WHEN TERROR STRIKES The Six-Week War: A Reporter’s Notebook

WHEN TERROR STRIKES The Six-Week War: A Reporter’s Notebook

by Patricia Golan

The only time in 15 years of marriage my husband ever hit me was the first time we ran into our sealed room. Weeks before the Gulf war, Israelis had been instructed to prepare a gas-proof room by covering windows with plastic sheeting.

We had been out of the country for the first two Scud attacks, but returned to Israel just in time for Scud Number Three. The sirens went off, a chilling, unmistakable wail. Maybe this is it. The first two missiles had carried conventional warheads; maybe this time Saddam Hussein will make good his threat to hurl chemical weapons at Israel.

So in we went with our two dogs, sealed the door with masking tape, donned our gas masks, turned on the transistor radio, and waited.

Then the phone rang…in another room. In my haste I had forgotten to connect the phone line into the sealed room. Since I report for half a dozen radio networks, I knew the call had to be one of them. But when I tried to get out to answer the phone, my husband blocked the way. My distress at not being able to get to the persistently ringing phone grew, as did his agitation. He was not going to let me out. “Let-me bring-the phone-in-here”, I kept repeating, my voice muffled through my gas mask. Each time my demand came out slower and angrier. When I tried to force my way through the door, he let fly with a punch that sent me reeling onto the couch. There was nothing to do but sit it out and hope whatever radio network was calling would understand.

Then I remembered we’d forgotten the cat outside. Much later in the war I realized that versions of our absurd little scene in the sealed room had been played out in hundreds of thousands of other sealed rooms around the country.

A teenager and her dog wait out a missile alert in their sealed room.

Israel has known six wars in its 43 years of existence. But this was the first war that affected Israel directly in which Israel metaphorically sat on its hands. It was a war of nerves more than anything else. Instead of black-bordered photographs of fallen soldiers, the newspapers carried notices of hotlines for psychological help. And we needed it.

Cigarette consumption – already far higher than in the U.S. – skyrocketed, as did compulsive eating and insomnia. Terror is not new to Israel. But this was a new kind of terrorism. Television graphics on the nightly news may have made the war in the Gulf look like an Atari computer game, but here it was no game. True, the threatened chemical weapons never arrived. But even without the chemicals, 39 eight-ton missiles, each carrying a quarter-ton of high “conventional” explosives were flung at Israel. Miraculously, most missed their targets, but some slammed into the greater Tel Aviv area, demolishing several city blocks.

Nightlife throughout the country ground to a halt. Tel Aviv bills itself as the one Israeli city which never slows down. But at nightfall – the time the Scuds were usually launched – the streets were as deserted as a country village.

Thousands of Tel Avivians fled their city which had become the prime target of Saddam’s Scuds. They flocked to Jerusalem, reasoning that Saddam would never lob missiles at a city holy to Moslems as well as Jews and Christians. Jerusalem, Israel’s relatively sleepy seat of government perched in the Judean Hills 50 miles from Tel Aviv, was soon overwhelmed by traffic jams. Graffiti began appearing on building walls: “Tel Avivians go home!”

It was a war of nerves in an already overwrought nation. Would the scuds fall that night? Would it be a chemical attack? Would Israel retaliate?

Israel’s much-praised restraint in not exacting revenge for the Iraqi missiles was, in fact, imposed by Washington. Only after the war did we learn that Israeli planes twice scrambled and took off on retaliatory missions, only to be recalled because the Americans had withheld the vital “friend or foe” codes for pilots flying through heavily patrolled airspace.

After the first few attacks, some Israelis began taking to their roofs as soon as the sirens sounded to watch the Gotterdaemmerung scenes in the skies, as good missiles (the American Patriots) clashed with bad missiles (the Scuds) amid great rumblings and flashes of red.

It was a scary period, alright. But comparisons with the London Blitz to elicit sympathy (as in Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s histrionics) were, I felt, pushing the limits of the sympathy pitch. Nevertheless, many American Jews volunteered to “take in” Israeli children during the attacks, as the British took in German-Jewish children during World War II. The well-meaning offer shocked Israelis. As one Holocaust survivor put it, “When I came here, I stopped running.”

