Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Eyeless in Gaza—What About Sderot?

The UN Security Council is debating the situation in Gaza. But what about Sderot, which Israel is trying desperately to protect? Israeli representative Gilead Cohen demanded at yesterday's session: “What would Security Council members do if London or Moscow, or Paris or Tripoli were being bombed? Would you continue to sit with folded hands?”

The full argument would go something like this: We left Gaza. There are no settlements anymore in Gaza. No sooner did we leave than Hamas began sending Qassam missiles down on our heads. Some land near schools: it seems inevitable, God forbid, that one will eventually hit a school. The children of Sderot often have to be treated for shock; they and their teachers go to shelters every day. And now the United Nations is, of all things, condemning us for trying to put an end to this reign of terror. So we are cutting off electricity and imposing a siege, yes, but we are not sending explosives at random into populated areas. Sderot, in contrast, does suffer random violence and is becoming a dying town in consequence. What state would stand idly by and forebear such a thing: the loss of one of its towns, its citizens crouching in shelters. How dare the enlightened world treat us this way? (Can it be some kind of double standard imposed on Jews?)

This is not exactly a bad argument. It is also not exactly a credible one. The suffering of Sderot is insufferable, and any reasonable person must conclude that the resort to Qassam missiles, like the resort to suicide bombing—to terrorism in general—is the product of a totalitarian mind. (I wrote about this at length in 1979.) But what Israelis simply have to get into their heads is that the reason why the people in the West seem so indifferent to Sderot, why they focus their empathy instead on the candlelight in Gaza, has almost nothing to do with current claims of who started it or who is fighting fairer. Rather, their reaction is something like the reticence you feel when a heavy smoker you know finally contracts lung-cancer. This has all been building for a very long time.

Let’s ignore the fact (though, obviously, Gazans do not) that the Gaza Strip was originally populated by refugees who fled a war zone in 1949 and were then not permitted to return to their homes. You can argue that Israel could not let them return.

Let’s ignore how Arafat and Fatah had been thunderously welcomed to Gaza in 1994, after signing the Oslo Accords and promising “the peace of the brave,” only to see Hamas rise as peace-talks stalled under Bibi Netanyahu. You can argue that at least some of Fatah’s loss of face is explained by Fatah’s own corruption.

Let’s ignore how, as Chris Hedges wrote in 2001, the time of Oslo proved a time of mounting despair, including a halving of Gaza's GDP. You can argue that economic hardship is the result of a mutually destructive escalation.

Let’s ignore the fact that when Israeli forces go after the people they suspect of firing the missiles, they often hit innocent bystanders, so that the attacks can seem random to the families of innocent civilians who are killed. You can argue that intentions do matter here, that Qassams are inherently instruments of terror, while Israeli actions kill innocents accidentally.

What cannot be ignored, what people in the West cannot possibly get out of the back of their minds, is that during the past forty years Israel has maintained its occupation in order to create Greater Israel. You cannot argue away almost half a million settlers, moving in everyday, little by little, bringing roads, the army, and closures. On this biggest question, people in the West have had plenty of time to assess the claims and counterclaims. They think Israel has been not only terribly wrong but self-destructive.

Israel finally pulled 8000 settlers from Gaza in 2006. But that is a little like cutting down to only one pack a day. When the Sharon government evacuated Gaza, it did so without any effort to reach an agreement, but rather under fire, as in Lebanon. It openly admitted that this unilateral move would be followed by a unilateral annexation of territories around major West Bank settlements and, of course, Jerusalem.

Now, under the Annapolis framework, Olmert is trying to stop new construction in the West Bank. But he still refuses to halt construction in the outskirts of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the wall and closures have made the West Bank, where Hamas does not rule, a Gaza-in-the-making. What can you say that has not been said?

“Our real problem is that we don’t have a prime minister who can govern,” an old friend of mine told me, a professor in a teacher’s college in Sderot, who runs with her students to the shelters every day”; “We’ve had one prime minister after another, who has been a hostage to right wing parties and their vision. We can’t talk to Hamas, we can’t talk about the division of Jerusalem, Lieberman will leave, Shas will leave.”

“I sit in the shelters intimidated like everybody else. One day I was in a parking lot and the missile exploded right in front of me. I could hardly move for an hour. But now I sit in shelters, often with Bedouin students, and I am trying to think what they are thinking. With these missiles trying to kill us. But these missiles coming from their own brothers, who are fighting a war they can hardly disagree with.”

Should the army have moved in? “What will that achieve, other than to make more mothers cry. More families broken, here and there. They are making these rockets with sugar. Sugar. We are going back to the Romans. We don't need Western sympathy. We need their intervention.”