ONE OF THE most unique protest movements in modern history has sprung up in the streets of Israel -- a kind of military coup, potentially, by popular democratic means. Frontline reserve troops of the Israel Defense Forces, veterans of the recent debacle in Lebanon, are turning out in the streets, under the banner of the Israeli flag, calling for the resignations of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. The soldiers are demanding the immediate creation of a commission of inquiry into the mismanagement of the war.
The protesters come from some of the most elite combat units in the army. They also have brought into their ranks the underclass civilians of northern Israel who, during the war, huddled in ill-smelling bomb shelters, cringing against the daily rain of Katyusha rockets and missiles -- nearly 4,000 in all -- launched by Hezbollah.
What makes the soldiers’ movement so unique is that unlike most groups who assemble to protest a war, these demonstrators are not arguing that the war shouldn’t have been waged. Rather, they’re furious because it was stopped too soon, before they could dislodge Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. Israel’s decision to pull back its troops has left the Iranian-backed terrorist army in place with an arsenal of about 8,000 missiles still aimed at Israel’s northern cities and towns.
The soldiers want to know why their ground advance was mysteriously brought to a halt in mid-stride, leaving them to wait like sitting ducks, without a mission, while Hezbollah’s superbly trained and disciplined fighters picked them off. They want to know why their field orders changed five, sometimes six times, a day, to no apparent purpose. They also demand to know why some of the troops went for three days and nights without food or water while under constant, withering fire.
In the final days of the conflict, with a U.N. cease-fire resolution close to passage, Israel made one last push with ground troops. But just when the army seemed on the verge of headway, officials brought that drive to an abrupt halt. In this last abortion, at least 24 soldiers died. This is the equivalent, with Israel’s small population, of 1,200 Americans killed: a full-blown catastrophe.
The soldiers want to know why. Indeed, the entire nation is asking how 12,000 missiles could be hidden by Hezbollah within a highly developed network of seemingly indestructible, perfectly camouflaged bunkers, and how so many fell unimpeded on the people of northern Israel. Israelis don’t understand how the government could fail to know that Hezbollah was equipped with high-tech surveillance devices so accurate that, according to DEBKAfile (debka.com), a website run by former Israeli intelligence officials, Hebrew-speaking operatives of the terrorist militia would on occasion call to Israeli troops and use the names of a unit’s commanding officers for taunts such as: “Hey, where’s your Lt. Yoram today?” According to the website, Hezbollah even eavesdropped on frontline troops speed-dialing home on their cellphones, gleaning intelligence from these conversations.
Beyond fury at the utter lack of preparedness and the seeming callousness of decision makers, something else is lurking beneath the soldiers’ protest: a feeling that the war illuminated an absence of genuine values within the heart of the nation itself, underscoring some of the broad changes that have taken place in Israel in recent years.
This is a very different country from what it was 25 years ago. In recent times, Israel has, for instance, considered an initiative to transform the IDF from a conscript army (in which virtually the entire population was called upon to serve) into a volunteer force. Privatization of everything from public utilities to financing for urban infrastructure is underway. Rampant consumerism, addiction to popular culture and an American-style absorption with self to the exclusion of all else have left portions of the population ignored.
Such capitalist-style indifference to the fate of your fellow man may be fine for the fleshpots of New York and L.A., but it could be ruinous to the inhabitants of a land under perpetual military siege and facing the threat in the not-too-distant future of nuclear annihilation. Those who might be called on to offer up their lives against Islamic fundamentalist fanatics want at least to know that the state serves their interests. Instead, these days, they feel exploited.
Three hours after Hezbollah abducted reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Halutz sold off more than 120,000 shekels (about $27,000) worth of stock in his portfolio, spurring widespread speculation that he didn’t want to lose money in the event of a war. And then, when the war was underway, while troops perished needlessly in northern Israel and residents cowered in their shelters, citizens in Tel Aviv continued to lounge on beaches, dance in discotheques and obsess about their pedicures and tans.
That navel-gazing sector of Tel Aviv is now called, disdainfully, “The Bubble,” and if the soldiers’ movement is any indication, the bubble is about to burst.