Addressing an audience in Livingston on Oct. 7, Israeli war correspondent Alon Ben-David drew the loudest applause when he described his country’s new generation of soldiers.
“Our youth — this Facebook generation — fought amazingly bravely” in the summer’s war in Gaza, the veteran television and print journalist told donors of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Ben-David said he reported on soldiers confronting fire from every side, from homes and hospitals and schools within the densely populated Gaza Strip. In 30 years of covering wars, he said, it was perhaps the most difficult situation he had witnessed.
“It took them 48 hours to assess this complex scenario,” he said. “They did it brilliantly, and came out with the sense that they can do it again.”
Ben-David was the keynote speaker at the federation’s Major Gifts gala, a yearly event for donors, individuals or couples, who give $10,000 and above to the federation’s annual United Jewish Appeal Campaign. The event, held at the Crystal Plaza, raised $1.2 million for the 2015 campaign.
Currently senior defense correspondent for Israel Channel 10 TV and Middle East correspondent for Aviation Week, Ben-David serves as a senior fellow at the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
He said he hoped Israel’s soldiers won’t have to go back into action again soon, but he was not optimistic. “There is a sourness you hear in Israel,” he said, as the public doubts “whether we achieved a calm that will last a few years.”
Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended truce on Aug. 25 after 50 days of hostilities. More than 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis died in the latest conflict, which wounded more than 10,000 Gazans and 500 Israelis, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
The Israel Defense Forces were “a bit restrained, and the forces were a bit frustrated by that,” he said. For example, they knew where Hamas’s military chief was hiding — “in a bunker built by the Israelis, under Al-Shifa Hospital” — but couldn’t obliterate the building.
Ben-David expressed gratitude to the United States for its support of the Iron Dome missile defense system, and talked about the enormous difference it made in terms of civilian casualties in Israel. But, while people in the center of the country had a relatively easy time during the conflict, for those living near Gaza, an onslaught of rockets triggered a fundamental change.
“These people are the best of the best,” he said. “They have an amazing social fabric and a very strong sense of community. That’s something you don’t leave.
“But now for the first time I hear doubts.”
For the Palestinians, the outcome of the war was somewhat different, and that stemmed from the population’s close identification with Hamas. Ben-David stressed that it is wrong to label Hamas an oppressive, alien force and the civilians of Gaza as its victims. Though many might disagree with the tactics taken by its fighters, Hamas is much more than its military wing, providing services to the Gazans that cover everything, “from the cradle to the grave.”
Despite the terrible destruction and loss of life, for Gazans, he said, the fact that Hamas survived a 50-day confrontation with “the mightiest army in the Middle East will become a chapter in their mythology.”
Whether the enormous price civilians paid was enough to deter more aggression from Hamas, he said, it was too early to judge. He was emphatic that Gazans are suffering from Israeli restrictions on travel, maritime traffic, and deliveries of “dual-use” goods like concrete and other building materials.
“They are suffocating,” he said. “You have 800,000 people earning under $2 a day.”
When Hamas formed a unity government in June with Fatah, the ruling Palestinian party in the West Bank, there was hope that Israel would lift such restrictions, and that call has been renewed.
“But one thing Hamas wants — a sea port — it won’t get,” Ben-David stated. “Israel has given a categorical ‘no,’ and Egypt has also said ‘no.’” For that reason, “they may be tempted to threaten us again.”
Construction of more tunnels between Gaza and Israel — a prime target of the Israeli operation — has begun already. “They are digging as we speak,” Ben-David said. On the other hand, within six months Israel might have the technology to pick up underground activity. Hamas is also replenishing its supply of rockets. The barrages of rockets directed at Israel are likely to be far worse next time, Ben-David continued, adding, “We might need to change the way we fight these wars.”
Assessing the dynamics of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, Ben-David said he is pessimistic about Gaza. “I don’t see a solution in our lifetime. Given the culture and the demagogues, it’s hard to imagine a good solution. We will probably stay bad neighbors.”
But there is a glimmer of optimism with regard to the West Bank, he said, with its solid middle class. “Even as we killed 2,200 people in Gaza, things remained pretty cool. There were no massive demonstrations” in Fatah-controlled territory. Israelis have lowered their expectations, and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas might not be “a partner for peace,” but as a Palestinian leader who denounces violence, he is “a guy Israel can do something with.”