The Air Raid Shelters on the Road to Masada

masada2 The road to Masada, my road at any rate, began not in Jerusalem but three weeks earlier in Northcote, that quiet, secure and exquisitely fashionable suburb on the outer edge of inner-city Melbourne, where a dinner invitation saw the table talk soon turn to Israel. The television news that night had led with reports from Gaza—images of rockets heading north interspersed with grim-faced Israelis asserting that enough was enough. “You can’t support Israel, surely not?” marvelled a fellow guest, a chap with some sort of academic sinecure who had begun airing his impeccably righteous views well before the crudités were whisked away.

Abbott, the Catholic reactionary … asylum seekers tormented … “concentration camps” … Rupert Murdoch … the “tragedy” and “shame” of the carbon tax’s imminent repeal …

If you watch ABC television, listen to Radio National or once read Mike Carlton in the Sydney Morning Herald, there will be no need to cite another word or talking point, for it was all there in my fellow guest’s laundry list of the lockstep Left’s latest crusades and grievances. Had it not been for the irregular sprays of spittle that marked his more animated complaints, he might have been a life-size example of those talking dolls with the programmed catchphrases small children expect and enjoy. Just pull the string and out the clichés tumble to their immediate delight.

“Seriously,” he continued, “I’ve got nothing against Jews, except when they act like Nazis.” This observation passed for wit, and the table was ringed with wry smiles at Zionism’s evil being so pithily laid bare. Our hostess was a lovely woman, someone whose passions run hotter for hemlines and health fads, and this being Melbourne, her favourite football team, than international affairs. She had laboured long and hard to prepare the evening’s fare, so rather than ruin her night, to my shame I let the comment pass with nothing more muscular than a meek and muttered, “That’s not really fair.” If there is a book of postmodern etiquette it must surely advise that taking up such a gauntlet is best done over dessert, when harsh words can no longer ruin a fine main course of well-cooked organic beef.

On the way home, modern Melbourne was John Batman’s sleepy village: light traffic, no perils but for unilluminated cyclists and those low-rise roundabouts which town planners have insisted on placing at nearly every intersection. If there was a moment of anxiety it came at the roadblock near the zoo in Royal Park, but it was only a sobriety checkpoint manned by Victoria Police with their blow-in-this demands. It is an ostentatiously safe place, this city on the Yarra, protected from unpleasantness and peril at every round-the-roundabout turn of life’s daily journeys. Safe to live and raise a family, to pursue love if that joy is not already yours. And safe, too, to mount abstraction’s pulpit and sermonise from the great heights of moral clarity, as the blowhard from the ivory tower earlier demonstrated, about the murderous shortcomings of others in a distant and far, far more perilous land.

How very different are the checkpoints on the highway from Jerusalem to Masada. They are overseen not by courteous constables but, for the most part, kids in olive-drab fatigues who wear Galil assault rifles on their shoulders and the expressions of much older, harder-bitten men. Their gaze as they check the passing cars for bombs eliminates all doubt that this is any sort of country for theorists and dinner-party polemics. Off to the distant left on the outward leg of the journey you could see Jericho, where the walls came tumbling down. Now there are fresh walls of one sort or another defining all of Israel’s borders and landscape—long, high walls to keep out the human bombs who, a few years back, were taking such a dreadful toll in pizza shops and coffee bars, on buses and at a teenage girl’s bat mitzvah. No exploding Palestinian has done much damage for quite a while, and the walls—whether of cement or razor wire, arrays of high-tech motion sensors or cordons sanitaires of guns and living flesh—are a big part of the reason. You’re definitely not in Melbourne any more, you are reminded, as the urban oasis of water-blessed Jericho shrinks in the rear window, its receding skyline a bar chart of minarets clumped in spikes and thickets beneath a low pillow of brown air. It is empty desert in every other direction, and you wonder why anyone would fight for it. On rocky, bleached hillsides the few scrawny sprigs that pass for bushes must have perversity encoded in their DNA. You couldn’t run a single sheep on twenty acres of this real estate, yet it is soaked with blood and desire in equal measure.

