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The Impact of Palestinian Rocket Terror on Israeli Children

Photo: Anav Silverman, Sderot Media Center

There have been many questions bouncing around in the media this week. Why is Israel at war? Why are there so many Hamas men dead? Why are Hamas firing rockets at Israel? A war of resistance, some say. Israel is holding a siege against Gaza. Palestinians are starving and suffering.

And who is to blame?

Israel of course. At least that is the conclusion that emerges within the headlines of AP and Reuters news reports, European news media, and countless Internet blogs on the current fighting.

For those who seek objective answers to those questions, the unfolding tragedy of Sderot and the western Negev must be taken into account.

There has been a war of terror on Sderot from more than eight years now. During this time period, an estimated 8,000-10,000 Palestinian rockets have been fired at Sderot and the western Negev from the Gaza Strip. There was not one serious long-term military response from Israel to the rocket attacks during that time besides the closing of crossings and checkpoints.

In the meantime, hundreds of Israelis homes and properties have been destroyed, over 700 Israelis wounded, and thousands psychologically traumatized by Palestinian rocket fire. Periodically, schools in Sderot and the western Negev have been forced to close, as normal life cruelly transforms into a marathon of 15 seconds, (the number of seconds one has to escape to shelter when the Tzeva Adom, or Red Color alert is set off by an impending Palestinian rocket).

Sderot and western Negev residents have been forced to sit and endure Palestinian rocket terror to the point that there is now a generation of Sderot children who are showing signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as early as age three.

In a recent report in the major Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv, Yaron Sasson writes of children in Sderot being born into a period of siren alerts, or Tzeva Adoms and the sound of Kassam explosions. These sounds of war have become part of the psychological makeup of Sderot children. It is not surprising then that psychological research conducted among Sderot residents has produced some very disturbing findings.

According to research done by Sderot’s Hosen Center, a treatment center that offers support and counseling to Sderot residents during times of emergency, there is a major problem appearing in young Sderot children, the generation born into Kassams.

Clinical psychologists working at the center discovered that many Sderot children are not developing speaking skills at a rate appropriate to their age. A normal child learns to speak around the age of one. But many children in Sderot have not even begun to speak by the age of three or even four. Those who are able to speak, stutter and cannot complete words.

Dalia Yosef, director of the Sderot Hosen Center, explains that the constant rocket fire upon Sderot has created a state of stress and panic that has dramatically impacted the development of young Sderot children.

Yosef and the clinical psychologists who work with her, counsel Sderot children from the ages of one to 18, offering treatment for a wide variety of issues.

“It is important to note,” says Yosef, “that these Sderot children have been born into a reality of constant rocket fire. The world, as it appears to them, is unsafe and scary, full of insecurity and chaos. Their sense of security has been shattered by the continuous rocket attacks.”

“These children develop symptoms of PTSD early on, suffering from sleeping disorders, nightmares and anxiety attacks. Many experience regression, going back to wetting their beds,” says Yosef.

Those children whose parents suffer from signs of post traumatic stress disorder, have even more complicated issues. According to Yosef, children of parents diagnosed with PTSD sense that their parents cannot protect them. “These kids’ problems are even more severe than kids whose parents are more psychologically stable,” says Youssef. In Sderot, 30% of adults have been diagnosed with PTSD.

Yosef explains that a young child hears the rapid breathing of his parent, when the Tzeva Adom sound and understands that his parent is frightened. “Once the child understands this, then he perceives that the world is unsafe and that his parent is unable to properly protect him,” adds Yosef. “The parent feels threatened and so does the child. Later on, this feeling of insecurity and stress affects the child in areas like speech, hindering normal speech development.”

Younger children go back to the bottle, to the pacifier, and have extreme difficulty separating from the parents. “Kids are scared to go to the bathroom or to the shower by themselves, because of the fear of a rocket strike,” says Yosef. “The situation has created unhealthy relationships within the family unit. Children as old as 12 sleep with their parents.”

Even during the recent ceasefire or days where Kassams don’t fall regularly on Sderot, the trauma and stress continue because people continue to anticipate rocket attacks. “Only a permanent long term quiet will help these children and their parents recover,” says Yosef. “The moment there is a siren alert and a rocket explosion, all the progress we have made in the treatment is destroyed.”

The Sderot Hosen Center offers treatment for children and parents together. “We give parents the tools and skills need to maintain a sense of calm in situations of terror,” explains Yosef. “Because parents are the authority figures in the family, we focus on them and try to identify ways in which they can be more relaxed in this tense environment.”

