December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The basement war

By |2023-11-02T15:41:43+01:00October 22nd, 2023|"Foreign Affairs", Area 51|
The wheel of history.

n June 1967, I was a scaled-down Moshe Dayan in my bunker-like basement. Like the Israeli commander, I wore a pirate’s eyepatch and directed my tanks and soldiers toward the Gaza Strip, where Egyptian troops had gathered. The tanks and planes I had at my disposal were admittedly small, but war is war and you do the best you can to repulse the enemy.

Was I Jewish? No.

Did I possess in-built enmity toward Egypt, Syria, Jordan, or Palestine? No.

Did I know much about the Jewish state? No. But my political-scientist father had filled in all the blanks an adolescent needed, and then provided additional fodder by showing me newspaper pictures of the developing war.

Plus, my toy tanks and planes were ample and required deployment. So why not side with the dashing brigand Dayan? It was his state, after all, that had been attacked first — a surprise attack at that. “Unprecedented” — because apparently all big events are.

By hand, I pushed my tanks across the brittle concrete of the cracked basement floor, imagining it sandy. My model planes, directed by those same hands, bombed Egyptian tanks and shot down the French-made Mirage jets used by the Syrian Air Force. This was immense vengeance before the 21st century got around to it.

I won every battle I fought, of course, not only beating the enemy but threatening to occupy Egypt and Syria.

My father occasionally intruded on my war-choked landscape to ask me up to dinner, requesting I take the eyepatch off while eating my greens.

My father occasionally intruded on my war-choked landscape to ask me up to dinner, requesting I take the eyepatch off while eating my greens.

This I disliked (in the middle of a war!), but I complied. He was after all the supreme commander.

One evening, as the real war raged on — it lasted six days — my father appeared by the battlefield for a different reason: to explain why the combatants behaved as they did, and who the major players were. I had little interest in these details but was again compelled to pause and listen.

It was, in retrospect, his lengthy explanation that ended my war.

So it was that my father gave me an abbreviated lesson intended to provide my make-believe war with some historical context.

My warrior friend’s state, Israel, came about through blood, sweat, and tears — and, because many would always despise it, its survival was forever in jeopardy.

Now then, did I wish to know more? Rapt, I nodded. My father was a wondrous story-teller.

In November 1917, the British, still managers of an ungainly empire, issued the Balfour Declaration, which explicitly stated that long-displaced Jews, the subject of envy and hatred for centuries, had a right to a state in the Holy Land, in Palestine, which was Ottoman territory. At the same time, a movement known as Zionism had created a coalescence of Jews ready to make such a land into a reality by whatever means necessary.

The idea gained strength after two world wars, and the systematic extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany, a national policy that carried Europe’s widespread antisemitism to monstrous proportions.

I squirmed. I wanted now to return to my toy tanks, but my father persisted.

With the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the British controlled Palestine. Despite their proclamation, they had no wish to leave their colony and its native inhabitants behind. The British had no quarrel with the Arab wish to situate themselves in and around the holy city of Jerusalem, a cornerstone of Muslim and Christian reverence. Ah, but they had made a pledge and now militant Jews, the newly armed Zionists, began to stage attacks against the British. Some of these militant soldiers — never called terrorists — would later run Israel.

At the same time, the lingering British knew full well that the creation of the promised state would also require making Jerusalem into a centerpiece since the city was holy to all three faiths. But the many attacks and the withering state of the empire induced capitulation. The British would leave and permit the ushering in of the new Jewish state.

From its formal creation in May 1948, Israel was plunged into a state of permanent war. As it built itself up ferociously, it faced equally fierce resistance from displaced Palestinians, suddenly bereft of lands they considered their birth right — in the same way new Israelis saw their state as the just culmination of an ancient will to return home.

Thus, the postwar world was presented with a magnet for previously wandering Jews, and they came in droves. It was likewise a beacon for Arab states that found this new Jewish presence both politically and religiously intolerable; this coalition included major states such as Jordan, Syria, and, above all, the nationalist state of Egypt, eager to make itself the preeminent power in the region. So bold was Nasser that he nationalized the Suez Canal Company, which owned the vital manmade waterway, triggering war with the still colonially-minded Britain and France. That war was also short-lived, lasting some 11 days in late 1956.

But Nasser, the ostensible loser, had made his point. He was not to be toyed with.

With these words I came to attention, clutching a small jet.

I was right to do so, said my father, since jets, bombs, and fights over land were destined to plague the region.

It was, he said, an impossible situation. The two faiths could never be reconciled.

And the Palestinians, now faced with Jews in their midst, lacked recourse to protest. They could only count on the likes of Egypt to act on their behalf — and so the 1967 war. Some 15,000 would die before Israel repulsed and routed the tank-rich troika of Arab states that had ignited what would come to be known as the Six Day War.

The victory, my father said, would bring Israel new land, as well it did with the Gaza Strip, previously Egyptian territory.

By then I was eager for the lesson to end. If Egypt and Syria faced defeat, I must get back to the basement, to the business at hand.

But no, my father had not finished, since the end of any story, in particular a contested one, required a gaze into the future.

Bored, I listened, but now, some 60 years later, I appreciate his prescience.

