Reflections on my trip to Israel

I was part of a 15-person “mission” to Israel from March 28 – April 4 that was run by the New England chapter of the Friends of the IDF. This is a non-profit organization that supports the welfare of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. The goals of the mission were to offer solidarity with the soldiers, learn about the latest developments in the conflict and related political issues, and more generally support the state of Israel and its central role as the homeland of the Jewish people.

I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. I grew up hearing stories of how my father’s homeland, Austria, had been invaded. He saw the German troops goose stepping down the cobblestone streets in front of his apartment. I learned of Kristallnacht when my grandfather was captured and taken hostage by the Germans. I have an aunt who was shot with her parents and thrown into a pit; the bullets missed her and she escaped, but not her parents. My great-grandmother disappeared one night at the hands of the Germans. Her fate will never be known.

In the late 1980s, I visited the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, where more of my family perished. A pamphlet that was given to me when I entered said that this was the world’s deadliest battlefield.

I came to accept and believe the phrase, “never again.” The Jewish people would never face such a catastrophe. We had our own state, Israel, and it was protected by extraordinarily strong military, the IDF.

I woke up on October 7 reading the news, and in a few hours realized that I was wrong. This was the worst day for the Jewish people in my lifetime. We had been invaded and lost our sovereignty. The failures that allowed that invasion were so horrific that that there is no word in English or Hebrew to describe them. Not only was Israel unprepared militarily, but it did also not expect Hamas to violate the norms of the Islamic religion openly and cruelly.

Although the scale the barbarity on October 7 did not approach death toll on the Auschwitz battlefield, it was worse in two respects. The Germans did not want the world to know of their crimes and sought to destroy all evidence of them. But Hamas proudly proclaimed its savagery, equipping its terrorists with GoPro cameras while they murdered, mutilated and beheaded innocent civilians. More gruesomely, Hamas made rape a key part of its arsenal. The Germans, in most cases, considered Jews to be too “dirty” for sexual contact.

That was the framework with which I viewed my visit. The IDF faced an unconscionably horrific enemy after suffering an unimaginably disastrous invasion. Yet, the IDF showed itself to be the most ethical army in the history of warfare and has conducted a successful military campaign. Nonetheless, much of the world fails to see this, and doesn’t comprehend the depravity of the enemy it faces.

Unfathomable depravity

We toured Be’eri which, along with Kfar Aza, were the two kibbutzim that suffered the greatest number of murders. Of its roughly 1,200 residents, 130 died in the massacre. The oldest was 77; the youngest was 10 months. We saw the dental clinic where paramedics desperately tried to save lives. Our guide played a recording of one of them, Amit Man, as she screamed for help while tending to the wounded. There was machine-gun fire until her voice was silent.

House after house had been burned. Hamas determined the most efficient way to kill people was to set their homes on fire. The residents could die from the smoke and fire or climb out a window and meet the barrel of a gun. (The Germans used similar tactics. They forced Jews into a building – usually a synagogue – and set it on fire and watched them perish.)

One of the residents of Be’eri was Vivian Silver, a well-known peace activist. She made regular trips to Gaza to take people to Israel for medical care. That made no difference to Hamas. She was identified only recently by the DNA from a single tooth that was found beneath eight inches of ash. It is quite possible that she was killed by someone whose life she previously saved.

From there we went to the site of the Nova music festival, where 362 of its several thousand attendees were mercilessly slaughtered. The campground, where many perished, now has a tree planted for each victim, with their picture next to it.

The pictures of those young people were devastating. Like all the others, they died only because they were Jewish and lived in Israel.

We drove along the “road of blood” as we left the Nova site, passing over patches of newly laid asphalt. Each of those was a marker of a death site where cars fleeing the festival were stopped, their victims executed, and the vehicles set on fire.

But the most disturbing stop was our next one, at the Nahal Oz army base. I had visited this base previously, about 20 years ago. There was a team of female soldiers who stared at their screens. They were watching the images from cameras that monitored the movements along the fence that separates Israel from Gaza, looking for unusual activity that posed a threat to the adjacent community.

Not much changed in the ensuing two decades. Those women were at their stations on October 7, and were the first to alert the IDF of the invasion. But Hamas knew of the significance of this base and made it one of its first targets.

It was not easy to breach the room where the women worked. It was bulletproof and fortified against normal grenades. But Hamas came with a special grenade that burned slowly at a very high temperature – about 3,000 degrees. The female soldiers were burned alive at their desks, in front of their screens, defending the people of Israel against its invaders until the last moments of their lives.

There was one station where we could see two joy sticks. This was for one of the soldiers to operate a remote-controlled machine gun. She used it to kill many terrorists until she ran out of bullets and was burned alive.

This picture shows what is now a gravel floor in what was the synagogue of Nahal Oz. But that simplicity belies the horror that took place there on October 7.

There is a 43-minute film that was produced by the IDF. It shows footage from the GoPro cameras worn by the terrorists. It has been shown very selectively, out of respect for the victims, but it has images of the worst crimes. I have not and do not plan to see this film, but we were told that one of the scenes was in this synagogue, on that floor, where a terrorist was sitting in a chair, calmly smoking a cigarette. He is surrounded by the bodies of eight deceased female soldiers.

