A new school year began on Sunday throughout Israel, but in one place at least it was anything but a smooth start - Sderot, which is next to Gaza. Nine rockets were fired from Gaza to the western Negev yesterday, with one landing close to a kindergarten in the city of Sderot. So far, thankfully, there have been no casualties. But parents have decided to keep their kids at home and the schools there are closed until further notice.
Powerful images of local residents running through the streets of Sderot in panic with the wailing of sirens in the background were broadcast repeatedly on all the TV Channels' evening news shows. The Sderot blitz dominates the newspaper headlines, barely leaving room for mention of Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer's latest victory in the US Open. The Palestininian Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the firing of the Qassams.
There is significant local anger at the Government for not providing better protection for the schools, and, as is to be expected, even more anger at the Palestinians and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, in particular.
The popular Israeli narrative is that when the settlements and army were withdrawn from Gaza, the occupation ended - and yet the Palestinian terror and indiscriminate shelling continues.
Gazans will point out that not a day has passed since the evacuation without Israeli military activity in, or above Gaza, and that the sonic booms of Israeli jets strike fear into the hearts of Palestinian kids every day. Even before the Hamas takeover, movement in and out of Gaza was severely restricted, but since mid-June, an almost total blockade has been imposed. It has had devastating repurcussions for the entire population. Gaza has become one big prison with collective punishment the order of the day.
Gazans are also paying the price for the Hamas-Fatah power struggle. While Hamas control has improved some aspects of internal daily security, and the Gazan beaches were packed during the summer, the Hamas security forces have become increasingly oppressive with crackdowns on the internal dissent that Fatah is attempting to mobilize.
So now, just to add to all that misery, an Israeli invasion, or a cutoff of essential supplies (water, fuel, electricity) is being threatened. Neither is likely to actually improve the equally lamentable predicament of the terrified Sderot-niks, who also deserve quiet and are caught in the crossfire.
Israeli leaders, perhaps understandably, have warned that if Israeli children are threatened, then Gazans will pay the price. That price is, of course, already being paid: just last Tuesday, 3 Palestinian children - aged 10, 10 and 12-years old - were killed by the IDF near Beit Hanoun in a firing incident that an Israeli military investigator has now recognized was nothing more than 3 kids playing tag.
Several Israeli Government Ministers have proposed cutting off utilities to Gaza, and the Defense Minister Ehud Barak is said to be checking the practicallilty and legality of some of these options. The line of argument repeated by these ministers goes, “if life in Sderot is not normal then life in Gaza will not be normal.” At face value, this really is an astounding statement of ignorance and/or apathy regarding what “normality” has become in Gaza. Here is a snapshot of the so-called normality that reigns in Gaza. Most likely, (one presumes) it is not actually the fate that Israeli leaders have in mind for Sderot.
As three-quarters of all Palestinians languish in poverty, 85% of manufacturing businesses are not operating, and 70,000 Gazans have already been laid off since the Hamas takeover. With no end in sight for private sector losses, tens of thousands more could lose their jobs at any moment. Severe restrictions on movement have left Gaza without the essential raw materials to support the manufacturing sector. Meanwhile, the Gaza Power plant is not producing enough electricity, and Gazans face up to 12 hours without electricity every day. Back in July, Filippo Grandi, the deputy commissioner general of UNRWA warned, “Gaza risks becoming a virtually 100% aid-dependent, closed down and isolated community within a matter of months, or even weeks.”
The Israel Channel 10 News military correspondent Alon Ben-David, normally well-briefed by intelligence and military sources, described Israel as considering three options in response to the Qassam fire on Sderot. [My summary translation of his report – DL]
1. A broad ground operation (invasion) of Gaza to destroy Hamas – but that would mean hundreds of Israeli and thousands of Palestinian casualties, long-term success would not be guaranteed and Israel might come under harsh international criticism.
2. Israel retakes part of Gaza – mainly the rocket launching areas closest to Sderot and establishes a security strip in northern Gaza up to Jabaliya, and at the area of the border with Egypt (Rafah and the old “Philadelphi Route." The price again would be high, though less than in (1) above, and an end to the rocket fire could not be guaranteed.
3. Israel continues its current response – perhaps with a ratcheting up of the siege on the population and of the assassinations policy.
According to Ben-David’s Report, none of the options are considered ideal, but the third is most likely. Most commentators add that should one rocket inflict serious casualties, then options (1) and (2) come very much into the frame. The Israeli Cabinet is to meet inemergency session Wednesday to consider the various options.
What is just as telling, though, is the option that is not apparenty being considered – option (4): reach a ceasefire deal with the leadership in Gaza that could also include a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit (see previous post). Any deal would have to include an active prevention of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza and a moratorium on IDF operations there.
In fact, option (4) is the only one that might actually provide some respite for the residents of Sderot and Gaza, facilitate the proposed November peace summit, and offer a way forward beyond an ever-escalating cycle of retributions. A shame that multiple choice exams tend to come in three's…