Arming Israel’s citizenry is part of a broader struggle to reshape Israel’s strategic realities.
Over the past month, more than 200,000 (!) Israelis have filed applications for gun licenses, permits to always own and carry a firearm. Given the spike in Palestinian terrorism over the past 18 months, and the Hamas massacres of October 7, this is not surprising, and is even welcome. I think that every Israeli grandmother should now pack a pistol.
In saying so I am shocking myself, because I grew-up in Western liberal society where gun toting was rare and frowned-upon. If anything, it was the passion of far-right rednecks who were viewed from afar as irresponsible. The Americas are plagued by too much gun violence, with regular shotgun and machine gun shootings by deranged people in malls, schools, campuses, playgrounds, and even occasionally churches and synagogues.
Furthermore, in this country to which I immigrated many decades ago, guns were considered the province of the military, to which we send our sons and daughters to serve. Soldiers coming home for the weekend with their sophisticated and scary-looking rifles are a regular sight, and troops in the streets to secure major holiday pedestrian traffic and tourist sites are commonplace (and necessary), especially in Jerusalem.
In other words, this country is seemingly well protected by its large citizen-based army, police force, para-military forces, and penetrating intelligence forces. It not necessary for the average citizen in Israel, men and women, to be personally armed. Or so it seemed.
The time when every Israeli working in agricultural fields or walking to work in Tel Aviv needed to have a loaded gun is over, or so we thought. The time when every Israeli needed to display instant readiness to repel attack had passed, or so we thought.
Israel’s War of Independence was over, so we thought. Back then, the battle was for every living room and nursery room. But today, the IDF with its Hellfire missiles, Iron Dome anti-missile defenses, and crack commando units suffices to secure our security. Or so we thought.
But now the second War of Independence is upon Israel. The battle for basic security is underway not just in the towns of the Gaza Envelope but in every border area, and frankly this country is so small that everywhere is a border zone.
Israeli Arabs and Arabs from Judea and Samaria are so integrated in Israeli commerce and industry that the potential for terrorist attack is viscerally felt everywhere, rightfully or wrongly. After all, quite a few Palestinians from Gaza who seemingly worked peacefully in Beeri, Reem, and Kfar Azza apparently provided precise intelligence on Beeri, Reem, and Kfar Azza to the Hamas butchers who invaded on Simchat Torah.
The notion that one can comfortably invite Arab construction workers into one’s home or neighborhood has been seriously undermined. The notion that Modiin, Raanana, or Emek Hefer cities and industrial zones can go without armed civilian guards at checkpoints at every entrance has been genuinely destabilized. Israelis are rightfully afraid, and correctly arming up.
AT LEAST 20 YEARS AGO, Major General (res.) Gershon Hacohen told me that every grandmother in this country should pack a gun. Every citizen should be armed and ready to defend the country. This is a matter of both mental and operational readiness, he told me. Israeli society, he long has argued, has grown too comfortable, too middle class, too bourgeoisie, too blind to the dangers that surround Israel.
If most (sane, responsible) citizens in this country were armed, the signal to our enemies would be clear: Israel is never asleep, and it is ready to defend itself vigorously at any moment – Hacohen has argued. And to prove his point, he will show you the pistol he has permanently strapped to his lower leg underneath his pants.
General Hacohen long has been a mentor to me in strategic and defense affairs. He is an out-of-the-box deep thinker. Throughout his 41-year military career, he was widely considered to be the “thinking intellectual” of IDF generals, although not all his colleagues understood what he was driving at. He is messianic and impulsive in some of his prescriptions, ideologically precise and visionary in others.
I always have liked the revolutionary fervor inherent in Hacohen’s approach. He wants to bring back a Zionist discourse on pioneering, redemption, and settlement – taking themes from the dynamic worldviews of Berl Katznelson, Ben-Gurion, and Rabbi AY Kook.
His book, What’s National in National Security (Hebrew: Ministry of Defense Publishing House, 2014), is essentially a discourse on the importance of faith, vision, and religious-ideological aspirations in the crafting of national security doctrine. It should now be mandatory reading.
Hacohen’s central insight is this: Those who view Israel as a stepping-stone for redemption and as the Jewish national spiritual homeland will act differently in responding to Palestinian attack than those who view Israel merely as a safe-haven state. If the former, the government should do more than just approve security operations against Palestinian terrorists. It should act to crush Israel’s enemies and approve renewed building in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria.
Hacohen’s message is that Israel must reacquire sufficient ideological determination to repulse and overwhelm its adversaries. When enemies such as Hamas-ISIS and Iran are resolutely motivated by revolutionary ideologies, Israel can’t get by with leaders bereft of ideological zeal; stuck in a holding pattern or management mindset.
IN THE CURRENT CONTEXT, Hacohen is relevant for another reason. Over the past decade, he has overseen the IDF’s major war games exercises. The central-most takeaway from the simulations he designed and ran was that Israel must be prepared with massive ground forces to fight a two-front or even three-front war – exactly the scenario that may be developing right now.
Furthermore, Israel must be proactive, rather than, reactive. “Restoring calm” to Israel’s southern and northern border areas, or “maintaining calm” in Jerusalem and the West Bank (through occasional anti-terrorist operations, plus fences and roadblocks, etc.) is akin to putting a derailed train back on track – no more, Hacohen argues. It is a technical solution, not a goal-oriented chess move that drives a new reality.
The Zionist movement always sought to, and today too should seek to, reshape Israel’s strategic reality according to its preferences. This means maneuvering, expanding, building, and forcing the enemy on the defensive, says Hacohen, in Gaza and the Galilee, in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria.
Underlying Hacohen’s weltanschauung is the notion of ongoing struggle, and deep faith in the righteousness of the Jewish return to Zion.
This first part of this thought-process is somewhat Bolshevik in approach: Israel is engaged in a permanent revolution. Consequently, Hacohen says, Zionism must constantly seek to re-shape and shake-up the strategic environment, never giving up on its ideals despite strategic and tactical difficulties.
Even if Israeli leaders can’t see where the struggle will ultimately lead, they are nevertheless mandated to push forward. So, you shuffle the cards and create game-changing facts on the ground. In Gaza too.
And then, drawing on passionate commitment that comes from true belief in your cause – religious-nationalist faith in the justice of the Jewish People’ return to Zion – you express confidence that the Heavens will help stickhandle the helm of state.
All this starts with getting a gun. Today, I downloaded an application from the Ministry of National Security website.
Israeli leaders have no mandate to scale-back the assault on Hamas. Read below the correctly demanding graveside eulogy for Yonadav Levenstein Hy”d by his elder brother Elnatan Levenstein:
“I call from here upon the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, other government ministers and decisionmakers: Don’t you dare stop! Don’t you dare hesitate! Don’t you dare fold! Don’t you dare allow even one drop of fuel into accursed Gaza until the rats, the evil terrorists of Hamas-ISIS, those who murder Jewish babies and rape little Jewish girls, those who rain rockets down upon all Israelis without discrimination – until they come out of their ratholes and are eliminated. Don’t you dare! And if you are not up to the task, if you don’t have the guts to win the war – stand aside, vacate your seats at the cabinet table, so that others, better leaders, can take your place.”
Pressures on Israel from Washington and other Western capitals are mounting to curtail the campaign to destroy Hamas, because of the humanitarian toll in Gaza.
Israeli government leaders must resist these pressures with all their might. They must persist in pounding Hamas-ISIS to smithereens until every last Hamas commander is dead, every last Hamas terror attack tunnel is destroyed, and every last Hamas missile bunker is obliterated.
That is the only justification for the tenure of this government; that is its promise to Israeli society. That is the only way Israel can restore basic security to a battered and traumatized public, the only way Israelis will return to their homes in the Negev and the Galilee.