Livnat Shaubi, a lifelong resident of Sderot and the oldest in a family of 11 children, recently spent an entire day with her younger siblings, helping them find ways to cope with the Hamas war on southern Israel. After spending four days at home, exhausting Lego, board games, and playing balls, the Shaubi boy–Hananel, David, and Yehuda, ages 5, 7 and 11, respectively, created Kassam rockets from plastic bottles they found lying in the house.

“Like other Sderot kids, my mom cannot allow my younger siblings to play outside during these periods of rocket attacks. “My brothers are cooped up all day and therefore these art projects, an important outlet for their creativity, simply reflects the reality around them” says Shaubi

Shaubi told Sderot Media Center that the first words her five-year-old brother, Hananel learned to say, along with Daddy and Mommy, were ‘Tzeva Adom’ (Red Color, the name for the siren alert).

“These kids know war,” she adds. “Soon it will be the children in Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod, who will join them.”

And this is exactly why Israel is currently engaged in this war–to prevent the tragedy of Sderot from spreading to one million other Israelis who are currently experiencing for their first time the impact of Palestinian rocket fire in some of Israel’s major cities. Israel’s children and Gaza’s children deserve a quiet future, one with normal childhood experiences, where threats in the form of Palestinian rockets are finally laid to rest.

16 Comments

  1. Jason Whitehead

    1/12/2009 at 7:48 pm

    If you don’t mind me saying, you sound like a clueless middle-class housewife talking drivel about something like desperate housewives on TV. By your same logic why don’t these families move away from Sderot? Or why stay there and then have children only to bring them into this world in the middle of a war? The children in Gaza have no life, no country, no home and very little hope and you’re moaning about leaving your deck chair to get to an air-conditioned shelter in time. Settlers never ponder why rockets are coming down from the sky at them; those blinkers sure are solid. It is the great irony of the Jewish people that having suffered so much at the hands of so many they are just as capable of devastating another people. And are just as good as propagating illusions that allow them to do so and still sleep at night. And make babies. And write stupid things in blogs that only illustrate how ignorant they are.

  2. themiddle

    1/12/2009 at 8:44 pm

    The children in Gaza have no life because of their leadership and the children in Sderot are under attack because of the same Palestinian leadership. You know that and every day you remind yourself of this, right Jason?

    The “air conditioned shelters” are a quaint dig, but make the horror for the children in the western Negev and now in more established towns like Ashkelon and Be’er Sheva no less real. Every time they leave the house for school, or part from their parents, they do it with fear. This is the result of the endless rocket attacks by the Palestinians.

    The couple of safe rooms I’ve seen, by the way, were not air conditioned. I’ll be sure to recommend the upgrade to their owners.

    Let me also say that the residents of Sderot and all the other towns that have received mortar and rocket attacks for the past several years, are not settlers. Maybe you need to get your blinders off and understand that. And even if they were settlers, there would be no justification for the rocket attacks. You don’t target civilians.

    But here you are justifying this behavior of attacking civilians. The rockets are the fault of the “settlers” with the “blinders on.” Uh huh.

    Of course you feel that way. You believe the “Jewish people are capable of devastating another people” and doing so with illusions about how it’s justified. And then we make babies.

    Well, actually, the Jewish people waited a few years before finally responding to these rocket attacks. During that time, Hamas has armed itself instead of caring for its people who are so devastated that they elected these terrorists to lead them. While the Jews waited, hoping the rocket fire will stop – just as they left Gaza entirely – Hamas improved its range from barely hitting Sderot to hitting Be’er Sheva, Israel’s largest town in the south and a big distance from Gaza’s borders.

    The Jewish people have continually sought to find peace with the Palestinian people, and we can go back to 1994 at least if you need evidence. By 2000, the Palestinians were offered a state, an offer repeated in 2001. The Palestinians chose war because they hoped it would give them leverage in future talks, or at least blow up those talks of 2000 and 2001 lest they *gasp* have to actually make peace and concede that Israel may exist.

    And then Palestinians make more babies than Jews. And they get naive shills like you – who prefer to see yet another Arab dictatorship over this land instead of a democracy, and prefer to see the Jewish right of self-determination destroyed so that the Arabs can claim theirs even though they could already have done so – write stupid things in blogs that only illustrate how ignorant and foolish they really are.

