Three years of blood running in its streets, restaurants, and demolished commuter buses have steeled Israelis to an astonishing range of horrors.
Three years of grief and hopelessness in Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur observances had prompted many to hope that, if nothing else, they had already been witness to the worst. But as they marked the 30th anniversary of the most emotionally devastating war in their history, Israelis emerged from the solemn Yom Kippur fast with a new fear on the horizon: the prospect that the actions of their own government could drastically widen an already unbearable war. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet was called out of Yom Kippur recess over the weekend, pressed to retaliate with speed and ferocity to the shock of an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in which a young Palestinian woman tore to shreds a Haifa restaurant popular with both Arab and Jewish families. The attack annihilated whole families and devastated entire communities, Arab and Jewish alike. Loath to suffer the diplomatic consequences of expelling or harming its celebrity captive Yasser Arafat, the government activated a plan first approved after a deadly summer bus bombing in Jerusalem, and held in ready reserve until Sunday. Evading Syrian air defenses, Israeli warplanes struck near Damascus, bombing an area that the army later identified as a training camp which has served fighters recruited by a host of groups, including the Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Syria, though denying journalists access to the site, maintained in careful, somewhat obscure language that the bombed area was not a training camp but a "civilian area that had once been used by Palestinians." To Israelis jittery over the possibility of wider conflict, Sharon had few words of solace in his speech at the national miitary cemetery on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl. Addressing mourners of the fallen of the 1973 war in a speech broadcast live over nationwide radio networks, Sharon declared: "Israel will not be deterred from defending its citizens and will hit its enemies any place and in any way." The remarks were little softened by a trailing pledge to continue to explore overtures for diplomatic negotiations. "At the same time we will not miss any opening and opportunity to reach an agreement with our neighbors and peace," Sharon said. The Sunday air strike, launched as Israeli broadcasting services began to go off air for Yom Kippur, was the deepest Israeli air raid in Syria in three decades. Sharon's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, hinted darkly Tuesday that Israel had coordinated with its ally Washington further steps against Damascus "in spheres to which Syria would be well advised to listen." There was no longer just cause to retaliate in "proportional responses," Olmert stressed, saying that no reprisal was proportional to the murder in cold blood of 19 innocent people, including children and babies. Israel would no longer be limited in its responses, he said. Olmert said "the Americans have twice passed the Syrians very harsh warnings" regarding Syrian support for terrorism. "In my view, it would be very well worth the Syrians' while to pay attention to these warnings, because the price they could pay could be heavy." U.S. President George W. Bush said Monday that Israel had the right to self-defense, but the White House cautioned against taking steps to spur escalation in the region. Sharon, giving no quarter, told the mourners: "Israel's might must be drawn ready and prepared at every moment. We must always improve and foster the decisive, qualitative edge of that might, both in the spirit of our fighters and in the tools of warfare, as though the next war were just around the corner." The 1973 war caught Israel disastrously unprepared. The prevailing security "conception," as it was known, held that the 1967 Six-Day War had dealt a blow of such magnitude that Arab armies would not dare mount an attack. Within hours of the attack on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, Syrian armored columns poured across Israeli lines in the north, coming to a mysterious halt just as IDF brass voiced private fears that the capture of Haifa was imminent, and that the north might be overrun in its entirety. At the same time, then-army chief David Elazar, briefing senior officiers in the Israeli-held Sinai desert, stressed that only two divisions, one of them headed by reserve major general Ariel Sharon, remained between the Egyptians and Tel Aviv. Borrowing the language of the Yom Kippur ritual, Sharon said Tuesday, "If there is a lesson to be learned, it is not merely beating [the breast to atone] for 'the sin that we have sinned for haughtiness'" - a reference to the post-1967 overconfidence that kept Israeli military men and politicians from foreseeing and preparing for the 1973 disaster. The real lesson of the Yom Kippur War, Sharon said, was that Israel could not afford to stake its security on "over-sophisticated assessments, on deterrent ability alone, or on agreements." As if in anticipation of Sharon's speech, then Syrian President Bashar Assad issued fighting words of his own. Defiantly turning aside longtime U.S. and Israeli demands to expel commanders of Palestinian terrorist groups who maintain headquarters in Syria, Assad said in a newspaper interview that the Israel Air Force raid was an attempt by the Israeli government to extract itself from its big crisis by trying to terrorize Syria and drag it and the region