Harriet Gimpel

That’s Life

Saturday morning, without the workday rush, time when you can talk about last week and the week ahead or plan your next vacation. So, it seemed perfectly normal for me to ask, “Who removed the 15,000 bodies in Gaza from the rubble after we bombed them?”

A normal question, that I shared later in a phone conversation with a friend and colleague. Reacting, despite her empathy, she asked how we know it’s 15,000. Because that’s the data that the Board of Health in Gaza publishes? Is there a credible crosscheck?

The Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces says we do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. The data and analysis presented by Prof. Yagil Levy in Haaretz about the abandonment of that policy struck me as sadly convincing. He explains a crosscheck built into the data.

But, “the IDF said…,” and I recall the adage: actions speak louder than words.

One evening last week, I asked about two Palestinians killed the day before on the West Bank. Why? Immediate reaction from first person asked, “They must be members of Hamas,” and another friend responded, “I don’t know, but if they’re Hamas, I don’t care.” Then I ask again, why an 8-year-old child the week before? “Accident,” is less than convincing. Why?

In discussion with a group of Palestinians from the West Bank, an Israeli woman asked about the two Palestinian men publicly executed on electric poles in Tulkarem on November 24, 2023, after alleged collaboration with Israeli forces. The Palestinians applauded it. The Israeli, reframed the question, “Without a trial, you think this is acceptable?” In this group discussion among Israelis and Palestinians who declaratively share a commitment to ending the violence, to finding a path to reconciliation, the Palestinian response was unequivocal: they don’t deserve a trial after leading Israeli forces to three terrorists (who were then eliminated by Israeli forces). As Israelis, we were appalled by the uniform response of our Palestinian counterparts.

How does the Western world see the demise of Osama Bin Laden? How many people called for his capture and fair trial? Admittedly, not me. How, then, do I get away with saying, as I do, that I have always objected to the death penalty? I object to the death penalty as a sentence in an ostensibly fair trial. But am I essentially condoning a death penalty without fair trial in certain situations, yet surprised by others who do the same? Proportionality differences, cultural differences, different prisms through which the light is fractured? In Israel, a prisoner always a potential card in exchange for a hostage held by terrorists.

Repeatedly, I reiterate, I am fine. Because I am. Because I am fortunate. Because my life goes on as usual. Because I read something by somebody else more or less like me, and she wrote that Israel, and every Israeli is changed and will never be the same after October 7, 2023. Because another friend casually included the new given statement in a conversation yesterday: Israel is a state in a state of post-trauma, we are all in a state of post-trauma. We wrap our apologetics to the universe around that because we are fortunate.

How did I dare to have a nightmare-ridden night? Honestly, I don’t know what triggered it. I watched a harmless Netflix series and went to sleep. Within 90 minutes, I woke up. I heard the next morning that I had shouted out in my sleep. I don’t know if it was that time or the 90 minutes after that, or two hours later when I woke again and again, with variations on the nightmare that I won’t even share here. All I can do is reprimand myself, for how dare I have such a nightmare when so many Israeli citizens personally experienced that nightmare, when over 1,200 Israelis didn’t survive to lose sleep over it.

The right to defend ourselves is not what I question, yet invariably it leads me to parallel lines of thinking in the irreconcilable arguments in my head. At times I look beyond myself and argue one thread, perhaps hoping to learn the counterargument I need to strengthen that other anguishing thread in my head.

In a moment, I hear about the high morale and the dedication of the soldiers on the battlefields. There should be comfort in knowing these young women and men are willing to risk their lives to protect the State of Israel and our future. Should they really have to be there? This question leads to the evidence showing Israel had the information which should have led to pre-empting the attack on October 7. My threads of thought, on each parallel track, become frayed like the fringe at the end of the shawl that the wind lifts from my shoulder, the shawl meant to warm and comfort my shivering.

There are infrequent air raids where I live, a 20-minute trip from Tel Aviv. On Thursday, the first evening and first candle of Chanuka, we were discussing what to prepare for dinner the following evening. By the candlelight associated with miracles, it seemed reasonable to anticipate an air raid alarm the following evening. There is a heavy iron sliding window to be closed in the safe room within 90 seconds of an alarm sounding. I strongly suggested to Haim that we close it in advance on Friday, because with five granddaughters and their parents conceivably having to go into the safe room, we should relieve any foreseeable stress.

Some things don’t make sense. If you ask the simplest of questions, it doesn’t make sense. If you repeat a mantra from the narrative constructed by your army, or your Ministry of Education, or your Ministry of Welfare, or your Ministry of Health, or their ministries, and ask no questions, presumably there is comfort in self-justification. But ask about the human shields, about the Red Cross failure to bring medication to Israeli hostages in Gaza, an UNRWA teacher holding hostages, schools and hospitals as arsenals, Hamas hoarding the minimal humanitarian aid intended for Gazan civilians subject to the retaliation for the former’s actions. And proportionality is just an immeasurable, effectively irrelevant term.

We tell ourselves we must be justified, or we wouldn’t… because we attribute some kind of moral supremacy to ourselves. If we gave up on vengeance and just wanted safety, security, peace, would there be another way to rid ourselves of the fear of terrorists? Is there a government in whose hands I could place my safety, with confidence, in whose hands I could place my faith that soldiers are not sent to do anything but protect our safety? Another friend responds to that, and her response is not affirmative. Yet, she speaks to me about the morale among the soldiers that her son on reserve duty in Gaza reports. He describes the historic moment, a kind of privilege, comparable to his grandfather’s heroic stories of his military service during the Yom Kippur War.

Like acknowledging the Nakba, will it take 70 years until we allow the injustices of this war, at face value, to penetrate the mainstream public consciousness? I won’t ask my friend that question. While her children are risking their lives, I won’t challenge what we are doing, the mission her children are part of, for us. With whatever reservations, I acknowledge this is one of the strands of the threads, of the fringe, of the shawl that just doesn’t reach my other shoulder.

There could be one less component, one less thread, if I were not compelled to believe reports by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel showing the daily, repeated, acts of violence, eviction, effectively deportation, scare tactics by extremist Jewish West Bank settlers against innocent Palestinians who just want to live their normal lives, at least like mine.

Yet another terrorist incident inextricable from the complexities of Israeli society: a brave Israeli, the late Yuval Kestelman, saved the lives of other Israelis from a terrorist. When IDF soldiers arrived, he followed the rules – raising his arms as if in surrender, removing his shirt, putting forth his Israeli ID. There are rules of fire – when it is permitted to begin and when you are required to stop. He was shot. In the footage I saw, it didn’t look like an accident, but I am not qualified to judge the accused. I don’t have the evidence. I have questions.

The least I can do is to take some measure of responsibility to promote the peace I consider unsustainable, for whatever it’s worth, for whatever the duration of the interlude will be. In that context, it is my responsibility to demand a higher moral standard of my people.

I am not judging the accused. I am judging the situation. The Prime Minister of Israel said, “That’s life.”

No. That’s death.

— Harriet Gimpel –  December 9, 2023

About the Author
Born and raised in Philadelphia, earned a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 1980, followed by an M.A. in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harriet has worked in the non-profit world throughout her career. She is a freelance translator and editor, writes poetry in Hebrew and essays in English, and continues to work for NGOs committed to human rights and democracy.