Outsiders see Israel's raid on Syria as aggression. To Israelis, it was the act of a nation driven half-mad with grief
by Jonathan Freedland
They remembered it well. Jews gathering in synagogues around the world on Monday to mark Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, found themselves thinking back to the same holy fast day three decades earlier. In 1973, word had spread around congregations from Newcastle to New York, whispering the dread news that Israel had been attacked, from Egypt in the south and Syria to the north. It was a surprise offensive and Israel had been caught badly off guard. Jews feared the worst that Yom Kippur, imagining the Jewish state, then just 25 years old, was about to be wiped off the map.
It was not just this year's anniversary that prompted thoughts of 1973. It was the latest news; now, as then, Israel seemed on the verge of a regional war, the long stand-off with Damascus suddenly turned armed and dangerous.
There is a rather big difference, of course. This time it was Israel that launched the daring, unexpected raid on Syria, rather than the other way round. Indeed, to most of the outside world, Sunday's air strike on the Ein Saheb camp - said to be a kind of campus of terror, housing training facilities for a variety of armed Palestinian groups - was a brash demonstration of Israel's might and complete military superiority over its neighbours.
With a regional superpower's disregard for borders, it simply rained its missiles on a site just a few miles from the Syrian capital. A few weeks ago the Israeli air force staged a similar display of chutzpah, flying its supersonic jets low over the family home of President Bashar Assad in the port city of Latakia. Both these air shows sent a message to Damascus: Gulliver can crush his Lilliputian neighbours whenever and wherever he chooses.
That is certainly how it looks to the rest of the world. But that is not how it is seen in Israel, or among most of the Jewish diaspora: quite the opposite. It's worth peering into this gap in understanding - exposed by these latest events, but far from new - to make sense of what's going on in the Middle East just now and why those outside seem to have such constant trouble talking about it.
Viewed from inside Israel, Sunday's raid was the act of a nation driven half-mad with desperation and grief. On Saturday a suicide bomber had taken 19 lives in the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, Israel's most mixed city. Israelis look at that event and feel their spirit break. It's not just the bleak realisation that a family cannot even have a meal together before the holiest day of the year without their flesh being torn into pieces. It's the sense that nothing works.
Hawks had said that Israel should build a fence; that would keep the bombers out. But the fence is mostly up, and yet it could not stop Hanadi Jaradat or her belt packed with explosives and nails. Doves had said that Jews and Arabs had to learn to get along, to live and work together. Yet Maxim was just such an enterprise, owned for 40 years by an Arab family, the Matars, and a Jewish one, the Tayyars, with a shared Arab-Jewish clientele. But that did not save them.
So Israelis go quietly mad. For a country of 6 million, 19 dead is a huge calamity. Proportionally, that would mean a loss of 190 British lives. We remember the likes of Warrington, Deal and the Harrods bomb even now, years later. Yet the casualties in those attacks were one, 10 and six respectively. When they happened, Britons cried out for all kinds of revenge against the IRA. Is it a surprise that Israelis demand action when that combined number dies every couple of weeks?
They know that the rest of the world sees Israel's battle with the Palestinians as a straightforward contest of powerful against powerless. Many of them, in their cooler moments, see the logic in that view: they know Israel's occupation is a basic injustice and that Palestinian civilians die, in their twos and threes, every day. But that logic becomes harder to hold when every cafe is a cemetery, when every school bus is a potential death trap.
So they want to lash out. The trouble is, their leaders have tried ever harsher punishments and still they do not work. The bombers keep coming. First, Israel reoccupied the Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank and Gaza. Then it took on the fighters of Jenin in the spring of 2002. Next it built a wall. But still the killers, whose determination is stronger than death, won't give up.
The result is an Israeli government that stands like a clumsy prizefighter, driven to fury by a fly buzzing relentlessly around its ears. It wants to crush the insect, but it can never quite finish the job. So it dreams up ever more violent remedies.