The curse of a great war victory.

OPINION

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"Sometimes I feel I am fighting windmills," the Israeli instructor of international human rights law told me. Her lessons include teaching such issues as when an order is illegal and when it may be legally permissible for soldiers to refuse a command.

But the young lawyer wearing the Israel Defense Forces uniform is no ivory-tower academic. Instead, working with the Military Advocate General, she teaches at the School of Military Law, addressing the interface between humanitarian law and the practical dilemmas faced by Israeli soldiers doing their military service in the territories captured 40 years ago in the Six-Day War. "I prefer to teach commanders," she says, "because they set the ethical tone among their soldiers."

Hers are among some of the moral questions Israel is debating as it marks the war's 40th anniversary this month.

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For Israel, the first significance of victory meant escape from doom. In the month leading up to that conflict, Egypt threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Syria and Jordan joined forces with Egypt. Israelis and many around the world felt that the annihilation of the 19-year-old country was imminent. Then, against all expectations, Israel not only won the war, but acquired the Sinai Desert and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

That summer Israel celebrated what it saw as a near-miraculous reprieve.

But its great victory on the battlefield triggered the curse of being a foreign occupier of other peoples' land and catalyzed debilitating existential questions. The most overwhelming is whether Israel missed an early window of opportunity to use the conquered lands as bargaining chips for peace.

These days the mood in the country is anything but celebratory. Tributes bear a somber undertone. A popular talk show on Israeli radio broadcast six days of interviews with army veterans of the war. Old soldiers like to brag. "Enthusiasm was our fuel," I heard one claim. But in the next breath his stories of tank and infantry victories were overshadowed by frequent allusions to the pain of comrades lost on the battlefield so many years ago.

Israel's press engages in introspection and soul-searching. The newspaper Haaretz called the June 1967 conflict "Israel's shortest – and longest – war."

If the mainstream public let the anniversary pass with little controversy, the Israeli left was active in trying to drum up pressure to resume the moribund peace process.

Their effort included calls for a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv at the square where former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, documentary film screenings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, bicycle marathons, a festive meal at a Bedouin town in the Galilee, an exhibition by Israeli and Palestinian artists, Arab and Israeli musician performances in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and bi-national meetings at points along the Green Line – marking Israel's pre-1967 borders.

For me, an intellectual commemoration summed up feelings both of pessimism and hope – a three-day conference on legal discourse on the Israeli occupation that attracted eminent international and local legal scholars.

As they spoke about relating international humanitarian law to the status quo, the hope that their legal expertise might be harnessed in the service of a comprehensive agreement hung in the air. Yet hardly any dared voice the hope this could happen in the near future. "How will this nightmare end?" queried Harvard professor Claude Bruderlein.

Among the listeners at the Tel Aviv University sat the young instructor in the Israeli military college, not far from three Arab Israeli lawyers. They attended as part of their masters program in law at the University of Haifa, where they are taking a course with Israeli professor Sandy Kedar on the law of the occupied territories. Why were so few Arabs in the audience, I asked, when they make up between 20 and 30 percent of the student body at Israeli institutions of higher learning? One responded, "Palestinians don't have to attend a conference like this; they live the occupation every day."

Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, say the Israelis. Conquered, say the Arabs. Perhaps poetry and music express the most powerful truth. Old melodies rebroadcast on Israeli radio this past week had a bittersweet resonance. "O Jerusalem of gold," sang Naomi Shemer in 1967 with hope and passion, "I am the violin for all your songs." At the conference, a Palestinian-American professor summed up by quoting a line of Arabic poetry by Muhammad al-Asad: "With what faith can stars sparkle, and naked trees cast shade?"

Helen Schary Motro, a lawyer and writer, is author of "Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada."

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