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Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Posted January 20, 2009 | 05:05 PM (EST)

Reportage from Israel/Gaza


Yovan Diskin is the head of Shin Bet, Israel's storied and formidable Security Agency. He has, to my knowledge, never spoken. Not since the beginning of this war, at any rate. He is about forty years old. He is tall. Massive. A military man belied by jeans, tennis shoes and a t-shirt. He welcomes me at dawn in his office north of Tel Aviv, which, with its widened embrasures, looks like a bunker. "All of this for Sderot?," I started. This flood of fire, these victims, to stop the Qassam missiles in Sderot and the other cities and kibbutzes in the south of the country? "Yes, of course," he answers me, quite irritated. "There is no other State in the world that would tolerate seeing shells fall on the heads of its citizens every day." Then, as I tell him that I know this, as I tell him that, every time I go to Israel, I go to Sderot out of principle and solidarity, and as I also tell him that there were perhaps means, in negotiating, to avoid arriving at this juncture, he interrupts himself, oddly shrugs his shoulders, and, in the tone of someone about to get into technical details, continues.

"You must understand, in this case, who the members of Hamas are. We know them here, better than anyone. Sometimes I have the impression that I can know in real time, sometimes even predict, what their most minor decisions are. We have now become aware of three things." Someone brings him a cup of coffee that he swallows in one gulp. "Their strategy, which is also that of the Muslim Brothers, of whom they are scions and who, over the course of time, plan to take power in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Israel..." I signal to him that I know what he's talking about. "Anyway. Then there is the alliance with Iran, which can seem counterintuitive because of how serious contentions between the Sunnis and Shiites are, but whose entire history we have seen." The date: 1993. The theater: a council of Syrian, Saudi, West Bank, and Gazan ulema. The inspirer: the Egyptian El Khardaoui, importer of the Shiite suicide attempt strategy into Sunni terrain. "And then, finally, the essential: the network of three hundred tunnels, dug under the Egyptian border with the tacit approval of Moubarak who, every time we talked to him about it, swore that he was going to see to the problem, but who unfortunately did nothing because he was too afraid to go against his national Muslim Brothers..." We could, as Israeli pacifists do, tell ourselves that the destruction of these tunnels would have been sufficient. As is the case with me, we could gather that, this war having already exposed the existence of these tunnels to the world, and thus having put the Egyptians up against the wall, Israel could stop there and, today, cease fire. What we can't ignore is this fact -- this context: Gaza which, evacuated, is becoming not the embryo of the so-desired Palestinian State, but the advance base of a total war against the Jewish State.

I am close to Oum al-Fahim, in Baka El-Garbil -- one of those cities of Israeli Arabs who chose in 1948 to stay in their land and which, sixty years later, make up twenty percent of the country's population. This afternoon, the entire city is in the street. There are 15,000 people protesting the "genocide" in Gaza. There are militants coiffed in the checkerboard keffiyeh of Fatah. Others are waving the green flag of Hamas. I even see, at the head of the procession, young people wearing hoods and screaming, in the very heart of Israel, calls to intifada, to jihad, to martyrdom. "The Israel that you spew, isn't it your Israel?," I ask one of them. "Isn't it the State you are citizens of, with the same name and the same rights as its other citizens?" The boy looks at me as if I were crazy. He tells me that Israel is a racist State that treats him as sub-human, forbids him from going to university and to nightclubs, and, as a consequence, that Israel can expect no loyalty from him. On that note he catches up with his friends, leaving me to my perplexity: the solidity of a democracy that, in a time of war, is dealing with the fact that one out of five citizens is bordering on political secession -- and the vertiginous frailty of a social tie that could easily come undone from the inside. Another context? No. But the situation of Israel.