into other wars." "This [Israeli] government is one of war, and war is the justification for its existence," Assad declared. Assad's sentiments bore a peculiar mirror-image echo in remarks by one of the Syrians' arch-foes, hawkish cabinet minister Effi Eitam. Departing from the line taken by most senior Israeli officials, Eitam took public issue with the Syria raid, saying that Israel should first deal with the "neighborhood bully" - the Palestinians - rather than trying to impress the media and public with attacks beyond Israel's borders. "I certainly view this as a distraction for public opinion in Israel and the world. Everyone is all excited about an attack near Damascus, after 30 years. Our problem is not near Damascus, but near Jerusalem," Eitam said. Domestic Israeli criticism of the raid - and of fears of its possible consequences - cut across party and ideological lines. Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid of the centrist secular Shinui party, was conspicuous among Sharon's inner circle of senior ministers in opposing the raid. "I was against it because we are opening a new international front which we do not need at the moment, because we needn't endanger ourselves with renewal of the fighting with Hezbollah on the northern border, and because I don't think that this is something that will really aid in fighting the Jihad," Lapid said. Lapid said that he and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had expressed opposition to the decision during a Saturday night meeting, and that Sharon, Olmert and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had supported it. Labor legislator and former party leader Amram Mitzna, who as an IDF general openly broke with then-defense minister Sharon over the conduct of the Lebanon war in the early 1980s, on Tuesday picked up the theme of the Syria strike as diversion. "This government is simply irresponsible, endangering its own citizens with - there is no other way to describe this - adventures. What was the point of attacking Syria? Who can even explain the goal? Was the goal to calm down the Israeli public? To divert the public's attention from our day-to-day problems here and the government's inability to deal with terrorism?" Ultra-rightist cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, took the government to task for not going far enough in the Syria raid. "We cannot be satisfied with this one-time bombing alone," Lieberman said. "We certainly could land a much more significant blow." In a reference to the pro-Iranian, Syrian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Lieberman said: "The Syrians must understand that if all the provocations do not stop, first of all on the northern border, and with the support the Syrians grant Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad, the Syrians are liable to pay a much higher, much more painful price." According to Lieberman, "If we arrived 15 kilometers from Damascus, we can get also go to Damascus." Lieberman said Israel could not abide a war of attrition, adding, without apparent irony, "We must cease the violence, even at the cost of escalation in the entire region." Israeli expert opinion on the Syrian raid was mixed if decidedly unenthusiastic, with at least one former general hewing to the tradional line that the attack would help "motivate the Syrians to take action for calm, because if it is not quiet in northern Israel, it will not be quiet in either Beirut or Damascus." But others, among them former chief of military intelligence Uri Segui, suggested that the Syria raid would do little to persuade Damascus to curb terror chieftains, whether in the Syrian capital, South Lebanon, or in central Gaza. "One possibility is that the war on terror, justified as it may be - and on principle, it is justified - will spread to other battlefronts as well, and I am not certain that the results will be any better," said Segui, once Israel's chief negotiator with Damascus. Suggesting that the Syrians were most likely to attack Israel through Hezbollah, which has often acted as Syria's client militia, Segui said the current situation was "a sort of game, a balance of horror." Many felt that Israel might be saved from war with Syria not through the wisdom of its own policies but only because of the crippling military, economic and diplomatic weakness of Syria, stripped by the end of the Cold War of its chief ally, the Soviet Union, and by the Iraq conflict of its sole ally in Ba'ath politics, Saddam Hussein. Haaretz defense commentator Amir Oren on Tuesday compared the Israeli air strike to a tried-and-true method for dealing with a headache or a toothache: "Give a wall a nice, hard kick, until one's leg screams with pain. This may do nothing to cure the original pain, but it makes one forget it for a while." Was the the air strike "a shrewd plan, or a wild gamble? The answer depends upon Syria's response," Oren continues. "Faced with a strong Israeli and American military presence, Assad is likely to show restraint; but he might expand leeway given to Hezbollah and other militants for attacks on the Galilee, including the firing of Katyusha rockets. "Should Israeli civilian communities (and not only military bases) be hit in such attacks, then the fifth of October will be remembered as the start of a wider conflict, one which will not solve Israel's headache." As Oren notes, writing in Tuesday's paper, "major air battles on April 7, 1967, and September 13, 1973, were preludes to the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.
By Bradley Burston, Haaretz Correspondent