SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA — Israel’s other war-without-a-name in the summer of 2006 is eerily similar to the one in the north, the one that got all the attention, against Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.
Palestinian terrorists kidnapped the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit just across the border from Gaza and ramped up their Qassam rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel.
Shika Frista and his friend Zvika took me to Kibbutz Alumim, where Zvika lives with his family, and showed me some of the rockets that landed in and around the community recently.
Several Qassam rockets had been placed beneath a palm tree.
Oddly, the Gaza rocket factory took the trouble to brand their weapons in English.
Elsewhere exploded Qassam rockets and parts were used as garden art.
There is something slightly creepy about using Qassam rockets as garden art. But Qassams are a part of life in Southern Israel. And there’s something slightly defiant as well as creepy about integrating them into the landscape.
Turning a murderous instrument with your name on it into a community showpiece is a way of taking ownership of it, laughing at it even. Your rockets don’t scare us. They’re just garden art now. We’re still here. And you keep missing the target.
Zvika did seem to think the rocket parts were a little bit funny. He held them up for my camera with the same good cheer as a fisherman who just caught a seven pound bass.
I, too, picked up some of the rockets, thinking while doing so that thugs from Hamas or Islamic Jihad had handled them before I did, hoping against the odds that they could use them to kill a few Jews.
Unlike Northern Israel during the Hezbollah war, Southern Israel has not been evacuated. Rockets flying out of Gaza are fewer and smaller than those that were shot out of Lebanon. Terrorism usually doesn’t work as well as its practitioners wish. So far the only thing terrorists in Gaza have accomplished is bringing about the return of the Israeli Defense Forces.
I saw a huge pile of busted up pavement next to one of the streets. “What’s that?” I said to Zvika.
“It is from a Qassam,” he said. “It landed right next to these houses and shattered the road.”
“The houses look okay,” I said. But I remembered the damage I saw from Katyusha attacks by Hezbollah in Kiryat Shmona. Most of the damage done to buildings is cosmetic and easily fixable even while Katyushas are extraordinarily dangerous to human beings.
“If the Qassam lands next to you,” Zvika said, “it will kill you. But it if lands ten meters away it won’t kill you. Qassams are lightweight. If they had more explosives and weighed more the rockets wouldn’t go very far. They would land on the Palestinians.” He laughed and made a diving gesture with his hand. “The rockets are made in Gaza. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are not technologically sophisticated like the Hezbollah.”
If Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers compared with IAF missiles, Qassams are practically spit balls compared with Katyushas. Then again, a Qassam is huge compared with a bullet, and a great deal more dangerous. They have only killed a handful of people, even so. The biggest danger from the Palestinian rocket war against Israel isn’t the damage Hamas and Islamic Jihad are able to inflict today. It’s the damage they could inflict tomorrow if they find a way to equip themselves with more powerful missiles that could render Southern and even Central Israel uninhabitable.
Zvika pointed to the alarm system on top of the roof of a school.
“You have twenty or thirty seconds after you hear that alarm to get to a shelter,” he said. “It scares the children every time it goes off.”
“Do they ever fire rockets at night?” I said. Hezbollah hardly ever fired Katyusha rockets at night because they did not want to give away the positions of the launchers to the Israeli military.
“Oh yes,” he said. “All day, all night, all the time.”
Earlier we had coffee at an outdoor café just far enough away from Gaza that we couldn’t quite see it.
Zvika’s two children joined us.
They had accompanied us during our entire tour along the border with Gaza, which just goes to show how normal-seeming such places can be when you live near them. I doubt many tourists ever take their kids to that border.
A Qassam could have struck us at any moment, although the odds were low enough that I didn’t worry about it. I even tried to worry about it just so I would have an idea what it can feel like to live next to Gaza. After spending a day and a half under fire from Hezbollah, though, Qassams didn’t seem like that big a deal.
Just as we were sitting there drinking our coffee, Zvika received a text message on his cell phone telling us that an incoming rocket struck Kibbutz Kissufim.
“That happened just now?” I said.
“Just now,” Zvika said.
It was far enough away that we didn’t hear it.
I wanted to know what Zvika thought about Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year now that he has to live under rocket fire in part as a result. Was withdrawing the settlements and the army the right thing to do?
“Yes,” Zvika said. But he does not want to withdraw from the West Bank. “It is our land. They can have Gaza. But Hebron has always been ours. They have only been there for 200 years.”
The United States has barely existed for more than 200 years. No one thinks non-native Americans should have to pack up and go back to Europe or wherever else their families came from. At some point the statute of limitations has to run out on these things. George Santayana famously said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. P.J. O’Rourke went further and said it goes double for those who can’t remember anything else.
“Do you just want to sit on top of Palestinians forever?” I said to Zvika.
“What is the solution to this problem?” Shika asked Zvika. Zvika had no answer, not even a bad one.
“What is the solution?” Shika said again. “What do you think is the solution?”
Zvika didn’t say anything.
“You want to keep the West Bank but give them Gaza?” I said.
“We gave them Gaza,” Zvika said, “and Lebanon. But Hamas and Hezbollah still want to kill us. Why? What did we do to Lebanon? Nothing. And they want to kill us!”
“The West Bank is different from Lebanon, though,” I said.
“Yes,” Zvika said. “It is our land.”
Zvika is in the minority. Shika calls him a “fanatic,” even though they are friends. The Israeli center as the well as the left wants out of the West Bank as well as out of Gaza. Ehud Olmert was elected in part on that platform.
There’s an old formula that has been floating around for a while.
1. Greater Israel
3. Jewish Majority
Zvika and the rest of Israelis to the right of the mainstream still think, somehow, they will find a way to hold onto all three.
It didn’t matter what I said to Zvika. He just kept saying “It is our land,” as if that settled everything and there was nothing left to be said.
Shika and I left Zvika at Kibbutz Alumim and continued by ourselves in his truck to Kelem Shalom, where Israel, Gaza, and Egypt converge.
This is where the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on June 25, triggering Operation Summer Rain that continues in Gaza today, almost entirely beyond any media coverage.
Shalit was inside a tank near the tower pictured above. Eight terrorists emerged from an underground tunnel 700 meters long that began in a building in Gaza and ended as a hard-to-see hole in the middle of an Israeli field. They fired an RPG at the tank and killed two soldiers. Gilad Shalit emerged from the tank. The terrorists snatched him off the tank and stole him to Gaza. The whole operation took seven minutes.
Tunnels are appearing all over the place. Tunnels from Gaza into Egypt for smuggling weapons. Tunnels from Gaza into Israel for carrying out terrorist actions.
The Egyptian border patrol (pictured below) does shut down some of the smugglers’ tunnels, even though it is not their top priority.
Tunnels are a top priority for Israel, though, along the border with Egypt as well as underneath their own territory.
Those tunnels get people killed. They keep finding new ones beneath the houses.
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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten