Israeli troops foil Gaza terror attack


Israeli troops foiled a terror attack along the Gaza border.

The military on Tuesday discovered and defused a powerful bomb planted next to the security fence, the IDF announced Tuesday evening.

The bomb was meant to attack soldiers patrolling near the security fence separating Israel from the Gaza Strip, according to the IDF, which said in a statement that the bomb was planted at the end of last week, using the cover of heavy fog.

“This incident proves, yet again, that terror organizations, headed by Hamas, use the area adjacent to the security fence in order to carry out terror attacks against Israeli citizens and IDF soldiers,” the IDF spokesman said. “IDF soldiers’ alertness prevented a terror attack aimed at them.”

Gaza rocket injures foreign worker in Israel


Rockets fired from Gaza on southern Israel over the weekend injured a foreign worker.

Two rockets fired at southern Israel on Saturday night landed near Ashkelon. A foreign worker from Thailand suffered shrapnel wounds in the attack.

A rocket from Gaza had landed in the same area on Friday night. Following that strike, the Israeli Air Force a night later attacked an Islamic Jihad terrorist cell in southern Gaza preparing to launch a rocket into Israel, according to reports. The Israeli strike killed one of the cell members, Palestinian sources told reporters.

Rockets from Gaza shatter short-lived calm


A rocket fired from Gaza landed in Ashkelon was the first since a barrage of rocket fire on southern Israel ended.

Two mortars landed Monday afternoon in the western Negev shortly after the Kassam attack stopped at midnight.

“There is no cease-fire, no negotiations and the IDF continues its operations,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Likud Party lawmakers before the start of the opening meeting of the winter Knesset session. “Anytime someone disrupts the peace in the South, our response will be severe, just as it was on Saturday, and I’m telling you, even more severe.”

The latest attacks follow a weekend in which at least 39 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza at Israel. The barrage, for which Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, appeared to be sparked by an Israeli airstrike Saturday that thwarted an attempt by a terrorist cell preparing to fire long-range rockets from southern Gaza into Israel. The Israeli military reported that it was the same terrorist cell that was responsible for rockets fired on Israel last week

Several long-range Grad missiles hit in and near cities throughout southern Israel, including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gan Yavne and Beersheba. A school and a private home were damaged in the attacks, and several cars were burned. Some 200,000 children stayed home from school, and several colleges and Ben-Gurion University did not open for the start of the new academic year on Sunday as scheduled.

An Ashkelon resident and father of four, Moshe Ami, 56, died from injuries sustained when he was hit by shrapnel Saturday as he ran to a shelter from his car. He died in the hospital from stomach wounds several hours after the attack.

At least 10 Islamic Jihad terrorists have been killed in the Israeli strikes.

Israeli air strike kills chiefs of Gaza’s PRC group


An Israeli air strike killed the leader of an armed Palestinian faction, a top lieutenant and three other members in the southern Gaza Strip Thursday, the group said, hours after Israel blamed gunmen from the territory for cross-border attacks.

The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a faction that often operates independently from Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers, identified their dead leader as Kamal al-Nairab and said their military chief, Immad Hammad, had also been killed.

A sixth fatality in the attack on Rafah town was a nine-year-old boy who had been in the same house as the militants, local Palestinians said.

Hours earlier, gunmen killed seven people in a triple attack in southern Israel. Israel said the gunmen had come from Gaza through neighboring Egypt, a charge denied by Hamas.

“The Israeli military is already taking action against the head of the Committees in Gaza,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters at the site of the gun attacks.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Crispian Balmer

Obama relays condolences to Netanyahu, pledges support


President Obama conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his condolences over recent terrorist attacks and reaffirmed “unwavering” commitment to Israel’s security.

“President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today to convey his condolences over the terrorist attack in Jerusalem yesterday, which killed one person and wounded many others, and to express his concern about the recent rocket and mortar attacks against Israel from Gaza,” a White House statement said on Thursday. “The President reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”

The statement said Netanyahu “appreciated” the call and that the leaders “agreed to remain in close touch on a range of regional security issues.”

Israel has been seeking American reassurances in the wake of a wave of uprisings in the Arab world.

Robert Gates, the defense secretary, on Thursday met with Ehud Barak, his Israeli counterpart, and said advancing peace talks with the Palestinians was more critical than ever because of regional turmoil.

“The Israelis have a very deep strategic interest in getting out in front of the wave of populism that’s sweeping the region,” Reuters quoted a senior U.S. defense official as saying.

New violence suggests end of calm between Israel and militant Palestinians


Violence between Israel and militant Palestinians rose sharply this week with a bombing in central Jerusalem and a dramatic increase in rocket attacks on southern Israel.

In a terrorist attack on Wednesday afternoon, a bomb planted near a telephone pole exploded near Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, Binyanei Ha’uma, killing a 59-year-old woman and injuring more than two dozen people.

Earlier, rocket attacks from Gaza on Tuesday and Wednesday struck the Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashdod, injuring one man.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces struck targets in the Gaza Strip, including what the Israeli Air Force described as the rocket launcher from which a Grad rocket was fired at Ashdod on Tuesday night. In one of the Israeli air raids, four members of Islamic Jihad traveling in a car were killed. In another, four Palestinian civilians were killed in an area from which mortar shells had just been fired.

The killing of civilians prompted a statement of regret from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also said that “It is regrettable that Hamas continues to intentionally rain down dozens of rockets on Israeli civilians even as it uses civilians as human shields.”

The sudden escalation in attacks, coming with Israel still reeling from the March 11 attack in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Itamar in which five family members were stabbed to death, raises fresh questions about the sustainability of the calm that has prevailed between Israel and militant Palestinians since the end of the Gaza war in January 2009.

Since the cease-fire that ended that war, known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead, rocket fire on southern Israel has been sporadic and mostly carried out by groups other than Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. But the mortar and rocket attacks in recent weeks, which have included the use of more sophisticated, longer-range missiles known as Grads, have been the work of Hamas—a sign that the shaky cease-fire between the Palestinian terrorist group and Israel may be falling apart.

“I see the escalation is already here in a number of fronts—in the South and also in Jerusalem,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai said at the scene of Wednesday’s explosion in Jerusalem, according to The Jerusalem Post.

In the South, Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom threatened a new operation in the Gaza Strip.

“The period of restraint is over; we must do everything we can to strike out against those who wish to hurt the innocent,” Shalom said on a visit to the site in Beersheba struck Wednesday by two long-range Grad rockets. “I hope it won’t come to another Operation Cast Lead, but if there is no other choice we will launch another operation.”

As of late Wednesday afternoon, no one had taken responsibility for the bombing in Jerusalem, the first major bombing in Israel’s capital city since 2004. More recent deadly terrorist attacks involved gunmen, as in the case of the Mercaz Harav attack in March 2008 that left eight yeshiva students dead, or Palestinians commandeering bulldozers or cars and using them as weapons.

Following Wednesday’s attack, Netanyahu said he would delay a planned trip to Moscow.

Police said the bomb was left in a bag in a telephone booth next to a busy bus stop along a main artery in central Jerusalem about a block from the city’s central bus terminal. The blast blew out the windows of two buses picking up passengers.

JTA Managing Editor Uriel Heilman reported from New York. Israel correspondent Marcy Oster reported from Jerusalem.

The CNN-NPR-NY Times Middle East Conspiracy


Have you noticed that when people complain about bias in the media, it’s always bias against their own point of view and never bias in favor of their side?

When press accounts confirm your interpretation of events, they’re fair, accurate and objective. When the upshot of a news story is that your team is the bad guys and the other team is the good guys, it’s obvious that the reporter or paper or network or corporation is in the tank for the other side. And when articles and broadcasts balance ammo for your side with ammo for the other side, they’re guilty of the fallacy of false equivalence, which turns righteous battles between right and wrong into vapid he-said/she-said standoffs.

Nowhere is this more true than in coverage of the Middle East.

Supporters of Israel are furious that when pictures of Palestinian casualties are shown, the causes and context of the war are left out—Hamas’ rocket attacks on southern Israel, which precipitated the attack on Gaza; its cynical use of civilians as human shields, which is a war crime; its intention to destroy Israel and Jewry, which amounts to genocide—all get scandalously short shrift from the press.

Supporters of Hamas are just as enraged about the inhumane living conditions in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded; the Israeli refusal to allow the international press into the battle zone; what they believe is the original sin of Zionism, the displacement of Arabs, and that when Israel is portrayed as a victim, the suffering of the Palestinian people is conveniently omitted.

And what if you’re not a partisan of either side, but think of yourself instead as an independent advocate for human rights and peace? Then not only will you bring down on yourself the opprobrium of both sides for failing to take a stand at a moment that demands a choice, you will also find in the prevailing media narrative no hook to hang your conciliatory analysis on, no peg for your empyrean perspective, no patience for your it’s-all-so-complicated heartsickness.

Any news story can be successfully picked apart from any vantage point. Why does the Los Angeles Times disparage the Israeli point of view as ““>anonymous mitigating hearsay about a Hamas sniper? Why aren’t the networks airing the “>Israeli scholar’s assertion that Palestinian casualties aren’t excessive because “so far well over three-quarters have been armed gunmen, and that is a percentage which is very rarely attained in urban warfare”?

In fact, two reasons make it really hard to conclude (but not to claim) that a mainstream media outlet is biased—on the Middle East or on anything else. And a third reason makes the whole enterprise of watchdogging the press somewhat quixotic.

One is the sheer quantity of content. The stories and pictures you saw may be plenty to convince you, say, that the Associated Press is unfair to Israel, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The only way to determine anything defensible about bias in reporting is to analyze a scientific sample—to examine a slice of stories that’s large enough to be representative of all stories and to choose that slice randomly, without knowing what’s going to be in it.

Some people may feel that they watch CNN so much or read The New York Times so regularly that they have plenty of data to base conclusions on. Not so. That’s why pollsters are paid big bucks: The methods they use to construct the universe of people they survey are even more important than the questions they ask them.

Second is the difficulty of coming up with an objective measure of bias. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you can show me a journalistic scoring system that Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky can agree on, then I’d like to show you how to earn 12 percent a year in a very special investment fund.

But even if you had a scientific sample; even if you devised a neutral litmus test for bias, the strange truth is that media spin probably matters a lot less than we assume.

Yes, public opinion is an important element of public policy. Nations care what people think about them. But the audience for cable news is astonishingly small, maybe 2 million people on a good day; the daily readership of a prestige newspaper is hardly more than that, and the only way that public radio can claim north of 20 million listeners is to count all the people who listened to any of its programs during a week.

Sure, the Internet has surged as a source of news, but its audience is fragmented into niches. If you want to get really depressed, chew on this: For decades, Americans have said that their number one source for news is local television news. Not only is that audience scattered among a thousand stations in a couple of hundred media markets, the amount of attention those stations give to international news is a tiny fraction of the airtime they give to celebrities, freak accidents and crime.

There’s no question that some elite media set the agenda for much of the rest of the press. And some nonnews programming, like talk radio hotheads, get demonstrably big listenerships. But it’s next to impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relation between these bloviators and public opinion, and the same is true of the impact of the mainstream press on public attitudes and beliefs. In the end, why Americans think what they do about Israel and Hamas is as much a mystery as how they decide who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy.

I get just as steamed as anyone else when I see a Middle East news story that I think is wildly unfair. I’m just unwilling to ascribe it to a conspiracy or to think it matters as much as the frustration and fury I feel.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Death, fear and fighting take toll on both sides of Gaza border


ALTTEXT
Damage to a home in Sderot from a Qassam rocket. Photo by The Media Line

The body, wrapped only in a flag, is lowered into the ground as family members throw themselves toward the grave, screaming in anguish. At that moment, their world has ended.

For the hundreds standing around them, vengeance is the only path worth treading.

It doesn’t matter whether you are now imagining the victim as a Palestinian or an Israeli — the scene is identical.

Residents of the Gaza Strip and southern Israel alike will tell you that in years gone by, they built up close working relationships and, in some cases, real friendships. Yet throughout the last 40 years there has always been an unease between the two, which all too often has spilled over into bloodshed.

Ever since the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s, Hamas has been a dominant force in Gaza, and when in 2006 the Islamist movement claimed victory in the Palestinian parliamentary election, it was clear that soon it would gain de facto control of the narrow coastal enclave. A year later, Hamas took over the running of Gaza from Fatah in what Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described as “a bloody coup.”

Complete Gaza CoverageIt has left some Gaza-based Fatah officials smarting, angry and even prepared to blame Hamas rather than Israel for the current violence.