  3. avital

    1/14/2009 at 11:06 am

    We’re incredibly tired of people like you, “Jason Whitehead”, who obviously keep their butts in a warm, comfy home, thousands of miles away from the center of all action. Who never ever set a foot into neither Israel nor Gaza, who get their “facts” off of dubious websites, fora, and sensationalist mainstream media (in English of course, but never Hebrew or Arabic, because you wouldn’t understand anyways). But hey, as long as it feeds your racist vein and makes you feel good posting your nonsense to the web… it must be sad being you. And very lonely in your corner of the world.

  4. Hinny

    1/14/2009 at 12:27 pm

    GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Tiny bodies lying side by side wrapped in white burial shrouds. The cherubic face of a dead preschooler sticking up from the rubble of her home. A man cradling a wounded boy in a chaotic emergency room after Israel shelled a U.N. school.

    Children, who make up more than half of crowded Gaza’s 1.4 million people, are the most defenseless victims of the war between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli army has unleashed unprecedented force in its campaign against Hamas militants, who have been taking cover among civilians.

    A photo of 4-year-old Kaukab Al Dayah, just her bloodied head sticking out from the rubble of her home, covered many front pages in the Arab world Wednesday. “This is Israel,” read the headline in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. The preschooler was killed early Tuesday when an F-16 attacked her family’s four-story home in Gaza City. Four adults also died.

    As many as 257 children have been killed and 1,080 wounded — about a third of the total casualties since Dec. 27, according to U.N. figures released Thursday.

    Hardest on the children is the sense that nowhere is safe and adults can’t protect them, said Iyad Sarraj, a psychologist hunkering down in his Gaza City apartment with his four stepchildren, ages 3-17. His 10-year-old, Adam, is terrified during bombing raids and has developed asthma attacks, Sarraj said.

    Israel says it is targeting Hamas in response to its repeated rocket attacks on southern Israel, and is doing its utmost to avoid civilian deaths. However, foreign aid officials note that civilians can’t escape blockaded Gaza and that bombing crowded areas inevitably leads to civilian casualties. The Israeli military has used tank and artillery shells, as well as large aerial bombs.

    In the Shati refugee camp on the Mediterranean, 10 boys were playing football in an alley Thursday when a shell from an Israeli gunboat hit a nearby Hamas prison.

    At the sound of the explosion, one of the older boys whistled, a signal to interrupt the game. Several players took cover with their backs pressed against a wall. After a minute or two, the game resumed.

    Samih Hilal, 14, said he sneaked out of his grandfather’s house against the orders of his worried father. The house was crowded with relatives who fled more dangerous areas, he said, and he couldn’t stand being cooped up for so many hours.

    “Do you think we are not afraid? Yes, we are. But we have nothing to do but play,” Samih said.

    Another boy, 13-year-old Yasser, waved toward the unmanned Israeli drones in a defiant gesture, instead of seeking cover during the shelling. “There is nothing we can do. Even if we run away here or there, their shells are faster than us,” he said.

    Indeed, all of Gaza has become dangerous ground.

    Children have been killed in strikes on their houses, while riding in cars with their parents, while playing in the streets, walking to a grocery and even at U.N. shelters.

    Sayed, Mohammed and Raida Abu Aisheh — ages 12, 8 and 7 — were at home with their parents when they were all killed in an Israeli airstrike before dawn Monday. The family had remained in the ground floor apartment of their three-story building, while the rest of the extended clan sought refuge in the basement from heavy bombardment of nearby Hamas installations.

    Those in the basement survived. The children’s uncle, Saber Abu Aisheh, 49, searched Thursday through the rubble, a heap of cement blocks, mattresses, scorched furniture and smashed TVs.

    He said Israel gave no warning, unlike two years earlier when he received repeated calls from the Israeli military, including on his cell phone, that a nearby house was going to get hit and that he should evacuate.

    “What’s going on is not a war, it’s a mass killing,” said Abu Aisheh, still wearing the blood-splattered olive-colored sweater he wore the night of the airstrike.

    The Israeli military did not comment when asked why the Abu Aisheh house was targeted.

    In the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, medics found four young children next to their dead mothers in a house, according to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. “They were too weak to stand up on their own,” the statement said.

    The Red Cross did not say what happened to the children, but noted that the Israeli army refused rescuers permission to reach the neighborhood for four days. Israel said the delay was caused by fighting.

    Medic Mohammed Azayzeh said he retrieved the bodies of a man and his two young sons from central Gaza on Wednesday. One of the boys, a 1-year-old, was cradled in his father’s arms.

    In the Jebaliya refugee camp, five sisters from the Balousha family, ages 4, 8, 11, 14 and 17, were buried together in white shrouds on Dec. 29. An Israeli airstrike on a mosque, presumably a Hamas target, had destroyed their adjacent house. Only their parents and a baby girl survived.

    In the ongoing chaos of Gaza, it’s difficult to get exact casualty figures. Since Dec. 27, at least 750 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moawiya Hassanain.

    Of those, 257 were children, according to the U.N.’s top humanitarian official, John Holmes, citing Health Ministry figures that he called credible and deeply disturbing.

    “We are talking about urban war,” said Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, the Jordan-based spokesman for UNICEF in the Middle East and North Africa. “The density of the population is so high, it’s bound to hurt children … This is a unique conflict, where there is nowhere to go.”

    Successive generations of Gaza children have grown up with violence, part of the accelerating conflict with Israel. In the late 1980s, many threw stones at Israeli soldiers in a revolt against occupation. In the second uprising, starting in 2000, some were recruited by Hamas as suicide bombers.

    Sarraj, the psychologist, said he fears for this generation: Having experienced trauma and their parents’ helplessness, they may be more vulnerable to recruitment by militants.

    In his Gaza City apartment, Sarraj tries to reassure his own children.

    His 14-year-old stepdaughter lost her school, the American International School, to a recent airstrike, and a girlfriend was killed in another attack. The family lives in the middle-class Rimal neighborhood and still has enough fuel to run a generator in the evenings, enabling the children to read.

    Yet when the bombings start, he can’t distract them. “They are scared,” he said. “They run to find the safest place, in the hallway, away from the window.”

  5. Hinny

    1/14/2009 at 12:31 pm

    JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – The UN Children’s Fund said Wednesday that children caught up in the Israeli offensive in Gaza were bearing the brunt of the crisis, with over 300 killed in less than a month.

    “Each day more children are being hurt, their small bodies wounded, their young lives shattered. This is tragic. This is unacceptable,” said UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman in a statement.

    Over 1,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli attack on Gaza, the majority of whom are civilians caught in the crossfire as Israel attempts to root out Islamist Hamas elements in a bid to halt militant rocket attacks.

    Veneman, speaking ahead of the launch of UNICEF’s annual report in Johannesburg, added that absolute priority must be given to the protection of children who form the majority of the population of Gaza.

    “They are bearing the brunt of a conflict which is not theirs. As fighting reaches the heart of heavily populated urban areas, the impact of lethal weapons will carry an even heavier toll on children.”

    Veneman urged unhampered humanitarian access, the protection of schools and medical facilities, and expressed concern over the long term psychological damage to children.

    “The crisis in Gaza is singular in that children and their families have nowhere to escape, no refuge. The very thought of being trapped in a closed area is disturbing for adults in peace times. What then goes through the mind of a child who is trapped in such relentless violence?”

  6. themiddle

    1/14/2009 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for the news update, Hinny. Remember that Israel did not seek to attack Gaza at all and that it left Gaza entirely a couple of years ago. Several thousand rockets later, it finally attacked and sadly for the Palestinians, Hamas likes to mingle among their civilians wearing civilian clothes and using mosques, schools and hospitals as cover for attacks. The deaths and injuries in Gaza are the fault of Hamas.

  7. Jason Whitehead

    1/14/2009 at 6:30 pm

    Hi themiddle, are you really so delusional or does the Israeli government carry out such effective propaganda (in Hebrew and Arabic)? For the last six months Israel has cut off and blockaded and, what, starved the Palestinians to death? What do you expect, a bunch of flowers? Israel is carrying out the cruelest and most inhumane attack on another people, in their own interests: the desire to setup their theocratic state. This is genuine evil.

    Avital, we are sick and tired of living in this unsafe world, having to be victims of terrorism in our own cities because the people of some tiny strip of land in the middle of the desert cannot sort themselves out. Your assumptions about me just show how little thought you put into your view of the world. You don’t even know where I live.

    The reason there have been so many civilian deaths is not because of Hamas’ strategy, it’s because Gaza is the most densely populated area, its impossible to throw the IDF at this area without killing civilians, its simply impossible. Or has that not occurred to you? The truth is that it’s acceptable to Israel to kill Palestinians, you regard them as lesser than yourselves. That is the required lie you have to accept in order to subjugate and oppress another people. How else would you sleep at night knowing what you’ve done?