It is the only way Israel can restore some of its deterrent posture and survive in the predatory Middle East. It is the only way Israel stands a chance of pushing back against radical Islam’s attempt to strangulate Israel and achieve regional hegemony.
The war cannot and must not end until Israel has achieved its legitimate military objectives in full, with no fudging, no obfuscations, and no hesitations. Israel cannot tolerate ceasefires along the way – no truces, no armistices, no fallbacks, no restrictions on its use of (overwhelming and simultaneously precise) force – until total victory is achieved.
Complete capitulation or annihilation of Hamas is the goal, nothing less. No more Hamas in Gaza, or in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). No more Hamas terrorists alive elsewhere in the world either. They all must be hunted down and eliminated.
In the history of modern warfare, there is no more justified military campaign than this one. And only such a campaign to absolutely end the Hamas threat to Israel justifies the heavy losses that Israel already has suffered and the pain of what almost certainly will be further losses.
Israeli leaders have no mandate from the Israeli public to call-off or scale-back the assault on Hamas. Would they do so, under pressure from well-meaning and fickle allies alike, Israelis will explode in anger, assuredly filling the streets of every city in this country with millions of protestors demanding that the war against Hamas be fully prosecuted. Compromise with Hamas would be defeat. Bending to US President Biden (who, it must be acknowledged, thus far has been rock solid in his backing of Israel) would be considered collapse.
OVER THE PAST TEN DAYS, Israel has buried more than 30 brave warriors, more than 30 fine and fearless young men pressed into military service to defend their country, many of them with tender wives and beautiful, little, now-orphaned, children.
One of them was my beloved young friend Yonadav Levenstein, may the Heavens avenge his death. Yonadav was a physical giant (known as the “Viking” of the Givati brigade’s elite reconnaissance unit) and a singer-scholar of a soul. He fought heroically in Nahal Oz on October 7-8, and then in Jabalya and Shati in Gaza before being felled by Palestinian barbarians who popped-out of a terrorist attack tunnel.
Just two months ago, I danced with him at his wedding to the delicate Hadar Karavani, singing together about happiness and joy in the streets of Jerusalem.
Yonadav was the youngest son of my closest friends, Leora and Dr. Michael (Mordechai) Levenstein of Maale Adumim, who like me made Aliyah from Canada many decades ago. Tragically, Michael died of cancer three years ago.
Michael’s last request, pressed on me the night before he passed away, was to assist Yonadav in his wish to serve in a frontline IDF combat unit. Michael knew that Yonadav’s deepest desire, and in retrospect I guess his ultimate task in life, was to fight for the freedom and safety of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel.
Yonadav’s eldest brother, Elnatan, a prominent lawyer and rising community figure, is a fighter for the Jewish People too, having served in an elite, secret commando unit on Israel’s southern border, and this month in an elite reserve unit on the northern border. I see Elnatan and his cohort as the next generation of Israel’s leaders, a new generation of principled and wise leaders whom this country desperately needs.
Elnatan was laying in ambush against Hezbollah when he was called offline to travel home for Yonadav’s funeral on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Standing over the fresh gravesite of his youngest brother, Elnatan gave majestic voice to the defiant demand that the Israeli government stand firm in pursuing the war goals without flinching.
This is what he said:
“Yonadav: You were intimately familiar with our people’s history. You loved this country with all your heart. You built yourself up and fought to be accepted as a warrior in the Givati reconnaissance unit, where you excelled.
“Alas, now you too are part of our history; part of a bloody war that is a historical turning point. A tough but necessary war. A war for the future of our people in our land. A war that should have been over a long time ago, a war that your generation should not have had to fight.
“In Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, I and my army unit, along with the entire IDF, were trained and ready to complete the task. We had detailed battle plans and received clear instructions – only to have these plans and orders cancelled repeatedly at the last moment. And over the years since then there were other opportunities (to crush the enemy) that were not taken.
“And now you, little Yonadav, the baby of our family, were forced to fight this fight on behalf of us all.