“We were protective of the people and made sure that the Palestinian cause was on the right path until we got the world on our side,” said Ibrahim Abu A-Naja, a member of Fatah’s Executive Committee.

However, the overriding view in Gaza is that Israel is directly to blame for the new reality on the ground, in addition to the troubles already besetting Gazans.

Similarly in Israel, the residents of the towns and villages that have been under rocket fire for eight years accuse Hamas and the smaller armed organizations in Gaza of being responsible for the violence and bloodshed.

“For years we’ve been suffering like this,” said Victoria, a 20-something resident of the Israeli town Sderot, which has faced the brunt of Hamas’ missiles. “I want the Israel Defense Forces to do exactly what it’s doing now and not to stop in the middle.”

That is the overriding view in southern Israel. Many people say the government was right to launch its Gaza operation against Hamas, and if there is collateral damage — the euphemism for civilian casualties — so be it.

“Yesterday the rocket blew out my window and just missed the propane tanks, and the last time it blew two doors off their hinges, and they were blown together like a sandwich,” said Yair Madmon, a man in his late 50s who said he served in the Israeli army as a reservist until he was 48.

Like many who live in Sderot, Madmon said he will never leave.

However, that is not the case for everyone. Since the missiles began raining in, people have fled the town. It means businesses are in decline, leaving the local economy in ruins.

The middle-age mustached owner of the local lottery franchise in Sderot, who asks not to be named, said he works on a percentage basis — his income dependent on the number of tickets sold. He said fewer people than ever come his way, and he spends much of his day running for shelter in the nearby supermarket. The strain on his family, both financial and mental, is enormous.

“My wife’s worried about me, and I am about her,” he said, while handing a white and pink lottery ticket to his solitary customer. “We panic when one of us doesn’t answer the phone or if the line’s engaged or if it’s out of order.”

ALTTEXTLooking for interviewees in the public areas of Sderot is not as easy as it used to be. The residents are wary of what they see as an apathetic, biased media and, more importantly, they are scared to stand in the streets for fear of what may fall from the sky as they relate their stories.

A woman runs by, having returned her supermarket cart, and smiles apologetically, calling out, “I would talk to you, but it’s too dangerous here; I need to be home.”

Indeed, the conversation with the customer at the lottery booth is rudely interrupted by a stern female voice, broadcast via a hidden loudspeaker, warning all residents to take cover. The few people in the public square run for shelter in the local supermarket. They have 15 seconds before the rockets hits.

That rocket was fired from just a handful of miles away in Gaza.

“Leave it, it’s mine,” is a normal cry from a Gazan who has spent his day in a line in front of a bakery, waiting to purchase a package of bread. There has been a lack of flour since the first day of the Israeli military operation.

That aerial attack at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 27, came like a bolt out of the blue for Palestinians and for Hamas in particular. Some 150 Hamas security personnel were killed in just three minutes. Since then, Gazans have awakened every day to the sound of explosions and the sight of smoke plumes peppering the sky. Many residents use the same word to describe their life over the last weeks: “Hell.”

Empty streets, closed stores, pale faces, police officers sleeping on Gaza’s roads, cameramen passing in their cars — those have been the dominant scenes in Gaza. Those, along with the ambulances racing from destroyed buildings to overcrowded hospitals.

“It’s a war crime. Many innocent civilians have been killed, particularly kids and women,” said Momen, a Gaza resident. “Besides, the humanitarian situation gets more difficult and totally inhumane because of lack of flour and gasoline.”

The shortages are not only in basic foodstuffs and the power supply but also in room in Gaza’s morgues. As a result, hospital employees are gathering bodies in the open air. The identification process has taken on a grizzly nature, with family members having to walk along the rows of bodies to see if any are their loved ones. Many of the bodies are mangled beyond recognition.

Basel Faraj, a trainee in a local media production company, was wounded while covering the first airstrikes in Gaza.

“He’s critically wounded, but we can’t transfer him to anywhere; I’m losing my son,” his mother cried. “As I passed by another bed in the intensive-care unit I found another victim struggling to survive, despite the lack of oxygen and medicine.”

A car arrives at Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest. Someone rushes in screaming: “He’s alive. Save him. Please save him.”

It is a man carrying a young adult. The wounded man is dying. He is a cameraman with Hamas’ Al-Aq’sa TV. It appears unlikely the ill-equipped ambulances and dirty conditions in the hospital will help in his failing fight for survival.

Five journalists were wounded on the first day of the military operation. Two of them were working with Al-Aq’sa TV.

The decision makers at the local level are at a loss. In Gaza there is little advice they can offer and no comfort. People cannot flee the situation. Many want to leave Gaza via the Rafah crossing into Egypt, but for the vast majority of the time, Cairo insists the border remain closed.

Hamas’ leadership has gone to ground in bunkers, tunnels and elsewhere, meaning there is no one to whom the public can turn for help.

In Israel, there are more options available to the population, but local politicians are still unsure how to advise their electorate.

“I’m not the general manager of the lives of the people here,” Sderot Mayor David Bouskila said from his underground logistics bunker. “I don’t know what to tell the people — to be here and suffer or to go elsewhere.”

In Israel, at least, the radio and TV channels are constantly broadcasting warning messages as to where the rockets are headed and offering phone numbers of psychological services available to residents of the south. National radio is calling on those living in northern Israel to offer home hospitality to all who desire. Many southerners take advantage of this support and are relocating to spare bedrooms up and down the country.

Schools, synagogues and offices are collecting foodstuffs, which are distributed to those still in the south. While fewer rockets are being fired from Gaza now that the Israeli ground offensive is in full swing, their range has increased, with Grad rockets capable of traveling some 25 miles being launched from Gaza.

In previous years, the name Sderot became synonymous with the Qassam rockets of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but now the coastal cities Ashkelon and Ashdod can be added to the list, as well as the capital of the south Beer Sheva, Netivot, Qiryat Malachi and a host of other towns and villages.

While the damage is far less significant on the Israeli side of the border, the number of Israelis now within range of the rockets is reaching a par with that for the Palestinians. Schools are closed throughout the south. City and regional councils have unlocked bomb shelters that have been closed for years to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

While Israel has had to get used to daily rocket attacks over the last eight years, the international community is now firmly focused on Israel’s strikes against Hamas, with many ambassadors to the United Nations speaking of Jerusalem’s “disproportionate use of force.”

As has been the case in recent decades, Israel’s main detractor on the international scene is the Muslim bloc, as represented by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is arguably the strongest grouping in the United Nations.

In the days leading up to the Israeli strike and immediately following, Egypt proved to be the key exception by blaming Hamas for all the ills that have befallen the civilian population of Gaza.

The Islamist movement handed Israel an opportunity “on a golden plate” to attack, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit told reporters. Palestinian Authority leader Abbas made similar remarks as he toured regional capitals on the day the warfare commenced.

Israel’s key ally is the United States, with other “old friends” attempting to prevent comprehensive condemnation of Jerusalem’s actions. Among them: the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, which crucially has just taken over the presidency of the European Union from France. Prague is stressing the Israeli action is “defensive” rather than “offensive.”

ALTTEXTYet, most in the international community see things differently. While criticizing Hamas’ rocket firing, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon roundly condemned Israel: “While recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, I have also condemned the excessive use of force by Israel in Gaza. The suffering caused to civilian populations as a result of the large-scale violence and destruction that have taken place over the past few days has saddened me profoundly.”

In Muslim capitals and elsewhere, the rhetoric has been far stronger than that adopted by U.N. diplomats.

“Muslims of the world should stay united against world arrogance, the criminal Zionists in particular … to line up against [the] wicked party with more solidarity than ever,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps was quoted as saying by IRNA, Tehran’s official news agency. The comment was published as Said Jalili, Iran’s security chief, was in Beirut for talks with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, among others.

In Malaysia, Israel’s actions were described as “tantamount to genocide” by Abd Al-Rahim Bakri, the country’s deputy foreign minister,.

However, Israel maintains that during its aerial bombardment of Gaza it was doing its utmost to ensure civilians were not caught up in the airstrikes and only Hamas members and other combatants were targeted.

“We’re using very high-precision weaponry,” said Maj. Avital Leibovich, a senior IDF spokeswoman.

The Israeli message to the world has remained the same throughout the campaign: Hamas has brought the warfare upon itself and ordinary Gazans. It goes back to the time Israel withdrew all its civilians and military personnel from Gaza three years ago.

“We hoped the Palestinians would do something good with their lives,” Leibovich said. “We wanted a better future for them, and for a while it worked.”

She pointed to the successful exports of millions of dollars worth of flowers and fruits from Gaza in the first months following the Israeli pullback.

“But then Hamas was elected and changed the priorities,” the spokeswoman continued. “It invested a lot of money in building headquarters, recruiting troops, training them, digging hundreds of tunnels, buying weapons and explosives. That money did not go to the Palestinians themselves.”

A similar message came from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak when he explained why Israel had moved to a land invasion of Gaza on Jan. 3: “I have said all along that our military activities will widen and deepen as much as needed. Our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza and to bring about a significant change in the situation in southern Israel.

“We have carefully weighed all our options,” he said. “We are not war hungry, but we shall not, I repeat — we shall not allow a situation in which our towns, villages and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas. It will not be easy or short, but we are determined.”

Hamas, too, has repeatedly made a single point whenever it has been given the chance.

“We first declared a truce between the Palestinian parties and the occupation [Israel] to protect the Palestinians from the daily attacking, daily killing and assassinations, but the calm failed to put an end to their tragedy,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

As a result, he added, Hamas had little choice other than to refuse to extend the truce. The mood in Gaza made it clear the people did not want the unilaterally declared truce to continue any longer.

Hamas also has international media coverage on its side. The Palestinian Ramattan production company has set up video cameras on Gaza rooftops and is transmitting a live feed to any TV channels that want to broadcast the pictures. Indeed, on Arabic satellite TV, dozens of stations are choosing to show the pictures, which are interspersed with graphic scenes from Gaza hospitals, propagandist videos and one-sided studio discussions.

Similarly, the visual footage coming out of Gaza is being lapped up by the international media, given that it is far more graphic than pictures of Israelis sitting in their bomb shelters.

Those scenes are also bringing about a degree of renewed unity between Hamas and Fatah, its bitter Palestinian rival faction. Politicians from the two sides held their first publicized joint meeting in months with the outbreak of Gaza hostilities.

“Israel used the Palestinian division and the truce to prepare itself well in order to attack Gaza. Now Israel doesn’t differentiate between Hamas and Fatah. We’re also targeted in Gaza,” said senior Fatah official Faisal Abu Shahla, who chose to remain in Gaza rather than flee to the West Bank when Hamas took control of the coastal enclave in 2007.

Comments like these and others from Palestinians, Israelis and world leaders will soon be forgotten, but the vivid images from Gaza and southern Israel will be remembered for years to come: Palestinian and Israeli civilians alike weeping uncontrollably in the face of a fate they cannot control.

The following is a collection of quotations gathered both in Gaza and southern Israel in the last week — and they are remarkably similar:

“It was on Friday; my mother was preparing the food when the shrapnel hit her in the foot.”

“I hope the attacks will stop, and we can live in peace, and we can live a normal life like anyone — to go to school, to go to work in peace and to be able to sleep well.”

“I’m so scared to stay alone in my house.”

“It’s calm at this minute, but it wasn’t hours ago. We heard explosions. They attacked children. Not fighters. Children.”

“People are angry about this. Why didn’t the world say anything and take positive steps?”

The two people are divided by an enormous chasm, by fences, ditches, armed forces and a deep-set paranoia about the intentions of the other. Yet the two have far more in common than perhaps they are ready to admit as the rockets and shells still pound away.

Israelis and Palestinians are united in their fear of the power of weaponry in the hands of the enemy. Both sit in their homes wondering if the next explosive projectile is heading for them. They are making the same visits to hospitals to visit the victims of warfare.

And both are as one as they pay the ultimate price — burying their dead.

Images: Gaza bread line, funeral in Israel

The Gaza Question


Eyeless in Gaza


First I saw a young protester telling a CNN reporter in Trafalgar Square, “Every single day, as soon as we turn on the TV, we see children there die in the hospitals, adults dying, children dying on the floor. Why, why, why? Why do children have to die? Why do innocent children have to die on the floor? Why?”

And I thought, She’s right, those children in Gaza are innocent, every human life is precious, civilians aren’t combatants. Doesn’t everyone deserve basic human rights like food and water and life itself?