    • Pik

      11/27/2012 at 4:23 pm

      Does not Israel wish to destroy Palestine, Rob? By the logic or Hamas and Hizbollah, yes or raehtr, it has already done so, by replacing Palestine with Israel. The oft-quoted motto Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea’ sums it up very neatly. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean lies the inconvenient state of Israel.As for dispossession, it is worth remembering that under the Oslo Accords, both the West Bank and Gaza were returned to the administrative authority of the PA. The PA was a deeply corrupt kleptocracy, but it exercised Palestinian authority within the territories, held elections, and so on. Israel maintained a security presence in both territories to protect its settlements.When Israel evicted its settlers from Gaza and removed its security forces, the Strip descended almost overnight into anarchy. Even before the Hamas coup, Gaza was a lawless swamp and a terrorists’ kitchen. It is difficult to believe that, if Israel were to evacuate the West Bank, a similar process would eventuate there. Indeed, courageous Palestinian journalists have written that the only reason the West Bank has not gone the way of Gaza is because of the continuing presence of the Israeli security forces.Establishing the settlements in the territories was Israel’s historic mistake. However, they were always negotiable. Begin forcibly evicted the settlers from Sinai in return for a peace deal with Egypt (for which President Sadat paid with his life, assassinated by Hamas’ parent organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood). Sharon, another noted hawk, removed the settlements from Gaza. The West Bank will be more difficult, since there are now some 400,000 settlers residing there.But even there a solution should be possible. One option would be to give the settlers a choice: remain where you are, and become Palestinian Jews, or return to Israel proper, and become Israeli Jews. But such an option will not even be on the table for at least a generation.I don’t see a parallel with the IRA. Did the IRA constitute itself in order to destroy Great Britain?

  8. themiddle

    1/14/2009 at 7:30 pm

    Yes Jason, I am delusional. I actually thought it would be possible to leave Gaza and watch it prosper in peace with Israel. Of course, I couldn’t anticipate, being the delusional sort, that the Palestinians would hate the Israelis to such a degree that they would rather randomly bomb civilian areas than develop Gaza economically and socially. You know how it goes: “Should we budget our resources for a new playground or should we buy a few more mortars to lob at Israeli civilians?” Somehow the decision always ends up being “Let’s get the mortars and instead of a playground, let’s brainwash our children with hateful, antisemitic children’s television programming.”

    The crossings with Gaza have been sealed regularly because every time they open, and particularly when they were opened to Gazans who wanted to come over into Israel to work, Hamas, Fatah or another organization would try to send suicide bombers through. While they did this, they continued to shell Israel with their rockets. I understand how non-delusional, well-educated folks like you think that Israel should keep its borders open under these circumstances, but delusional idiots like me actually think that these circumstances dictate shutting down the borders and ordering attacks to stop the rocket fire.

    You know what else, Jason? Delusional idiots like me actually thought that waiting and waiting and waiting for years and years and years as more and more rockets fell on Israeli towns with ever-expanding range and accuracy was actually a fairly decent and fair thing for the Israelis to do. That this is the kind of patience that reflects concern for the lives of the Palestinian civilians. But I’m delusional, unlike you, who believes that by waiting and waiting and waiting, Israel was actually treating the Palestinians not with the hopefulness that they will stop their attacks in time but with the hatred of viewing them as “lesser” than Israelis. Yes Jason, I’m the delusional one and not you.

    You? You’re a good citizen of a country that launches wars in far away countries with large strips of land in the middle of the desert, or sends their army and oil companies into countries with even larger patches of desert and plenty of oil. Some of the people in these countries throw shoes at our President because of these activities. It occurs to me that the terrorism WE fear as a result of these activities by OUR government play a greater role in everything that happens here than whatever happens in that tiny, democratic, peace-seeking country in the desert that can’t sort things out with fanatical haters who can’t even admit that there was a Jewish history on this land. You probably have trouble understanding the fanatics, not being delusional like me, but I get where they’re coming from and it’s a nasty place in their hearts that seeks to kill and maim people for ideology not because of tiny democracties.

    Oh yes, one more detail: Israel isn’t a theocracy. That would be Iran, key sponsor of Hamas, the folks who have brought you this war. By the way, do you know anything about the rumor that Hamas put their wartime headquarters under Gaza’s largest hospital?

