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Gaza: A View From Across the Border

Ground scarred by rocket attack.

Israeli police survey the area outside the elementary school where the Qassam rocket hit.

Editor's Note: In response to the Gaza Diary dispatch we posted last week by Palestinian journalist Mariam Shahin, we asked Israeli reporter Hadas Ragolsky, a senior producer for Israel's Channel 10 in Tel Aviv, to offer her perspective on the recent escalation in violence between Israelis and Palestinians and for reaction inside Israel.

* * *

Nana Angel refuses to be mad. Sitting beside her husband's bed day and night she remains calm. "Who should I be mad at?" she asked puzzled in a recent radio interview. Nana's husband, Jonathan, a 60-year-old janitor, was seriously wounded a month ago by a Qassam rocket launched from Gaza. It struck as he was standing outside the first grader's class at the elementary school where he works. "If a child gets hit here, it's the same as if a child gets hit over the border -- a grown-up here is like a grown-up there," said Nana, a well-known kindergarten teacher in Sderot, a southern Israeli border town about a kilometer from the Gaza Strip. A month after his injury, Jonathan, who has undergone four surgeries and awaits more, is still in critical condition.

Many Israelis hoped that the rocket barrage would end once the disengagement plan was in place. But Jonathan Angel and many others were wounded long after thousands of settlers and soldiers were pulled out of Gaza in the summer of 2005. Before the withdrawal and during the months following the pullout, Israeli leaders kept on with their hard line rhetoric about a strong response to any missiles flying over the border. But they never really did anything.

Many readers may not realize, but thousands of missiles -- better known as Qassam rockets -- were fired by Palestinians during the last 10 months, targeting Israeli civilians and Israeli towns bordering the Gaza Strip. Can you imagine constant attacks on Los Angeles without an American reaction? Can you imagine such attacks on Paris, Moscow or Beijing without declarations of war? No. But here, besides occasional sonic bombs and thousands of shells aimed at empty spaces that have terrified both Palestinians and Israelis along the border, Israeli forces waited for the Palestinians to get a grip. They refrained from taking any real action, until the attacks began to escalate in recent weeks.

Israeli forces waited for the Palestinians to get a grip. They refrained from taking any real action, until the attacks began to escalate in recent weeks.

But before talking about the violence, one should ask oneself, "Why were the Palestinians shooting those missiles from Gaza in the first place?" True, the disengagement plan was not part of a peace solution. Journalist Mariam Shahin (who wrote the Gaza Diary here last week) and I share the same feelings about this unilateral act. I argued on this site a year ago that the real motives behind Ariel Sharon's plan remains "at large," and one of its weaknesses is the fact that no negotiations took place before the pullout. I argued that in the long run we should try to negotiate with our neighbors. Friendly act or not, Gaza became Palestinian land, and yet the Palestinians did everything they could to pull Israel back in. With the constant firing of missiles and ongoing attacks on the gates between Gaza and Israel -- which forced the Israeli government once again to shut the crossings -- it was just a matter of time until Israeli forces would return.

The late Israeli statesman Abba Eban said years ago that "the Arabs never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity" and this statement never felt more accurate than during these last few months. Why didn't the Palestinians start using their talents and energy to make Gaza a place they could be proud of? Why didn't they focus their efforts on building a social infrastructure for their people? Where are the examples of what they plan to do once they receive the West Bank? They could have started creating their own "Hong Kong" of the Middle East with the number of intellectuals and educated people living among them. But, instead, they chose to keep fighting; first by continuing to target Israeli towns; later by electing the militant Hamas terrorists as their official government.

The Palestinians could have started creating their own "Hong Kong" of the Middle East with the number of intellectuals and educated people living among them. But, instead, they chose to keep fighting.

Shahin is also right when she says that these are the first truly democratic elections to ever take place in the Arab world. But as much as it was the Palestinians' free choice to do this, it is our free choice not to collaborate with those elected Palestinian officials who stand behind countless terror attacks that have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians and who have declared once again that they will never recognize the right of Israel to exist. The United States government, the European Union partners and the Israeli government all agreed not to negotiate or deliver money to those who might use it to launch more terror attacks. If the pullout wasn't a very peaceful act, those elections were a declaration of war.

The kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit was the final straw for the Israeli government. For some Israelis it was too little too late. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert's sudden hardline leadership is not as secure as the leadership under Sharon. Still, the government's stand led by Olmert is clear: "We will not negotiate with Hamas. We will not negotiate with terrorists. Such negotiations will encourage the next kidnapping," Olmert declared earlier this week.

"In war, dialogue is also an option, provided we keep a billy-club in hand," wrote Yoel Marcus, a leading Israeli commentator for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Daily. Most Israelis tend to agree.

The purpose of the military campaign still puzzled many. Is it to bring back Corporal Shalit or is to stop the rain of missiles? Is there a bigger plan to crush the Hamas government or just an escalating situation that will harm both sides in the end? Responding to critics from both the right and the left, Olmert said that Israel is not planning to occupy Gaza again.

"We will continue this battle with level-headedness and patience while making use of the proper means and maintaining the required obfuscation. We cannot sit and not respond to the Qassam rocket fire," he said.

Unlike the so-called democratic Palestinian society, a fierce debate was launched among Israelis. Thousands had signed a petition calling for the prime minister to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

Unlike the so-called democratic Palestinian society, a fierce debate was launched among Israelis regarding what should be done. Thousands had signed a petition calling for the prime minister to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Six different Israeli human rights organizations petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding an end to measures taken by the Israel Defense Forces during its incursion into the Gaza Strip that would harm the civilian population there. The petition demanded that the crossings into Gaza be opened so that regular supplies of food, medicine, fuel and other essentials can reach its inhabitants.

Yesterday I sat among thousands of viewers at a music show in Caesarea, a 2,000-year-old amphitheatre an hour north of Tel Aviv. The crowd consisted of many who are usually considered Israelis for peace. A singer who prayed for the safe return of the troops was answered by rousing applause. But, in recent months, the Palestinians have lost many of their supporters among Israelis.

And the sentiment among Palestinians?

In a new poll commissioned by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, a well-known independent polling group, earlier this week, 66.8 percent of those who were surveyed supported more military action to kidnap soldiers. It also reported that 60.4 percent of them supported firing missiles at Israeli targets. Only 30.7 percent were against those actions and saw it as harming the Palestinian cause. Only overseas can different voices be heard. One of those voices is Youssef Ibrahim, an Egyptian journalist, who wrote the following recently in The New York Sun.

"Dear Palestinian Arab brethren:
The war with Israel is over.
You have lost. Surrender and negotiate to secure a future for your children. Dear friends, you and your leaders have wasted three generations trying to fight for Palestine, but the truth is the Palestine you could have had in 1948 is much bigger than the one you could have had in 1967, which in turn is much bigger than what you may have to settle for now or in another 10 years.
...Every day your officials must beg for your daily bread, dependent on relief trucks that carry food and medicine into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, while your criminal Muslim fundamentalist Hamas government continues to fan the flames of a war it can neither fight nor hope to win...We, your Arab brothers, have moved on. The war is over. Why not let a new future begin?"

If there is anyone the Palestinians should blame for their situation it is they themselves. But Israel is a much more convenient target and a way for Palestinians to maintain their image as forever the victims. If they stop the missiles and release the soldier, Israeli forces will pull out again. It is enough for a start. For the sake of both people, a true peace camp must be built again in Gaza, not just in Tel Aviv.

Hadas Ragolsky is a senior producer at the Israeli nationwide television station, Channel 10, in Tel Aviv. She is a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World, sending reports last year during the Israeli pullout of Gaza and, earlier this year, a dispatch on the eve of the Israeli elections. Ragolsky is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley.

* * *

Earlier this year, we broadcast two stories back to back from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Both stories are streamed and available for viewing on this Web site. Watch Israel: The Unexpected Candidate" for a profile of Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert and his family, and watch "Inside Hamas" for a look at the political rise of the militant group following historic elections in January.

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