But then I thought, Where was she when 80 or 90 Hamas rockets a day were raining down on Israel? Where were all the television cameras when innocent children in Ashkelon and Sderot were being maimed and killed?

But then I saw pictures of massive devastation in Gaza on the front pages of the newspapers, and I thought, What good does it do if Israel appears to act like its enemies?

But then I heard Shimon Peres tell George Stephanopoulos that Hamas “did things which are unprecedented in the history even of terror. They made mosques into headquarters. They put bombs in the kindergartens, in their own homes. They are hiding in hospitals.” Where were all the people of Gaza rising up in outrage when Hamas used them as human shields?

Then I heard Palestinian negotiator Hannan Ashwari say that Gaza was a secondary issue, that the real imperative was to reach a lasting political agreement, not a temporary military outcome, and I thought, She’s right, there will be no peace and security for Israel unless a viable two-state solution is reached.

” alt=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ title=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ vspace = 8 hspace = 8 border = 0 align = left>But then I read a blog by Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg recounting his interview with Nizzar Rayyan, the Hamas leader who was killed by Israeli bombs last week. “This is what he said when I asked him if he could envision a 50-year hudna (or cease-fire) with Israel: ‘The only reason to have a hudna is to prepare yourself for the final battle. We don’t need 50 years to prepare ourselves for the final battle with Israel.’ There is no chance, he said, that true Islam would ever allow a Jewish state to survive in the Muslim Middle East.

‘Israel is an impossibility. It is an offense against God… You [Jews] are murderers of the prophets and you have closed your ears to the Messenger of Allah…. Jews tried to kill the Prophet, peace be unto him. All throughout history, you have stood in opposition to the word of God.'”

And I thought, How can you negotiate with people who reject your nation’s right to exist, and whose version of religion calls you a murderous race? If someone claimed that the best way for America to deal with Bin Laden is to reach a political agreement with al-Qaeda, I’d say that they’re nuts, that there can be no negotiation or accommodation with people lusting for a final battle to rid your people from the earth.

But then I heard an Arab diplomat railing against Israel’s continuing tolerance of illegal settlements, and I thought, As long as Knesset coalition governments are dependent on ultra-Orthodox parties who have no respect for the law, how can anyone expect Arab moderates to gain enough political power for Israel to negotiate with them, when Israeli moderates can’t muster that clout either?

Then I reminded myself that the people of Gaza overwhelmingly voted for Hamas in a democratic election, and I thought, What good is democracy, if it can put terrorists in charge of governments?

But then I read that tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs in the Israeli town of Sakhnin had rallied against Israel’s Gaza offensive, and I thought, What Middle East nation except Israel would ensure that anti-government protesters had the right to hold such a demonstration?

And then I remembered reading that former Israeli army chief Moshe Yaalon warned Israelis not to delude themselves about Israel’s Arab population, that Israeli Arabs — a fifth of Israel — constitute a potential fifth column.

Then I saw a Teleseker Institute poll saying that 95 percent of Israeli Jews support Operation Cast Lead against Hamas. But then I saw a Rasmussen poll saying that while 44 percent of Americans think Israel should have taken military action against the Palestinians, 41 percent say it should have tried to find a diplomatic solution — essentially a tie, within the poll’s margin of error. And I wondered, How long does diplomacy have to keep failing, how many bombs have to keep dropping, before self-defense finally trumps talk?

I wish I didn’t believe that the events now unfolding in the Middle East are too complicated for unalloyed outrage. I wish the arguments of only one side rang wholly true to me. I am the first to accuse myself of paralyzing moral generosity — the fatal empathy that terrorists prey on. But ambivalence is not the same as moral equivalence, and holy war, no matter who is waging it, makes my flesh crawl.

In Milton’s poem “Samson Agonistes,” Samson — blinded, in chains — cries out, “Promise was that I/ Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;/ Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him/ Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves.” But when Samson shows the strength to shun Delilah, God restores his power, enabling him to pull down the temple and kill the Philistines, though along with himself.

What makes “Samson Agonistes” a tragedy is the self-destruction that victory entails. I passionately assert Israel’s right to exist in peace with its neighbors and within secure borders. But I can’t help fearing that its military success in Gaza, should it come, will also entail a tragic cost.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly; the views he expresses are his own. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Gaza outcomes


If you’re like me, you don’t like to see dead children.

The initial images from Israel’s retaliatory strikes against the Hamas government in Gaza aren’t pretty. One that keeps reappearing is of a terrified, bleeding Palestinian girl, maybe 7 years old, clutching her father’s arm as they rush from a bombed-out building. Yes, the guy might be a Hamas operative for all I know. But I doubt she is. There’s another picture that keeps cropping up — the bodies of three small Palestinian boys, killed in an Israeli air strike Monday morning, wrapped in funeral shrouds and laid out on a dirty floor.

You could say I don’t have the stomach for war — you’d be right. As of press time on Monday, 350 Palestinians have been killed, some 60 of them civilians, many of those children. Two Israelis were killed by Hamas rocket attacks on Monday as well. I am not a fan of the inevitable innocent blood and guts that Israel’s far superior military force will necessarily spill in its fight to stop Hamas from shooting rockets into Israel whenever it wants. And yet, of course, I deeply believe Israel has the right, the obligation, to stop Hamas from its capricious acts of terror. I was in Sderot and southern Israel earlier this year, and I spoke with many residents, including many children, about what it’s like to live amid a near-constant rain of rockets and missiles.

“We want peace, but the missiles won’t stop,” a 12-year-old boy named Stav told me. Two years ago a Qassam rocket fell on his house. It was only sheer luck that his photo did not end up on the Internet as well. “They just send more and more. We can’t play in the fields, because if there’s a warning siren, there’s no place to run.”

One of my strongest memories from my trip is of a shadowy smudge on a sidewalk at Sapir College, near Sderot. A student was standing there when a Kassam struck. All that was left was that darkened spot. What moved me in my talks with young people around Sderot was how little anger they felt toward Palestinians in general.

“I don’t hate them,” a 16-year-old named Tal told me last June. The kibbutz where she lives is just two kilometers from Gaza City. When she looks out her window each morning, she sees the minarets. Two days before I spoke with her, a missile had landed outside her front door. “I hear about the people who live there, and I don’t have a reason to hate them. But trust me, it’s hard.”

No people in any nation on earth can abide such terror. Since Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005, Hamas has fired 6,300 rockets into Israel, killing 10 people and wounding 780. Many people, especially around Sderot, say Israel waited far too long to do what it began doing over the weekend. Maybe so. The undeniable fact is the missiles would have only gotten worse and the attacks deadlier.

On the other hand, it is hard to be optimistic that Israel’s retaliation, for all its justification, will succeed in the various aims its boosters have claimed for it. Will it topple Hamas, as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asserts? Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert didn’t promise that in his pre-battle declaration. Hamas is deeply entrenched, democratically elected (by the way, thank you President George W. Bush, for pushing for those elections), heavily funded via Iran and thuggishly powerful (where was the world’s condemnation when Hamas killed more than 50 Palestinians in 2007 while fighting Fatah in the streets of Gaza?).

Will the offensive stop the rocket attacks, as Olmert promised it would on the eve of this campaign? Well, the prime minister attempted the same strategy in Lebanon in 2006, and since then Hezbollah has only built up its arsenal.

Will the war somehow bring peace, as Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi predict, writing in The Wall Street Journal? Their argument is that until Hamas is deterred from firing rockets from territory Israel once occupied, no Israeli will support further territorial compromise. That makes sense, but raises the question of whether a generation of Gazans battered by occupation and war will be in the mood to make peace; whether their true masters in Iran and Syria will allow them; and whether Israel will be able to defeat Hamas any more than it was able to defeat its last archrival, Fatah, or its current one, Hezbollah?

Will the war, as analyst Felice Friedson writes in these pages, herald a new alignment of Middle East power that allies Israel with its former enemies Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia against Iran-supported Hamas and Hezbollah? That has already happened — but the thing about strange bedfellows is they are … strange. That Israel might align itself with some of the most dictatorial and anti-democratic regimes in the Middle East is hardly cheery news.

No, the best that could come of this very bloody reality is a stretch of quiet for the deserving residents of Israel’s south. Unlike Hamas, I don’t like to see dead children — no matter their race, creed or nationality.

How we fight


Am I dreaming?

Did Israel actually trick our terrorist enemy into complacency before catching it off guard? Did we use the six-month cease-fire with Hamas to beef up our intelligence and plan a blitzkrieg counterattack in response to the incessant bombing of Israeli civilians?

Did we really put those delusional peace talks on hold and say enough is enough, now it’s time to defend ourselves? Did we also launch a PR and diplomatic offensive with the international community to defend our actions?

Excuse me, but this is not the weak-looking and tentative Israel I’ve come to know over the past few years.

Complete Gaza CoverageEver since Israel evacuated all civilians and army personnel from Gaza in the summer of 2005, Hamas has fired some 6,300 bombs targeted directly at Israeli civilians, killing 10 and injuring 700. While these bombs were falling, Israel fought a dumb and sloppy war in Lebanon that only emboldened our enemies; chose a policy of restraint despite the thousands of Hamas bombs; and desperately pursued unrealistic peace talks with a splintered Palestinian people and a terror-sponsoring state (Syria).

In the process, Israel lost much of its power of deterrence, which is a diplomatic way of saying: Our enemies stopped fearing us. This deterrence was crucial to Israel’s ability to survive for 60 years in a neighborhood with 300 million hostile neighbors. The situation got so bad that a few days before Israel’s Gaza offensive, Hamas was mocking Israel’s weakness, demanding that Israel reopen the crossings into Gaza and offering, well, more bombs and the continued imprisonment of Gilad Shalit.

Even the eminently reasonable and peace-loving Barack Obama seemed to be giving the Israelis a lesson when, during a summer visit to Sderot, he said: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything to stop that, and would expect Israel to do the same.”

Apparently, Israel has decided to follow Obama’s advice, which might not be so bad.

As Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi argued in The Wall Street Journal this week, giving Israel full leeway to counterattack against Hamas is a good thing for the peace process, because Israelis will never agree to further land concessions if they feel they can’t defend themselves against terrorist aggression.

Of course, if Israel does not heed Obama’s message and fails to “do everything” it can to stop the terror on its doorstep, we can expect even less willingness from Israelis to take risks for peace.

In other words, in Israel today, the best way to fight for peace is to fight against terror.

As it turns out, a day before Israel launched its anti-terror offensive, I was sitting in the New York apartment of one of the Jewish people’s toughest and most relentless terror fighters.

She is a diminutive woman in her 50s named Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy, and author of “Narco-Terrorism” and “Funding Evil, Updated: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It,” among other books.

Ehrenfeld’s obsession is money. If we can figure out where and how the terrorists get their funding, she says, we can suffocate their efforts.

She has spent the last few years of her life trying to expose “the most vital and venomous sources of terrorists’ financial power” — including state sponsorship, government corruption and the illegal drug trade. “Funding Evil,” which has a foreword by former CIA Director James Woolsey, is a highly detailed exposé of the labyrinth of terrorist financing, with a special focus on a major culprit, Saudi Arabia.

Since the book came out four years ago, she has had death threats and, most recently, has been the target of a lawsuit launched in a British court by a Saudi billionaire, Khalid bin Mahfouz, who denied the charges made in the book of his connection to terror financing.

Ever the fighter, Ehrenfeld turned the tables on Mahfouz by countersuing and got a bill passed in New York State called “Rachel’s Law,” which protects American authors published in America from getting sued in foreign courts for libel. She is now fighting to get the bill passed in Congress.

She says she gets little support from the Jewish community, because many of her findings are “politically incorrect,” as they involve American allies like Saudi Arabia, with whom America does a lot of business. But out of her tiny, orchid-filled apartment in midtown Manhattan, she will continue, she says, her one-woman campaign to expose the money trail of global terrorism.

“It’s an outrage that all the information is out there, and we are acting as if these people [the Saudis] are our best friends,” she said.

So, yes, there’s more than one way to fight terror. For the Ehrenfelds of the world, we must follow the money and get it out of the terrorists’ hands. For those on the front lines, we must make clear to our terrorist neighbors that while we do long for peace, that won’t stop us from doing whatever it takes to defend our people.

I also experienced on my long weekend in New York yet another way that Jews fight terror. It was an evening event at a synagogue on the Lower East Side billed as “our most powerful response to the Mumbai massacre.”