  9. hinny

    1/15/2009 at 12:14 am

    Read people….with over 1000 people killed in less than 20 days, ignorance can longer excuse ur hate…..read, u might find out that ur the one brainwashed with hate, just like Avi did….

    guardian.co.uk…

    Oxford professor of international relations Avi Shlaim served in the Israeli army and has never questioned the state’s legitimacy. But its merciless assault on Gaza has led him to devastating conclusions
    Avi Shlaim
    The Guardian, Wednesday 7 January 2009
    Article history
    The only way to make sense of Israel’s senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context. Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. I used to think that this judgment was too harsh but Israel’s vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush administration’s complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.

    I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.

    Four decades of Israeli control did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip. With a large population of 1948 refugees crammed into a tiny strip of land, with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza’s prospects were never bright. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development. To use the Biblical phrase, Israel turned the people of Gaza into the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, into a source of cheap labour and a captive market for Israeli goods. The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence.

    Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. They are at once the instrument of exploitation and the symbol of the hated occupation. In Gaza, the Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 in 2005 compared with 1.4 million local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and the lion’s share of the scarce water resources. Cheek by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population lived in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. Eighty per cent of them still subsist on less than $2 a day. The living conditions in the strip remain an affront to civilised values, a powerful precipitant to resistance and a fertile breeding ground for political extremism.

    In August 2005 a Likud government headed by Ariel Sharon staged a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza, withdrawing all 8,000 settlers and destroying the houses and farms they had left behind. Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, conducted an effective campaign to drive the Israelis out of Gaza. The withdrawal was a humiliation for the Israeli Defence Forces. To the world, Sharon presented the withdrawal from Gaza as a contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But in the year after, another 12,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank, further reducing the scope for an independent Palestinian state. Land-grabbing and peace-making are simply incompatible. Israel had a choice and it chose land over peace.

    The real purpose behind the move was to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel by incorporating the main settlement blocs on the West Bank to the state of Israel. Withdrawal from Gaza was thus not a prelude to a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority but a prelude to further Zionist expansion on the West Bank. It was a unilateral Israeli move undertaken in what was seen, mistakenly in my view, as an Israeli national interest. Anchored in a fundamental rejection of the Palestinian national identity, the withdrawal from Gaza was part of a long-term effort to deny the Palestinian people any independent political existence on their land.

    Israel’s settlers were withdrawn but Israeli soldiers continued to control all access to the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air. Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison. From this point on, the Israeli air force enjoyed unrestricted freedom to drop bombs, to make sonic booms by flying low and breaking the sound barrier, and to terrorise the hapless inhabitants of this prison.

    Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet Israel has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side and has done a great deal to undermine it. Israel has a long history of secret collaboration with reactionary Arab regimes to suppress Palestinian nationalism. Despite all the handicaps, the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon. In January 2006, free and fair elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority brought to power a Hamas-led government. Israel, however, refused to recognise the democratically elected government, claiming that Hamas is purely and simply a terrorist organisation.

    America and the EU shamelessly joined Israel in ostracising and demonising the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.

    As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes. Israel’s propaganda machine persistently purveyed the notion that the Palestinians are terrorists, that they reject coexistence with the Jewish state, that their nationalism is little more than antisemitism, that Hamas is just a bunch of religious fanatics and that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But the simple truth is that the Palestinian people are a normal people with normal aspirations. They are no better but they are no worse than any other national group. What they aspire to, above all, is a piece of land to call their own on which to live in freedom and dignity.

    Like other radical movements, Hamas began to moderate its political programme following its rise to power. From the ideological rejectionism of its charter, it began to move towards pragmatic accommodation of a two-state solution. In March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government that was ready to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. Israel, however, refused to negotiate with a government that included Hamas.

    It continued to play the old game of divide and rule between rival Palestinian factions. In the late 1980s, Israel had supported the nascent Hamas in order to weaken Fatah, the secular nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat. Now Israel began to encourage the corrupt and pliant Fatah leaders to overthrow their religious political rivals and recapture power. Aggressive American neoconservatives participated in the sinister plot to instigate a Palestinian civil war. Their meddling was a major factor in the collapse of the national unity government and in driving Hamas to seize power in Gaza in June 2007 to pre-empt a Fatah coup.

    The war unleashed by Israel on Gaza on 27 December was the culmination of a series of clashes and confrontations with the Hamas government. In a broader sense, however, it is a war between Israel and the Palestinian people, because the people had elected the party to power. The declared aim of the war is to weaken Hamas and to intensify the pressure until its leaders agree to a new ceasefire on Israel’s terms. The undeclared aim is to ensure that the Palestinians in Gaza are seen by the world simply as a humanitarian problem and thus to derail their struggle for independence and statehood.