Down to the Dead Sea and along its eastern shore the road runs, the only signs of human life an odd cluster here or there of Bedouin humpies. A small boy leading a goat on a rope is the only human to put in an appearance since the last checkpoint, way back on Jerusalem’s outskirts. And then, finally, Masada, a rearing butte just down the road from the cave where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls. Delivered to the summit by cable car, you look down on a crazy pavement of wadis, of earth scored and fractured into a thousand fissures by the fierce but irregular downpours that dump their moisture further to the west and long ago washed away the last semblance of fertility.

There are curious rectangles, too, each defined by low walls of piled stones. The guide explains them as vestiges of the Roman camps with which the general Titus ringed the entire massif in a ruthlessly methodical tightening of the noose that doomed the last holdouts of a hopeless revolt against imperial rule. Titus’s ramp to the summit is there as well—most of it, anyway—to boggle the mind that such a massive undertaking could have been built at all, let alone with baskets of dirt and rocks hauled by hand beneath a slave-driver’s whip. It did the trick, this improbable construction, and the wall was breached by siege engines block-and-tackled to the top, where the conquerors found only the bodies of the defenders, all dead by their own hands.

Masada is modern Israel’s mythology and shrine, a place as sacred in imagination as in stone, where Israelis take vows that Jews will never be driven from their homeland. “Masada will not fall again,” they pledge. Down south, the armoured columns were pushing deeper into Gaza. You could hear only the wind and the crows in the ruins of the fortress Herod built and see no further than Jordan’s hills beyond the Dead Sea’s shimmer, but it was the sound and spectre of tanks and gunships down south that clattered in the imagination.

At Masada’s foot there is a resort where you can get a decent meal—no cheese with your meat, though—and take a dip in the Dead Sea, the lowest and by far the saltiest body of water on the planet. The water is hot and thick, verging on the viscous, and the first splash makes you think of what it might be like to dive head-first into a full spittoon, the novelty of floating chest-high above the surface doing little to minimise the unpleasantness of the experience.

More off-putting, however, are the small placards riveted to what seems every second Israeli wall. All display a stick figure bolting towards a flight of downward stairs, and each points to the closest air-raid shelter. Over the past few weeks, as the rockets rose from Gaza, it has been wise to make a mental note of the nearest bolt hole. The warning sirens are unsettling as well, especially for a visitor unaccustomed to the notion of death dropping suddenly from a sky of unrelenting blue, and they erupt whenever Israel’s homegrown Iron Dome defence system detects an incoming threat. In the towns and kibbutzim closest to Gaza, the ones that have copped the recent worst of it, there might be thirty seconds’ warning, on a good day perhaps as much as a minute, in which to fling yourself into a cellar or a hole.

Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and parts northern are luckier, residents getting the luxury of a full ninety seconds to find shelter, which few seem to do. Iron Dome has proved so effective it is very nearly a given that Hamas’s rockets will be destroyed in the air, as some 90 per cent of those identified as threats to life and property have been, so why bother with the scampering?

Israel has been under threat since its creation. Like the zealots atop Masada, the locals fully accept that their homes are ringed by enemies and that, every so often, something will need to be done about it. Hence, the assault on Gaza and, as was inevitable, the chorus of international condemnation that went with it.

“We were overdrawn this time,” noted Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington during Obama’s first term, a day or so later in a conference room at the Knesset complex:

Israel always needs credit in the account. We pull out of Sinai, wherever, and that banks the credit we need to defend ourselves somewhere else, another time. We withdrew from the Golan, and that put credit in the account—same thing. Because this is Israel and we are Israelis, that’s the way it works for us.

He was talking about the Gaza campaign as the latest eruption in what has been a long and movable feast of raids, incursions, invasions, assaults and assassinations. Hezbollah to the north in Lebanon, intifadas waxing and waning in the West Bank, and now, day after day, this endless barrage from Gaza. Israeli parents know their kids will someday be in uniform and trained to lock and load, boys and girls alike, all taught to take life if need be. In Northcote they talk airily of “solutions” and the pressing need for “justice”; in Israel, peace is recognised as a transient commodity with a very limited shelf life. The better part of a thousand missiles had been sent on their way by the time the troops went in, and that number grew as the tunnels and subterranean armouries were found, fought over and destroyed.

“Use ’em or lose ’em” seemed to be Hamas’s motto, and fly the missiles did. Three Israeli teenagers had recently been kidnapped, beaten and butchered, but that was on the West Bank, where Israeli vigilantes soon paid back the favour with a victim of their own and a petrol spritz and matches—vengeance of such callous brutality as to make a Belfast hard man blush. The rockets kept coming. There were protests and more rockets. Something had to give, and Gaza under Hamas, for reasons that are sharply defined up close but convenient to overlook from far away, was the eager volunteer.

“We were overdrawn this time, as I said: no credit in the bank of world opinion, but there has been no choice,” Oren continued.  “Being bombed constantly by a neighbour is something no country would tolerate, and never for as long as we have put up with it. Yes, we had no credit, and we knew that we were overdrawn before this operation began. But we had also run out of patience.”

The polls suggest some 80 per cent of Israelis supported the Gaza offensive, and many of those that didn’t were soon to be given a lesson in irony. When some 7000 gathered in Tel Aviv to demand a unilateral end to hostilities, their rally was ruined by incoming missiles. Many Israelis thought that quite funny.

The fusillade of rockets is a curious thing, variously understood, as is so much about Israel, depending on where you happen to be standing. From Northcote, or in the rudderless Washington of its current leader, distance makes for simplicity; indeed, for the simplistic. The international gabble in those last weeks of July 2014 was not of provocation but “proportion”—the word used by US Secretary of State John Kerry when he swept in with the intention of muscling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government into an alleged peace pact cooked up by Hamas in conjunction with Qatar and Turkey. Proportionality, in fact, was all the rage. Hamas had not managed to kill many Israelis, so where did Israel get off sending in a whole army?

More astute operators than Kerry or Obama would have known such a pact could never be accepted and dispensed with the charade, if only on the strength of its architects’ antipathy to the Jewish State. Turkey, long a friend, has been progressively renouncing Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of secularism, the thermostat that formerly warmed relations with Jerusalem having been given a decidedly chilly twist by Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamists. Consider also that Qatar is a pocket handkerchief of sand snotted with fundamentalist fervour, the proverbial oil well that issues passports, and that it is also the past and current sanctuary to Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal. No surprise that the proposal was rejected at a sniff.

There was more pointless talk as well of an alternative deal emerging from Cairo, but that was even more improbable. General Sisi’s Egypt has no love for Hamas, blood brothers of the Muslim Brotherhood he ousted and imprisoned and in whose cause Mashal first chanted “Death to Israel”. The tunnels that were the objectives of Israel’s latest incursion begin under Sisi’s territory and he was quick to seal them, so the very idea that Mashal would accept any “peace outline” drafted by the man simultaneously strangling his Gaza supply lines was ludicrous.

Along with sirens and the odd pop-pop-pop in the night, the white noise of diplomatic babble is part of the region’s eternal soundscape. There is another and different strain of diplomacy, though, one that comes veiled but is no less prone to posturing.

On July 22, in a field about a mile from Ben Gurion Airport, a Hamas rocket exploded, to no one’s great surprise. The missile had been tracked from the second it left Gaza, its trajectory plotted and its target area predicted. The human operator supervising the nearest in the network of Iron Dome launchers was advised by his software that it would do no harm. The field was empty, so it was decided in accordance with standing military orders to let it ride a known ballistic arc and blow up unimpeded. Why waste a volley of interceptors on what was a threat only to rocks? In Washington the incident was seen rather differently, the Federal Aviation Administration immediately cancelling all US carriers’ departures to Israel. There was no reason to do anything of the sort, the Israelis protested: We let it go through to the keeper because we don’t like firing missiles near incoming planes, so we were actually being very careful indeed. Unmoved, the USA stuck by the ban until Israel promised to double Iron Dome’s coverage of the airport and environs. It might have been possible to believe Ben Gurion Airport was in serious peril, but you would have had to search far and wide to find anyone prepared to tell you so.

More popular was the explanation that saw the short-lived ban as Obama’s bitchy payback for sending Kerry on his way with no olive branch to wave. Such was the resentment that Haaretz felt obliged to remind its readers, “Obama is Not the Enemy”. The US president was an innocent abroad and a ham-fisted one at that, the editorial conceded, but he remained a friend of the Jews all the same. Even in Israel, where the number of opinions and perspectives in any one room is the square of those present, few read editorials and fewer found this one persuasive. “Obama?” began a jeweller in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City before ending his three-word sentence with the obscenity of a transitive and contemptuous verb.

Then there is the matter of cement, an innocent enough commodity, you might think, but the object of endless wrangling. Its scarcity for building schools and hospitals is always cited as one of the worst examples of the Israeli blockade’s inhumanity. Less mentioned is that Gaza is a sandy plot and relatively easy to mine with tunnels, which Hamas has done to an extraordinary extent. Hamas has installed more than 1600 tunnels, underground arsenals, rocket factories, command posts and barracks for its fighters, some as deep as sixty metres beneath the surface. Gravity would see the Gazan sands refill those spaces in an instant were it not for the vast quantities of cement required to support their ceilings.

According to Israeli officials, a typical tunnel requires some 700 tonnes of cement. Some of the larger underground works are said to be wide enough to accommodate garages of motorcycles which fighters hope to use for raids and kidnappings on Israel’s side of the wire. The pictures released by the IDF of Gaza’s catacombs make you wonder how many hospitals and schools might have been constructed if all that clandestine spadework, not to mention the ingenuity that has produced homemade, pedal-powered gougers, had been put to good use above ground.

Instead the Gazans ended up with rockets, lots of them, which have been sent off to Israel, pointy-end first. As instruments of slaughter they have not been terribly effective, killing few and injuring perhaps a score of others. This was to be expected, given that all lack guidance systems and many, especially those built on-site rather than smuggled in happier days from Egypt, are propelled by volatile compounds mixed and loaded in what amount to ad hoc underground kitchens. But dead Jews are not the only measure of a military campaign’s success; indeed, for all sorts of other reasons, the toll in the lives of nearby kibbutzim and those city dwellers to the north, where the larger rockets are ambitiously aimed, is beside the point, which has been to win space and sympathy in the Arabic media and, further afield, in publications like, well, the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, and the ABC.

Several months ago, before Gaza’s Hamas zealots stepped up their daily blitz, the polls suggested that the rival faction, Fatah, held a commanding lead in public support and would most likely emerge from forthcoming elections as the chosen representative of the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. The rockets and Israel’s response changed that. While Gazans have not seen those promised schools and hospitals, conflict does have a tendency to solidify support. As of the latest samplings, and to the extent they can be trusted in a time of chaos and war, Hamas is now ahead of Fatah, with which it has fought repeatedly. So much ground has Hamas made up that Fatah began distributing flyers depicting its fighters, in their green headbands, shaking hands with Hamas counterparts, identifiable by the preference for yellow headgear. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, as the ancient wisdom says.

None of this mattered too much to the pair of young women in fatigues manning with their comrades an Iron Dome launcher—it might have been mistaken for a shipping container tipped to a forty-five-degree angle—about thirty miles north of the Gaza Line. Their sector was quiet that hot, arid afternoon and the mood almost listless. They giggled at some private joke on the track to their command post, a tatty and sun-bleached tent remarkable only for its antennae and oversize generator. One carried a mauve handbag on her shoulder which clashed with the pillar-box red of polished toenails peeking from sandals most likely not of military issue. Reservists, perhaps, they were Israel in miniature, the snapshot of a nation that has somehow incorporated the frivolous signs of a peace it has never known with the uniformed expectation of the instinct to survive.

One wonders how the residents of, say, Northcote might react if their neighbours in St Kilda, some twelve kilometres distant as the missile flies, took to lobbing high explosives into their backyards. They won’t, of course, but the comparative distance is not out of scale, as Israel is a very small place indeed. That difference in perception is, rather, a matter of the luxury afforded by the vastly greater gulf of half a world’s remove.

That dinner-party bore intent on displaying his anti-Zionist credentials drew his prime objection from the circumstances of Israel’s creation. It was the Palestinians’ land and the Jews took it—that was, by his summation, Israel’s original sin and the reason the Jewish State warrants no sympathy from conspicuously decent folk like himself.

