October 6, 2003 | Op-ed

Personal Observation Where Terror’s Flags Fly

By Matthew Schonfield

“My Summer Vacation.” Like clockwork year after year I can remember the elementary school teachers giving this assignment, as we, their little charges, returned from months of mental sloth and academic apathy. Well my friends, the content of our summers may have changed drastically since then, but the usefulness of reflection has not.

In August I traveled with 50 other college students from all across America to the frontlines of the war on terrorism: the state of Israel. Our aim was not really to study Israel for its own sake, rather it was to learn lessons that we might apply to the battle against terror in America (or, in the new lingo of the age, the “homeland.”)

Without a doubt the most important lesson I learned was the fundamental importance of seeing the facts on the ground. In our age of not just the televised image, but the endless 24-hour news cycle, Internet blogs and more, we understandably get the sense that “sure, I know what's going on there, I'm well-informed.” Our own experiences should make us think better of such views. For months after 9/11 I had friends around the world inquire if I was afraid to go into New York, as if terror attacks there were now a daily event (which in Israel, sadly, they are). My relatives in England have for years provided my family with great amusement by inquiring if there were any drive-by shootings near our house that day; you see since I live in Los Angeles there simply must be such goings-on, the TV said so.

In Israel, of course, understanding the true nature of things becomes all the more important. Our group traveled to the border with Lebanon, where we saw the closest thing to a literal, physical manifestation of the frontlines of the war on terror. Looking over the valley, less than a mile away, we saw a border position of the Islamist terror group Hezbollah. Its yellow flag flew with impunity, as if it were a state, which in many ways it is. Although this was a demarcated border, there was no Lebanese state flag, with its familiar cedar in the center. The Lebanese government has effectively ceded the south to be run as Hezbollah's personal fiefdom.

Ah, and of course let us not forget the U.N. posts that sit in-between the two sides. These posts do nothing to stop Hezbollah from firing rockets across the border into Israel. The U.N. worker we saw at one post looked as if he'd come from a Grateful Dead concert. Demonstrating their impotence, the day after we visited the border an Israeli teenager was killed by one of these rockets, the first casualty from such attacks in three years despite frequent attempts. This youth was not a soldier, mind you, he was working with others to help renovate a preschool!

Of course the international media didn't see it that way — most reported the incident as part of a tit-for-tat war between the two sides, despite the fact that Israel is at its internationally recognized border. Hezbollah exposes the lie at the heart of most Islamist groups' claims against Israel. For years they said they were only trying to expel Israel from Southern Lebanon; once Israel pulled out, however, these same forces found new pretexts to keep fighting since their goal is to destroy Israel entirely. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are no different.

Having been to Jerusalem myself, I now laugh when those I discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict with say things like “they can just divide East and West Jerusalem.” Given that the two areas touch each other as closely as two Princeton dorms, the suggestion is laughable. Would it be safe for Rocky to exist as a peaceful democracy while Mathey was governed by those who desired its destruction and was working with militants to achieve just that? (Sorry Mathey-ites, no offense meant). This is not to say that a solution is impossible, just that the easy answers and snap judgments of those who haven't even seen what they are discussing should be taken as highly dubious. Bear this in mind when you read that the U.S. mission in Iraq is a “disaster” from columnists in New York or Washington who haven't set foot there. We are all at the mercy of the facts presented to us by government and the media, and perilously so in a world in which events in all corners of the globe become ever more important to all our lives.

Oh, one last thing. Those 50 college students and I decided to do our very minor part for the war on terror. As we stood facing the Hezbollah positions we raised our hands collectively and together flipped them the bird, in this case a proud American bald eagle, I'd like to think.

Matthew Schonfield is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.