"Nothing justifies the death of a kid," Asaf, 33 years old, tells me. He is the owner of a restaurant in New York, and in his "reserve" periods, pilot of a Cobra helicopter. "Nothing. And that's why, when the risks exists, when I realize in my cockpit that I can harm civilians in aiming at a military target, I pull back and return to base." I challenged Asaf to bring me proof of what he was saying. And that is how I find myself here, in the Neguev on the Palmachim base, the holy of holies of Israeli technology where the notorious anti-missile Arrow missiles were tested. Asaf's on-board videos. In a recording of a January 3rd conversation, an interlocutor on the ground informs him of his decision to stop everything because the "terrorist" he has in his line of sight has just been joined by a child. And what incredible films -- I screened four -- of already-launched missiles turning back in mid-course and exploding in a field when the pilot saw a civilian appear on his screen, or saw that the targeted jeep was pulling into the garage of an apartment building whose occupants had not been alerted (as is customary). I seriously doubt that everyone has the same scruples. Otherwise, how to explain the too numerous and unacceptable bloodbaths? But it is important to say that there are Asafs in Tzahal, to say that the procedures direct them to act like Asaf, in short, to say that Asaf is not the exception but the rule -- and too bad for the cliché that wants to reduce Tzahal to a bunch of brutes victimizing women and the elderly.

Ehud Barak at home. Yesterday, I saw him surrounded by his generals in Palmachim. And today I find him in this long sitting-room that seems to have been constructed around the two pianos which he plays like a virtuoso. He also evokes the moral dilemma that confronts his army. He describes the calculations of a Hamas that installs its arms depots in the courtyards of schools, of hospital rooms, of mosques, precisely because it knows the modus operandi of the Israelis. "We have two choices," he explains to me with, I swear, a strategist's curiosity facing an unprecedented tactic. "Either we have the information and do not strike - they have won. Or we ignore it and strike - then they film the victims, send the images to television, and have also won." I get ready to ask him how the man from Camp David, the Dove who, nine years ago, offered to Arafat the keys to the Palestinian State that he was after, personally saw the dilemma. And I am also about to object that Israel would not be in this situation without the series of missed opportunities, of faux pas, of blindness of the governments that followed. But the phone rings. It's Condoleezza Rice who is calling to pressure him, as it turns out, to reach a cease-fire very quickly. "Why very quickly, in your opinion?" The minister-pianist smiles... "Because, in the next ten days, the cease fire will either be her accomplishment, Condi's, or that of Barack (Obama) who will steal her 'legacy'."

Amos Oz is distraught. I find the great writer, the author of Aidez-nous à divorcer the conscience of the country and, in particular, of the Peace camp, in Jerusalem at the home of our mutual friend Shimon Peres. He recalls how Tzahal had to treat the affair of the "genocide of Jenine" (66 dead, among whom 23 Israelis). Then, at the time of the war with Lebanon, the case of the Cana drama -- a remake, according to some, of the assault on the Warsaw ghetto. We also speak of the terrifying weapons that Tzahal would use (and whose effect would be to "swallow" oxygen around the point of impact). But the rumor du jour--the story that they [Tzahal] would have drawn a hundred people into the Zeitoun zone before firing into the crowd seems so outrageous that he doesn't know how to make heads or tails of it, and doesn't even understand how it came into being. It seems to him that everything started with a vague witness account taken down by an NGO. Then a few journalists: "Let the press in -- how can we refute hearsay stories if we're not there?" Then it was the planetary village of media that got all worked up: "Tzahal appears to have... Tzahal might have... Dr. X confirms that Tzahal is at the origin of..." Ah, the poison of these subtle and so-called cautious conditionals! In two days, we will no longer be talking about the Zeitoun rumor. But what will the world conclude? That it's because it was absurd? Or because one horror tops another, and that Tzahal would have in the process climbed one more rung on the ladder of abomination and crime? Oz, the Camus of Israel. Disinformation, or the Hebrew myth of Sisyphus.

Another rumor whose unfounded character I was able to verify -- this time, myself: that of the "humanitarian embargo." I skip over the case of the Shiba Hospital in Tel Aviv whose deputy director, Raphi Walden, explains to me that seventy percent of the patients are Palestinian. I skip over the case of the ambulances accidentally hit by Tzahal, but intentionally blocked by Hamas' Ministry of Health, who takes its own civilians hostage, and who especially does not want to see them cared for at the Soroka hospital in Beer Sheba. I gathered the decisive information on Wednesday, January 14, at the Keren Shalom terminal: on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, a hundred trucks pass, like every morning, under the vigilant eye of NGO representatives. Flour... Medicine... Baby food... Blankets... Nothing, nobody, and most of all not the usual humanitarian bandage will alleviate, here as elsewhere, the suffering of the families who have lost one of their own. But the facts are the facts. And the fact is that more than 20,000 tons have entered since the beginning of the operation under the auspices of Unicef or the World Food Program. Like Colonel Jehuda Weintraub -- who was in another life the author of a thesis on Chrétien de Troyes, and who serves in the "Coordination" of the aid effort at the age of sixty -- tells me: "War is always horrible, criminal, full of fury; why, in the face of such atrocity, do we need to add lies?"

