The shaky six-month Egypt-brokered truce between Israel and Gaza ended last Friday with exchanges of fire across the border. While diplomats scrambled to negotiate an extension of the ceasefire, Islamic Jihad, a militant organization that Hamas claims it does not control, celebrated the end of the truce by pounding Sderot and the western Negev with ‘round the clock barrages of Qassams. They also launched Grad rockets at Ashkelon, which is usually out of Qassam range. The barrages escalated as this week wore on, with 88 landing in Sderot and the surrounding communities over a one-day period on Wednesday. The IDF, meanwhile, killed three Palestinians who were laying explosives on the Gaza-Israel fence.
Confined to their homes and fearful, the residents of Sderot and the western Negev are having a particularly gloomy Hanukkah. For many, the situation has become intolerable. Two out of three children in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Since the government does not subsidize safe rooms in private homes, only the relatively well off can afford the luxury of personal shelters from the homemade rockets — not that they help much, since Gaza’s close proximity (500 meters) means that the early warning system can offer only a few seconds’ notice of an incoming rocket. Area residents, the majority of whom are economically and socially disadvantaged, accuse the government of ignoring their concerns because they live on Israel’s neglected “periphery.”
With the people of Sderot crying out to the government to “do something,” Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, lost no time in scoring some political points. Speaking in his much-satirized heavy Russian accent, Lieberman claimed that he would stop the Qassams in a week — although he hasn’t yet shared his military strategy with the public. Most senior IDF officers admit that military action is unlikely to stop the Qassams, which are launched by young men wearing civilian clothes, using mobile launchers. Gaza is small, so it is easy for them to hide the launchers and melt into one of the densely populated refugee camps.
Since an IDF attack would focus on the areas where the young men hide, an air attack or major ground operation would inevitably result in heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side. The footage of dead babies and wounded children being treated in Gaza’s only hospital, which is under-equipped as a result of the ongoing embargo imposed by Israel, will be a public relations disaster for Israel and a triumph for Hamas.
Nonetheless, because he is under pressure to “do something,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak says he is considering an air force assault on Gaza. Others in the Israeli government are calling for a full-out IDF ground operation that would end with a re-occupation of the territory. Israel withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005, ending a 38-year occupation.
Since Hamas took power in a bloody coup two years ago, Israel’s policy has been to seal Gaza off from the outside world as much as possible. But not only is the policy not working, it’s actually strengthening Hamas. While the embargo has impoverished huge swathes of the middle class and working poor — farmers who cannot export their crops through the sealed checkpoints, fishermen who cannot sail out more than five nautical miles, and factory workers laid off for lack of raw materials — Hamas and its employees are managing quite nicely. The tunnel owners are doing well, too. A single tunnel can bring in around $500,000 in a three month period. Hamas has instituted a taxation system, auditing smuggled goods and charging taxes of 20 percent. This goes toward hiring people to work for them — they are paid sinecures, making them loyal to the Islamist party.
Hamas and the Israeli government blame each other for the end of the ceasefire. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 10, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar claimed his government would consider a longer truce if Israel would stop attacking Gaza and lift the embargo on all-but-essential goods. Israeli officials countered that the embargo would remain in place as long as Hamas continued to allow the launching of Qassams at Israel. Two days later, the western Negev absorbed 88 rockets in one day. It looks as though Hamas is indeed looking for a major confrontation, which would come at the expense of the civilians of Gaza.
While this video makes it look as though the people of Gaza have plenty to eat, the facts is that very few Gazans — as little as 10 percent of the population — can afford to buy food from the markets. In order to compensate for the embargo, food and goods have been smuggled in through a network of tunnels dug under the wall that separates Gaza from Egypt.
But these goods are far too expensive for the vast majority of Gazans — most of whom depend on the UNRWA for subsidized food. Right now, 90 percent are dependent on UNRWA aid, which does not always come through the checkpoints. Sometimes Hamas actually bombards the food deliveries meant for their own people. And sometimes Israel tightens the blockade, delaying the transportation of goods. In that case, Hamas hands out packages of food that came in through the tunnels — another publicity coup for the militant group.
So the embargo has not weakened Hamas, and military action will probably not have much effect either. The people who suffer are the weakest — the children, the widows, the old people. Hamas’s leaders are not suffering from food insecurity like the majority of the people they are supposed to govern and care for.
As for Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak — well, his luxury apartment in Tel Aviv was recently put on the market for around $8 million. Somehow I don’t think he’s losing much sleep over the situation in Gaza and Sderot, either.