“This war must be Israel’s last war! Otherwise, the price is too high. Yonadav, you and your comrades-in-arms did not die in battle so that others will have to die in yet another war in two- or five-years’ time. The price that Israeli society has paid since that evil, horrible day of massacres on October 7, Simchat Torah 5784, is intolerable. No more!
“Therefore, I call from here upon the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, other government ministers and decisionmakers: Don’t you dare stop! Don’t you dare hesitate! Don’t you dare fold!
“Don’t you dare allow even one drop of fuel into accursed Gaza until the rats, the evil terrorists of Hamas-ISIS, those who murder Jewish babies and rape little Jewish girls, those who rain rockets down upon all Israelis without discrimination – until they come out of their ratholes and are eliminated. Don’t you dare!
“It is the obligation of the Government of Israel to ensure that every Israeli can live in quiet, peace, and security without fearing that terrorists will overrun their homes or fire missiles at them.
“David Ben-Gurion once said that ‘Our future is not dependent on what the goyim, the nations of the world, say, but on what the Jews do.’ And now is the time to do, to act decisively. We did not want to lose in battle Yonadav or any of our brave young men and women. But this war has been forced upon Israel, and we must finish it once and for all.
“I say to our government: The People of Israel stand firmly behind you for this purpose, putting aside all internal disagreements. We, our family, already have paid the highest price in grief. Our lives will never be the same. Now you must finish the job, for us, for the fallen soldiers, for our people, for the sake of future generations.
“And if you are not up to the task, if you don’t have the guts to win the war – stand aside, vacate your seats at the cabinet table, so that others, better leaders, can take your place.”
Half a million Israelis have been made refugee in their own homeland, an astounding and ultimately unacceptable dislocation.
Friends of Israel must have a clear picture of how battered Israelis are, how infuriated they are, and how resilient they are! Friends of Israel around the world ought to be similarly infuriated and motivated to stand strong; to build for themselves abundant reserves of spiritual and social stamina for the long road ahead, alongside the stamina of Israelis.
Underreported and insufficiently understood is the scope of dislocation in Israel caused by the Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing, ongoing, and likely-to-be long war.
At least half a million Israelis have been made refugee in their own homeland, displaced internally due to the war. This includes Israelis whose homes in the Gaza envelope were destroyed by the enemy in the initial attack, Israelis from more than 100 communities near the southern and northern borders who have been evacuated to the center of the country by order of the military, and Israelis in southern and northern Israel who have fled on their own account to relatives in the somewhat-safer center of the country.
There also are many, many families with men drafted to the military whose wives and children feel vulnerable and who have moved to live elsewhere with grandparents or relatives.
By way of example, here are some less-than-complete statistics: Over 36,000 residents of Sderot and 18,000 Israelis who lived in 29 towns between four and seven kilometers from the Gaza border are “resting and refreshing” in over 50,000 state-subsidized guesthouse and hotel rooms. Some 65,000 evacuees/refugees are currently “sheltering” in Eilat, far from the fighting (although Iran’s Houthi hunta in Yemen this week fired missiles at that city) and far from their homes, schools, and businesses.
This is an astounding and ultimately unacceptable dislocation. Jews made refugee in their own sovereign homeland! It is a shocking reality.
The scope of the displacement, and the uncertainty about its longevity, is both traumatizing and just plain difficult. A host of secondary problems arise such as zero to minimal educational frameworks for children, the inability to reach places of employment or to make time for work (because kids are not in school and husbands are away), zero to minimal running income and a consequent inability to meet home mortgage payments or repay business loans, and so much more.
The Ministry of Labor formally estimates that 764,000 Israelis have lost their places of employment, been laid off, or otherwise knocked-out of the workforce since the beginning of the war. That is about 18% of the workforce!
Close to 40% of Israeli businesses are operating only at a rock-bottom level with less than 20% of their employees. In southern Israel, 60% of businesses are operating at this rock-bottom, barely surviving level.
