In one of the common ceremonies at wrestling matches, the wrestler leaves the confines of the ropes. He jumps out of the ring into the audience, his chest puffed up, and stages a victory lap. He is handed a microphone, and he makes a long speech of self-congratulation and humiliation of his rival. The audience responds with a combination of cheers, applause and boos. And then, from the other side of the stadium comes a wrestler we were unaware of, who jumps the puff-chested wrestler from behind, and everything starts anew.
On Wednesday, the prime minister and his entourage landed at the Hatzor Airbase. This was one of the stops on a long journey, a journey only loosely tied to what had happened during the fighting, but strongly tied to what would happen to the prime minister in the near future, in the political arena and in public opinion polls.
This wasn't a victory lap, but rather a marketing trip. In his early years in politics Netanyahu knew how take a look at himself from the outside - an ironic, sober look. During those years, he was capable of understanding just how similar were the Israeli prime minister's victory lap to former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh's victory celebrations in Gaza. The actions at their hands are damned, and yet they are singing.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is accompanying Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon on their marketing campaign. If he has any criticism of his superiors, he is wary of expressing it. From his point of view, the IDF has reaped great success, both in what the army was called upon to do in Gaza and, perhaps more importantly, what it was not called upon to do.
At the end of Netanyahu's visit, Gantz went to the 105th Squadron, one of the squadrons who was most active in the bombing in Gaza. Its insignia is of a black scorpion on a red background. They fly two-seater F-16D fighter jets.
Gantz runs into me during an interview with G., the squadron commander. "You're meeting Israel's comparative advantage here," the chief of staff says.
Like many tall people, Gantz doesn't need to raise his voice to impose his presence. He settles for short sentences, delivered in minor tones. If the sentences grow longer, he tends to mumble them quickly, like someone who wants to free himself of overload.
His turquoise eyes are wise, clever. When he laughs, his eyes laugh with him. He reminds me of the late Moshe Levy, the IDF's 12th chief of staff. Like Gantz, Levy was a large man, and like Gantz, he came from the yeshuv, from the ground, and like Gantz, things were far from black and white.
"I think the achievements of this campaign were tremendous," he tells the group of officers convened in the squadron commander's office. "Two things did not happen: First, we did not give up on any strategic target we set ourselves; secondly, we did not deviate from the limits of our interests. Suppose I was standing in the center of Gaza right now. If this was Lebanon, it wouldn't have been a problem: Lebanon is not mine. I conquered it, and I'm leaving. But what am I doing in Gaza? We could've gone further in, as part of a broader ground campaign. It would've led to the same ceasefire. We would've paid a steeper price and gotten the exact same thing."
He felt the public's displeasure, and rejected it. "People have fantasies that are detached from reality," he says.
"The political echelon did well when it accepted our recommendations and did not order a different offensive," he says. "War is not politics. You don't go for some operative nonsense just to impress others."
He knows Israel came out of this operation with a spotted international reputation. Israel is described as a murderer of civilians, hungry for destruction. It doesn't have the same support, the same backing, which it had in previous operations. Gantz is not panicking.
"What we're getting is 10 percent of what we would've been getting had we gone for a different operation," he says. "The world knows that Israel went for the least horrible option possible. I stand behind it professionally: I will show the world how others operate and how we operated.
"There was asymmetry in every parameter. The way the political leadership was thinking; the media's behavior; the civic society's behavior. We lost 71 lives and the nation is outraged. They lost over 2,100, and no one in Gaza is protesting."
He visited Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the day four-year-old Daniel Tregerman was killed by a mortar strike. He left a handwritten note in the kibbutz's dining hall: "I value you for all you do." All they do - including the kibbutz residents' decision to escape north, including the harsh criticism they had for the government and the IDF. "Great people," he says. "I don't argue with their criticism."
The Gaza border communities were not protected enough, he admits. The IDF will now add more protection there.
He praised the fighter pilots for their ability to adjust to an ever-changing reality. "You have a war," he says. "This is what you've prepared for. This is what you set into motion. And then you encounter reality."
The reality in Gaza meant bombing densely populated areas. This is what I came to talk to the pilots about.
"Destruction and killing, this is how wars end," said one of the most senior officers in Military Intelligence. In this one sentence he manages to sum up the dilemma that accompanied the military operation from its early days: How to kill and destroy to an extent that would force Hamas to stop, but not to an extent that would turn the world against Israel.
The politicians use the word "moral" a lot on this issue. The IDF is the most moral army in the world, Yair Lapid repeatedly says, as do others. When the IDF enters a war while enjoying accurate intelligence, freedom of aerial and naval action, mighty firepower, protection from rockets and sophisticated weaponry, while facing an isolated terror organization under siege - it should be enough for us. When the gap in military might is so large, when the space to maneuver is unlimited, we don't have to crown ourselves as the overlords of morality as well.