What was it? It was 200 Jews beating their drums at a Chanukah party sponsored by my friend, Rabbi Simon Jacobson of the Meaningful Life Center.

Late into the chilly Manhattan night, these Jewish hipsters followed the beat of a professional percussion band, led by an exuberant conductor named Aviva Nash, who urged the ecstatic crowd to just let it rip as if the whole world were watching.

There was no talk of deterrence or money trails at this Chanukah party. There was just a noisy reminder of how some of us fight, and what, in the end, we’re all fighting for.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

In the Mideast, Israel is the opium of the people


“Why aren’t you as an Arab lady writing about Gaza?”

“Where are your columns about Gaza?”

“Say the Israelis are wrong!”

The messages started to arrive soon after Israel’s bombardment of Gaza killed close to 300 Palestinians. Implicit was the pressure to toe the party line: Hamas is good; Israel is bad. Say it, say it! Or else you’re not Arab enough; you’re not Muslim enough; you’re not enough.

But what to say about a conflict that for more than 60 years now has fed Arab and Israeli senses of victimhood and their respective demands to stop everything else we’re doing and pay attention to their fights, because what’s the slaughter of anyone else — be they in Darfur, Congo or anywhere else — compared to their often avoidable bloodletting?

Hasn’t it all been said before? Has nothing been learned?

And then the suicide cyclist in Iraq made me snap, and I had to write — not to take sides but to lament the moral bankruptcy that is born from the amnesia rife in the Middle East.

On Sunday, a man on a bicycle blew himself up in the middle of an anti-Israel demonstration in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The technique legitimized and blessed by clerics throughout the Arab world as a weapon against Israel had gone haywire and was used against Arabs protesting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

That twisted and morbid full circle completed on the streets of Mosul can be captured only by paraphrasing Karl Marx — Israel is the opium of the people.

What else explains the collective amnesia on display last weekend in the Middle East?

Has Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni forgotten already that just last year she was close to ousting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his handling of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, which was launched under very similar circumstances to those that preceded the bombardment of Gaza? And yet there she was making the rounds of U.S. Sunday news shows to explain why Israel had to act against the Muslim militant Hamas movement in power in Gaza.

Does Israel want to make heroes of Hamas in the way it did Hezbollah? What has been achieved from the blockade of Gaza except for the suffering of civilians, whose leaders care for them as little as Israel does?

Talking about Hezbollah and unwise leaders, has Hassan Nasrallah forgotten that while he rails against Egypt for aiding the blockade of Gaza, he lives in a country — Lebanon — that keeps generations of Palestinian refugees in camps that serve as virtual jails?

And the demonstrators in Jordan and Lebanon? Who reminds them that in 1970, Jordan killed tens of thousands as it tried to control Palestinian groups based there, forcing the Palestine Liberation Army into Lebanon, where in 1982, the Phalangist Christian Lebanese militiamen slaughtered 3,000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps?

Not a single Phalangist has been held accountable for that massacre. An Israeli state inquiry in 1983 found Ariel Sharon, then defense minister, indirectly responsible for the killings at the refugee camps during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But don’t hold your breath for an Arab inquiry. It is Israel that gives sense to our victimhood. The horrors we visit upon each other are irrelevant.

It is difficult to criticize Palestinians when so many have died this weekend, but the Hamas rulers of Gaza are just the latest of their leaders to fail them. For those of us who long to separate religion from politics, Hamas has given the truth to the fear that Islamists care more about facing down Israel than taking care of their people. The Palestinians of Gaza are victims equally of Hamas and Israel.

Where was the anger when two Palestinian schoolgirls were killed in Gaza when Hamas rockets meant for Israel misfired, just a day before Israel’s bombardment?

As for the country of my birth, Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, in power for more than 27 years, has presided over a disastrous policy that on the one hand maintains a 1979 peace treaty his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, signed with Israel and on the other unleashes state-owned media fury at Israel that has fanned a near-hysterical hatred for the country among ordinary Egyptians.

Yes, Israel’s occupation of Arab land angers Egyptians, but there is absolutely no space in Egyptian media, culture or intellectual circles for discussing Israel as anything but an enemy. And neither is there an attempt to forge it.

And now Mubarak, old, tired and out of new ideas, is reaping a policy that plays all sides against each other in an attempt to make his regime indispensable.

But my question to Egyptians and others across the region incensed at Israel is where is their anger at the human rights violations, torture and oppression in their respective countries? If such large crowds turned out onto Arab capitals every week, they could’ve toppled their dictators years ago.

It is the ultimate dishonor to the memory of Palestinians killed last weekend to call for more violence. It has failed to deliver for 60 years.

We honor the dead by smashing through the region’s amnesia until we break through to the taboos and continue to smash.

Talking to Hamas? Israel should do it if it will end the violence. Focusing on internal issues in each Arab country and ignoring the opium that is Israel? Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, et al, should do it before their respective states fail for the sake of Palestine.

Palestinians still have no state. What a shame it would be for one Arab state after the other to fail in the name of Palestine.

Mona Eltahawy is a columnist for Egypt’s Al Masry Al Youm and Qatar’s Al Arab. She is based in New York.

Gaza campaign shows cautious regional unity


There are no coincidences in the Middle East. Not between the Israelis and the Palestinians, not between Fatah and Hamas and certainly not between the international community and Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

What there are, this time around, are startling confluences in planning and policy that have driven a wedge in Arab unity, while providing unprecedented illustrations of cooperation between Israel and some of its neighbors. Operation Cast Lead, as the Israelis call it, foreshadows far more than another temporary period of relative quiet along a border.

At work is a fascinating scenario in which Israel “does the deed” — toppling Hamas — which arguably benefits the Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis and other Arab states as much as it does Israel. Jordan faces a special dynamic. But there’s more: In doing so, are the Israelis in effect clearing the way for an agreement with the Palestinians (road map for peace plan) and with the entire Arab world (Arab — nee Saudi — initiative)?

For months there has been speculation as to who will invade Gaza: Could Mahmoud Abbas and his American-trained cadre of fighters do the job, or must it be the Israelis who clearly wanted to avoid taking the plunge and risking the ever-present quagmire?

As Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit admonished Hamas at a Cairo news conference after the Israeli campaign began, it could not fire 300 rockets into Israel between the Dec. 19 end of the “calm agreement” and the Dec. 27 response without forcing Israel’s hand. Israeli military planners, meanwhile, never doubted the Hamas obstinacy and certain course to conflict.

It was a lesson about which Jerusalem and Cairo were very much in synch. Egypt went to the well twice and came up empty: in its attempt to negotiate a rapprochement among Palestinian factions and in its attempt to negotiate an extension to the Israel-Hamas “calm agreement.”

With a presumed good measure of prodding from the White House and vigorous nodding from the U.S. administration-elect, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took the decision not to allow U.S. largesse to crumble at the self-defeating hands of Hamas.

Once he took the plunge, Mubarak never vacillated, showing courage in feeding Hamas the disinformation that flushed its leadership out of hiding in time for the first Israeli assault, fighting back the surge of Gazans trying to enter Egypt and allowing Al-Gheit to cast the blame for the Israeli onslaught on Hamas itself — courage helped along by a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and the allure of continuing American aid.

Abbas, meanwhile, emerges as the primary beneficiary of this extraordinary convergence of interests. Gingerly testing the waters from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and from Cairo — anywhere but Ramallah — he provided an important piece to the puzzle. When Saudi King Abdullah phoned President Bush to demand that Israel be reined-in, Abbas himself was still in the city, the two leaders having just met. No coincidence here, either. Clearly the Americans, Saudis and Palestinians were all on the same page as the Egyptians and Israelis.

And Iran? Not much in the way of sabre-rattling this time around. Tehran fights Israel through proxies: the Syrians, Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border and Hamas down south.

Syria continues to weigh the long-term benefits of patching up things with Washington; Hamas is being left with little but rhetoric, and some military wonks believe Hassan Nasrallah is savvy enough to realize he bit the bullet in 2006 and should not be quick to bite the apple again. Accordingly, it is noteworthy that Nasrallah inveighed against Cairo, not Jerusalem, when Operation Cast Lead began.

In all, while remaining mindful that not without reason generations of peacemaking in the Middle East has failed miserably and that courses chartered through the region are rarely completed, the participants appear to have put on an impressive demonstration of coordinated international gamesmanship that, in its first stage, was carried out with precision planning and cooperation that extended across ancient fault lines.

Whether the planners will achieve their respective goals in subsequent stages will depend on their ability to remain focused on the benefits of their cooperation and eschew impulses to push beyond agreed limits.

Felice Friedson is president and CEO of The Media Line News Agency, a U.S. organization specializing in Middle East coverage, and founder of the Mideast Press Club. She can be reached at editor@themedialine.org.

Hold your fire! Cease fire! Fire!


Eight members of the Levi family adjust to rockets in Ashkelon


ASHKELON, Israel (JTA) — Another rocket warning siren wails and eight members of the Levi family, including a grandmother and a newborn baby, quickly cram into the small bedroom made of reinforced concrete that serves as the family’s bomb shelter.

“Come on, come on! Get in!” they shout. Just before the heavy metal door slams shut, the family dog, Pick, quickly is whisked inside.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, they listen as the sound of the siren’s wail trails off, replaced by the thud of the rocket landing. Returning to the television news a few minutes later, they see it has landed a few blocks away at a local soccer stadium.

Earlier in the day, another rocket landed much closer — just across the street.

The Grad-type missile hit a construction site, killing Hani el Mahdi, a 27-year old construction worker from a Bedouin town in the Negev, and injured several other workers at the scene, some of them seriously.

“After hearing the boom this morning I’m just not myself,” said Geula Levi, 50, whose house quickly filled up with family members. “I’ve been trying to make lunch but I simply can’t seem to get anything together.”

Since the fighting began over the weekend, two of Levi’s adult children have moved back in, one of them bringing his wife and their 2-month-old daughter. The baby never leaves the reinforced room. Her mother, Vered, ventures out only to get food from the kitchen.

About 60 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel on Monday. Many landed in Ashkelon, about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip. Some reached as far as Ashdod, some 20 miles from Gaza, killing one woman as she bolted her car to take cover at a bus stop.

This week marks the first time these two major coastal cities have been subject to ongoing rocket barrages from Gaza. Ashkelon, home to some 120,000 people, had been targeted before, but hit only rarely. Ashdod had been considered out of range of Gaza’s rocket fire, but Hamas’ newly imported missiles — thought to be smuggled into the strip from Egypt during the six-month cease-fire that officially ended Dec. 19 — have increased the range of Gaza’s rockets.

Geula Levi said she was fully supportive of the army’s operation in Gaza, which by late Monday had killed 350 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them Hamas militiamen, according to reports.

“They learned their lessons from the Second Lebanon War so I think this time things will be conducted more intelligently,” she said of Israel’s military leaders.

“We’d rather suffer with the missiles now than become like Kiryat Shemona, which suffered for years,” said her eldest son, Avichai, 27.

Outside, the sound of Israeli artillery being fired into Gaza echoed in the streets, which were quiet and mostly empty. Staring out into the eerie emptiness were campaign posters for the upcoming election, including a billboard with a photograph of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni next to the words, “The courage to say the truth.”

Livni’s party, along with those of her main rivals, canceled campaign events scheduled for this week.

At the entrance to Ashkelon, one of those rivals, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the architect of the Israeli strike on Gaza, had his own image up on a billboard with the slogan “Looking truth in the face.”

For the people of Ashkelon, who are living their leaders’ “truths,” there was stoicism mixed with fear.

“It is miserable but it will go on for a while,” said Capt. David Biton, the police commander who oversees the southern district that includes half a million people and stretches from Ashdod to Sderot — all now within range of Gaza’s rockets.

Galit Ben-Asher Yonah, 37, said it was “the shock of my life” to discover that her home in Gan Yavne, a bedroom community near Ashdod, now has come under attack.

Gan Yavne was hit for the first time Sunday, and two more rockets fell Monday. It is the farthest point north that the rockets have reached to date.

Yonah, originally from Los Angeles, is the mother of two young daughters and a newborn son. She says she will be keeping all her children at home for the next few days.

“Never in my life did I think I would have to explain to my 5-year-old that we have to go to the basement because a bomb was falling,” she said. “And there she was guiding me, telling me to cover my head with my hands and stay away from the window as she was taught in nursery school.”

Tal, her 5-year-old, also brought down a snack of bananas and cookies for them after the first rocket fell, telling her in a serious but calm voice that they might be sitting in the basement, which is reinforced against rockets, for a while.

