for a long time ahead, with profound implications for the possibility of peace with any of the Palestinians and the likelihood that Israelis would willingly cede more territory after what they have witnessed this month.
While Netanyahu promised to end the rocket fire, it is the tunnels that changed everything. While military intelligence knew that Hamas had been digging into Israeli territory for years (though it may not have known how many tunnels there were), most of the public did not. The realization that these were anything but crude excavations, but rather highly professional construction, through which armed terrorists could sprint in groups and even ride motorcycles through Israeli territory in the hopes of conducting major attacks and taking prisoners back into Gaza, has shaken Israeli society to its core. That is why, despite heavy IDF casualties, some 86 percent of Israelis favored pressing the battle rather than agreeing to a ceasefire last week.
Some Israeli villages surrounding Gaza are now ghost towns; many residents simply refuse to return home. They do not believe the IDF’s assurances that all the tunnels have been found and destroyed, and are beyond frightened that terrorists could pop out of the ground, quite literally, in their backyards. Israelis are united to a degree not seen in a long time, because they feel threatened as they have not in many years.
And, many are pointing out, none of this would have happened had Ariel Sharon not pulled out of Gaza in 2005. Many are now convinced that if the pull-out from Gaza was foolish, a parallel move on the West Bank would be suicidal. Once again, as was the case during the Second Intifada a decade ago, Palestinian violence may have dealt the Israeli political left a death blow.
Hamas has exacted a high price from Israel these past weeks. But it has also awakened a sleeping giant. The question now is whether the Palestinian cause is furthered, or dramatically weakened, by the fear this war has created.