We pretend to be both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mahatma Gandhi at the same time. Outside of Israel, people are having a hard time accepting this duality. It reminds them of the well-known, extremely self-righteous comment by Golda Meir, who said she would never forgive the Arabs for making us kill their children.
The Air Force did an impressive job in its effort to avoid killing civilians. This is truly an unusual move, surgical, which other air forces - the Americans, for example - don't do and won't do. Despite that, civilians were killed. According to data released by a human rights organization, among the 2,100 Gaza casualties there are 518 children and 296 women; more than 10,000 were wounded, close to 10,000 homes were damaged, some 2,800 houses were destroyed completely.
The question how many of the men who were killed were Hamas fighters remains controversial. Military Intelligence is now examining the lists of dead, in an attempt to reach a certified number.
The IAF conducted 5,800 attacks during the 50 days of fighting. That's a lot, without comparing it to previous operations. The legal advisers from the international law division were sitting in the Air Force operations room, but they weren't actually needed.
"We never got to a problematic situation as far as international law is concerned," the senior officer at the IAF headquarters said. "We always stopped before (reaching a point at which we needed) legal counsel."
Every strike was accompanied by a drone that filmed the target. As the Air Force puts it, the drone's job is to "clean" the target. If the target is dirty - if there are civilians nearby - the mission is aborted.
I watched the videos the drones filmed. One of them shows black dots moving near the target. "Possibly children," someone says on the comms link, and the jets move on to another target. Another video, filmed north of Gaza City, near the beach, a site with 11 underground rocket launchers is seen. On one end there's a school, with hundreds of refugees in its. On the other end there's a clinic. The Shin Bet made sure to call all of the houses in the area that they are targets of an upcoming bombardment. The bombardment was postponed to night time. It went ahead only after it was made sure there were no people in the area.
I'm completely aware of the fact I'm being shown carefully chosen videos, while I may not be shown other videos. These are the rules of the game. Despite that, the images are incredible. Rafah, last Thursday, 2:30am. The mission is to blow up a house in which two of Hamas' most senior commanders are staying. The F-16 jets are waiting, flying over the sea. The first bombs that are launched are smart bombs. Each of them weighs one ton. The building collapses on itself. The bombardment continues for two to three seconds. The surrounding houses remain in one piece, except for the windows.
G., commander of the 105th Squadron, returned to the Air Force following several years as a civilian. Fifty percent of his pilots are reservists.
“They are accountable to their friends, family,” says G. “Maybe there places in the army where they say, it’s not interesting, let’s discuss it when it’s all over, but with us the issue was raised on day one. These are our values.
“I told them, I don’t like it when people say that we’re the most moral, and that’s the end of it. I want you to ask questions, challenge everything. I took them to see the process by which the Air Force approves a target.
“It’s true that the drone clears the target, but ultimately it is the pilot who takes responsibility. This is how we see ourselves. There has not been one single case of refusal.”
Three pilots have returned from a training flight over the sea. We meet near their planes. Let's call them A., B., and D.
A., a silver-haired reservist, has returned to the squadron after two years abroad.
“When I fought in Lebanon in 2006, there were similar dilemmas,” he says. “When the Air Force has an entire system working to ensure that the targets are relevant and there is minimal harm to civilians, it’s enough.”
I ask him what he thought of the piece by Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy at the start of the operation, entitled “Lowest deeds from loftiest heights,” which accused Israeli pilots of indifference to civilians’ lives.
“My parents were irate, they canceled their subscription," he says. “I thought that the people he was talking about weren't the people in my squadron. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But ultimately I was pleased. He held up a mirror in front of my face. I looked into it and I was at peace with what I saw.”
Nonetheless, I say, many children and women were killed.
“When you chop wood, chips fly,” A. says.
Do you know who said that before you? I ask.
“No,” he says.
“Stalin,” I say.
He is shocked. “Delete that, delete that I said that,” he asks.
I didn’t delete it. These pilots are wonderful people, but there is a limit to what I can do for the sake of their image.
“I was in the air dozens of times,” says B., a career Air Force pilot. “Out of 20 sorties, I returned from 10 of them with ordnance, as the mission had been called off due to the presence of civilians. I saw how things are managed at headquarters. A Shin Bet official calls the (targeted) house by phone.
“For three days I watched a video recording," says D., "because it shows someone walking down a path next to a house attacked by two of our planes. We debated whether it had been appropriate to carry out the strike, whether it should have been done differently. It's funny because in this case the person wasn’t even hurt; the film shows that after the explosion he gets up and keeps on walking.”
Part two: The politics of war