The building industry is nearly shut down, and major infrastructure projects like rail and light-rail construction are suspended. (Almost all foreign construction workers have fled the country, and Arabs of Judea and Samaria are locked-out.) The hospitality/tourism sector is devastated, the agricultural sector is struggling, and 62% of food production and general industries are operating at minimal levels – with less than 20% of their employees and with a 50-80% drop in business activity. More than 40% of all Israeli businesses have their youngest and most able employees serving on emergency draft in the military.
Worst hit are independent businessmen who have called into military service and consequently their businesses have been shuttered. Those in southern Israel in particular, are not sure they will have any business to return to, either because they will soon go bankrupt or because the broader population won’t be returning home anytime soon and thus there will be no customers.
The IDF and National Social Insurance Institute have a formula that theoretically could eventually pay self-employed and independent contractors anywhere from NIS 6,000 to NIS 47,000 in compensation per month. But that would be months from now, after businessmen file income or corporate tax returns for 2023, and by then it may be too late.
On top of this, 9,500 Israelis already have filed claims for compensation for physical damages to their homes and businesses caused by falling Hamas rockets, missiles, and shrapnel from these projectiles. This especially includes many homes and factories in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Netivot, and Tel Aviv in addition to the Gaza envelope, of course.
And on top of all these logistical and financial burdens is the challenge of dealing with the psychological traumas evoked by Hamas atrocities and military casualties, including orphanage and widowhood; and the rehabilitation of the thousands of injured Israelis including many hundreds still hospitalized.
Eventually, after Hamas is demolished and the terrorist threat from Gaza is eliminated, Israel also must (must!) rebuild the magnificent communities in southern Israel, a task estimated at over NIS 5 billion. (The government has allocated an initial NIS 1 billion for this purpose to the Shaar HaNegev, Sdot Negev, and Eshkol regional councils and the Sderot municipality.)
OF COURSE, NONE OF THIS should have happened. One of the promises, at least the aspirations, of modern Zionism was that after the return to its indigenous, ancient homeland, the Jewish People would “dwell safely” in the sovereign State of Israel, under “vine and fig trees from Dan to Beersheba” (see Kings I 5:5).
Obviously, we’re not there yet. But at the very least, Israel’s borders should have been better protected and 500,000 Israelis should not have been forced out of their homes overnight.
The good news is that Israeli society (and the global Jewish community) is up to the task and has responded gloriously with volunteer drives that go a long way in supporting the afflicted. People have responded generously with charity campaigns that take some sting out of the grand disruption. But overall, Israelis don’t want pity. Rather they crave community and need solidarity all the way to victory over the enemy.
Israelis don’t want pity. Rather they crave community and need solidarity all the way to victory over the enemy.
A wise colleague of mine asked me why I was writing this column. After all, he said to me, you won’t successfully garner more sympathy for Israel on the international scene. Palestinians are suffering far more from the terror of Hamas and from Israeli bombardment than Israelis are suffering from the terror of Hamas and its bombardments – even when considering the Hamas atrocities of October 7.
(Unfortunately, that is the way it must be if Israel is going to restore its deterrent posture and survive in the hostile Middle East, supercharged against Israel by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies.)
My friend’s evaluation is correct. Israel cannot compete with Palestinians over victimhood. Nor does it want to. Israel won’t win and does not want to win the “Most Hard Hit” trophy of the year from the UN or the Academy of Motion Pictures.
The point of this article isn’t to claim victimhood or generate superior sympathy. Rather, I want friends of Israel to have a clear picture of how battered Israelis are, how infuriated they are, and how resilient they are! The dislocation is enormous and probably will get worse before it gets better – but nobody plans to run away.
Winning the war will require great reserves of spiritual and social stamina, as well economic reserves – and Israel will find them. Israelis are mobilized to the highest degree at every level of society to do so.
What I really want is for friends of Israel to be similarly infuriated, and motivated to stand strong; to build for themselves too abundant reserves of spiritual and social stamina for the long road ahead.