The Quality of Mercy

Images of IDF soldiers assaulted by Arab women while not reacting stirs up a storm in Israel. More than anything, it shows that we still don’t understand what we are dealing with.

IDF officers refraining from responding to assault by Arab women (Youtube capture)

It was in mid July of 1982. A lifetime ago. I was twenty one, an IDF combat soldier serving with the Israeli paratroopers battalion in Lebanon. We were stationed in the Lebanese town of Suq Al Gharb which sat en route to the Shuf mountains. It was a popular getaway destination, near the city of Aley and it offered a spectacular view of Beirut and the Mediterranean.

“Operation Peace for Galilee” as it was known, was a month away by then. We had settled into a tranquil routine, a bizarre reality so vastly different from the turmoil and anxiety we had experienced during the days of battle just a few weeks earlier. We were now more tourists than warriors and gradually began enjoying the exquisite beauty that Lebanon had to offer.

The town was predominately Christian, though the Aley district had large Druze and Muslim populations. They had all been at war with each other for generations. Now, an eerie quiet had settled over the area.

The summer was at its peak, yet the climate in the mountains was crisp and perfect. We ventured from our base to take in the sights. We hung out in cafés and restaurants and bought electronics and groceries at local establishments.

Our contact with the local civilian population increased. We communicated in English, as few of us spoke Arabic and none of them spoke Hebrew of course. In casual conversations we often heard from the locals how our presence there was a welcomed relief because, for the first time in years, they were experiencing a relative calm.

The city of Aley had a significant Jewish population at one time, but they had all fled under duress years before. All that remained was a synagogue, left to the safekeeping of a local Muslim custodian. He reached out to us one day and led us to the place. He shared with us stories of his Jewish neighbors. Most importantly, he wanted us know that he had performed his responsibilities dutifully.

It was around then that I became friends with a local Druze man of roughly my age. His family owned a store we frequented. Unlike the others, he had a marked American accent which caught my attention. He was a student of Economics at UCLA in Los Angeles and was home for the summer. We were instant “landsmen”.

We had long conversations about the situation and about the Middle East. Sometimes we would sit and watch the news of the events unfolding around us and would exchange thoughts.

Most of all, I remember one particular conversation when we discussed his observations and thoughts about us, the Israelis. It was more a warning than an exchange. He told me that he was surprised to see how we Israelis had so little understanding of the Arab mentality. Stressing we had nothing to worry about from the Druze, who were well aware of our bond with their families in Israel, he warned that the quiet we were experiencing was deceiving.

“It is shock” he said, “for years we heard stories of the horrible Zionists and suddenly here you are, we are awestruck and in fear. The Muslims are observing you all, studying you and learning your weaknesses. What they see are Israeli soldiers who are disciplined and not ruthless. You are respectful towards our women. You pay us in the shops and restaurants and do not abuse your power like the Syrians…”

“We are not the Syrians” I said, “and the people here are not our enemy.”

“But you are the enemy to them” he interrupted, “you are Jews, you are not one of them. In our culture, mercy is meaningless. Your kindness and consideration are seen as weakness. The Syrians never experienced problems because they would let us know exactly what the consequences would be. The Arabs here were afraid of the Syrians, they are not afraid of you. Very soon they will start attacking you. This is the quiet before the storm.”

Three weeks later, on August 19th, two friends of mine, Eytan Rotem and Yossi Ami, were killed when our evening patrol was ambushed. It was the first of hundreds of such incidents in what would go on to be known as the First Lebanon War.

I remembered the story and the ominous warning this week, as a debate ensued on whether the incident last Friday in Nabi Saleh, between Ahed Tamimi and two IDF soldiers, benefits Israel or not.

In the video, women of the Arab Tamimi family are screaming, threatening and finally assaulting the soldiers. All the while, the soldiers showed restraint, clearly understanding that a provocation was at hand, as former IDF Spokeman Peter Lerner explains in an excellent post.

The images are hard to watch. For many Israelis this was a dangerous display of impotence and lack of conviction that they fault the IDF command for. Others though, saw a silver lining and claimed that the footage was in fact a major public relations coup for Israel in the international arena.

Both reactions may be a bit extreme. The second reaction though, when weighed in relation to the circumstances in which the event occurred, has absolutely no benefit for Israel. When engaging in conflict, image is incidental.

The State of Israel is not a commodity that needs to have people around the world impressed with. Image and public relations are nice as a feel good addition but should not become a consideration in place of total victory.

“The quality of mercy is not strained” writes Shakespeare in “The merchant of Venice”. It certainly wasn’t in this case but did it really help us? A good image is fleeting, what our mortal enemies think lingers and can have dire consequences. And then what will our good image do for us? A thousand UN condemnations of the independent and defiant State of Israel are better than a single Holocaust memorial day.

It is amazing that after all these years many of us still do not understand what this is all about. The conflict here is not a squabble among neighbors over borders. It is a religious battle between opposing civilizations. You don’t have to believe me. This is what they are saying. Our very presence here, let alone our defiant independence, is an affront to the Muslims, an insult to their very being.

As a Facebook friend of mine, Rod Lior wrote – “No military or terrorist organization ever laid down its weapons because the other side was less terrifying than they thought. The IDF does not need the image of being humanitarian among the Arabs. No one is afraid to go to war against a moral and humane army.”

In this region, fear pacifies and leads to quiet. For Arabs, compromise is an opportunity to obtain advantage. The chants of “Khybar, Khybar” we have been hearing from Muslims allude to precisely that. Only when they understand that our victory is total will they sue for peace.

For Israel, our obsession with being merciful instead of projecting strength is a fundamental misunderstanding of the mentality of the enemy which is proving to be costly.


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2 comments on the article

  1. This is true not only about Arabs, same is with any primitive, tribal people. Islam provides to its adherents some ideological ground, but that’s the whole difference. The essence is, if you engage in an existential fight, doesn’t matter what led to it, make sure your enemy is floored and incapacitated. If you have no guts for that, you lost. As simple as that.