JERUSALEM, Israel, Aug. 8—Ostensibly, Jordan and Israel are at peace, and have been since 1994, when Jordan’s King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a historic treaty at Wadi Araba. Still, most of the people I spoke to in Amman, where I spent last week, reacted testily, or worse, when I announced my intention to travel to Jerusalem over the weekend.
Anti-Israeli feeling in the Arab world, where I live and work, has reached fever pitch since the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon began four weeks ago. Much of the Nasrallah hero worship in evidence among Syrians and Jordanians may in fact be an expression of disappointment, of frustration, with their own ineffectual rulers, a raw, adolescent delight in the sense of empowerment brought about by the sight of an Arab militia fighting the great Israeli military.
Still, it’s sometimes hard, if you’re as susceptible to emotional suasion as I often am, and if you’ve spent as much time talking to penniless Lebanese refugees and angry pro-Hezbollah demonstrators, and watching pan-Arab satellite television, as I have lately, to empathize with the Israeli perspective on this war.
So I told my Jordanian interlocutors the truth, which is that I’d been feeling that I simply had to come to Israel, to talk to Israelis about the war, after several weeks of talking exclusively to Syrians and Jordanians and Lebanese, and to get a sense of the way the war looks and feels from Jerusalem, if I could.
I crossed into Israel last Saturday morning in the company of my friend Rebecca, an Israeli-American, and two cats belonging to another friend of ours recently evacuated from Beirut (they could feel the shelling through the tiled floors with their paws, he said, and were unnerved by it). The cats—fat, orange Brooklyn-bred Sid and lithe, calico Sam—nestled in their gray carrier box and wore looks of baleful resignation throughout this final phase of their long odyssey from Beirut to Jerusalem, which has, improbably, become one of the safest-feeling cities in the Middle East right now.
My Jerusalem plan worked, more or less, in the personal sense, in that I’ve developed a great deal more sympathy for the Israeli position on the war, and a kind of awed fascination for the Israelis’ national character: their wiry tension, their ability to live a relatively calm, modern, democratic existence perpetually on the brink of war and disaster.
But my time here has also made me a great deal less optimistic about the possibility of a quick and effective ceasefire.
I can well appreciate the Israeli position that it is simply unacceptable to have a guerrilla force, with no accountability to any legitimate government, operating at will and taking prisoners along your northern border. I’ve met a young Israeli woman who has lost a close friend in the fighting, and seen Jerusalem hotels packed with elderly refugees from Haifa.
But I think that the Israeli view of Hezbollah—that it can be dismantled, that the rest of Lebanon will eventually rise up to fight the Shiite militia as an enemy in its midst—is terribly flawed. Many Lebanese are, certainly, angry with Hezbollah for dragging their country into yet another war. But the old saw about how the enemy of one’s enemy is a friend doesn’t seem to hold true in this region. As many differences as they may have with Hezbollah, with each passing week, support is consolidating behind Hezbollah across the Arab world, and it’s becoming more and more impossible—politically incorrect at best, treasonous at worst—to criticize Hezbollah’s charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in an Arab country.
According to my friend David, an American who lives in Jordan, the Arab street is “like the Loch Ness monster: ferocious, but imaginary.” But I worry that the Arab world has been pushed just a bit too far now, that the inhabitants of that so-called Arab street are much more reactionary than their leaders. Many Jordanians told me last week that they saw this new war as a proxy war, that the United States was using the Israeli military to fight Iran, by using Israeli power to disarm Iran’s force in Lebanon.
It turns out that many Israelis agree with them and think, in fact, that it’s just fine.
“I believe that this is the first phase of a war between the U.S. and Iran, and I feel sorry for Lebanon,” a reporter on Arab affairs for Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily, told me this evening, over iced coffee, in the garden of Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel. “Of course, I’ve never been there, but from what you see on TV, the Lebanese seem like a very open-minded, liberal people. And their country is being destroyed.
“For now, Israel is definitely trying to avoid attacking Syria,” this reporter told me. “But my military sources tell me that Syria is giving military support to Hezbollah and that most of the rockets falling on Israel are Syrian-produced. The Syrians are playing with fire; it’s like they’re sitting on a pile of explosives and playing with a cigarette.”
I’m heading back to Damascus first thing tomorrow morning, and my conversation with the Ha’aretz reporter this evening hasn’t exactly contributed to my peace of mind. I live in Damascus’ old walled city, and my bedroom window is set right into the old city wall, so that I could actually litter into the dry moat that surrounds it. The wall is a good four feet thick and feels solid, impregnable as any fortress. I just wonder how long that feeling will last.
Katherine Zoepf is a writer based in Damascus.
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