That there were twice as many Jews in Jerusalem as Arabs in 1947, before the UN redefined the boundaries to give Arab and Jew roughly equal representation, would have bothered him not at all, just as, one guesses, the pogroms that saw an estimated 800,000 Jews flee their homes in Arab lands might also be dismissed. Like the little man on the air-raid shelter signs, some quarter of a million bolted for Israel’s refuge between 1948 and 1951. History will always be the battleground for conflicting interpretations, most reflecting the highly subjective images of those who hold out their preconceptions and prejudices as the ideal. An absolutist’s view of events will always be a prerequisite for displays of moral preening, but the simplistic invocation of the events and players from three-plus generations ago sheds no light on the here-and-now.

Instead, those far from the tangle of conflicting motives and internecine intrigues that characterise what is laughably termed “the Mideast peace process” can pontificate without fear of complications fouling the narrative. Israel is guilty because, well, Israel exists, and let’s leave it there—all agreed?—before we move on to the port and cheese.  An attitude both sad and shallow, it is not without its perils, one of which is the whirlpool of hate into which the more ardent and energetic need little persuading to fling their passions.

The same week in which washed-up radio host and Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton was fired after ten days of controversy arising from his splenetic assault on Israel and the Der Sturmer-style cartoon that accompanied it, eight drunk youths invaded and terrorised a school bus full of Jewish primary schoolers in Bondi. Shouting the obligatory “Heil Hitlers”, they threatened to slash throats while screaming their support for any Palestinians who shed Jewish blood. In Melbourne that same week, visitors to a Jewish library in sleepy Caulfield found their cars’ undersides being inspected with the aid of mirrors on poles. Their next surprise: newly installed barriers to foil suicide bombers.

This is in Australia, formerly a world away from care, and now, unless we are very lucky, on the road to the appalling and horrific. When innocent lives are broken, who will be to blame? The simpleton fanatics who light the fuse or point the gun? Certainly they will be the ones most likely to end up in the dock. But what of their enablers, the pedlars of rhetoric and cheap columns, the reporters who hit the pathos button to mourn dead Palestinian kids—real, stage-managed or imagined—while neglecting to mention the ample evidence of Hamas hiding its fighters and rockets amongst its own civilians? What responsibility will accrue to their words and broad and sloppy strokes? Who will ask them if they feel the slightest guilt for playing to the gallery, for creating an atmosphere in which it can seem a good idea to torment Jewish toddlers on their school bus?

Israelis have learned to live with hate and death, becoming even more efficient by necessity in the skills of doling out more than they receive. But Australia? God help us all, even those dinner-party sophists, when the baby-killer clichés sprout teeth and flesh is ripped apart like so many of today’s conceited illusions.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online. He was in Israel from July 25 to August 1.


4 thoughts on “The Air Raid Shelters on the Road to Masada

  • en passant says:

    Excellent English prose and well argued that reality is much different from the cultured tones of our detached elites.
    I admire you for taking such risks to view the truth first hand as, unlike you, I would fear to venture into the depths of Northcote after dark. After all it was home suburb for one of the Australian supplied suicide bombers.

  • rosross says:

    Having been directed here given the closing of the other discussion involving Israel I would just say, I am curious as to why so many of those who would be on the ‘right’ or conservative side of politics, take a highly subjective position in regard to the Israel situation.

    Having found in the time of Covid it is this group, thankfully, which is doing the most to defend principles of law, justice, democracy and human rights, I am even more confused as to why that does not apply to the Palestinians. Surely principles must be applied equally if they are to have any relevance and surely if we betray principles for one, we betray them for all?

    Regardless of the history, it is not possible, as a matter of principle, to deny the inhumanity and injustice of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine and its treatment of the people of that land, as still happens today, nearly a century on from the creation of the Israeli State in Palestine.

    And, having spent time in Israel and been to Masada and worked with and for Israelis, I fully understand the challenges they face but I also understand the part they played and continue to play in the creation and maintaining of those challenges. It is because I think the situation does such harm to Israelis that I wish to see justice for the Palestinians, who, with justice on their side, grow stronger in their suffering while Israelis grow weaker and their culture more debased.

  • Doubting Thomas says:


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