    The timing of the war was determined by political expediency. A general election is scheduled for 10 February and, in the lead-up to the election, all the main contenders are looking for an opportunity to prove their toughness. The army top brass had been champing at the bit to deliver a crushing blow to Hamas in order to remove the stain left on their reputation by the failure of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in July 2006. Israel’s cynical leaders could also count on apathy and impotence of the pro-western Arab regimes and on blind support from President Bush in the twilight of his term in the White House. Bush readily obliged by putting all the blame for the crisis on Hamas, vetoing proposals at the UN Security Council for an immediate ceasefire and issuing Israel with a free pass to mount a ground invasion of Gaza.

    As always, mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression but the sheer asymmetry of power between the two sides leaves little room for doubt as to who is the real victim. This is indeed a conflict between David and Goliath but the Biblical image has been inverted – a small and defenceless Palestinian David faces a heavily armed, merciless and overbearing Israeli Goliath. The resort to brute military force is accompanied, as always, by the shrill rhetoric of victimhood and a farrago of self-pity overlaid with self-righteousness. In Hebrew this is known as the syndrome of bokhim ve-yorim, “crying and shooting”.

    To be sure, Hamas is not an entirely innocent party in this conflict. Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak – terror. Militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad kept launching Qassam rocket attacks against Israeli settlements near the border with Gaza until Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire last June. The damage caused by these primitive rockets is minimal but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the public to demand protection from its government. Under the circumstances, Israel had the right to act in self-defence but its response to the pinpricks of rocket attacks was totally disproportionate. The figures speak for themselves. In the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.

    Whatever the numbers, killing civilians is wrong. This rule applies to Israel as much as it does to Hamas, but Israel’s entire record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza. Israel also maintained the blockade of Gaza after the ceasefire came into force which, in the view of the Hamas leaders, amounted to a violation of the agreement. During the ceasefire, Israel prevented any exports from leaving the strip in clear violation of a 2005 accord, leading to a sharp drop in employment opportunities. Officially, 49.1% of the population is unemployed. At the same time, Israel restricted drastically the number of trucks carrying food, fuel, cooking-gas canisters, spare parts for water and sanitation plants, and medical supplies to Gaza. It is difficult to see how starving and freezing the civilians of Gaza could protect the people on the Israeli side of the border. But even if it did, it would still be immoral, a form of collective punishment that is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law.

    The brutality of Israel’s soldiers is fully matched by the mendacity of its spokesmen. Eight months before launching the current war on Gaza, Israel established a National Information Directorate. The core messages of this directorate to the media are that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreements; that Israel’s objective is the defence of its population; and that Israel’s forces are taking the utmost care not to hurt innocent civilians. Israel’s spin doctors have been remarkably successful in getting this message across. But, in essence, their propaganda is a pack of lies.

    A wide gap separates the reality of Israel’s actions from the rhetoric of its spokesmen. It was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the ceasefire. It di d so by a raid into Gaza on 4 November that killed six Hamas men. Israel’s objective is not just the defence of its population but the eventual overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza by turning the people against their rulers. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

    The Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye is savage enough. But Israel’s insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash. After eight days of bombing, with a death toll of more than 400 Palestinians and four Israelis, the gung-ho cabinet ordered a land invasion of Gaza the consequences of which are incalculable.

    No amount of military escalation can buy Israel immunity from rocket attacks from the military wing of Hamas. Despite all the death and destruction that Israel has inflicted on them, they kept up their resistance and they kept firing their rockets. This is a movement that glorifies victimhood and martyrdom. There is simply no military solution to the conflict between the two communities. The problem with Israel’s concept of security is that it denies even the most elementary security to the other community. The only way for Israel to achieve security is not through shooting but through talks with Hamas, which has repeatedly declared its readiness to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with the Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders for 20, 30, or even 50 years. Israel has rejected this offer for the same reason it spurned the Arab League peace plan of 2002, which is still on the table: it involves concessions and compromises.

    This brief review of Israel’s record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism – the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. Politicians, like everyone else, are of course free to repeat the lies and mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.

    • Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

  10. hinny

    1/15/2009 at 12:34 am

    While u read the last post, article in a leading British broadsheet newspaper, The Guardian…
    i thought i’d tackle the whole Israel is a tiny democracy and thats why its hated comment, by posting a short commentary entitled;
    Democracy: Israel’s greatest fear
    After six decades it must be time to recognise that the strategy of challenging the racist settler state militarily has been a failure. Israel is still there, and the only weapon that can get rid of it is democracy. Fruitless military attacks have not won majority support in the West – and in particular in the USA where a turn against Israel would finish it. Continuing demonstrations at the borders of Israel by thousands of Palestinians demanding to reclaim their own homeland would have a great deal more impact than home-made rockets aimed randomly. As for democracy, two million people in Israel were born there and have every right to the vote. Four million forcibly excluded also have every right to the vote. And four million neither born there nor descended from anyone born there have no right to even be there, let alone vote. The disenfranchisement of people who belong in the territory now held by Israel, and the enfranchisement of those who belong back in their own countries because they didn’t immigrate legitimately, is one of the most scandalous assaults on democracy since the Boer regime in South Africa.

  11. themiddle

    1/15/2009 at 1:37 am

    Hinny, we love that you feed yourself on any article that resonates with you – that is, any article that attacks Israel in some fashion. We even appreciate your puppy-like eagerness to “inform” us of things we supposedly didn’t know. But could you please just provide the link and quote a couple of relevant passages from the article? It will make your posts and our blog easier for everybody to read.

    By the way, if you think that reading Avi Shlaim, a historian with a deep bias against Israel and The Guardian, a newspaper which regularly prints attacks on Israel, you’re going to convince people, you should think again.

    The Palestinians had Gaza all to themselves. They could have run it like a country, developed it by building parts up, cared for its citizens and planned for the future. Instead, they attacked Israel, built up weapons stores, built an army and launched thousands of rockets at a country with one of the strongest militaries in the world. This war is the fault of Hamas and the people who give it support. Nobody needed to die and not a single Israeli bomb needed to explode in Gaza. But they have and the win-win premise by Hamas is playing out to perfection. They win if they attack Israel and receive no response; and they win again if they get attacked because by planting themselves among civilians they can be assured of sympathetic press coverage when the bombs intended for the terrorists also hit the civilians.

  12. Ben-David

    1/15/2009 at 5:14 am

    Middle, don’t bother: her “impeccable source” is likely another opus from the Guardian.

  13. David

    1/17/2009 at 9:08 pm

    The Palestinians have had enough blodshed in the past weeks.The issue of the fear of Israeli children compared to the fear and death experienced by the Palestinian children is incomparable.

    Over 300 Palestinian children killed is not something that should be justified whatever the case may be.It also appears that the writer of this article has no idea of the massacre and ethnic cleansing that took place in the town she refers to as Sderot, which was previously called Nadj, in 1948.It may be the case that they have been educated using the Israeli history books which make no mention of this.Do they even know that UN Resolution 194 and also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13, Section 2, stipulate that the villagers of Najd have a right to return home to their personal property and to their native village of Nadj.

    My dear friend, the people in Gaza are mainly refugees or decendents of refugees from towns like the one you refer to. They have been walled in, deprived of UN food aid and any human being would take desperate action to stop the injustice. The official line is to blame Hamas.The world talks of democracy, but yet when the Palestinian people democratically elected Hamas, the world refused to even speak to them. What democracy is this. And to top it all economic sanctions were imposed on the Palestinian people as some sort of mass punishment for electing Hamas who are the ones fighting for their interests.

    I urge you to consider the plight of the palestinians and the reasons for their anger not from the telescope which you call history but rather from the core issues which have resulted in this unnecessary dilema.Seek the truth and speak the truth even if it hurts.There are those jews who speak out and those are the Jews that display characteristics of the Jews of old who understand what it is to be a displaced and oppressed people.

  14. matt

    1/18/2009 at 2:29 am

    “”The reason there have been so many civilian deaths is not because of Hamas’ strategy, it’s because Gaza is the most densely populated area, its impossible to throw the IDF at this area without killing civilians, its simply impossible. Or has that not occurred to you? The truth is that it’s acceptable to Israel to kill Palestinians, you regard them as lesser than yourselves. That is the required lie you have to accept in order to subjugate and oppress another people. How else would you sleep at night knowing what you’ve done?””

    Read your own words whitehead, do you even realise what you said?? IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT KILLING CIVILIANS!!! thanks for the redemption mr. confused guy from who knows where

  15. hmmmm.

    1/20/2009 at 10:19 pm

    Forgive me for believing that Hamas likes the dead children. It benefits them and only them. The Palestinians are being used.

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