In nearby Nitzan, where many of the families who were evicted three years ago from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza live in temporary homes, there are no protective rooms to which to flee.

“We left the Kasssam rockets to get Katyushas instead,” said Yuval Nefesh, 41, referring to the longer-range Katyusha rockets now striking Israel from Gaza. Before, Palestinians relied almost exclusively on the Kassam, a crude rocket with a range of 10 miles and poor accuracy.

He shrugs when asked how the people are coping. “We pray,” he said.

Nefesh is still in touch with some of the Palestinians from Gaza he met while living there, and he said he has been talking to them by phone since the Israeli air assault began.

Outside, the Elikum Shwarma and Kebab restaurant was one of the few bustling businesses in Ashkelon on Monday. Delivery people were busy ferrying orders to the thousands of people staying indoors.

Avi Zarad, working the cash register, tried to maintain a cheerful atmosphere.

“We can’t send out a message of being stressed out,” he said. A few minutes later a siren sounded and, with no shelter to run to, the customers continued eating calmly.

The soccer stadium where a rocket fell an hour earlier is just across the road.

“We are getting used to it, but it’s a horrible reality,” said Kinneret Cohen, a restaurant worker preparing salads in the kitchen. “We just breathe deeply knowing we have to give the army time to do its work.”

Kassams land near mayor of Sderot’s house; Interfaith fellowship group denies missionary ties


Qassam Lands Near Sderot Mayor’s Home

A Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in a residential neighborhood of Sderot.

The rocket landed Sunday not far from the home of Mayor Eli Moyal, Ynet reported, and started a fire that was extinguished quickly by firefighters. No injuries were reported.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered all Israel-Gaza border crossings closed Monday in response to the attack.

An Egyptian-mediated cease-fire between Israel and the terrorist Hamas-run Gaza Strip has been breached by rocket attacks more than 36 times in the past three months.

“Everything is all right at home,” Moyal told Ynet. “The problem here is not a personal one but a political one. People are under the impression that there is a cease-fire, but a few dozen rockets have been fired at Israel since the truce went into effect.

“During the months of the cease-fire the Palestinian groups have armed themselves with thousands of more rockets.”

Eckstein Denies Group’s Money Used to Missionize

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein denied a report suggesting that some money raised by his interfaith group was used to missionize Jews.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported Monday that Eckstein’s organization, the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, gave $10,000 in 2007 to an evangelical group in Jerusalem that proselytizes Israeli Jews. It also reported that the fellowship sent money to a Protestant group in Massachusetts that Ma’ariv called “a controversial Christian cult.”

Eckstein, the fellowship’s founder and president who has raised tens of millions of dollars for Israel from American evangelicals, insisted the story misrepresented the facts. He said the report was simply a continuation of a smear campaign against him and the information was fed to the newspaper by a source with an axe to grind.

Eckstein said the fellowship used the Jerusalem group, King of Kings, to pass $10,000 to a church in Bethlehem to help provide humanitarian aid to local Christians before Christmas.

“We were informed last year about the dwindling Christian community in Bethlehem, which has been persecuted by the radical Muslims there to the point that most of them have left. And the Protestant church there and the people there needed funds for basic needs — food, clothing, medicine, heating fuel,” he said. “We didn’t hesitate to respond with a modest gift — at least for us. The only place that could deliver that was this group, King of Kings.”

As to the gift to the Massachusetts group, the Community of Christ in Orleans, Eckstein said it was a $750 donation by the fellowship to the group’s choir after canceling on an event there.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Sderot welcomes Obama


SDEROT, Israel (JTA) – At the New Age Beauty Salon in a run-down strip mall here, the manicurist and hairdresser swap opinions of Barack Obama, the latest in a series of high-profile visitors to come through this southern Israeli town.

“Is there a chance I’ll be able to give him a hug?” jokes Yaffa Malka, 44, the salon’s hairdresser and owner. “He’s cute, and besides that I trust him. I’m not sure why, but something about him seems genuine to me. He seems like one of us, someone who knows about difficult times.”

Her friend and co-worker Gila Vazana, the manicurist, says Sderot, the rocket-weary town adjacent to the Gaza Strip, can use all the friends it can get — especially if that friend might be the next U.S. president.

“We need America to be with us and for us all of the time,” says Vazana, her long blond ponytail falling down her back.

Soon after their conversation, Obama’s helicopter touches down in the Negev town.

The U.S. senator from Illinois’ first stop is the Amar family home, which was largely destroyed when a Kassam rocket crashed through its roof, injuring the mother with flying pieces of shrapnel. The family members, like many of their neighbors in Sderot, suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A crowd of some 100 people gathers outside the family’s new home during Obama’s visit, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for U.S. president briefly walks among them to say hello and shake hands.

Tours of Sderot have become part of the unofficial protocol of visits to Israel by both visiting dignitaries and tour groups wishing to show solidarity. Like any site of pilgrimage, rituals have developed.

The usual stops include a visit to a home damaged by Kassam fire, where a meeting is set up with the resident family. The tour then moves to the police station, where a makeshift Kassam museum has been set up with hundreds of the rockets on display, the dates they landed on or near Sderot painted on their sides.

Visitors also often are taken to a hill on the edge of town where they can see into Gaza. It’s nicknamed Kobi Hill after the town’s chief security officer, who rushes there after Kassams land to see from where they were fired.

It’s mostly quiet these days in Sderot following an Egypt-brokered truce deal between Hamas and Israel that is more than a month old. But most of those who live here assume the lull is temporary and that terrible surprises await from Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that rules Gaza.

Reporter Nissim Kanan, who covers Sderot and southern Israel for Israel Radio, says part of the excitement here surrounding Obama’s visit is the sense that he can bring change not just to America but also to Sderot.

Sderot is a working-class town of old-timer immigrant families from Morocco and more recent arrivals from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, and many of them see Obama as a man of the people, he says.

“People see Obama as the underdog and McCain as an elitist,” he says, comparing Obama to his presumed Republican rival, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.). “People here like to see people in power that they identify with.”

“Obama? He’s a man of the people,” says Avner Chen, 38, a taxi driver taking his lunch at a falafel restaurant. “I hope he will see Sderot and remember us, what we are living with, and help us.”

During his news conference in the city, Obama seems to answer Chen’s call.

“I will work from the moment I return to America to tell the story of Sderot and to make sure that the good people who live here are enjoying a future of peace, security and hope,” he says.

Next door to the New Age Beauty Salon is the new office of The Israel Project, an organization that works to promote Israel’s security by providing resources to foreign journalists here. Its heavy glass doors and shiny new office equipment stand in stark contrast to the nearby stores, which have broken signs.

“This is a community in crisis, and that people should want to come and show their solidarity here is perfectly understandable and laudable,” says Marcus Sheff, the executive director of the Israel office of The Israel Project.

As Obama finishes his news conference at the Sderot police station, Mayor Eli Moyal brings him a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I Love Sderot.”

The word “love” is represented by a red heart, its Cupid’s bow replaced with a Kassam rocket.

Hamas celebrates one year in office


What’s next after Hamas’ Gaza takeover?


World plays waiting game with Hamas


The call for a Palestinian national unity government has unified just about everyone except the Palestinians. After navigating sessions clouded over with vituperation and nuclear threat, leaders attending last week’s U.N. General Assembly seized upon the faint prospect of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, co-opting the Hamas-led Cabinet and moderating its radical Islamist government.

“The world is waiting to see whether the Hamas government will follow through on its promises” of government reform “or pursue an extremist agenda,” President Bush said in his address to the General Assembly on Sept. 19.

“And the world has sent a clear message to the leaders of Hamas: Serve the interests of the Palestinian people. Abandon terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, honor agreements and work for peace.”

The message was startling only because just months ago there was little doubt that the world had waited long enough since Hamas’ election in January for a reform platform. A sharp uptick in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on Israel’s southern region and the June 25 cross-border raid in which Hamas-affiliated gunmen killed two Israeli soldiers and captured another seemed to close the book on Hamas.

Then, there was little question that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority would remain isolated and there was open talk in Washington of helping Abbas overthrow the separately elected P.A. Cabinet.

Three months later, the sudden war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran’s steadfast refusal to cede the prospects of a nuclear weapon transformed the prospect of a Gaza Strip collapsed into chaos into an intolerable threat.

The fear was apparent in the statement released last week from the Quartet — the grouping of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union that guides the Middle East process.

“Taking stock of recent developments in the region, the Quartet stressed the urgent need to make progress towards a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” the statement said. “The Quartet expressed its concern at the grave crisis in Gaza and the continued stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians. The Quartet welcomed the efforts of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a Government of National Unity, in the hope that the platform of such a Government would reflect Quartet principles and allow for early engagement.”

The three Quartet principles are recognition of Israel, renouncing terrorism and commitment to abide by previous accords.

Abbas capped the General Assembly’s opening week with a Sept. 21 speech that recommitted to those principles.

“Any future government will commit to imposing security and order, to ending the phenomena of multiple militias, indiscipline and chaos, and to the rule of law,” he said.

Hours after Abbas’ optimistic speech, Hamas was already saying it would not recognize Israel.
“I personally will not head any government that recognizes Israel,” Ismail Haniyeh, the P.A. prime minister, said at a mosque in the Gaza Strip during last Friday’s prayers.

As of Monday, Abbas suspended talks over unity, canceling a trip from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas predominates.

Hamas continued to press Abbas to return to talks, desperate for the cash that a unity government could bring even if it was not ready to meet the international community’s conditions for the cash.

“We have not reached a dead end,” Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas government spokesman, said in an interview in Hebrew on Israel Army Radio.

Western leaders indicated they were more than ready to deal if Abbas returns to talks and is able to pull Hamas into a compromise that the West could recognize as meeting the Quartet’s principles.

Elliott Abrams, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, made it clear that the Bush administration was ready to ignore pending congressional legislation that would place strict controls on money headed for the Palestinian Authority or for nongovernmental organizations that assist Palestinians.

It is possible, Abrams told reporters last week, “to give humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people through NGOs, and to work with parts of the P.A. that do not report and are not under the control of Hamas, of the prime minister, of the cabinet, but rather are under the control of President Abbas, or are independent agencies that are like the judiciary,” Abrams said. “For parts of the P.A. that are not, or for direct aid to the Palestinian people through NGOs, that’s fine. That’s neither illegal, nor a policy problem.”

Proposed legislation passed this year by both houses of the U.S. Congress and now stuck in conference — and unlikely to emerge until well into 2007 — does not recognize agencies “independent” of Abbas or Hamas, and places strict limits on money to NGOs.

The fact that Abrams, probably Israel’s fiercest defender in the Bush administration, was ready to blur the lines over how money gets to the Palestinians — even before Hamas made any concession on the Quartet’s three principles — underscored how much had changed since the low point of June 25, when Hamas was declared off limits and Abbas was dismissed as ineffectual.

At that time, the Quartet did not object to Israel’s decision to cut off tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority, as it conformed to an international consensus that Hamas needed to be isolated.

In its statement last week, the Quartet called on Israel to resume the transfer of $500 million in taxes and customs.

“The resumption of transfers of tax and customs revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority would have a significant impact on the Palestinian economy,” it said.
It was a new reality recognized by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, in her speech to the General Assembly last week.

“There are no shortcuts on the road to peace, but stagnation is not in our interest and it is not our policy,” she said. “It is in this spirit that I met with Chairman Abbas two days ago and we agreed to re-energize the dialogue between us, and create a permanent channel to pursue ways to advance together.”

Israeli Strategy Under Fire


Beyond the immediate escalation, the recent Palestinian attack on an Israeli army outpost near the Gaza border raises serious questions about Israel’s security and foreign policies.

Right-wing politicians argue that the incident, coupled with months of incessant rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli civilians, shows that the army has lost its deterrent capacity and that it will take a massive, sustained operation in Gaza to restore it.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan for a major unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank also is under fire, with some pundits maintaining that the latest turn of events will further erode public confidence in his pullback strategy.

The attack, which left two Israeli soldiers dead and seven wounded, as well as one soldier kidnapped by the terrorists and brought back to Gaza, also highlighted sharp differences on the Palestinian side. It came just days before Palestinian factions were set to reach agreement on a document meant to pave the way for negotiations with Israel and was widely seen as an attempt to torpedo the deal. It also raised questions about the limits of power of both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

With many splinter terrorist factions acting independently or taking orders from Hamas’ more radical leadership abroad, the incident raised another fundamental question: Does any Palestinian leader have enough domestic clout to deliver on a deal with Israel?