Israelis very quickly adjusted to life with gas masks. The square cardboard gas mask boxes had plastic straps and were to be carried everywhere at all times. The boxes soon became fashion accessories as teenagers began decorating them with luminescent paper, ribbons, flowers and peace mottos.

An afternoon television children’s program featured a goofy puppet called “Maskie” who complained that he never knew what to wear because the weatherman had stopped working. The weatherman – a heartthrob among Israeli youth – then explained that the weather had, unfortunately, become classified information.

True. Local weather reports were suspended for the six weeks of the war, so as not to give vital information to the enemy. Israeli television and radio carried endless military commentary – the country certainly has no lack of ex-generals and intelligence chiefs, and they all seem to have been disinterred to offer their expertly uninformed opinions. But the war seemed to have turned everyone into military experts, especially the journalists. Even me – commenting on “diminishing missile launching capabilities.” Does this make me a war correspondent, I wondered.

Dumb Scud jokes started circulating. “If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” went one joke, “you haven’t sealed your room well enough.”

Surely the most pathetic victims of the mass exodus from the Greater Tel Aviv area were the household pets who were simply abandoned in the streets and highways as their owners took off for other cities. Some pets were lost when the family’s house was destroyed, but most were shamelessly abandoned. Animal welfare volunteers picked up hundreds of pets on the streets, in some cases tied up in front of houses in the wealthier suburbs.

The Let Animals Live anti-vivisectionist group gained sudden fame and publicity when it began taking in the shell shocked and abandoned dogs. Director Benny Schlessinger began appearing regularly on afternoon television, presenting pets looking for adoptive homes.

Domestic violence escalated. By the third week of the war the country’s half-dozen shelters for battered wives were besieged by applicants, as were the crisis centers run by Israel’s major women’s organizations.

Psychologists theorized that the phenomenon was the result of enforced proximity for long periods of time. The family was together a great deal, cooped up in the house. Schools were not in session and the children got on everyone’s nerves. The self-imposed curfew, even when there were no missile alerts, acted like a pressure cooker.

“We know that men who are prone to violence become violent when they are together with their wives for long periods,” comments Ruth Resnick, founder of the Battered Women’s shelters in Israel. “But the impotence of the situation also worked on these men,” she added. “The whole atmosphere of sitting and waiting for something to happen somehow damaged the male ego of Israeli men in general, although women functioned very well under the circumstances. The men didn’t know what to do with themselves.”

What Israelis had to deal with was, of course, mild compared to the enforced confinement of the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. From the beginning of the war, fearing pro-Iraqi demonstrations and violence, the Israeli military authorities imposed the harshest blanket curfew ever on the Palestinian population. Indications are that domestic violence in the territories was epidemic.

Wars always cause a backsliding in the status of women. And this short, peculiar war was no exception. Although it was not a conventional war, the conventional stereotypes were strengthened, as women were forced to stay away from work to stay home with the children. “The women were made conscious of the stupidity of their role,” commented Resnick.

Israeli libidos were also negatively affected by the war. Sex is the last thing on one’s mind during a missile alert. According to the local press, the almost nightly Scud barrages played havoc with couples’ sex lives, and call girl services reported a booming business – during the day. Dr. Ami Shaked, director of the Institute for Sex Therapy at Sheba Medical Center, advised readers of a Tel Aviv weekly to “be creative. Try to find time for privacy at other times than the night. Even if neither partner is interested in sexual intercourse, there are other ways of being close in a sexual way, such as caressing and massaging,” he counseled.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer arrived in the middle of the war with a delegation of psychologists to show solidarity with her fellow Jews in a time of crisis.

Dr. Ruth, who dispenses sexual advice on American radio and TV, offered her own advice to frustrated Israelis: “I would say couples should talk and touch a lot in the sealed room. That will serve as the arousal phase for what will happen after the danger has passed and you are in a room without your children.”

During the war, the chief military spokesman Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai, became a new Israeli hero. A slim, handsome former military correspondent, Shai was responsible for giving instructions over radio and TV during Scud attacks, and was quickly dubbed “the Valium of the nation” for his low key, calm advice.

