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Watching the war in Gaza, from afar

Southern Israelis want quiet from Gaza, but most are unwilling to consider the root causes of the conflict.
Last modified: 23 Nov 2012 21:49

There is a hill outside Sderot, in southern Israel, that overlooks the sprawl of the Gaza Strip less than two miles away. You can hear the roar of Israeli jets screaming overhead, and the incessant buzz of surveillance drones; once in a while, you can see plumes of black smoke from Israeli bombings.

I drove up to the hill three times during Israel’s eight-day offensive in Gaza, and each time – in addition to the usual gaggle of television crews – there were Israelis watching the “action”, such as it was. Someone had dragged a mattress up onto the hill. Another group of teenagers brought boxes of pizza and bottles of 7-Up.

Centuries ago, when armies massed in formation and fought set-piece battles, the wealthy elite of Europe and America would pack a picnic lunch and find a spot to watch young men kill each other. The hill near Sderot was a bizarrely modern update of that tradition – young Israeli students (school was cancelled all week) cheering as F-16s roared overhead to drop their payloads on targets across Gaza.

They couldn’t see what the jets were bombing; they had no way to know whether their army’s "smart bombs" were landing on a Hamas rocket launcher, or an apartment block full of civilians, like the eight members of the Dalou family who were incinerated in an airstrike earlier this week. Nor did they much care. “Everyone there is a terrorist,” said one student watching the war from the hill.

'Flatten entire neighbourhoods'

You hear offensive comments on all sides of this conflict. The militants who fire rockets from Gaza certainly do not care much about whether they hit civilian targets; the Salafi groups who make Hamas look liberal spew their share of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Politicians on the Israeli side mirrored their language this week. Eli Yishai, the interior minister, urged the army to bomb Gaza “back to the Middle Ages”. Ariel Sharon’s son, Gilad, wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post earlier this week urging the army to commit mass murder. "We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza," he wrote. "The Americans didn't stop with Hiroshima - the Japanese weren't surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too."

What struck me, in reporting across southern Israel during this conflict, is how widely these views were echoed by ordinary Israelis – by people who described themselves as not terribly political.

I drove around Sderot and Ashkelon and Ashdod on Thursday, asking people about the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The first woman I interviewed, a student in Ashkelon, said the army should have continued bombing until Gaza was "deleted". This was not a fringe view: A dozen other people expressed almost the same sentiment.

Residents of southern Israel certainly have reason to be angry. The mayor of Sderot, David Bouskila, told me that 8,000 rockets have been fired at his town over the past 12 years – an average of two per day. "We’ve lost 12 people, including women and children," he said.

Most of the rockets land in open areas, or cause minimal damage to buildings. But constantly rushing your children into bomb shelters, hearing the thud of rockets landing in and around your town, is a miserable way to live.

Yet the situation is far worse on the other side. Israel has launched two major military offensives in Gaza over the past four years; it conducted dozens of air strikes during the intervening period of “calm.”

The residents of Sderot have warning sirens and the Iron Dome missile defence system, which shoots down many of the incoming rockets. Palestinians in Gaza have nothing, save for leaflets and telephone calls from the Israeli army warning them to move to safer areas – an impossible task in tiny, densely populated Gaza. (To paraphrase a bit of black humour making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter: "Gaza has an early warning system, too. Here it is: You live in Gaza. Consider yourself warned.")

Yet many southern Israelis see themselves as the only innocent victims in this conflict. "People might have died, yes, but we are innocent people here in Ashkelon and Ashdod and Sderot," one man told me, implying that the 1.6m Palestinians living in Gaza are not.

'You leave us alone...'

There is little interest in their plight – nor in the root causes of the conflict. I asked people across the south what they wanted, and the nearly universal answer was "quiet", as if calm is simply an end in itself rather than a byproduct of a political reconciliation with the Palestinians. "You leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone," was how many Israelis described it.

It’s a false equivalence. If the rocket fire from Gaza stopped for good tomorrow, Israelis would get their quiet. But the Palestinians would still live under occupation and an economic blockade; Gaza would still be a tiny speck of land with no sovereignty.

Binyamin Netanyahu is on course to win another term in office in January, and his government will probably be headed by another coterie of right-wing ministers who have shown little interest in negotiating with the Palestinians.

Gaza could "leave Israel alone", but the reverse would not be true.

Israelis in the south do recognise this dynamic, albeit indirectly: They know that Thursday’s ceasefire will usher in only a brief period of calm, not a long-term peace. But they show little interest in pressuring their government to resolve the underlying conflict; they would rather Gaza simply disappear.