Israel’s response was an attempt to address some of these key issues. By sending ground forces into Gaza and making sweeping arrests of Hamas Cabinet ministers and legislators in the West Bank, Israel significantly raised the stakes in its Sisyphean struggle against fundamentalist Palestinian terror. As the military response to the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit unfolded, it became clear that Israel’s war aims went far beyond the return of the abducted soldier. Dubbed “Summer Rains,” the first major military operation since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year was intended to obtain Shalit’s release, stop Qassam rocket fire on Israeli civilians, restore Israel’s deterrent capacity, cripple Hamas politically and create conditions for an effective cease-fire.

Israel’s government was under strong domestic pressure to take tough action. The soldier’s abduction came after months of incessant rocket fire on the border town of Sderot, where residents went on a hunger strike to protest the government’s failure to protect them.

However, that was not the only reason for the government’s new hard line. Olmert also wanted to restore dwindling public confidence in his plan for a large-scale unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. By launching a major military operation, he was testing the government’s thesis that withdrawal from territory gives Israel considerable freedom of action if terror continues from the areas handed back. If that equation is seen to work in Gaza, the prime minister believes the public will be more amenable to a similar pullback from the West Bank.

Though there had been prior intelligence warnings before the Palestinian attack that sparked the crisis, the Palestinian gunmen surprised the Israelis early by attacking from the Israeli side and not the Gaza side of the outpost. Eight Palestinian militiamen infiltrated through a recently dug 300-yard-long tunnel, coming out well inside Israeli territory.

They then turned back toward the border, firing at the Israelis who were facing Gaza. Two attackers were killed, while the others made it back to Gaza, taking Shalit with them.

Israel demanded Shalit’s immediate and unconditional release, but the abductors insisted on the release of all Palestinian prisoners under age 18 and all Palestinian women prisoners in Israeli jails — in return merely for information on Shalit.

The Palestinian leadership was divided. Abbas, who leads the Fatah movement, ordered a search for the soldier to hand him back to Israel. Haniyeh of Hamas also favored a speedy resolution of the crisis. Both realized that they had been presented with a chance to win diplomatic points and alleviate international sanctions against the Hamas led-government.

When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last summer, it evolved a new military doctrine based on deterrence, rather than occupation. The thinking was that with the occupation of Gaza finished, Israel would have international backing to respond with overwhelming force to any attack on sovereign Israeli territory. However, this failed to create a deterrent balance.

For months Palestinians have been firing Qassam rockets at the town of Sderot. When Israeli retaliatory shelling kills Palestinian civilians, the international outcry has been resounding.

Right-wing politicians pressed the government to launch a large-scale attack on Gaza to restore the army’s deterrence. However, it is by no means clear that Israel’s use of force will have the desired effect.

Israeli left-wingers argue that it could simply spawn more violence and terror. For example, they ask, what will happen in Gaza when Israel leaves: Will Palestinian forces loyal to the moderate Abbas impose order and cross-border quiet or will chaos reign, with more terror against Israel? Already Palestinian radicals are threatening megaterror attacks in Israel or on Israeli targets abroad.

Much could depend on the outcome of a complex power struggle on the Palestinian side. For months, Abbas has been stymied by the more radical Hamas-led government under Prime Minister Haniyeh, some of whose more militant members owe allegiance to Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader abroad, who also controls most of the Hamas militias. Israeli leaders believe the escalation in violence is part of an effort by Meshal to embarrass Abbas and Haniyeh and to show who really rules Gaza.

By arresting Hamas government ministers and legislators, Israel was trying to stack the internal Palestinian deck in Abbas’ favor. It was also sending a clear message to Meshal: That Israel will not tolerate a bogus distinction between political and military echelons, and that if Meshal and his allies continue to promote terror, Hamas could lose its hold on power.

Meshal faces a difficult choice: seeking a compromise with Israel and very probably losing face or escalating the violence and risking even harsher Israeli measures against Hamas and becoming a target for assassination.

In describing the Israeli military operation, Defense Minister Amir Peretz called it “one of the most significant moments in setting the rules of the game between Israel and Palestinian terror.” One of the main objectives of Summer Rains was to signal the Palestinians that the rules have changed and that Israel will not hesitate to use overwhelming force if terror from Gaza continues.

Now it remains to be seen whether the Palestinians accept the Israeli rules as a basis for more peaceful co-existence or whether they try to find new ways to create a power balance in their favor.

 

A Palestinian Verdict: Terror Worked


The question on the Palestinian street now is who will successfully claim credit for expelling Israel from Gaza and northern Samaria – Hamas, an organization that carries out terrorist attacks, or Fatah, the official Palestinian ruling party?

Whatever the answer turns out to be, one thing is certain. Both factions are presenting Israel’s withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza and the northern West Bank as a Palestinian military victory.

The Arabic word indihar is being used these days by Palestinians who view the pullout as a victory for the al-Aksa intifada, which erupted in September 2000. And there appears to be a growing number of Palestinians who are convinced that the withdrawal is nothing but an Israeli retreat achieved through the blood of thousands of shahids, or martyrs.

Still, many also consider the disengagement strategy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a conspiracy designed to tighten Israel’s grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The “Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic” translates indihar as “banishment and defeat.” Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in the Gaza Strip were the first to refer to the disengagement as a “fruit of the resistance attacks” against Israel over the past few years. In recent days, even senior Palestinian officials, who are likely to play a role in peace negotiations, have begun labeling the pullout as an Israeli defeat.

On the streets of Ramallah and other West Bank cities, Palestinians across the political spectrum were unanimous this week in defining the disengagement as a retreat in the face of rocket and suicide attacks. Only a few said they regarded the move as a direct result of the peace process and international pressure on Israel.

“Of course this is a victory for the blessed intifada,” said Samir Tahayneh, a 22-year-old university student who describes himself as a Fatah supporter. “Had it not been for the Kassam rockets and suicide bombings, Israel would never have thought of running away from our lands. The disengagement proves that the only way to liberate our lands is through the resistance, and not at the negotiating table.”

Scores of people interviewed over the past week in various parts of the West Bank echoed those sentiments.

“We have always said that the only language the Jews understand is force,” commented Ala Abu Jbarra, a 30-year-old shopkeeper. “The Oslo process did not give us as much as the second intifada. By God’s will, we will pursue the struggle until we liberate the rest of our lands.”

A survey conducted by the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Information Center Web site reported that more than 94 percent of Palestinians see the Israeli indihar in the Gaza Strip as an “achievement for the Palestinian resistance.”

Less than 6 percent of the 2,551 respondents said they viewed the withdrawal as a result of political negotiations and international pressure.

It follows that the political battle on the Palestinian street is over who gets credit. The faction that prevails in this propaganda contest will get an edge in its bid for power. Both Hamas and the ruling Fatah party are separately preparing mass celebrations in the “liberated” areas with the hope that each can claim responsibility for driving Israel out of the Palestinian territories.

In an attempt to circumvent Hamas, Fatah leaders earlier this week kicked off celebrations by holding two mass rallies in the Gaza Strip. The message was that the disengagement is the result of the “sacrifices” made by Fatah fighters during the intifada. At another rally in Ramallah, organized by the Palestinian Authority’s Political Guidance Commission, Palestinian leaders hailed the disengagement as a significant victory for the “resistance.”

Col. Ribhi Mahmoud, acting director of the Political Guidance Commission, welcomed the Israeli indihar as a first step toward liberating Jerusalem. He and several spokesmen who addressed the rally drew parallels between the disengagement and the Israel Defense Forces “retreat” from Lebanon in May 2000.

“Palestinian blood has defeated the mighty sword of Israeli occupation,” declared Sheikh Hassan Youssef, the de facto Hamas leader in the West Bank. “Our blood has forced Israel to abandon its strategy of occupation, just as the Lebanese did.”

Qais Abdel Karim, a top leader of the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told the crowd that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to take the decision to leave the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank because of stiff Palestinian resistance.

“Sharon was forced to announce the so-called disengagement under the pressure of Palestinian steadfastness and resistance,” he said, drawing thunderous applause. “This is the first time that Israel is forced to dismantle Jewish settlements established on Palestinian lands.”

Abdullah al-Ifranji, a senior Fatah activist in the Gaza Strip, said the majority of Palestinians view the withdrawal as a “fruit of four years of the second intifada.” But, he added, the disengagement is also seen as the result of “tremendous political efforts” made by Yasser Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

Ifranji admitted that his party was engaged in a competition with Hamas over post-disengagement celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“In the past six months, Hamas has prepared 40,000 military uniforms, 70,000 green flags and 100,000 hats,” he said. “They have also bought dozens of jeeps and painted them in Hamas’ color — green. They want to appear as if they were the ones who liberated the Gaza Strip.”

On the other hand, Fatah has prepared only Palestinian flags that will be distributed to Palestinians celebrating the disengagement. However, various Fatah members in the Gaza Strip have already announced that they will hold paramilitary marches in the settlements after they are evacuated.

Hamas officials claim that the Palestinian Authority has allocated millions of dollars for the Fatah-orchestrated celebrations, with most of the money coming from European donors. According to a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, the European Union has decided to finance the Fatah celebrations with the hope that the message to the Palestinian public would be that the disengagement is a victory for the peace process, not terrorism.

“Of course the Palestinian people are not naive and no one will buy this argument,” said the Hamas official. “Even Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] knows deep inside that the withdrawal is the result of the resistance operations, but he can’t say this in public.”

Many Palestinians are worried that the presence of thousands of Hamas and Fatah gunmen in the emptied settlements after the disengagement, along with some 20,000 Palestinian policemen, will lead to violent clashes. Hence Abbas’ repeated calls to the Palestinians over the past few days for calm during and after the pullout.

Aware that the Palestinian security forces would not be able to stop Hamas supporters from reaching the Gaza settlements, Abbas met this week with the Islamic movement’s leaders and implored them to restrain their men. The two sides agreed to set up joint committees to oversee the celebrations and avoid internecine fighting.

Yet Abbas, like many Palestinians, has to know that a confrontation of some sort with Hamas is almost inevitable.

His agreement to form joint committees with Hamas is seen as capitulation to demands set by the movement. Until last week, Abbas had adamantly refused even to talk about such coordination with Hamas.

“We in Fatah are not seeking a clash with Hamas,” said Ifranji, the Fatah leader from the Gaza Strip. “We are saying that Palestinian blood is a red line that should not be crossed. On the other hand, we won’t accept a situation where Hamas would try to harm or undermine the Palestinian Authority.”

The fact that so many Palestinians see disengagement as a reward for violence and as indihar has many Palestinian officials in Ramallah and Gaza City extremely worried.

“I’m afraid that the disengagement, which is not being carried out as a result of peace talks, will weaken the moderate camp among the Palestinians,” a top Abbas aide said. “That’s why we need to work together with Israel and the international community to make this move appear as if it were part of the peace process.”

Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab, is the West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and U.S. News and World Report.

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Two Families’ Dreams Were Not Demolished


It’ll be a heart-wrenching summer in the Gaza Strip, when Israeli forces order Jewish settlers to leave as part of the government’s historic disengagement plan. Even the promise of new houses and stipends as high as $400,000 won’t erase the indelible sadness of leaving behind a region that had become home.

But it could be worse.

These families could be Palestinians, like the family of Khaled and Samah Nasrallah.

When the Israeli government forced out the Nasrallahs from their home in Rafah, at Gaza’s southern edge, the Nasrallahs didn’t get a shekel. Their house was among more than 3,000 that stood in the way of a security cordon that Israel established along the border between Gaza and Egypt. The border district stood above tunnels that were, according to the Israeli government, used to transport weapons and bomb-making materials.

The Nasrallahs occupied the last house standing in their neighborhood; it was the homestead that American activist Rachel Corrie died trying to protect. She was fatally injured in March 2003, after a bulldozer allegedly crushed her as it advanced in the direction of the Nasrallahs’ house. Corrie, who had put herself between the bulldozer and the house, was in Gaza as a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a pro-Palestinian activist group that uses nonviolent means to oppose Israeli policies in the territories.

After an internal investigation, the Israeli army called Corrie’s death an accident; her friends and fellow activists called it murder.

Last March, the Corries filed separate lawsuits against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Caterpillar Inc., the U.S.-based company that manufactured the bulldozer. Several Palestinian families later joined the Caterpillar litigation. They seek compensation for alleged injury and death, and also a court order barring Caterpillar from providing services and equipment to the IDF.

Caterpillar has denied any wrongdoing, saying that it’s impossible to monitor the use of its equipment worldwide.

From the Israeli government, the Corries are seeking a “thorough, credible and transparent investigation,” as they put it in an interview.

Last week, the Corries and the Nasrallahs — with the youngest of their three young children — appeared in Los Angeles for the second stop in a seven-state tour. They spoke of wanting to promote peace and raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians. They’re also raising money to build the Nasrallahs a new home and to call attention to broader efforts to construct homes for Palestinians by The Rebuilding Alliance and others.

The two families spoke at the Venice United Methodist Church on June 13, and the next day before a gathering at the Brentwood home of Stanley K. Sheinbaum.

The Nasrallahs’ story stands in juxtaposition to the emerging narrative of Jewish residents in Gaza, who are under government orders to leave by August. The settlers’ claims were always legally open to question, because they settled in territory that Israel captured by military force in 1967. The Gaza strip was originally set aside as “Palestinian” in the same 1948 U.N. resolution that carved out the nation of Israel.

Post-1967, a succession of Israeli governments tacitly or explicitly encouraged Israelis to move into the disputed “occupied” territories. Chief among the settlers’ cheerleaders was hard-line Gen. Ariel Sharon, who had no trouble treating these regions as permanent conquests.

In a turnabout, Sharon, now the prime minister, is the Israeli leader ordering the exit of about 9,000 settlers through unilateral “disengagement.” Sharon’s turnaround is more pragmatic than ideological: Protecting the small Jewish outposts from Palestinian militants loomed as a dear and deadly cost without end.

For their part, the Nasrallahs are not yet in position to celebrate. They and other Palestinians still live in a sort of limbo, as not-nearly citizens of their not-quite-country, where they are treated as perpetual suspects by an occupying power that makes them feel powerless, even as it fears every one of them, given the supposition that any Palestinian could prove to be a suicide bomber.

Khaled Nasrallah said it’s easier to travel to the United States than to the West Bank, where he has a sister he hasn’t seen for eight years. The 30-mile commute from Rafah to his accounting job in Gaza City could be delayed by weeks, if checkpoints were closed because of terrorism concerns.

“Even with disengagement, the Israeli government controls the land. It controls the air, and it controls the sea,” said the 34-year-old Nasrallah. “And it controls the border.”

Nasrallah’s neighborhood was doomed, because it lay along the border of Gaza and Egypt. The IDF targeted his community, because of numerous tunnels that crossed from the Egyptian side into Rafah — more than four dozen have been found since 2001. Palestinians concede the tunnels were used for smuggling, but insist smugglers brought in no weapons. The IDF claims otherwise.

Relatively few terror attacks within Israel proper originated from Gaza, although Gaza’s Jewish settlers have faced regular shelling. And leaving the settlements can sometimes prove a death sentence, as it was for Tali Hatual of Moshav Katif.

Hatual was eight months pregnant when gunmen killed her and her four children on the Kissufim Road in May, 2004. And the “war over the tunnels,” as the newspaper Ha’aretz put it earlier this year, has claimed the lives of at least 15 Israeli soldiers in the past four years. Many more Palestinians have died as either combatants or bystanders. The IDF has called the Rafah-area border district “the main channel for smuggling terrorists and weaponry into Gaza Strip and West Bank.”

To frustrate Rafah tunnel builders, the IDF decided to create a wide-open no-man’s land next to the border, similar in appearance to the cleared zone that communist East Germany established to thwart defectors trying to reach West Berlin. The Israeli plan required flattening several tightly packed Palestinian neighborhoods.

These Palestinian enclaves offer another contrast with the Jewish settlers’ portion of Gaza, known as Gush Katif. In the Israeli communities, there are broad streets and modern, spacious houses, with red-tiled roofs and ocean views. The construction in Rafah is dense, cruder, almost haphazard-looking and seemingly unfinished, with rebar rising everywhere from the sea of dwellings. Craig Corrie, Rachel’s father, explained that the exposed rebar makes it easier to add on, so that later generations can share a family home with their elders.

In an interview, Nasrallah told of how in 1948, his family had been prosperous ranchers and farmers in the village of Sarafand al-‘Amar. Israeli soldiers, he said, forcibly evicted his clan during the fighting of 1948. His family lived in Gaza until the 1967 War prompted their flight to Egypt.

In 1998, he and his brother sold their possessions in Egypt to buy land in Rafah. They moved into their newly built house in 1999, where, on that first day, Nasrallah married. His brother, a pharmacist, lived on the first floor with his wife and three children. Khaled Nasrallah and his wife, Samah, lived on the second floor. They now have three young children of their own.

By 2003, the onslaught of the bulldozers was inexorable, though unpredictable. More than 3,000 homes would eventually be destroyed and more than 20,000 people displaced, said Donna Baranski-Walker, executive director of the Palo Alto-based Rebuilding Alliance, a main sponsor of the Corrie-Nasrallah tour.

“If soldiers punched a hole in your wall, that was your notice to evacuate within two days, because the house would be demolished,” Baranski-Walker said.

The IDF did not respond to the allegation about the notification method.

Rachel Corrie spent seven and a half weeks in Gaza as a veritable human shield against bulldozers and bullets as part of the International Solidarity Movement.

On March 16, 2003, a bulldozer, with a two-member crew, was engaged in “routine terrain leveling and debris clearing,” not building demolition, in the IDF’s version of what happened. An IDF report asserts that Corrie died “as a result of injuries sustained when earth and debris accidentally fell on her … Ms. Corrie was not run over by the bulldozer.” The report also claims that Corrie was possibly in a blindspot for the bulldozer operators and “behind an earth mound,” so they did not see that she was in harm’s way.

Activists with Corrie described the incident differently. They’ve said that Corrie and the others had made their presence known to the operators, who appeared to be bearing down on the Nasrallah home. Documents filed as part of the lawsuit allege that the bulldozer cleared rubble at Corrie’s feet, causing her to stumble, then drove forward over her. The activists insisted that the act looked intentional.

Corrie’s death at age 23 created an international incident that continues to resonate. In Rafah, a stalemate ensued: The army did not knock down the house that held the two families — four adults and five children; the Nasrallahs refused to leave, even after they lost water, electricity and plumbing. When soldiers and tanks approached one side of the house, the families would sleep on the other side, putting extra walls between them and any stray bullets.

The IDF asserts that much of the ordnance came from Palestinian terrorists. The army said that since September 2000 in the border area, it’s logged 1,570 grenade attacks, 1,360 live-fire machine gun and sniper attacks, 184 anti-tank missile attacks, 147 roadside explosive devices and 41 mortar attacks.

“For a long time, nobody visited us, and we could not visit them,” Nasrallah recalled. “When we go to lose our mind, we think of the solution: rabbits. We raised rabbits, built them houses. We used the rabbits to keep our humanity. In three months, three rabbits became 30.”

Meanwhile, he said, the army started digging trenches around his house, ostensibly to find tunnels or discourage tunnel building. With its foundation undermined, the house began to tilt perilously and was on the verge of collapse.

On Oct. 17, 2003, about seven months after Rachel Corrie’s death, the Nasrallahs gave up. It was just too dangerous — either inside or outside the house. Months later, family members briefly returned but had trouble finding their property, because the entire district had been leveled and was nothing but flat earth — even the streets were gone. They finally located a spot with scattered tiles that they thought came from their kitchen.

A part of Khaled Nasrallah remains with that demolished house; he can sketch out its floor plan on the page of a notebook in seconds. But he’s also got a new, more forward-looking floor plan in his possession.

The Rebuilding Alliance hopes that the current tour will raise enough money to build a duplex to house the families of Nasrallah and his brother. Since their compelled evacuation, his brother has moved six times; Nasrallah has moved twice. He currently rents an apartment in Gaza City.

As part of the building drive, on June 14 in Sheinbaum’s Brentwood living room, a “closer” solicited sponsors for windows ($150 each), a steel front door ($500), tilework for the entryway and exterior ($1,800) and cinderblocks (14 cents each).

Nasrallah, a soft-spoken man with improving English, is learning to promote his cause.

Cynthia Corrie, 57, a musician and teacher, and Craig Corrie, 58, an insurance adjuster, are practiced, polished, persuasive speakers. They’ve left behind their previous professional work to become their daughter’s legacy as full-time ambassadors for her causes through the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice.

The parents consider themselves spiritual without being tied closely to organized religion. They have always been civically active, but nothing like their current mission. The Corries lived in Charlotte, N.C., at the time of their daughter’s death, but have since moved to Olympia, Wash., where the family has deeper roots.

Cynthia Corrie said she has long been familiar and sympathetic to the Jewish narrative that includes the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, but that her daughter made her sensitive to the Palestinian cause as well. She described her daughter as a born activist, someone who called a press conference in middle school to express student support for teachers during a labor dispute.

The mother said her daughter loved to draw, paint and write. Her e-mails from Gaza, in fact, became the source of a generally acclaimed, but controversial, play that opened this year in London.

Corrie said Rachel was especially shaken by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and sought to understand the root causes. She was someone, the mother continued, “who was always uncomfortable with the privileges of American middle-class life.”

When contacted by The Journal, media representatives for an array of Israeli government offices had nothing to say about the Corrie case, including the offices of the prime minister, the Foreign Ministry and the Justice Ministry. They all deferred to the IDF, whose media representatives provided a February press release and a previously prepared summary of the army’s investigation. The IDF did not respond to specific questions.

“The IDF has in the past exercised its legal authority to demolish terrorists’ houses,” the release said. “This has been done within the framework of the State of Israel’s overall effort to defeat Palestinian terror, and as part of the State of Israel’s obligation and right to defend itself and to provide security for its citizens. As a means of deterring potential terrorists from carrying out attacks, the houses of terrorists who have actively participated in terrorist activity have been demolished.”

The release referred specifically to the IDF practice of selectively targeting homes belonging to the families of alleged terrorists involved in attacks on Israeli soldiers or civilians. The IDF did not respond to a question about whether the Nasrallahs had ever been suspected or accused of any illegal activities. However, family members were not judged a threat by U.S. customs officials, who allowed the Nasrallahs to enter this country. Nor did the IDF address the issue of compensation for Palestinians who lost their homes or lives during the demolitions.

Nasrallah said three neighbors, two women and a boy, were killed by army snipers or stray Israeli bullets during the Rafah demolitions. According to news reports, a separate Israeli army incursion killed more than 40 Palestinians and wounded scores of others in May 2004 alone. It isn’t clear how many casualties were civilians.

The IDF release does note, however, a change in policy: “The minister of defense decided to … stop exercising the legal right to demolish terrorists’ houses as a means of deterrence.”

The demolition policy could be resumed at a later date.

The Corries didn’t plan for the tour to coincide with the eve of disengagement, but they cannot fail to make a linkage.

“It’s terribly important, particularly as we approach disengagement, for us in America to be there in solidarity with the people in Gaza who are trying to rebuild their lives,” Cynthia Corrie said. “The U.S. government has funded the occupation. Craig and I feel that we purchased the Caterpillar bulldozer that killed Rachel.”

“President Bush is saying the right thing about the need for a viable Palestinian state,” she added. “But we need to start defining what that is.”

For the Corries, an economically feasible state of Palestine would include an open border with Egypt to the south. They’re encouraged by suggestions in a recent Rand Corp. report that tackled the viability question. But they’re also wary about Sharon using Gaza disengagement as a fig leaf to justify further Israeli expansion into the territories to the north.

Come August, the IDF will try its hand at forcing Jewish Israelis to leave their Gaza homes. It’s a possible step toward peace that also could erupt in a new source of violence.

The Nasrallahs, of course, can attest to the army’s experience with evictions, especially when bulldozers are brought to bear.

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Hamas and the Triple Standard


When it comes to Israel’s fight against Hamas, a triple standard seems at work.

Israel is now completely at war with Palestinian terror groups, no less than America is at war with Al Qaeda worldwide and Saddam loyalists in Iraq. Hence, Israel must escalate its rules of engagement, mimicking those recently established by American forces in our own war against terror waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, Israel should preemptively and unrelentingly eliminate Hamas and company where they stand as soon as they are identified or self-identify.

