Feb 2, 2008

Why Gaza Suffers

Jewish World Review

There was a time — a rather short-lived moment in the history of the Middle East — when the people of Gaza thought life would get better, and the people of Israel’s town of Sderot thought they, too, would stop living in hell. ”We thought we would live in peace,” one Israeli woman in Sderot told me.

That moment of dashed hopes came in the summer of 2005, when Israeli forces removed all the Jews in Gaza. With Gaza free of Israelis, Palestinians there would have full autonomy — a step toward nationhood — and Israelis could live without constant attacks. The optimists, as it turned out, were tragically wrong. Life has become even worse for people on both sides, with events in the last few days highlighting the need to find a solution to the dangerous Gaza predicament.

The Palestinian rocket attacks did not stop after the 2005 withdrawal. And when the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, took control of Gaza seven months ago, rocket and mortar attacks became far worse, keeping with Hamas’ charter directive to destroy Israel. Gaza suffered international sanctions, made more intense by Israeli border controls. Living standards began plummeting.

While news about the suffering of Gazans fills the airwaves, there is a peculiar disinterest in the nightmare that is life for the people of Sderot and its vicinity. Every day, every few hours, the sirens wail their warning, giving terrified parents and children less than 15 seconds to take cover. The rockets are deliberately aimed at civilians. They fall on schools and streets and day care centers. A recent study shows 56 percent of Sderot residents have had their home hit by a rocket or shrapnel. More than 90 percent say their street or an adjacent one has been hit, and almost 50 percent know someone who was killed in such an attack.

Every response by Israel draws international condemnation. Other countries have reacted to attacks against their population by pulverizing their opponents. Israel targeted militant leaders and tried economic sanctions. A recent cut in fuel supplies prompted Gaza to shut its power plant, even while Israel continued to provide, as it always does, almost 75 percent of Gaza’s electricity needs.

Israeli President Shimon Peres noted, ”We have no interest in seeing Gaza’s residents suffer. They are not our enemies,” but added, “they must demand that Hamas stop firing on Israel.”

Hamas, as other extremist groups, knows how to produce public relations coups from their people’s suffering. News reports about the recent events make a cursory reference to the attacks against Israel, preferring to portray Israel as the ruthless aggressor. Not everyone buys this, however.

The Palestinian Authority’s information minister Riad al-Maliki said Hamas and its ”insistence on creating an Islamic Republic,” were at the heart of the problem. He accused Hamas of failing to take responsibility for the deteriorating situation. Another PA official said Hamas is exploiting the situation to rally support in the Arab world and beyond. That tactic is working, but not everywhere.

The European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, Franco Frattini, rejected claims by Israeli critics that the border closure is a war crime. (Firing rockets at civilians, as Hamas does, is a war crime.) Frattini declared, ”Israel is justified in its concerns,” adding that, “For too long Europe has put too much blame on Israel.”

Even the manager of the Arab network Al-Arabiyah, criticized Hamas for creating this crisis, a sign that Saudi Arabia is growing increasingly irritated with Hamas.

Then came last week’s toppling of the border wall between Gaza and Egypt. Hamas spent months cutting into the wall, according to The London Times, preparing for this moment.

Some in Israel say it’s time to cut all ties with Gaza. Let Egypt become the conduit for Gaza trade and aid. No other country is asked to support and supply an enemy sworn to its destruction. Others say leaving the Egyptian border open will allow Iran-backed Hamas to arm, as Hezbollah in Lebanon, leading ultimately to a much more violent confrontation.

Egypt wants as little as possible to do with Gaza, fearful of Hamas, an outgrowth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The cause of Gaza’s suffering is Hamas. The only way to end the suffering in Gaza and in Sderot is to stop Palestinian attacks from Gaza into Israel. Handing a propaganda victory to Hamas, as the world has done, makes that goal more distant.

The nonviolent way to a solution is to persuade the Palestinians to remove Hamas from power or to pressure it to change its ways. Every other alternative spells more suffering ahead for Palestinians and Israelis.