In the past, candidates often hid their faces, but this time photos were posted all over the walls and buildings. A fundamental change has occurred. A wave of satisfaction filled me, but also sorrow for the many losses we and the Iraqis suffered. Was it all worth it? This cannot be answered with mere logic, but I suspect that it will be worth it, though only if we continue to progress and stay engaged with the Iraqi people, and government.
The Israeli taxi arrived at Sderot just before noon. Thousands of terrorist rockets have rained on Israeli towns within range of Hamas-ruled Gaza, as the world mostly ignored the thunder. Those who knew about the attacks seemed to dismiss the rockets as just a nuisance, like mosquitoes. Yet the rockets have grown more and more powerful, to the point where the largest these days carries about 60 times more explosives than a hand grenade. On February 1, 2009, the day of my visit, The International Herald Tribune reported:
At least two rockets and several mortars were fired into Israel on Sunday, lightly wounding two soldiers and a civilian, and Palestinian militants opened fire on an army patrol along the border, causing no injuries, the military said.
Residents said that one of the rockets landed near a kindergarten in an Israeli village east of Gaza but failed to explode.
The playgrounds in Sderot come equipped with bomb shelters, decorated with kid-friendly art. When the alarms sound, the youngsters have 15 seconds to dash, tumble or waddle into a shelter before impact, or risk being torn asunder.
Earsplitting detonations, spewing searing hot steel, must be terrifying for the kids. It is truly sad to imagine that a ten year-old can have more experience diving for cover than many combat experienced soldiers.
In Sderot, I met up with the American-Israeli writer and editor Allison Kaplan Sommer, who has lived in Israel for some 15 years, has three children and lives with her husband outside Tel Aviv. Together we went into the police station where the Israeli officers have saved hundreds of the rockets that have been fired from Gaza. Every journalist in Israel should see those rockets. The officer explained that the peak times for launch are when the kids are going or coming from school, and shoppers are in the open, for the greatest odds of casualties.
Looking through the rocket collection revealed more than I had gleaned from the news reports. From the media, one might gather that there is only one sort of “Kassam” rocket. In fact there must be at least dozens of types. Some of the rockets had graffiti scrawled on the casings before they were fired into Sderot.
Mostly the rockets are crude, homemade devices that look like they are put together by a bunch of low-skilled thugs with welding torches, and too much time on their hands. But other rockets are factory made, and the policeman said they come from Iran. The latest models carry a knockout punch. Enough to destroy a home.
Allison and I set off to find some impacts, and we went to a neighborhood where a number of houses had been walloped with direct hits. Two neighboring homes on one street had been hit. The inhabitant of one home, a friendly older man originally from Morocco, explained that his home had been hit but is now repaired. His neighbor had been an elderly lady in her seventies, who lived alone with a Philippina caregiver. Her home looked as devastated as if a small asteroid had found her roof. When Allison and I walked into the house, glass crunching under foot, I was astonished at the level of destruction caused by these so-called ‘nuisance’ attacks. The destruction to this woman’s home seemed to be about what a Hellfire missile would have delivered. The roof was destroyed and the ceiling caved in. Luckily, she had not been home during the strike or likely she would have been killed. Still, imagine a 70 year-old woman returning to find her home destroyed. Many of her belongings still were in the house. And so now the home of this woman was destroyed, but I was assured that the Israelis had taken her immediately into care at a nursing home in Netanya, deeper into the country, out of range, until her home could be repaired.
Another home, a couple blocks down the road, showed a similar level of destruction, the inhabitants gone, workers inside.
The victims of these attacks gave us free access to their houses and I felt welcome and at home in Sderot. It looks like a very safe place to be – except for the constant rocket strikes.
The economy of Sderot has been badly damaged because of the attacks, adding to the problems that all of Israel is facing due to the global economic crash. To support Sderot not just in word but in reality, people from around the country have been regularly loading up in buses to drive all the way to Sderot, braving attacks themselves, just to do their weekly shopping in the town to boost its economy.
Thousands of blue and white Israeli flags line the roads or hang from windows and wave in the warm breeze. We saw an older man in wheel chair, rolling down a road. He had two large Israeli flags attached to the chair, and they billowed behind him as he rolled ahead. When Allison asked him for a photo he grinned very big. Brave people. Instantly likeable.
As Allison and I drove around, lost at times, we came across Chinese laborers. She said the Palestinians are angry because the Chinese and other foreign laborers imported from abroad have taken the construction jobs that once belonged to the Palestinians. After all of the suicide bombings and other attacks, Gaza has been essentially sealed to stem the violence, a tactic which has been effective except for the rocket strikes.
Yet world sympathy seems to rest with the terrorists, and Israel is condemned for ‘trapping’ the Palestinians inside Gaza and for any retaliation for the missile attacks.
Europe, for instance, was nearly unanimous in its condemnation of Israel after the Israeli Defense Forces finally counter-attacked in Operation Cast Lead.
