The deaths and maimings of civilians in Gaza is terrible and wrenching. Seen on television and in newspapers, they are driving innumerable people in many parts of the world to go into the streets to protest against Israel’s attack on Hamas. The protests are fierce and angry, fueled by tragedies like the killing of 46 people when the Israeli army shelled a school building in Jabalya refugee camp, and in the death of a family of seven.
But where were the protesters when missiles were falling on southern Israel? Had they come into the streets then and demanded that Hamas stop firing, we wouldn’t have the gory mess in Gaza today.
Israel has never been able to resolve the quandary of commanding one of the world’s most modern armies and yet being powerless to halt low-tech rockets and bombs.
The rockets and mortars first struck on April 16, 2001. Since then, there have been more than 6,300. Last year’s total was more than 3,000.
For much of the time the rockets were primitive Qassams with small warheads. However small, they kill as effectively as any high-tech grenade launcher. The missiles have been getting deadlier: Katyushas and, more recently, Grad missiles have been reaching farther into Israel, striking towns 25 miles from Gaza.
Casualties from the rockets have mercifully been light, with about 20 deaths. That is not due to any lack of trying by Hamas. Instead, it’s because of air raid sirens, which give people less than a minute to get into shelter. And luck: Last week a missile hit a school; catastrophe was avoided because the children had been sent home. A kindergarten was badly damaged this week; again, the children were at home.
A million people now live under threat of terror attack. Life is strained and uncertain.
The government has never been able to resolve the quandary of commanding one of the world’s most modern armies and yet being powerless to halt low-tech rockets and bombs. It still hunts for a solution.
Public demands mounted for harsh action. For every rocket that lands, fire back a shell, said some; or for one rocket, one shell, for the next rocket, two shells, and so on. Obliterate Gaza, said others. Some, a minority, called for ending the siege of Gaza and greater efforts to talk to Hamas.
The government urged restraint. That became more difficult with a general election due on February 10. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, his Labor Party sliding in opinion polls, put his political career on the line by refusing to let the army go in. His view was all the stronger because he was previously chief of staff and is the country’s most decorated soldier for bravery. Those pressing for war did not understand what it meant, he said. He was backed by the army chief, General Gabi Ashkenazi, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
They feared that a massive attack would cause heavy civilian casualties and loss of soldiers’ lives.
The turning point was November 4. Israel says Hamas was digging a tunnel to kidnap soldiers; it foiled the plot by killing seven militants. Hamas says this was a provocation; it started firing rockets en masse, ending the unwritten cease-fire in effect since June. Missiles had still landed during that time: only 38, but enough for Israel to say it was reason for it to interrupt the flow of food and goods into Gaza.
In the third week of December, more than 200 missiles struck. They were 200 too many. Barak and Olmert accepted they could no longer hold back. The army was ordered to put into effect plans that had already been prepared.
Why did the world keep silent for so many years? Could anyone really expect Israel to do nothing forever?
That there is much anguish and anger about Palestinian suffering while there was so little response to what Israelis were enduring raises worrying questions. Are protesters giving vent to genuine compassion for Palestinian victims or is there something dark and ugly under the surface in singling out Israel as though there has never before been a war in which innocent civilians are tragically caught in the crossfire?
How else to explain the extreme condemnation of Israel? The outpouring of so much hatred and the wild abuse of language and history in accusations of “genocide,” “Holocaust,” and the “Warsaw Ghetto”?
An official of Unrwa, the United Nations relief agency, was on television this week with a long and passionate call to end the Israeli attack. But not a word about what led to it. Why do he and others speak as though the Israeli onslaught came out of nothing, without reason or cause? Why, too, is there silence about Hamas’ firing of missiles from the heart of civilian areas?
Diplomatic moves are under way and will, it is hoped, quickly lead to a cease-fire. But Israel has made very clear that it there can be no more missiles, whether from Hamas or its cronies, and that Hamas cannot be allowed to smuggle in new weaponry. The cease-fire will be of little account unless the world ensures that this is done and that an effective mechanism is put in place to maintain it.
The story, of course, is much more complicated. It has to do with Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its attempt, unsuccessfully, to use this to turn the people there against Hamas. It has to do with Hamas’ rejection of Israel’s existence and refusal to forswear violence, and its power struggle with Fatah. It has to do with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the slow moves toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
The future for both Israelis and Palestinians depends on resolving these issues. Ending the onslaught on Gaza and halting the missiles raining on Israel are the immediate crucial steps.
Benjamin Pogrund is director of Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem. South African born, he was deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, when the newspaper was closed down. He has written books about Robert Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela, and the press under apartheid. He is co-editor of Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue.