Again Israel is fighting. The Gaza operation, which started five days ago, is still ongoing and two questions are being asked today: whether ground forces will enter Gaza, and whether a temporary truce should be considered. Both questions are a reflection of another, unspoken question: how many soldier casualties will this operation cause?
Fear of casualties in war is Israel’s Achilles’ heel. The process started in the first Lebanon war in 1982, or rather during the prolonged presence of Israeli troops in Lebanon after that war (Israel withdrew from Lebanon only in 2000). The continuous toll of casualties in Lebanon gave rise to various protest movements, most notably “Four Mothers“. This decades-long process brought about a paradoxical shift in the attitude towards war casualties: we fear more the death of a soldier than the death of a civilian.
This is a paradox because the primary role of the army, in any democratic society, is to protect the civilian population. A soldier is supposed to risk his or her life in order to avoid casualties to civilians. And yet most Israelis will be more tolerant of civilian casulaties than of military ones. Not one soldier has lost his life in the past five days, but several civilians died as a result of the Hamas rockets fired indiscriminately into Israeli cities. There is not one word of protest against this situation.
The expected toll of soldier casualties is the hidden barometer by which decision makers operate here, in both the government and the IDF, although few will admit it. The Winograd commission, set up after the second Lebanon war, pointed this out very clearly. Our enemies know by now that Israel is unwilling to risk the lifes of its soldiers in order to protect itself. It will fight mostly from the air or using technological means, thus minimising the risk of casualties. This respect for life is very commendable on one hand, but in the long run it works against the interests of Israel. No country, especially one that is threatened on a daily basis by its neighbours, can survive if it is not willing to use its army to protect itself.
This is not saying anything about the current operation, about which I have mixed feelings. It is a general comment on our warped national psyche.