On the Ground in Israel: Part 1
This is the first of a four-part series on my recent week-long trip to Israel. Today's entry addresses the Gaza dilemma.
How do they do it? As I spoke to several Israelis who live in cities just outside the volatile Gaza Strip, the question couldn't help but enter my mind. The ciitzens of Sderot and Ashkelon never know when the next Iranian-made Qassam rocket will reign down upon their homes, businesses, hospitals and schools from the bowels of Gaza. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fire these weapons randomly and at all times of the day. Their terror techniques are equal parts savage and simplistic, and literally everyone in these towns is affected: from children and the elderly, to police, to nurses, to normal working-class Israelis who are just trying to live their daily lives and put food on the table for their families. And so they improvise, putting on a brave face and getting by as best they can with a little bit of ingenuity and a whole lot of that legendary Israeli toughness. In Sderot--located in the western Negev, about a mile from Gaza--bus stops double as walk-in bomb shelters where civilians can find refuge when the inevitable next volley of missiles falls out of the sky. Authorities collect the various burned-out rockets that have struck their city, putting them on display outside the police headquarters to show the world what the citizens of Sderot are up against day after day.
Kobi Harush, Chief of Civilian Security for Sderot, gave our group detailed accounts of some of the attacks, and showed us proof of the Iranian origins of several of these weapons. Harush--one cool customer, reminded me of the Israeli version of CHiPS--told us of the deep psychological damage the steady barrage has infliicted upon many residents of the city. For instance, a 2006 study showed that 33 percent of Sderot's children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It's no wonder Sderot's population has decreased markedly since the attacks began--some estimates say the city has lost up to 25 percent of its residents the past few years. Barack Obama made a speech at Sderot's police headquarters in July with the rockets as his backdrop, calling for an end to the attacks. Still, the rockets keep falling, with no end in sight. In Sderot, as the saying goes, it's 9/11, 24-7.
Ashkelon, about five miles north of Gaza, has also faced a regular barrage of rockets. Yet the city's Rotenberg Power Station--which our group visited-- provides electricity to the Gaza Strip, no doubt making life easier for terrorists there who would like to push Ashkelon into the sea. It sounds ridiculous and self-defeating, but think of the alternative: if Israel were to shut off power to Gaza, the international media would be in an uproar, accusing the Israelis of provoking a humanitarian disaster. The UN, in turn, would be up in arms as well (see here if you have any doubts about that). So perhaps Israel thinks letting Gaza go dark just isn't worth the trouble. Or perhaps it's just doing what civilized, democratic nations do in the 21st century. To that end, I marveled as I listened to a representative from Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon describe how Palestinians--some of them involved in nefarious activities against Israel--actually sneak out of Gaza to receive treatment at Barzilai. And they are not turned away.
Several Israeli military and media figures who I spoke to during the trip mentioned "the tunnels": a complex maze of passageways running from Egypt to Gaza that have been used to smuggle everything from food and fuel to exotic animals and mail-order brides. And of course, weapons that are used against Israel. The tunnels have gotten so out of hand that they are now virtually an industry for the Palestinians. Israel wants them shut down, and Egypt has the power to at least severely hamper the flow of people, goods and weapons. But the Egyptians have shown little inclination to do so thus far and have basically looked the other way.
As for the long term-future of Hamas rule in Gaza, a leading Israeli journalist I spoke to predicted that Gazans would eventually get fed up and rebel against the group's harsh Islamist rule (much like Palestinians grew tired of the PLO's rampant corruption). I personally don't see Iran--Hamas's biggest benefactor--letting that happen. Hamas is Iran's proxy in the Palestinian territories and an invaluable cog in the Islamic Republic's terror nexus against Israel. But it's interesting to note that Al Qaeda-inspired groups also now have a growing presence in Gaza, as I discussed on CBN Newswatch yesterday (watch here). It remains to be seen whether Hamas sees these groups as a challenge or decides to work with them towards the common goal of destroying Israel.
Part 2 tomorrow: Iran