Israel Sees a New Threat: Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein is a good guy.

At least, Faoud thinks so.

Faoud, a Palestinian teenager, works behind the counter of a Galillee falafel shop serving travelling tour groups and Israeli soldiers. He was talking to me during the second week of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.

Dressed in a blue-and-white T-shirt with the word "Surfington" on it, Faoud said he favored an immediate Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia.

"If Iraq attacks Saudi Arabia, this is good. Saudi Arabia is run by America anyway," he told me.

I was travelling in Israel with a group of Massachusetts college campus journalists. The trip, which cost me $350, was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, an amalgamation of local Jewish groups. The avowed goal of the trip was to provide college journalists with an introduction to the issues and problems of the Arab-Israeli conflict, albeit, with a pro-Israeli spin.

But Faoud wasn't on the trip's itinerary. Although we had met days earlier with Radawan Abu Ayaish, a Palestinian journalist said to be the number-two person in the Intifada leadership, I had to seek out contacts with ordinary Palestinians and Israelis on my own.

Faoud, who initiated our conversation by asking me my opinion of Yasser Arafat, chair of the Palestinian Liberation Organization or president of Palestine--depending on which title you recognize. He explained to me that the falafel shop was now owned by Jews, who "stole my land."

The last question I asked Faoud, before finishing up my falafel and getting back on my tour bus, was about the state of Israel. I asked him if Israel should be allowed to exist.

At first Faoud did not respond. I asked him the question again.

"The Holy Koran says there should be one Palestine. One Palestine," he said.

The meeting with Faoud was significant within both the context of the trip and current events. During the previous days my group had met with Benjamin Netanyahu, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Likud government, who opposes giving back the Israeli-occupied territories; a member of Peace Now who seeks to find common ground within moderate Palestinian circles; and the Radawan, the Palestinian leader.

In a way, Faoud's words were shocking because they seemed to support Netanyahu's assertion that a Palestinian state would be used as a base from which Israel could be conquered.

Faoud's attitudes towards Israel and Iraq were shared by many Palestinians throughout the Middle East. Since my discussion with Faoud, protests in Jordan, Gaza and other sites throughout the region have shown that Palestinians were throwing their hearts and minds in support of the Iraqi strongman.

Another question I asked Faoud was personal: Didn't he, as a resident of Israel, fear Iraqi chemical attack?

Saddam Hussein had threatened on numerous occasions that he would destroy half of Israel with his arsenal of chemical weapons, and worse.

Faoud said he wasn't worried. Not at all.

But one thing my interviews and observations during the trip did reveal is that Israelis were very concerned about his threats.

Fear of Gas Attack

One morning, the Jerusalem Post, ran an suprising logo above its masthead: a gas mask. "Gasmask information, Page 2," read the words around a graphic of what looked like a vintage World War I gas mask.

The graphic underscored a fact of Israeli life to me: in Israel the shocking and unthinkable are the possible and commonplace. This graphic was positioned in the newspaper and presented in a way a local weekly paper in America heralds little league baseball information. In America, we have drawings of baseball bats and gloves. In Israel, they have pictures of gas masks.

That day I walked around Old Jerusalem and asked people--Israelis--what they thought about the troubles with Iraq.

One man, a seller of religious objects in a shop off of the Cardo, the heart of Jerusalem, told me he was very worried.

"There is more tension now than at any time since before the '67 war," he said, his face weary with worry. Just the night before Saddam Hussein had charged that Israel was repainting its fighter planes with American colors. Saddam Hussein had said Israel was planning to launch a preemptive airstrike similar to the bombing raid on his country in the early '80s. If this continued, he warned, Iraq would attack Israel.

Others shared the shopkeeper's concerns. There was a pair of Jerusalem grandmothers who told me they worried for their grandchildren, and their country. There was the young woman with sparkly earrings who said she felt the end of the world was coming. And even a hard-line city council member of a West Bank settlement said he was frightened.

Yet, I found two cultural responses amongst the Israelis that I really had not anticipated. Although they were worried, the Israelis dealt with pressure very stoically. Like Saxon warriors of the Dark Ages, Israelis behave fatalistically: since there is always the threat of war, they figure it is best not to dwell on it.

