Living Through Israel's Thoroughly Modern War

An air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip on July 9 Photograph by Dan Balilty/AP Photo

The Ayalon Highway in greater Tel Aviv is the Cross-Bronx Expressway of Israel, reliably bumper-to-bumper every morning and evening. But around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday there was only the slightest of traffic jams. People were staying off the road because the word was out that media-savvy Hamas was timing its barrage of rockets to peak just before Israel’s main evening newscasts.

It’s been that kind of war so far for Israelis—frightening, like all wars, but also a little like a high-tech reality show. Israel so massively dominates its foe that as of late Wednesday not a single Israeli had been harmed by rocket fire. Meanwhile, viewers of TV news were glued to images of the Israeli Defense Forces blowing up Hamas targets in Gaza with clinical precision. When Hamas frogmen attempted a raid on a military base from the sea, the IDF detected them and blew them up from the air while they were still running around the dunes. IDF footage of the frogmen being picked off one by one looked for all the world like a video game. “Frustrated Hamas seeks a ‘quality’ terrorist attack,” read the headline in the Times of Israel.

In fact, Israelis are in the strange position of having an enemy that is too weak. Hamas might not have picked this losing fight at all if it still were in political control of Gaza. It has been cut off by the military government in Egypt, lost Syria as a patron, and in June became the junior partner in a unity government with Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Spraying rockets in the hope of getting lucky and killing Israeli civilians is about the only impressive thing it can still do.

Israelis are of two minds about defeating Hamas. On the one hand, they want to stop the rocket attacks once and for all; most Israelis feel nothing but loathing for Hamas, which denies Israel’s right to exist. On the other hand, exterminating Hamas could create a power vacuum in Gaza that might be occupied by even more dangerous enemies such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda breakaway group now dominant in large parts of Iraq and Syria. “At least Hamas provides an address—you don’t have that with the jihadi factions,” Brigadier General Michael Herzog, a retired IDF commander and former chief of staff to Israel’s ministry of defense, told Britain’s Telegraph.

Weak as it is, Hamas and its new, longer-range rockets are frightening and disrupting the lives of millions of Israelis. When alarms sound, drivers are instructed to pull over, get out, and kneel next to their cars with their hands over their heads. Summer camps, festivals, and other outdoor activities are being canceled. Tourists are staying away. Reservists are being called up—and taken away from their jobs and families—for a possible ground invasion of Gaza that few people really want.

Now the war has reached even Jerusalem, which never worried much about Hamas rockets. The city was believed to be out of range, and Hamas rockets are so inaccurate that they might hit the Muslim neighborhoods of East Jerusalem by mistake, or, even worse, the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in the Old City. Surely Hamas would not run the risk of blowing up one of the holiest sites of Islam.

But all bets are off after Hamas fired four M75 rockets at Jerusalem on Tuesday. Orlando Crowcroft of Britain’s Guardian toured a bomb shelter in the shabby, ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, where he found “hundreds of prayer books along with rotting food.” The shelter is supposed to serve Israeli Arabs who live in an adjoining neighborhood as well, but it’s impossible to imagine the two groups spending time together underground.

Crowcroft found an Arab who said he had no such intention: “The Israelis are afraid to die because they are living a good life,” the shopkeeper said. “We are not, and so we are not afraid.”

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