I considered going to Gaza, to hear the other side of the story, but after having seen so many terrorists attacks up close, there seemed little value in taking such a chance with my life, just to hear ramble from a leadership that condones and executes terrorism and launches thousands of rockets at school kids. Stories like this from April 2007 Times Online make it clear enough:
“The family of a BBC journalist kidnapped in Gaza appealed for his immediate release yesterday, as it emerged that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, had informed the corporation that the journalist was alive and well.
This was the first sign from the Palestinian authorities that they had received any information on the welfare of Alan Johnston, the BBC Gaza correspondent who has now been held longer than any other Western hostage in Gaza.”
The story goes on:
“Mr Johnston, 44, the BBC Gaza correspondent for the past three years, was seized in Gaza City on March 12. About 20 foreign journalists and aid workers have been abducted in Gaza in the past year. However, the kidnappings have typically ended shortly after the capture of the victim.”
It makes no sense to risk life and limb only to allow people who intentionally target children to talk through my pen. Not until they stop the terrorism. Those members of the press who transmute Hamas’s crocodile tears into ink only exacerbate the disease.
Recently, I traveled about a thousand miles around Afghanistan, without military, to learn more about the country. Taking chances for good people is one thing, but taking chances to talk with Hamas terrorist leaders, whom I would not believe anyway, is just not smart. Their propaganda is widely available.
One can roam Israel at will, write as one wishes, without reprisal. The choice is easy: the Israelis won’t kill the messenger, even when journalists mercilessly rip into them.
In Sderot, Allison and I had the pleasure of having lunch with Noam Bedein, the Director of the Sderot Information Center, a privately funded organization. According to the “Kassam counter” on http://www.sderotmedia.com/, as of February 1, 10,046 Kassam rockets have hit Sderot and the Western Negev since 2001. During a single two-week period, 293 rockets rained in on Sderot. According to a pamphlet from the Sderot Information Center, a kindergarten teacher asked her pupils, “Why does the snail have a shell?” The Children answered in chorus, “So it can be protected from the Kassam rockets.”
Yet the Kassams and other attacks cause even worse harm to Palestinian children. The Israelis and Egyptians have isolated Gaza. Hamas and those who support them, thanks to their own terrorist ways, are consigning themselves to lives of squalor and war.
Allison believes that Gaza could be as prosperous as Singapore if their leaders would stop fighting, move forward, and focus on developing their economy.
The idea of a two-state solution, once popular with many Israelis, is evaporating. More and more Israelis are coming to believe that any appeasement with the Palestinians is merely a reward for terrorism. And so it is. The Palestinians have become prisoners by their own hand. The hand that builds the bombs, wields the guns, and welds the rockets, has caused a fence to be built around them.
They are isolated and imprisoned. But it’s not only Israel who’s done this. The Gaza Strip borders Egypt, and Egypt has done the same. The terrorists are tunneling like rats and the Egyptians and Israelis are trying to locate and destroy the tunnels under their respective fence lines. Who wants the Palestinians? If the Palestinians truly were a peaceful lot, victims only of Israel, one might think that they would have free entry into Egypt. But they do not.
Meanwhile Operation Cast Lead is threatening to unravel international relations.
The previously cozy relations between Turkey and Israel have gone frigid. A British official told me that the British are investigating war crimes charges against Israel, while Israelis tell me that if the British charge Israelis with war crimes, they will charge British officers with war crimes for their actions in Basra, Iraq. A Spanish judge is also talking war crimes. The situation only gets worse from there. Just as we have seen U.S. relations crash after our responses to the 9/11 attacks, important relations between responsible nations are fraying due to responses to terrorist attacks.
Many of us remember those long security lines in the airports, and the billions we must invest in security that could go elsewhere, and all because of a relatively tiny number of people. Many of us remember the people raining from the buildings, choosing the falling death to the burning death, and reports of certain Palestinians celebrating those deaths. How much veracity and weight to assign reports of Palestinians celebrating is unknown to me, but there seems to have been at least some basis in truth.
And today, where is the equity? Why haven’t Hamas leadership been charged with war crimes for indiscriminate attacks on Sderot and other towns? They, along with other terrorist organizations, launched about 7,000 missiles since 2005, and about 10,000 since 2001. It would be impossible to know exactly how much explosives were contained in those rockets because the Kassams include a great mix of types and sizes. Yet to make a ballpark guess, there might be an average of 20lbs of explosives per rocket since 2005. Since 2005, that would be about 140,000lbs of explosives, not to mention the metal mass of the powerful rocket tubes. Imagine about 140,000lbs of explosives raining down at random times, but particularly when the kids are going to school.
There are many types of fragmentation hand grenades that are designed to kill people. One of the most widely used, the deadly American M67, contains a little more than 1/3lb of explosives per grenade. (The entire M67 grenade including fuse and casing weighs 1lb.) This means that 140,000lbs of explosives would be roughly equal the “net explosives weight” of about 350,000 grenades launched randomly against civilians. So far, Kassams have killed few people, but it seems just a matter of time before a school gets wiped out, not to mention the general psychological trauma inflicted.
It simply does not make sense for us to support a Palestinian state, when at every turn they demonstrate that they will simply become more powerful, richer terrorists, with longer range rockets.