The mood intensifies in Paris. Jean-Marie Le Pen declares that Gaza is a concentration camp. Others, from the radical left, thunder that there has not been a worse massacre of Muslims than that of the Gazans in a long time. What about the 300,000 Darfuris, friends? And the 200,000 Bosnians? And the dozens of thousands of Chechens that Putin was going to "shove into the latrines" -- and that did not make you shed a tear? Anxious, unlike you, to try at the very least to go and to see, I went at nightfall -- embedded in an elite Golani unite -- this Tuesday, January 13, to the suburbs of Gaza-City, the Abasan Al-Jadida quarter, a kilometer north of Khan Younes. I know, having avoided it all my life, that the point of view of the embedded is never the good one. And I am not going to claim to have captured the spirit of this war in a few hours. But having said that, I give my witness account. The combatants of Warsaw did not have, unfortunately, anti-tank mines like the one that had just exploded under the wheels of a vehicle that passed twenty minutes before ours. Their assailants didn't have the lassitude, the profound disgust of war that Commandant Guidi Kfirel and the four reservists that accompanied us express. And then, finally, I may be mistaken, but the little, the very little, that I see (buildings plunged into the darkness, but standing, the neglected orchards, Khalil al-Wazeer street with its closed shops) indicates an afflicted city, transformed into a mousetrap, terrorized -- but certainly not razed in the same sense as Grozny or certain quarters of Sarajevo back then. Perhaps will I be proven wrong when the media is finally let into Gaza? This is, once again, a fact.

Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. He recounts, not without humor, the ballet of the hurried mediators. He comes back to the double game of Mubarak, who the international community will clearly have to force to close his border to Bedouin smugglers. But here he changes tone. And, in a quieter voice, as if in confidence, he starts telling me about Abou Mazen's last visit three weeks ago, in this office, in the same seat where I find myself. "I made him an offer. 94.5% of the West Bank. Plus 4.5% in the form of the exchange of territories. Plus a tunnel, under his control, linking the West Bank to Gaza and equivalent to the missing 1%. And, as for Jerusalem, a logical and simple solution: the Arab quarters for him; the Jewish quarters for us; and the Holy Places under joint Saudi, Jordanian, Israeli, Palestinian, and American administration. Abou Mazen asked me to leave the map on which I had drawn my map. I didn't do it because I know him and I know how, the next time, he could have taken my paper as a point of departure for a counter-negotiation. But anyway... The offer is there... I'm waiting..." Too good to be true? Could we have come so recently so close to peace?

Abou Mazen is not in Ramallah, capital of moderate Palestinians. Neither is Yasser Abdel Rabbo, with whom we supported back then the Geneva plan for peace, and who is also in Cairo. In their stead, in an apartment building downtown, I see Mustapha Barghouti, President of the Palestinian Relief Society -- as well as Mamdou Aker, doctor, moral authority and veteran of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Neither men take seriously an offer of peace made by a Prime Minister on his way out. Both speak with severity about Abou Mazen, guilty of instating a "police State." And I sense most of all how they take care especially not to say anything that appears to condemn Hamas, whose Palestinian streets, they know, are united. And yet... Thinking back on it, listening to the first tell me about his nostalgia for the "Saudi plan" of the coexistence of the two States, and seeing the second become animated just at the mention of his published "Letter to Itzak Rabin" in 1988 by the Jerusalem Post because Arab newspapers rejected him, and finally observing, on my way back, the appearance of young people and the unveiled faces of young girls in line, with me, to enter Jerusalem at the Kalandiya checkpoint, I catch myself believing anew. They are there, of course, the interlocutors of Israel. They are there, the partners of future peace. A peace in spite of everything. A peace beyond devastation and tears. A peace of reason, without effusion and enthusiasm -- but perhaps, for that, more than ever at our fingertips. Two peoples, two States. A dry sober peace.

Translated from the French by Sara Phenix.