4.0962 Israeli Diaries: Koren (1/233)
Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 31 Jan 91 16:14:40 EST
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0962. Thursday, 31 Jan 1991.
Date: Thu, 31 Jan 1991 17:48:34 GMT+0300
Subject: DIARY OF THE GULF WAR -- THE VIEW FROM HAIFA
Copyright 1991 Judith Koren, all rights reserved.
Thursday January 31st, 1991
Last night was the second consecutive night without an air-raid alert.
Even the last attack consisted of only one missile, which broke up over
the border. And strangely enough, these last two nights I haven't been
expecting one. The squat cartons containing the gas kits suddenly look
out of place on the living-room table. I feel as if we're emerging from
a tunnel. I am starting to pre-experience my future forgetting of life
with a gas mask. It's an uncanny feeling.
The rain pours down. There have been no weather forecasts since the
war started, nor all those statistical summaries on the State of the
Kinneret with which we usually, after heavy rain, congratulate both
ourselves and the heavens above. But to a human ant scurrying through
the dusk in down-town Haifa with ten loaded plastic shopping bags and
an umbrella that does little more than drip into them, it seems as if our
prayers have been answered and all the rain we didn't get from October
through the New Year has decided to bless the Holy Land in this one
The government says it has no intention of relaxing the emergency water
restrictions just because it rained. A few farmers protest; the rest
of Israel is too busy, being engaged in protesting the lack of enough
official forms with which to apply for increased State war insurance.
We are a raucous nation, and our current frustration (Because Of The
Situation) diverts our adrenalin and decibels to whatever outlets they
can find. And yet among ourselves, person-to-person, we are more
understanding than usual, more humane. I've remarked on it before,
yet it still amazes me. A kinder, gentler nation, "dafka" now, like
an eye in a hurricane. We're all in the same boat, this feeling says,
if we row hard together we can bypass the whirlpool that awaits us
in the hurricane's eye.
It's 5pm. People are hurrying home. The lady ahead of me at the
supermarket checkout counter commiserates with the checkout clerk.
You shouldn't have to work till 7:30, she says. After dark mothers
should be with their children. She doesn't say, B.O.T.S., it's
understood. The checkout clerk grimaces. Her boss believes in
sticking to a routine.
It's inhuman, the lady ahead of me says.
The checkout clerk shrugs and helps herself to a chocolate-coated
pecan from the selection of candy in my purchases. "Before I
weigh them," she explains. "You don't mind, do you?" No, I don't
mind. I wouldn't even mind if she took one after she weighed them.
She's sitting beside me in the same boat.
I accompany Liron on her "cat-duty" as usual. It isn't raining much
right now, but with every cloudburst the sloping street turns into a
river, and we wonder where to put the catfood so that it won't wash
away. Anyway the cats have disappeared, probably sheltering from
the rain; all except one young tabby who always insists on playing
hide-and-seek with Liron on the whole round. She calls him Stormy,
so no wonder he's out on such a night.
If Liron loses sleep over anything, it's over what will happen to
the street cats who don't have sealed rooms, let alone gas masks,
if Saddam mounts a chemical-weapons attack.
Liron has at long last had a letter from her best-friend of our
Sabbatical year in New York. She hurries to reply, and I decide
to add a note to the friend's mother, giving the reassurances adults
need and children forget. It doesn't occur to Liron to write about
missiles -- who'd be interested anyway? she asks. Her letter (the
parts I'm allowed to see, for some parts are Top Secret, as are parts
of Jessie's letter to her) is full of the important aspects of life:
please describe your new puppy and kitten; I love your hairstyle;
anecdotes concerning the inadequacies of teachers. To me she complains
that after two weeks at home she wouldn't even mind returning to
school, but you won't catch her confessing it to another 10-year-old.
Yair has had his school meeting and is in a state of shock. He swears
he has 20 hours of schoolwork to complete by Monday. This doesn't
prevent him from watching whatever ball game happens to be on TV,
unless and until forcibly prevented.
I don't hear the news about the Iraqi ground attack until I'm preparing
supper. I grieve for the 12 Marines killed. I'm also sorry for the 400
Iraqis. I can't help it. I can't forget that they are sons, husbands
and fathers; I can't forget that some of them are only 13. The call-up
age in Iraq is 13 to 54. If Yair had been born in Iraq instead of Israel
he'd be in the army right now instead of counting his bar-mitzvah presents.
Learning how to fight against attack helicopters with no air cover, because
his government has decided not to risk expensive planes to save cheap
lives. Nobody would have asked him whether he wanted to fight Americans.
I cannot understand how so many people insist that the Iraqi people are
as much as fault as their leader, that they support him and must take
the consequences. It seems to me like an easy way of side-stepping
difficult thoughts. People believe whatever they have been taught to
believe, and very often simply what they are told to believe. How can
we know how many people support Saddam and how many oppose him? In
Iraq you have to be a fanatic with no children or relatives to even
think of opening your mouth in anything but praise. What would the
U.S. say if someone argued that it's justifiable to bomb American
cities because the American people support Bush and must take the
consequences? -- even though we can be reasonably sure that a lot
more Americans support Bush than Iraqis support Saddam. It takes
a lot of fanaticism to support a leader who has slaughtered many of the
males in most of your country's families, over ten years, and is
now doing it again, and for no gain whatsoever. Most human beings
are not fanatics, and the Iraqis are no exception.
Also, inexplicably, I feel guilty. Saddam has pulled us into this war,
whether or not we actually fight; by forbidding us to fight, the U.S.
has assumed responsibility for us. I don't like to be assumed
responsibility for, even if it's done in American interests rather
than in ours. It makes me feel as if the Americans are fighting on
our behalf even though I know the U.S. really wishes we weren't here
right now to complicate the equation. It annoys me that my head has
trouble shaking itself free of all these emotions. When you're swamped
with pity, or guilt, or sympathy, it's hard to think straight. I notice
the same tendency in Bob Werman's reports, which are much more emotional
now than they were a week ago, and much longer while to me making
correspondingly less sense.