If Shai was the Israelis’ Valium, Saddam Hussein was the Palestinians’ LSD: It was Israeli missiles and warplanes disguised to look like American weapons that attacked Iraq; thousands of Israelis were killed by Scud missiles and the Dimona nuclear reactor was completely destroyed; Saddam Hussein would emerge victorious from the battle, he’s just waiting for the right moment to incinerate Israel as he promised.

These rescue fantasies were remarkably widespread amongst the Palestinians. By backing Saddam from the beginning of the Gulf crisis, the Palestinians lost sympathy and support in the West and among Arab coalition countries.

A Tel Aviv youngster clutches his gas mask as he gazes at the ruins of what was once his home.

The fact that some Palestinians clapped and cheered and danced in celebration on their rooftops whenever there was a missile attack, seriously damaged hopes for Israeli-Palestinian co-existence. But although the Israeli peace movement has been dealt a serious blow, it is by no means dead.

“You should all die, you whores!” someone screamed from a passing car.

It was the type of curse hurled frequently at the group known as the Women in Black, Israel’s most persistent campaigners against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Since the early days of the Palestinian uprising – the intifada, which began in December of 1987 – this grassroots group of women has met every Friday afternoon at a busy square near the Prime Minister’s residence for an hour long silent vigil. They carry signs in English, Hebrew and Arabic reading simply “End the Occupation.”

Today, verbal attacks and threats of violence have diminished, perhaps in proportion to the beefed-up level of police protection of the women, but people still spit and throw things out of buses at the women. A few months ago someone pointed an M-16 rifle at them through the window of a car.

It was March 8th, International Women’s Day, and members of Women in Black had mustered about 75 demonstrators, half their pre-war number. They had stopped demonstrating during the war, though not without an agonized debate.

The first three weeks of the war in the Gulf were “the black weeks of Women in Black”. For the first time in three years, the women stayed at home. Rather than stand at their weekly vigil, they held stormy meetings in which they argued and agonized over what they should do, ultimately deciding to return to their silent demonstration.

Some felt they shouldn’t stand because their message could be misinterpreted as being somehow pro-Iraq. But others believed it was more important than ever to stand, arguing that the situation in the territories was worse than ever. “If not now, then when?,” argued some. “The faint of heart should stay home, but they can’t stop those of us who feel a moral imperative now.”

“This was a discussion like no other,” recalls Anat Hoffman, a member of the Jerusalem City Council for the leftist Ratz Party. “First, the culture of listening among the women is so different. They listen to each other, and encourage each other to speak. They don’t talk just to hear themselves talking, as people do in the City Council,” said Hoffman.

Arguing against demonstrating while people were walking around carrying gas masks, one of the women quoted a verse from the “Book of the Prophet Amos”: That “the prudent shall keep silent in that time.”

These are not religious women, but as Israelis they have been schooled in the Bible as a source of articulate wisdom. Another woman countered that the complete verse in “Amos” has a different message: “…ye have built houses of hewn stone but ye shall not dwell in them, ye have planted pleasant vineyards but he shall not drink wine of them, and the prudent shall keep silent in that time.”

“In other words,” explains Hoffman, “this is a list of punishments. The Bible is not telling us it is good to be silent – rather that in bad times we are punished by not hearing the voice of the wise.”

One could imagine that if he were alive today, the angry prophet who chastised the Israelites for their evil, would have been placed in administrative detention for speaking out too freely.

The women remained split. Following the debate, only a handful of women showed up at the square.

The six weeks of war was a serious setback for the group. Their ranks have been diminished – some women may never return – and Women in Black groups around the country have disappeared. For awhile there were 31 other groups. They were smaller but no less dedicated than the Jerusalem group. Since the war there are only eight.

Nevertheless, insists Anat Hoffman, the women remain a community. ‘This is something that is so brittle and so precious and so unusual on the left, and so invisible. Women in Black are incubating a force whose power they themselves don’t realize. We have formed a community of people with such diverse opinions, and yet have held to this consensus – End the Occupation. We were able to meet every week, rain or shine, one color, one sex, one message. It’s a great achievement.”

Patricia Golan is a freelance radio and print journalist living in Jerusalem. She has worked as an editor and reporter for Israel Radio, The Jerusalem Post, U.P.I., Voice of America and National Public Radio.