By "eliminate," I mean kill. By "as soon as they self-identify," I mean as soon as parading militants don the green-masked and explosive-bedecked uniform of a suicide bomber, or publicly proclaim themselves as waiting for orders to do so, whether the militant is beating his chest in a rally or cradling a megaphone in a press conference. By "where they stand," I mean wherever they are located — in a car, in a training camp or in a public protest procession. Israel must hit Hamas members while they marched in uniform in the West Bank and Gaza before they change clothes into Chasidic garb and Israeli pop attire and then board buses in Jerusalem.

For precedent, we need only look to recent tactics employed by our own military and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

On June 9, American forces in Iraq launched Operation Peninsula Strike, which chased down and killed a group of Saddam loyalist ambushers, first reported as 27 but then adjusted downward to just seven. The day before, Americans located and utterly destroyed a loyalist training camp, killing 70, and detaining about 400 other suspects. Even as I type, these successes are being repeated in a new sweep across the width of Iraq, locking down towns as U.S. troops go door-to-door hunting for Saddam loyalists and arm caches. And of course everyone remembers the first shot of the Iraq War — a precision "decapitation strike" in the heart of a residential neighborhood. "Decapitation" is military lingo for pre-emptive assassination of top leadership.

Speaking of aerial assassination and assault, last November, a joint CIA Predator tracked an Al Qaeda cell in a private car speeding across the Yemeni desert. A Hellfire missile incinerated the car and its six occupants. In Afghanistan, American bombers, Predators and gunships incessantly bombed suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda wherever they were discovered, in a cave, in a hut, on a mountaintop, at a wedding. America has done all this on the other side of the world.

Israel is fighting a similar war for survival but right down the street.

Yet there seems to be a triple standard at play. America can assassinate and decapitate, send in gunships and missiles, surround and lock down whole towns, and round up and detain suspects by the hundreds in its war on terror creating one standard. Hamas, in the minds of some, is engaged in mere "rogue resistance," and its bus bombs and murder squads should be overlooked as incidental to polite roadmap discourse — thus creating a second standard. At the same time, Israel is expected to exhibit restraint and not fight back as vigorously and preemptively as America does — creating a third standard. Such restraint is as absurd as it is self-destructive.

Naturally, the issue of collateral damage and innocent civilians arises. Therefore, Israel should do as America did before launching its war against Iraq. Remember? America issued instructions and leaflets to Iraqi civilians not to stand near any member of Saddam’s military or its infrastructure. Israel should do the same: issue warnings that the Palestinian populace avoiding standing near anyone self-identifying or identified as Hamas or a terrorist. That said, Israel should deploy long-range snipers, helicopter gunships, assassination and decapitation and all the other tactics regretfully needed in a war against terror that has been embedded within a civilian setting.

And then, Israel should continue to eliminate Hamas terrorists where they stand until the forces of peace within the Palestinian community can rise to the occasion.


Edwin Black is the author of “IBM and the Holocaust” (Crown 2001). His next book, “War Against the Weak” (Four Walls Eight Windows) will be published in September.

A Confident Failure


Talk about cognitive dissonance. The mood in Israel may never have been so hopeless, the indices of quality of life may never have pointed so sharply downward, and yet the calmest, most content person in the country appears to be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Politically, at least, he’s not out of touch with reality at all. The most recent poll in Yediot Aharonot, the country’s largest newspaper, showed Sharon getting an approval rating of 71 percent.

Here is a man who was elected by a landslide on the promise of peace and security, running on the strength of his reputation as a vanquisher of Arab terror. "I know the Arabs and the Arabs know me," he would repeat at rallies, implying as broadly as possible that the Palestinians would cower and quit the intifada as soon as he took over, and masses of Israelis actually believed it.

Yet here is Sharon, in the second half of his second year in office, and terror continues to run wild. Nothing the old warrior has done has put more than a temporary crimp in the intifada. He orders the assassinations of terror commanders, and the Palestinians retaliate with multiple bombings or the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister. And Sharon doesn’t exhibit any doubt, and certainly doesn’t change — what doesn’t work with force, works with more force, as the old Israeli cliché goes, and the body counts continue to soar on both sides.

Every public opinion poll shows Israelis with a categorically bleak view of the future — there is little faith in a military conclusion to the fighting, and none whatsoever in a political solution — not with Yasser Arafat, not with Sharon, certainly not with both of them together. The Bush administration, for its part, has shown itself to be decisively irrelevant. While right-wingers are thrilled that the White House is so friendly to their leader, an objective reading of the Israeli-U.S. relationship is that America has given Israel its blessing to prosecute an unsuccessful war on terror.

Then there is that other failing enterprise, the Israeli economy. People are losing their jobs and their businesses, public services are deteriorating because they have more and more needy clients and less and less money, yet the Sharon government is following the most fiscally "prudent" and socially indifferent policy ever seen during hard times. Spending for the settlements and yeshiva students continues apace, while aid to sundry communities of have-nots is being slashed. Meanwhile, Sharon and Finance Minster Silvan Shalom claim that the ranks of unemployed are growing because they’re too spoiled on "generous" benefits to work.

With terror stalking the streets, reserve soldiers getting called up for longer and longer duty in the West Bank and Gaza, absolutely no hope for peace on the horizon, an economy that’s drying up, conditions would seem ripe for an upheaval, the kind that political leaders don’t like to contemplate.

But the streets of Israel are quiet. People who have the money to go overseas for a summer vacation are flying off with unimaginable relief; those without the money watch TV and stay out of the heat. Some go to restaurants and movies, others are too scared.

Why is Sharon still so popular? Despite the condition of the country, he indisputably projects leadership — in the strength of his bearing, his vitality — even at 74 — his intimidating presence, his intelligence, his war record. He is a general of the old school, and this is a comforting to a frightened nation.

Maybe the country’s despair is working in Sharon’s favor. It may be that Israelis have decided that whatever they do, the Palestinians are going to keep trying to kill them, and their only choice to whether to kill back or not, so they choose killing back, which is what Sharon is doing.

One thing that’s certain is that Sharon benefits from the dearth of alternative leadership in the country. Within the Likud he is being challenged by Benjamin Netanyahu, but now that Sharon has invaded the West Bank and Gaza, Netanyahu no longer outflanks him on the right. The only move Netanyahu can suggest that Sharon hasn’t taken yet is expelling Arafat, and while this would likely be hugely popular, few but the extreme right think it’s the solution to terror, and many are frightened, with good reason, that it might only make terror worse.

Journalist Amnon Abramovitch has said Israel’s current political leadership is so poor as to constitute a "strategic threat" to the country’s survival, and he seems to have a point.

In Labor, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer have degraded what remains Israel’s largest political party by sticking with Sharon no matter what he does or doesn’t do. The one bright spot for the left came last week as Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, a very liberal ex-general who wants to get out of both the Sharon government and the settlements, said he would run for the Labor Party leadership. Yet he will have a hard time beating Ben-Eliezer, who controls the party establishment, and even if Mitzna does take over Labor, he would be a longshot against Sharon because the left has no one anymore but its born-and-bred, hard-core supporters.

So Sharon has still has reason to be confident. But for how long?

Mistrust in the Mideast


The wheels are spinning beneath the battered chassis of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but the brakes are being applied by that perennial opponent of Mideast progress: mistrust.

As Israeli and Palestinian officials try to hammer out a plan to test Palestinian security guarantees, voices on each side accuse the other of tricks.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s “Gaza First” plan proposes a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank to test the Palestinian Authority’s willingness and ability to crack down on terror against Israel.

Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh suggested Bethlehem as the “pilot” cease-fire city in the West Bank. If successful, the plan would be extended to other West Bank areas.

The Palestinian Authority approved the Ben-Eliezer proposal in principle. But leaders of the dozen or so Palestinian paramilitary organizations were highly critical of the decision, seeing it as a trap to legitimize Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities.

Some even suggested that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was buying into the proposal in a desperate attempt to regain his “relevance” on the international stage.

Israel was equally emphatic in its suspicion of Palestinian motives. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that Palestinian Authority approval of the “Gaza First” idea was “simply a ruse to please the Americans” while a Palestinian delegation was talking with Bush administration officials in Washington.

The very name of the “Gaza First” plan — which recalls the “Gaza and Jericho First” plan that in 1994 initiated Palestinian Authority rule under the Oslo accords — symbolizes the extent to which the 2-year-old intifada has rolled back the gains of years of peacemaking and trust-building.

Israelis were equally skeptical of reports that Palestinian factions were once again on the verge of pledging not to attack Israeli civilians, at least inside Israel proper.

Palestinian officials had claimed they were about to issue a cease-fire in July until Israel assassinated Salah Shehada, the head of Hamas’ military wing in the Gaza Strip, killing some 15 civilians in the process.

Palestinians staged several spectacular terrorist attacks, ostensibly in revenge for Shehada’s death. But then they again considered the possibility of declaring a cease-fire — albeit one that would sanction attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israelis dismissed the talk as a public relations exercise or as diplomatic cover that would allow Palestinian fighters to regroup and prepare for future attacks.

They also feared a repetition of Israel’s experience in Lebanon, where the two sides agreed on a moratorium on attacking civilians. In practice, that allowed Hezbollah fighters to shelter behind Lebanese civilians while attacking Israeli soldiers.

All those questions appeared to become moot early this week, however, as the Palestinian factions dropped the cease-fire initiative and instead called for continued attacks.

“We stress the legitimacy of our resistance against [the Israeli] aggression and the occupation, and the Israeli settlements,” the groups said in a draft statement. The statement affirms both violence and “political work” as legitimate tools toward the Palestinians’ goals.

Beyond the bluster, however, some Israelis detected signs that the intifada’s physical, economic and diplomatic toll was exhausting the Palestinians.

The fact that Arafat’s Fatah movement was reaching out to other groups to consider even a partial cease-fire shows a recognition that the war against Israel has failed, and that Palestinians are searching for a way out, some Israeli analysts said.

For several weeks now, the Supreme Intifada Monitoring Committee, an umbrella group of all Palestinian factions, has been working on a covenant meant to produce a joint, binding definition of Palestinian goals and the means to achieve them. It also grapples with the need for reform of P.A. institutions.

Palestinian spokesmen insist the covenant is not meant as a concession either to Israel or America, where President Bush, in late June, demanded comprehensive P.A. reforms, including Arafat’s replacement, as a condition for Palestinian statehood.

The covenant was to have been signed in mid-August, but the signing ceremony was deferred when Hamas officials asked for more time to consider their position. Earlier, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabah, met Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in Gaza to advance agreement on the covenant.

Particularly galling to Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, is the document’s call for a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders say that even if they sign the document, they will reserve the right to continue advocating a Palestinian state not next to Israel, but in place of it.

Israelis, meanwhile, asked how much of this development constituted genuine change on which new peace agreements could be built? To what extent was it tactical maneuvering to enable battered terrorist groups — which the Palestinian Authority is obligated to disband rather than co-opt — to regroup and fight another day? How much of it was simply a way for the discredited Arafat to hang on to power?

Part of the Israeli mistrust stems from the fact that the covenant would establish a joint Palestinian decision-making body that includes all Palestinian factions, with Arafat at its head. This could simply be another way for Arafat to retain power — and as long as he does, Israelis argue, nothing positive will happen.

To help overcome the mutual mistrust and create conditions for a cease-fire, the Americans are pushing ahead with plans to reform the Palestinian security services. After spending several weeks in the region, a CIA team recently made detailed recommendations for changes in the structure, assignment, operation, recruitment and training of the Palestinian security services, which would be placed under a unified command.

The Americans also will soon send an envoy to the region to assess reforms in Palestinian government and economic procedures.

But in their dealings with the Palestinians, the Americans, and the Israelis for that matter, face an acute dilemma: In order to promote the reform program they need to talk to Palestinians in positions of authority, but often those Palestinians are close confidants of Arafat, the man the reforms are supposed to sideline.

In early August talks in Washington, for example, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said openly that he was there representing Arafat. It is, therefore, by no means clear whether the reforms and the strong undercurrent of Palestinian criticism of the leadership are pushing Arafat out, or whether Arafat is controlling the reforms and the protesters to solidify his grip on power.

If it is the former, the cease-fire efforts may have a chance; if the latter, Israeli intelligence sources contend, the terror will not stop for any length of time.

Still, even a partial and largely tactical Palestinian cease-fire will put tremendous strains on Israel’s already fragile national unity government.

On Sunday, Sharon made it clear that he is considering going to early elections over the budget. A cease-fire, which the National Religious Party on the right will almost certainly reject as a trap, could set off a process of disintegration of the Likud-led coalition.

And on the left, Labor leaders already are predicting a January election, in which relations with the Palestinians will be a key issue.