The Anguish of the War in Lebanon Is Mirrored in the Troubled Face of Israeli Dissent
08/16/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
For two months the images thrust themselves upon the world's consciousness: sleek, delta-winged Israeli Mirage jets transforming Beirut, once the Paris of the Middle East, into a city on fire. After assaults that seemed to have no end, hundreds of Lebanese men, women and children lay maimed and killed. To Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the invasion of Lebanon was a deliberate act of justice, a chance at last to root out the PLO terrorists who have for years brought death and suffering to Israel. To foreign observers, it was a startling act of violence. "This is not the Israel we have known," a shaken John Chancellor said in Lebanon last week as a residential section of West Beirut went up in flames. President Reagan, on the eve of giving Israel's Foreign Minister an unprecedented dressing down, put it more succinctly: "I lost patience long ago." But for all the foreign criticism of the Israeli action, there has been little visible internal dissent; for a decade Israel lived with PLO bombardments from Lebanon, and the memory of events like the PLO massacre of 21 schoolchildren in Maalot in 1974 kept many from speaking out. No more.
Two weeks ago Israel's youngest full colonel on active duty, Eli Geva, 32, asked to be relieved of his command rather than lead his troops north of Sidon into Beirut. The son of a general, Geva was a well-known hero of the 1973 war, and Begin himself asked Geva to change his mind. "Many of my soldiers would be killed, and so would many civilians," Geva reportedly told the Prime Minister, "and it would not bring a solution." Geva asked only to be reassigned, but he was discharged from the army. Suddenly the growing antiwar movement gained a symbol—and the world took notice of the real and growing dissent within Israel against this war.
Geva was hardly the first Israeli soldier to voice doubts about the course of military action. Just weeks after the invasion began, in June, two young paratroop reservists transformed their discontent into a movement. Yoni Oren, 28, and Udi Shiloni, 27, formed Soldiers Against Silence soon after completing their tours of active duty at the front in Lebanon. Their movement now claims a few hundred followers, many of whom have donated their $20 separation bonus to pay for SAS's antiwar newspaper advertisements. The group has demanded the resignation of Defense Minister Arik Sharon, architect of the invasion. Oren and Shiloni regularly picket Begin's office. "I do accept that we have no choice but to fight the PLO," says Oren, a kibbutz farmer in civilian life. "But from what I saw in this war, the main aim was not only to destroy the PLO but to use the army for the creation of a new order in the Middle East. We felt the army was being used to solve political and not military matters, and this is contrary to what, in our mind, the purity of the army should be." Adds Shiloni, a Hebrew University law student: "The initial idea of organizing a protest movement came to us while fighting, right there on the battlefield, but the actual organization came only when it was over and we were taking off our uniforms."
SAS has been controversial since its founding and has engendered bitterness from some critics who feel that its words and deeds border on treason. Although SAS members have all put in their time at the front, Begin claims that they and their allies are "responsible for encouraging the PLO not to evacuate West Beirut." Though no one knows how many Israelis support the various antiwar movements, leaders now claim 25 percent of the population, many of them reserve personnel. "I myself have taken part in five wars," says reserve Col. Mordechai Bar-On, 55. "I have good conduct medals from each. I shall do everything in my power to ensure that my 3-year-old grandson will not wear a good conduct medal. Ever."
Bar-On, a former infantry commander and personal assistant to Gen. Moshe Dayan, was one of the founders of Peace Now. That four-year-old organization came into being when Bar-On and a group of other army officers banded together and wrote to Begin, begging him not to ignore the peace overtures of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. While Soldiers Against Silence restricts its activities to opposing the invasion of Lebanon, Peace Now has been a persistent critic of many Begin actions it views as aggressive. Its members meet every Sunday night in a Jerusalem cellar to discuss strategy. Though it lacks both an organizational structure and formal membership lists, the group has been able to bring out as many as 100,000 protesters to its demonstrations through word of mouth. "It's very much like an Athenian democracy," says Bar-On enthusiastically.
The members of Peace Now are drawn from every corner of Israeli life. Since virtually all Israelis must serve in the military, most Peace Now members are either veterans or in the reserve army. "Those who lead the Peace Now movement are actually those who did the fighting," says Tzali Reshef, 29, a veteran who studied at Harvard and is a successful lawyer in Jerusalem. With Bar-On, Reshef is credited with founding the movement in 1978—and with giving it its uniquely unstructured form. "We are a group leading the movement because we did not want a personality cult," he says.
Still, there are strong personalities at the helm of Peace Now. One of the most visible—and vocal—is Dr. Janet Aviad, 40, a transplanted Philadelphian with a degree in religion from the University of California. A widow who emigrated to Israel with her son after her husband died in 1973, Aviad became active in Peace Now last December, irate over a conflict that preceded the Lebanon war. "Sharon imposed a collective punishment on the West Bank village of Beit Sahur," she recalls. "Some 16-year-old boys had been throwing stones at Israeli Army vehicles. The houses of their parents were all blown up by the authorities. What could the parents do? Could I control my son at the age of 16 to such an extent that myself and my family would rightly be punished for any act of his?"
The leaders of Peace Now reject the charge that they are leftists: They claim that even some members of Begin's conservative Likud bloc support their efforts. But they are also aware that they run the risk of being dismissed as simply a protest movement, which has contributed no positive solutions to Israel's problems while constantly criticizing the government. For that reason, Tzali Reshef is now urging his fellow Peace Now leaders to develop a political program for Israel's future. "We must do something fast," he says. "Otherwise it will be like the proverb in which the dogs bark, but the caravan still moves on." As Tzali Reshef realizes all too well, unless someone devises a better way to conduct statecraft, Israel, like Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East, will not find peace now, or perhaps ever.