I would like to record, in opposition to the view from Jerusalem,
that I sleep very well at night. So do a lot of other people I know.
I suspect we are being portrayed as a nation of insomniacs only because
it is, by definition, the insomniacs who are awake at 3 am to comment
on the e-waves as a substitute for sleep.
I would also like to record, again in opposition to the news from the
capitol, that Nahman Shai indeed looks like a nice young man and no
doubt makes somebody's daughter a good husband, but he does not look
to me like a hero and he will "radiate believability" when the cows
come home (as the British English of another era so quaintly puts it).
After all, it makes no sense to employ as spokesman a person who
does not inspire trust and confidence; but nonetheless he has
the same job to do as the spokeswoman of the White House, and I
have no doubt that if his bosses think national security requires it
he will pull as much wool as possible over all our eyes, just as she
does. What is the point of spokesmen (?spokespeople?) in wartime, if
not to persuade people to believe what you want them to? Whether the
picture it suits you to propagate reflects "the facts" is a completely
On second thoughts, cut the phrase "in wartime" from that last question.
In politics it is always wartime; politics is war pursued by other means.
I am left alone a lot at work these days. Even my boss refrains from
reminding me of deadlines. (This is useful because I've been spending
a lot of time playing around with e-mail.) And none of the computer
equipment is malfunctioning; I have no patients to nurse. There have
been no dead terminals, flickering screens, noisy lines, beepy
bar-code readers or weepy librarians. I wonder how come everything
in our unbelievably noisy environment is suddenly behaving, but a
quick check of the CPU reveals that the system is simply being used
less, people having other things to worry about. Perhaps it's just
because the semester ended and they delayed exams for a week. You get
into the bad habit of blaming Saddam for everything.
Yesterday I found myself behind a commercial van with a death-announcement
for Saddam Hussein stuck to its back window. One of those big square
black-framed notices that we publish in newspapers and stick on
street corners when someone dies. The words SADDAM HUSSEIN in the
middle of the notice, in huge black letters, drew attention. I managed
to make out some of the small print above it, a parody of the usual
wording: "With joy and happiness we announce the death of our
unbeloved relative..." I would have liked to read the text below the
name, but it proved to be impossible without kissing the bumper of
the hearse. I wondered whether it was just a good joke, or whether
the driver believed in sympathetic magic (also not impossible in this
country). Good for a grin, anyhow.
A friend is collecting cakes for the Patriot crews stationed near Haifa.
One department of the library has clubbed together and, since it's
Tu-bi-Shvat, donated a huge carton of dried fruit instead of cakes. My
frient enlists my aid in composing a cute note to accompany and explain
the fruit. We settle for: "Tu bi-Shvat, which falls this week, is the
New Year for Trees. On Tu bi-Shvat we usually invite visitors out to
bare hillsides to plant trees, but since you've done enough sitting on
bare hillsides, we thought you might prefer a shorter, sweeter
I wonder whether the reference to the Patriot crews being stationed on
bare hillsides would have passed the army censor...
Palestinian leader (a lecturer at Bir Zeit university). He's suspected
of having collected intelligence regarding the exact location of Iraqi
missile hits and having passed it on to the Iraqis. It was decided
not to prosecute him, since a trial would reveal our own intelligence
sources; instead, he's to be held on "administrative detention" for
six months, under the laws of military occupation of the West Bank.
So much for the "facts".
the administrative detention is a disgrace. I prick up my ears in
surprise at these liberal views; but what he means is that the punishment
is not severe enough. If guilty, the man should be imprisoned for life;
if just a trouble-maker, he should be expelled. There is no doubt from
the MK's tone that he's sure Nusseiba is guilty as (not yet) charged.
I start to mull over the facts, sitting in my library where I've been
co-opted for late reading-room duty but the students are all at home.
It makes no sense to claim that a trial would compromise intelligence
sources, since sensitive trials can be, and have been, held in camera.
Nusseiba may indeed have spied for the Iraqis, but the information
he's accused of passing on is not too hard to collect and they probably
already had it. I conclude that the problem is not whether he spied
or not; the problem is that we want him out of the way. But we don't want
a trial, because it would result either in freeing him (if innocent) or
in jailing him for a very long time (if guilty). Obviously neither of
these alternatives is convenient to us. So we don't want him out of the
way for ever; we want him out of the way for just a few months. Say,
till the war is over and the peace process starts.
That's clear enough. He's a respected Palestinian leader, a cultured
man with whom one can talk. We are going to need respected Palestinian
leaders to talk to, to fill the gap between a shaky, disintegrating
PLO fast being discredited in this war (like King Hussein of Jordan) and
the hard-liners who won't talk at all. It's clear why we'll want him
around in 6 months time.
That leaves the question, why do we want him out of the way now? He
isn't actually doing much. The "intefadeh" has lost much of its
momentum because the camera crews are off filming more lethal battles.
He isn't likely to do anything that it's worth making a martyr of him
to prevent. On the other hand, political murder has been rampant on
the West Bank for months now: assassins knife anyone they suspect,
or whose enemies report, to be collaborating with the Israeli
authorities, and rival factions kill each others' adherents. As the
position of the PLO weakens, the rivalry will increase. "Moderate"
Palestinian leaders, meaning anyone who agrees to talk at all, will
be prime targets. Better to be out of the way; and the most
prestigious place to be out of the way in is in an Israeli prison.
I reach the conclusion that this is a form of protective custody.
Prediction: N. is one of the people we will end up negotiating with.