When two people end up sharing the fear of each other

ISRAEIL / Ami Ayalon has been at the forefront of Israel's military actions for years. As naval commander and head of its internal security service, he had a creeping sense the country he so passionately defended was manoeuvring into a strategic impasse.

Friendly Fire: How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy and the Hope for Its Future
Author: Ami Ayalon
Publisher: Steerforth Press, USA

Let me quote from Friendly Fire: «It is not enough to know the enemy; we must understand him. Today, the goal is not to aim weapons at Palestinians. It is to create hope within them. Hope means security. We must redefine the concept of ‘victory’. Without it, we will never achieve peaceful coexistence. We must rethink our own narrative. We have erased our past in an attempt to justify our territorial aggression. We have ignored that Palestinians have the same historical right as Israelis to the land we exclude them from. That fighting against Islamist terrorists does not mean fighting against Palestinians. That hatred prolongs war. That we have the right to defend ourselves, but only as long as we grant the same right to the other side. As long as we refuse to acknowledge all of this, we will continue to be our own worst enemy – without hope of turning Israel into a democracy based on universal humanitarian values.»

It may seem strange that it takes a lifetime to realise such realisations. However, this is not the case for the person in question here. The reflections above are an extract of one man’s self-insight, as presented in the book Friendly Fire: How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy and the Hope for Its Future (Truth to Power). The author, Ami Ayalon, has been at the forefront of Israel’s military actions as the chief of the navy and the head of Shin Bet, the country’s internal security service, under the motto «the invisible shield.» Throughout it all, the guiding star was the fundamental concept of «security.» Ayalon’s trajectory is closely intertwined with Israel’s history and can be read as a therapy session encompassing both personal and national developmental narratives.

After ordering attacks and eliminating enemies for many years, Ayalon had a shocking experience during a conversation with a Palestinian psychiatrist named Sarraj. It started as a friendly meeting until Sarraj suggested that Ayalon should congratulate him on the victory. The bewildered response was, «We have killed hundreds of your people in just the past few weeks. You are about to lose the last remnants of your freedom. You have fought for decades to win freedom, and for what? Martyrdom and funerals? Is this what you call victory?» Sarraj confirmed, «We have lived in terror since 1967. The fact that both our peoples now share the same fear is a victory for us.» Ami withdrew, speechless, before slowly reassessing all the beliefs he had lived by until then.

He conducted negotiations with Arafat and held talks with his own leaders.

Defending by any means necessary?

As a young naval officer, Ayalon participated in a daring attack on an Egyptian base, a fortified island called Green Island. They were a small commando unit, and the operation involved night diving followed by climbing to the top of the fortress. In the ensuing battle, Ami was hit by bullets and shrapnel, but that didn’t stop him from completing the operation, providing cover for his comrades, and finally escaping in a boat, where he administered a morphine injection to himself before losing consciousness. The other soldiers were either wounded or dead. For this action, Ami received the Medal of Valour, Israel’s highest honour, reserved for those who show «ultimate heroism in the face of enemy fire.»

His military career brought him many honourable years but also a creeping feeling that the country he passionately defended was manoeuvring itself into a strategic deadlock. Ami grew up in a kibbutz and was convinced that Israel’s right to exist had to be defended by any means necessary. He planned elimination operations and killed terrorists without hesitation until he realised Palestinians driven out of their land had the same right. Equating Palestinians with the enemy was a fatal mistake. Ayalon acknowledged, «Seeing Palestinians as human beings changed me […]. Our lack of empathy destroyed our ability to assess dangers and opportunities. Fear caused us to overreact.» He conducted negotiations with Arafat and held talks with his own leaders. The Oslo Accords led to temporary openings, but the frontlines hardened again after a spiral of terror that neither party could contain.

With his back against the wall, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called upon Ami Ayalon. He asked him to take on the role of the head of Shin Bet. Ami thought, «To send a bullet through a hostile opponent in uniform is quite different from dragging a shopkeeper blindfolded or a child into a cell to extract information from them, either with finesse or with violence. The job would also involve spying on Jews.» He declined the offer. A year later, news reached him that Rabin had been killed, shot by an Israeli Jew.

That’s how far the internal tensions in Israel had reached. This time, He was called in again by Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who repeated the offer. Ami Ayalon, who had always prioritised security above all else, accepted this time. He held the position of the head of Shin Bet for four years until he retired in 2000.

«Seeing Palestinians as human beings changed me […]»

Peaceful coexistence

Ayalon briefly tried his hand at politics but encountered a wall in the form of conservative intransigence and one-dimensional power arrogance, personified by Benjamin Netanyahu. So in 2003, together with Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh, he established a peace initiative called «The People’s Voice.»

Through his book, Ayalon aims to trace a vision, to see the country that became a state in 1948 from a broader historical perspective. To create a consensus that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination within their (contested) borders without granting them exclusive, absolute rights.

Through this biography, he demonstrates that it is possible to bridge the gap between a life as a courageous military spearhead with few reservations and becoming an advocate for understanding and peaceful coexistence across explosive conflicts of interest.

There are few places on earth where hope has such rough living conditions as in the powder keg around the Jordan Valley, where creating fear is considered a strategic goal.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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