Saturday, December 8, 2007

Another day, another bombardment

This article, written by Tobias Buck and published in The Financial Times December 7, 2007, demonstrates the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the unwillingness of Israel's Arab enemies to accept the existence of a non-Arab, non-Muslim democracy in the Middle East.
  • Israel's turning over to the Palestinian Authority almost all of the areas in the disputed territories inhabited by Arabs wasn't enough for them.
  • Israel's offering them an independent state in virtually all the disputed territories, including all of Gaza and even part of its own capital of Jerusalem, wasn't enough to satisfy them.
  • Israel gave them all of Gaza, even in the absence of any agreement, even ethnically cleansing Gaza of all Jews and giving them the opportunity to rule themselves completely free of any Israeli involvement, but that only led them to use Gaza as a base for launching Kassam missiles at Israel's nearby civilian population.

The small Israeli town of Sderot is enveloping itself in a blanket of concrete. The grey material is everywhere. Schools and nurseries crouch below hulking canopies, dozens of bomb-shelters dot the urban landscape and even the bulletproof windows of one school have been provided with thick overhanging slabs.

One by one, the town's open-air bus stops are being replaced with concrete cubicles. Painted bright yellow, the roadside shelters are adorned on the inside with hastily scribbled insults to Hamas, the Islamist group, and other graffiti, one of which reads: "Relax - we are praying."

The profusion of concrete is a determined, but ultimately futile, attempt to shield Sderot's 20,000 citizens from the Qassam rockets that are fired into the town every day. Launched by Palestinian militants from northern Gaza, the home-made rockets have just a few kilometres to travel before impact, leaving residents with no more than 20 seconds to seek refuge.

"It's like Russian roulette. If it's your day you are finished," says Tiger Avraham, the head of the local paramedic team. "Children don't go outside and you cannot walk far from home. It's hard to live like this."

Worn out by the daily alarms and the constant threat to their families, more and more residents are giving up. About 2,000 people have departed this year alone, says Yosef Cohen, the spokesman for the municipality.

"Those who are capable financially have left but the poor can't leave," he says.

The line of fire

More than 7,300 Qassam rockets and mortars have been fired at Sderot and surrounding areas in the past six years, killing 12 people. Earlier versions of the rocket had a range of 3km and carried 500g of explosives, but today's can travel 10km and are packed with up to 20kg of explosives as well as metal pellets. Their accuracy is poor and the vast majority land in open space.

For the citizens of Sderot, the rockets have become a daily source of anxiety. But for Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, they are one of the biggest challenges he faces as he embarks on a round of intense peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Mr Olmert's political opponents asked how he could go to last month's peace conference at Annapolis and launch talks on Palestinian statehood while an Israeli town was under attack. He also remains vulnerable to criticism over his predecessor's decision two years ago to pull out Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip. Mr Olmert, a senior cabinet member at the time, supported the withdrawal.

Now his inability to stop the incoming Qassams - along with last year's botched war in Lebanon - is fuelling perceptions that he is weak and lacks the military expertise Israelis expect from their leaders.

Israel's military planners are tormented by the thought of a Qassam blowing up a Sderot school bus or inflicting a large number of civilian deaths through a direct hit. They believe the inevitable outcry would force them to launch a large-scale operation in the densely populated Gaza Strip - a move that would result in heavy casualties on both sides and almost certainly stop the peace talks in their tracks.

"There is no general in the Israeli defence forces who likes this idea," says a senior defence official. "But if we do it, it will be because of some massacre that we cannot tolerate."

The Israeli army already retaliates swiftly to Qassam attacks. B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, says 235 Gazans have been killed by Israeli security forces this year, including at least 98 who did not participate in fighting. The Qassams, in contrast, have killed 12 civilians in and around Sderot since 2001.

But Sasson Sara, a Sderot shopkeeper and father of five, thinks the time has come for Israel to inflict yet more pain. "We should throw leaflets over Beit Hanoun [the Gaza neighbourhood from which the bulk of rockets are launched] and tell them that for every Qassam they fire we wipe out one row of their houses. I am sure once we get to the second row, the Qassams will stop."

It is hard to tell how many residents share Mr Sara's views but it is clear that many want the army to step up operations in the Gaza Strip, which is already suffering economic collapse after Israel sealed its borders, letting in only basic humanitarian supplies.

"The only option we have is to go into Gaza," says Shlomi Aragon, who owns a coffee shop on Sderot's main road and remembers fondly life before the Qassams. Now, Mr Aragon says, his son wets the bed every night, a common affliction among the children here, who are terrified by the nightly threat of another rocket attack.

Omer Buskila, a 23-year-old, sits outside his sister's boutique in Sderot, which was destroyed by a Qassam attack in May, killing a young woman. "You live your life according to the alarms, not according to what you want to be," he says.

And yet, Mr Buskila says he has no plans to leave. "This is my home. Why would I go?"

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