We were accompanied on this visit by a reserve major general in the IDF, who was there on October 8. He could barely speak when he described the scene and the condition of those women, which he did in a single word: “Humiliated.”

In all, 72 brave soldiers lost their lives at Nahal Oz. But we were told that every terrorist who attacked that base was killed.

Some who will read this will say that those female soldiers were a legitimate military target. There is no place in the moral universe where that is true. Those brave women had the singular goal of protecting civilian lives, and they were violated and killed by terrorists, not by a legitimate military army.

The world’s most ethical army

Everything that I have written – and much more – is widely known throughout Israel and by the soldiers in the IDF. That is part of the challenge the soldiers face: how to execute a war without being blinded by the rage that every moral person feels on behalf of the victims of October 7.

But the IDF knows that it will be held to a higher standard than any other army. It knows that the world will need little evidence to accuse it of war crimes, as it has.

While the IDF was not prepared for this invasion, it was exceptionally well prepared to fight a war with the highest ethical standards. Every soldier must carry a small card or be subject to a fine. Among the dictates on that card: “Soldiers shall make use of their weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; they will maintain morality even in combat.”

I know of no instance in this war where those rules were violated. (The Hamas terrorists, by contrast, took drugs to amplify their rage.)

We were told of many examples of those ethical standards in action.

There was a situation where terrorists fired a rocket-propelled grenade from within a crowd of Gazans, killing two IDF solders. The remaining soldiers would not return fire because of the danger to the civilians.

We were briefed by IDF commanders who told us that a high percentage of IDF missions are aborted, almost always to protect civilian lives.

There was an elderly woman in a wheelchair, and people were asking the IDF soldiers to help her. They did not, because they could see that the wheelchair concealed a bomb ready to kill the soldiers. (This may be the clearest example of the “human-shield” tactic employed by Hamas, where it routinely endangers civilians.)

There was a Hamas terrorist who was spotted inside a building. The soldier observing this called in an air strike (which, like all other strikes, must be approved by an IDF legal officer). But at the last minute, he spotted some children in the room with the terrorist and called off the strike. He told us that he did this not just for the sake of the children, but for that of the pilot, who would have to live with the consequences of his actions.

Mistakes happen. We were there when seven World Food Kitchen workers were tragically killed by an IDF air strike. Indeed, as many as 20% of the 600 IDF soldiers died from “friendly fire.” That is in addition to three escaped soldier hostages who were mistakenly killed by the IDF.

But none of those deaths was intentional. In each case, the IDF conducts a review and changes its rules of engagement as necessary (that already happened in the case of three soldiers). In contrast, every Hamas civilian execution on October 7 was intentional. Every Hamas rocket is intended to kill civilians.

The great paradox

A telling test of whether an army has waged an ethical war is the ratio of civilian-to-enemy deaths. That is hard to determine in this case, since the Hamas-published casualties are unreliable. But the ratio is likely 1-to-1 and, at worst, 1.3-to 1. By contrast, the US ratio in Iraq was close to 9-to-1. Indeed, even the 1.3-to-1 ratio is unmatched in the history of modern warfare.

Armies do not orchestrate the evacuation of civilians, as the IDF did in northern Gaza.

The IDF is fighting the world’s most depraved enemy. But much of the Western world fails to see this. The IDF and Israel are accused of not just war crimes but of insanely misguided violations, such as genocide, apartheid and “settler-colonialism.”

The world started to turn against Israel on October 8. In a scene reminiscent of the Hitler youth marching in Munich in the 1930s, young Americans paraded in support of Hamas in New York and elsewhere. Instead of the National Socialists, it was the Democratic Socialists.

That was followed by a predictable onslaught of news coverage that has portrayed the conflict as a war by Israel against Gaza’s civilians. The chorus of opinion in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC casts Israel in a negative view. The media latches on to every tragic story of a dead Gazan baby or child, failing to recognize that Hamas is responsible. The death toll, as reported by Hamas’ health ministry, is accepted as fact without critical scrutiny.

Israel has already been forced to defend itself in the International Court of Justice against South Africa’s claim of genocide, and it faces more wrongful charges in that court and in the International Criminal Court.

The UN remains rooted in its antisemitic ways, unable to pass a resolution that calls for a ceasefire conditioned on the release of hostages.

US politicians have caved to the biased media coverage. A growing number are seeking to condition military support for Israel on its actions or, bizarrely, sell it only defensive weapons. Some have gone as far as accusing Israel of genocide.

This is the great paradox. The IDF, which deservedly takes enormous pride in its moral conduct, has waged this war with unprecedented care for civilian life. It cares more about civilians in Gaza than does Hamas. Yet this moral clarity disappears on the world stage.

This week, the Jewish people are celebrating Passover. One of the passages we read in the Haggadah says:

“In every generation, they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands.”

May we all pray that that the world’s leaders gain the moral clarity they need to support Israel, and that they do so to prevent the next generation from facing even greater evil.

About the Author
Robert Huebscher is a resident of Lexington, MA. He has been an entrepreneur over the last 40 years. In 2007, he founded Advisor Perspectives, which then became the most widely read newsletter by financial advisors.
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