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What are Israelis fighting for?

The country is fighting both for life and for its way of life

In recent days, the price Israelis are paying for the war with Hamas has risen dramatically. The number of IDF casualties climbed past 60 — a steep price for a society so sensitive to these losses that we take each of their deaths personally, attend their funerals en masse, and make condolence visits to their families by the thousands. The kidnapping this morning of an officer from the same Givati infantry unit in which my son did his regular army service, reportedly carried out after the cease fire had begun, has impressed upon us a sense of our young men’s vulnerability even greater than that brought about by the war’s fatalities. At the same time, images of destruction from Gaza, twisted by media coverage that strips the conflict of context, are leading to further demonization of the Jewish state in Europe and even in some sectors in America. By rejecting initial U.S. calls for a ceasefire, Israel’s leadership also risked straining relations with our leading ally, which raises the specter of diplomatic isolation, at least in the short term.

Whether the ceasefire that evaporated today can be restored or whether war will go on, hard questions will be asked as to whether it was worthwhile for Israel to respond to Hamas’s rocket fire and use of attack tunnels with a prolonged ground offensive. It is therefore crucial for Israelis, and those around the world who support our position or are open to considering its merits, to understand what we are fighting for.

Part of the answer is obvious. Hamas has indiscriminately benen shooting rockets at 24 of our 25 most populous cities—all but Nazareth, whose residents are Arab. They carved attack tunnels that go deep into Israeli territory, enabling terrorists to kill or kidnap civilians and soldiers in unthinkably large numbers. To regain security, Israel needs to destroy the rockets, launchers, and tunnels, as our leadership has stressed. But more is at stake than these operative aims, leading our most articulate advocates to speak of a “war for our home.” What, then, is this war about?

We are fighting to ensure the continued existence of a Jewish state in the inhospitable Middle East. Though Hamas lacks the resources to threaten Israel’s existence, its efforts must be seen in a larger context, in which states and terror groups have sought for the better part of a century to prevent the founding of Israel and to destroy it once it was established. Five times over the course of three decades, beginning with the War of Independence in 1948 and ending with the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel defeated conventional armies from countries with far larger populations. In doing so, we earned the grudging recognition that our neighbors could not physically destroy us. Consequently, Egypt agreed to make peace in 1978 and other Arab states have refrained from conventional attacks since then.

In the last decade and a half, there have been a series of attempts to undermine Israel, this time through unconventional means, as quasi-states on our borders have used terror against our civilians while shielding their fighters and arms within their own populations. Their purpose is to make Israelis’ lives untenable, weakening our state from within, while leading the IDF to retaliate and cause the deaths of Arab civilians, undermining our standing internationally. Their credo was trumpeted by Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah, who in a May 2000 speech given after the IDF pulled out of Lebanon, used a Quranic parable to claim that Israel, “which owns nuclear weapons and the strongest war aircraft in the region,” is actually “feebler than a spider’s web.” A half year later, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA), together with its leading terror groups, began deploying hundreds of suicide bombers, explosives strapped to their bodies, to carry out lethal attacks in our cities. Israel prevailed through Operation Defensive Shield, but only after a thousand Israelis, most of them civilians, had lost their lives.

During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hezbollah launched a more sophisticated campaign in which it rained rockets on civilian targets as far south as Haifa and Tiberias. Despite errors, Israel prevailed, destroyed a substantial part of Hezbollah’s arsenal, and secured a UN-brokered cease-fire that included a commitment to disarm Hezbollah. In 2007, after Hamas violently overthrew the Fatah-led PA leadership of Gaza, it accelerated the launching of rockets it had begun after Israel ceded Gaza to the PA two years earlier. In 2008, Hamas violated an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, leading Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead in which the IDF destroyed substantial numbers of rockets and launchers, killed or captured hundreds of Hamas fighters, and imposed a cease-fire. In 2012, after Hamas resumed rocket attacks, Israel carried out the Pillar of Defense operation, using air power and artillery to degrade the terror organization’s infrastructure.

It took five wars to persuade our neighbors we cannot be eradicated conventionally. We are now in the fifth conflict of the new, non-conventional variety, launched to test the proposition that the Jewish state is a spider web that can be plucked apart strand by strand. We Israelis are fighting to show that we cannot be defeated this way either, and will endure until our neighbors accept that we are here to stay.

We are also fighting to sustain our way of life as an embattled democracy seeking to maintain its values in a region that has proven uniquely hostile to liberalism. We have won the wars imposed upon us while strengthening our commitment to human rights within our country and in dealing with enemy civilians. To maintain this balance, Israel must prevail militarily since a failure to do so would threaten our existence, and uphold our values, lest we undermine our ability to maintain the kind of society that makes that existence worthwhile to most Israelis.

This challenge is especially great today, as Hamas has reached new lows in kidnapping and murdering teenagers, firing rockets at populated areas, stationing weapons and fighters in hospitals and schools, and forcing its own civilians to act as human shields. Against such an opponent, we must redouble our efforts to live according to our principles. That is why our pilots abort attacks on military targets in the last minute if they detect a heavy civilian presence, and why our ground troops fight under self-imposed restrictions that have heightened casualties on our side. Though Israelis have not been perfect in this respect, either on the home front or in combat in Gaza, we have, on balance, shown an extraordinary commitment to the sanctity of life, knowing that if we win by fighting as Russians or Egyptians have against their Islamist opponents, we will bring about devastating long-term consequences to the Jewish state.

If, however, Israel maintains its liberal values by refraining from the actions needed to achieve our operational goals, the consequences would likewise be devastating. The perception would be strengthened that Israel, precisely because of its respect for human rights, is vulnerable, which would only invite further attacks from Hamas and other quarters. We are fighting, then, to preserve our liberal democracy while showing, in Lincoln’s words, that a nation “so conceived and dedicated can long endure”—even in the Middle East.

Despite the cost, we must show that the Jewish state cannot be displaced and that we are a liberal democracy that knows how to fight for its life, and for its way of life.

About the Author
Dr. Daniel Polisar is executive vice president of Shalem College, the first liberal arts college in Israel. He researches and writes on Zionist history and thought, Middle Eastern politics, and higher education. Since October 8, he has been leading an effort to provide essential gear for IDF soldiers, and is now spearheading a drive to raise $3 million to give high-quality protective glasses to all IDF soldiers in Gaza. He can be reached at