There would be more wars, he said, since the region played into the hands of the chess match between America and the Soviet Union. A second Arab-Israeli war did in fact come, exactly 50 years ago, with Egypt and Syria, then run by the aggressive duo of Hafiz al-Assad (father of the current Bashir al-Assad) in Damascus and Anwar Sadat in Cairo, again trying to eliminate the state they considered an interloper. They lost that war as well, notwithstanding French military aid to Syria in the form of Mirage jets. Those same jets, dozens of them, ceased to exist after a day-long sky battle with Israel’s American planes. In a single day, the Syrian Air Force, with some of its Russian pilots, was obliterated. It was the air legacy of Dayan’s 1967 tank assaults.

But by October 1973 my father was courting death and I had graduated from toy planes to university lectures.

We spoke much about these wars in his last days. If the Soviets persisted in their Arab aid, he foresaw a World War III.

And even if the bipolar world found common ground, even if Arab states desisted — they did — Israel and the land around it would remain the subject of fear and loathing, of hatred, and smaller para-state organizations such as Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, in many respects the precursor to today’s Hamas, would torment the Israelis, staging lethal guerilla raids to make clear their demand for nationhood.

A staunch state sculpted from an ongoing blood feud and populated by Judaic true believers could not and would not abide the presence of challengers to its authority.

In addition, the religious component might become a battle marked by the overtones of the Crusades, with neither side destined to “win” in any traditional sense. Mass media polemics regarding the rights and wrongs committed by the region’s players long ago lapsed into invective that has only grown more acerbic with the advent of social media. A BBC journalist well versed in Arab-Israeli strife years ago described the media approach as a constant search for victims, villains, and scapegoats with more sensible voices marginalized, especially in times of crisis when Israel is systematically portrayed as a heroic victim forced to contend with bloodthirsty Palestinian militants. Such views pay little heed to both macro and micro history. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, a punitive move in response to militant missile attacks. Palestinian radicals were interned in two camps that, long before the existence of Guantanamo Bay, acquired a reputation for brutality.

Even Jews took exception to the tone of that war. A celebrated episode involved Tom Friedman, the “New York Times” correspondent at the time in battered Beirut, and his managing editor A.M. Rosenthal, both stalwart Jews. In one dispatch, Friedman (later to write columns and books) described Israeli bombing of Beirut as “indiscriminate,” since many non-military targets were damaged or destroyed. He used the word not as a Jew or a supporter of Israel but as a journalist covering events. Rosenthal axed the word as inappropriate to Israel’s efforts to safeguard itself. Friedman threatened to resign but ultimately backed down, deferring to his superior.

The late Edward Said, a Palestinian-American scholar and a fierce supporter of Palestine’s right to exist, struggled against the pro-Israeli New York tide to differentiate between Palestinian citizens and the terrorist organizations that claimed to act on their behalf. Israel, he pointed out, was carved out of land for centuries lived in by Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike, but forced to play by British colonial rules. Israel’s own expansion, into Gaza and the West Bank, though ostensibly prompted by wars and terrorist attacks, merely reinforced Palestinian woe. It was only logical, he said, that this “greater Israel” philosophy would play into the hands of militants, many of them as resentful of Israeli arrogance as of Israel itself.

Ironically, the one Israeli leader who realized settler expansionism required review and restraint, Yitzhak Rabin, the peacemaking prime minister who had helped to broker the 1993 Oslo Accords, was assassinated two years later by a Jewish zealot who viewed the allowance of Palestinian self-determination, central to the accords, as a betrayal. Rabin’s murder ushered in leaders who, chastened by Rabin’s fate (and later by the growth of Islamic extremism), were more in tune with nationalism than newfound Palestinian rights.

Long before all this, my father considered Israeli expansion inevitable, its spirit drawn to some extent from the American-styled “Westward, Ho!” (if not Manifest Destiny) model. Surely the old Zionists would pay little heed to Palestinian wishes, at once putting Israel endlessly at odds with the likes of Arafat, and now Hamas, Hezbollah, and their new patron, Iran.

War and more war, in different guises, my father intoned as he lay dying on Christmas 1973. We had just left Rome, where Arab terrorists had blown up a commercial jet after infiltrating the airport. There would be no peace for Israel, ever, and nothing to look forward to by now-estranged Palestinians, occupied by proud and newly empowered Jews.

There would be no peace for Israel, ever, and nothing to look forward to by now-estranged Palestinians, indirectly occupied by proud and newly empowered Jews.

Our chats ended with his death in January 1974 and I was left both to watch the future unfold and a violent past repeat itself. Now, as I consider recent events, I take offense at the repeated use of the word “unprecedented” to describe the Hamas assault and hostage-taking in Gaza. In so cruel, ample, and zealous a parry-and-thrust, nothing is unprecedented aside from the specifics of the attack, and even those are parsed from the awful highlight reel, combat its constant, that has run unbroken since well before my basement eyepatch days.

And how could it be any different when two cultures call the same city their capital and revere it at the expense of the other?

All was so much easier when I played Moshe Dayan. I could abandon the battle for a bike ride or a walk. Now, in my waning years, there is no such refuge. The endless enmity and the mutual butchery appear as stains neither can or wish to wash out. Clichés are useless. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, not in this dark matter. If I resolved a make-believe war in my boyish basement, I was in no way prepared to face its adult form: a righteously repetitive conflict garnished at times with mighty vengeance by irreconcilable sides by now grown accepting of their Merry-go-round damnation.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.