CENTER FIELD: In this just war, every death and injury, including this accidental calamity, is on Hamas
Israel’s already-heart-breaking Hanukkah ended on an operatically tragic note. The fresh burials of 27 combat heroes and six holy hostages darkened the festival of light. The IDF seems to be gaining militarily. But the cost in dead and wounded keeps mounting. Then, Yotam Haim, Samer Talalka, and Alon Shamriz – three heroes who endured Hamas’s barbarism for 70 days and were so agonizingly close to freedom – were killed by our own soldiers.
Every Israeli soldier must understand. In this just war, every death and injury, including this accidental calamity, is on Hamas. Those Palestinian terrorists started it. They kidnapped the three men. They are the ones who cower behind hospital gowns and four-year-olds, while targeting the innocent, even babies. And they are the ones who trigger the fear, confusion, and murkiness that caused this tragedy.
Unknowns waving white flags could lure you into a trap; baby dolls are booby-trapped. Especially in this war, we need bold, brave, forward-leaning fighters, disciplined enough to minimize mistakes, but more willing to risk mistakes than to psyche themselves out, fearing slip-ups and review boards.
Beware of the storytellers’ simplified sleight-of-hand
Without excusing any operational, training, or command failures the IDF should fix, all of us lounging at home should beware of the storytellers’ simplified sleight-of-hand. We tell these war stories, knowing how they end before we start – our soldiers don’t. We spin these stories at our pace – our soldiers repeatedly make split-second, life-and-death decisions.
And as we listen, we often imagine a quiet morning, with the sun shining, and these unfortunate hostages waving a white flag, under a big spotlight, with captions. Instead, imagine the noise, chaos, unbearable tension, and Hamas’s many lethal tricks. Fighting this evil enemy, who disrespects human life, who mocks rules of civilized warfare, our soldiers aren’t just facing the fog of war – it’s the moral smog of jihadi war.
EVEN IN successful wars, friendly fire causes up to 20% of battlefield casualties. In 1758, George Washington led 500 Virginians against French and Native American raiders at Fort Ligonier. Amid the actual fog at dusk, his troops and some other Virginians fired at each other – killing 40. Confederate soldiers shot their own General Stonewall Jackson, returning from an intelligence-gathering mission during the Civil War.
During World War II, the British hushed up at least two instances of friendly-bombing, which guilt-wracked pilots revealed half a century later – so let’s applaud the IDF’s transparency. And, most tragic, in May 1945, Allied bombers sank three ships that were supposedly ferrying German troops. Instead, they killed more than 6,000 Jews who had survived concentration camps and soldiers – mostly Russians – who had survived Nazi prisoner-of-war camps. In Vietnam, Americans recorded more than 8,000 friendly-fire incidents.
In Israel, a sentry mistakenly killed Gen. Mickey Marcus in 1948. In 1982, a Phantom F-4, flying hundreds of kilometers per hour, overflew its target by one kilometer and attacked Nahal 931 soldiers in Lebanon, killing 24. Israeli tanks killed five Israeli soldiers in 2009 and 2014 in Gaza. And, in January 2022, when two IDF deaths could shock us for weeks, Israel reeled at “Officer N’s” mistaken killing of Maj. Ofek Aharon, 28, and Maj. Itamar Elharar, 26.
As we embrace the three hostages’ families, we also hug the friendly-firers. They join the growing legions of traumatized Israelis, many wracked with survivor’s guilt. While many who suffer ask “Why me?” – those who survive often ask “Why me?” too.
All Israelis believe in life
WITHOUT RUSHING the process or dismissing the pain, try reframing those natural feelings. All Israelis, whether they believe in God’s plan or not, believe in life – it’s what makes each death so devastating. You feel how much parents and teachers, friends and relatives, invested in each soul, each mini-universe now shattered. But that’s why we need to go from feeling some onus to living each day as a bonus.
If you’ve healed from your physical wounds, if you’ve buried loved ones, your life can now take on extra meaning. Pivot from “Why me?” to “How do I honor them?” First, we must win this war, neutralizing the Hamas and Hezbollah threats sufficiently so that 250,000 evacuees can sleep in their own beds soundly at night.
Then, we continue doing what Israelis do so well – living with values, purpose, and joy. Use those lost lives, their memories, hopes, values, and goodness, not to weigh us down by sitting on our shoulders, but to lift us up, forever whispering in our ears to be better people, to follow our dreams, to live our best lives, to laugh. Some clichés are nevertheless true: They died too early, so we could live long, and safe, and meaningfully.
In January 1948, anticipating a far more uncertain situation, months before six Arab armies attacked the new State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion declared: “There is now nothing more important than war needs, and nothing equal to war needs.”
Ben-Gurion called war “a cruel and jealous Moloch,” a ruthless, uncompromising, insatiable god. Acknowledging that we Jews hate war, only resorting to it because there’s no other choice, Ben-Gurion explained that this reluctance and total focus “will give us the advantage that our enemies do not have and the followers of violence lack: a vision of life, a vision of national rebirth, of independence, equality, and peace – for the Jewish nation and for humanity.”
May we heal, inspired by Ben-Gurion’s vision, whether we were forced to kill, shot mistakenly, survived by millimeters, lost those dearest to us, or simply live here, knowing the price – while celebrating the payoffs, daily.
The writer, a senior fellow in Zionist thought at the Jewish People Policy Institute, is an American presidential historian and the editor of a new three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People