And there was another response linked to this, I believe; an absolute faith in the military and the military's ability to deal with any circumstance that arises.

The same people who told me they were frightened about Saddam Hussein--from the Jerusalem grandmothers to a 16-year-old worker at a frozen yogurt store--said they were confident that the army would protect them.

The politicians underscored this message in their speeches. In their responses to Saddam Hussein's threats, they sternly warned that Israel was more than capable of defending itself, and retaliating, against Iraqi attack.

But there was more to this faith in the military than simply a psychological longing for security. In Israel at least half the Jewish population practices Judaism in a secular way. These people find no need to assert their Jewishness because they live in Israel. Yet, for them, something has replaced religion--the state itself.

These are people who work in factories and kibbutzim, who serve in the army, who feel they have no other home but Israel. For them, serving in the army is the act which represents their greatest commitment to Israel Also the army, along with the intelligence agencies, is the institution which has saved Israel from defeat. Their technological precision and martial skill put the Israeli Defense Forces among the highest-ranked military forces in the world.

Yet the skill of the army and the important role it plays in Israeli society has created another, some would argue, pernicious affect on the country. By all accounts, the army has helped to forge a country where militarism and military subjects play a prominent role.

Young women wearing Levi's jeans and sweaters--like students in Harvard Square--can be seen carrying Uzis with groups of friends. It is customary in Israel for one member in a group of off-duty soldiers to be armed. Some of the best military historians in the world reside in Israel--at Hebrew and at Tel Aviv Universities. Indeed many of the worlds experts on blitzkrieg, tank warfare and the Wermacht, live there. And Karl Von Clauswitz's military treatise is displayed prominently at Tel Aviv University bookstore.

Perhaps the man who best exemplified this strand of Israeli culture during my trip was a Brooklyn-born man named Mike Ginsberg. Ginsberg had come to Israel just before the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He served in the army and eventually settled at Kibbutz Misguv Am, on the Lebanese border.

Ginsberg's large size, in a country where most are more wiry than burly, and strong Brooklyn accent are anomalies in Israel. This American who emigrated to Israel and brought his mother along with him is in charge of kibbutz security. Armed with a large handgun and a walkie-talkie with which he can communicate with military authorities, Ginsberg is on the constant lookout for armed men crossing the border from Lebanon into Israel.

Ginsberg lives in a kibbutz that has faced frequent terrorist attack. Once terrorists held several children hostage in the kibbutz's children's house. One child lost his life. But now Ginsberg claims that he is confident about his, and the army's ability to prevent trouble.

"I am the happiest guy in the whole world," said Ginsberg, standing before the Lebanese border where the signs of a battle between two Shiite Muslim factions--flares and white billowy puffs of smoke--are just beginning to show themselves. "As long as I'm on top of things, I'm in control of my own destiny here."

And for Ginsberg, who recalls being thrown out of a third floor classroom and being called a "Jewboy," and who has lived with constant violence since he moved to the kibbutz adjacent to the war-torn Lebanese border, "the rest of the world can go fuck itself."

Ginsberg's attitude is unfortunate, but understandable, considering the circumstances under which he lives. But, on a broader level, Israelis face a time of troubles before the current troubles are over.

Security analyst Joseph Alper, the last person to talk to my group, cited several potential outcomes of the current situation. If war breaks out between the U.S. and Iraq, Israel could be dragged in. And if it doesn't, Israel still faces the threat of Saddam Hussein and his bag of chemical tricks, and the more menacing possibility that he could soon develop the atomic bomb.

Even if nothing happens with Iraq, the prospects for peace in Israel are now precarious. Attitudes, such as Faoud's, have shamed and tragically disappointed members of the Israeli left wing. Proponents of talk with Palestinians now feel they have no one to talk to. The right wing has one attitude about this: we told you so.

For now, Israel faces many changes, however the current difficulties work themselves out. Beyond the troubles with Iraq, Israel faces the challenge of assimilating hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews. And beyond that, the future of Israel will be left only to events, and time.