Sometimes putting a positive spin on things can leave you reeling. For instance, this week the media in Israel reported that Sderot, whose name has become the symbol of the missile-prone communities of the South, has finally got its own railway station – the first rocket-proof station in the world.
As achievements go, it’s the equivalent of a backhanded compliment. Surely Sderot residents would rather go down in history for something more momentous than an attempt to get on with their lives – to keep the trains running on time literally and figuratively – even in times of tension, terror and war.
Visitors to Sderot are often shown the collection of Kassam missile shells that have been turned into metal sculptures and, even more poignantly, the bombproof playground where local children can safely do what kids do – run, jump, climb and slide – regardless of what is thrown at them from across the nearby border with Gaza.
I’m sure that the citizens of the small, closeknit town would prefer to be known as a cultural center in the Negev desert with a cinematheque and a very decent annual film festival.
Or perhaps they’re waiting for an outstanding graduate of Sapir Academic College to put them on the map for something that can make them proud.
Farmers from kibbutzim and moshavim bordering Gaza can also boast, if they want, the world’s first armored tractors, although the country on the whole prefers to be known for its tremendous successes in agriculture, from creating different strains of fruit and vegetables to pioneering drip irrigation and desert- farming techniques.
The newly inaugurated railway means that Sderot is now about an hour away from Tel Aviv by train. Missiles, as we saw in last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense, reach the country’s commercial capital much faster – as those who opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 warned they would; it’s one of those cases in which being able to say “Told you so!” is not satisfying.
Israel has other achievements that we wish we did not need – including missile-proof emergency rooms. Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, for instance, celebrating its 75th anniversary this week, is the largest and most advanced hospital in the North. Its doctors, researchers and staff have saved countless patients – it has treated Syrian patients who were victims of the civil war, and I once met an Iranian who told me his baby sister survived only because she underwent cardiac surgery at Rambam, in the days of the shah.
But, inevitably, the medical center has a footnote in the history books as the first hospital to be fully equipped with a missile-proof emergency unit, a need recognized after the 2006 Second Lebanon War when the city took a beating from missiles courtesy of Iran’s proxy Hezbollah.
As it happens, on Tuesday, the day the new – world-first – station was inaugurated, there was a shooting attack from Gaza. Salah Shukri Abu Latyef, a 22-year-old Israeli Beduin from Rahat, was killed as he was working for a company contracted by the Defense Ministry to fix the fence with Gaza, which had been damaged in last week’s storm.
Two days before that, passengers on a bus in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam had a miraculous escape when one noticed a suspicious bag and alerted the driver, who was able to get everyone off the bus before a bomb exploded.
It was lucky nobody was hurt, said decent people who heard of the attack. It was doubly lucky, in my opinion. Firstly, because of the lives saved at the site by the vigilant passengers, and secondly, because a bus bombing resulting in mass casualties is not something the government could ignore.
Friends on Facebook shared their concerns and feelings with a photo of the blown-up bus – a much uglier image than the shiny new Sderot-bound train – and text that read: “Israel: in the last 24 hrs there has been 1 bus bombing in Tel Aviv, 1 rocket fired from Gaza, 1 police officer stabbed in Jerusalem. What, you haven’t heard? Don’t worry, if Israel responds, you’ll hear about it.”
When Israel did respond – attacking various sites in Gaza after Abu Latyef’s death – the world did pay attention. The Palestinians said a three-year-old girl had been killed by Israeli shrapnel, and yet again we became the bad guys, the one country worthy of being singled out for academic boycotts on Western university campuses.
The death of a child is tragic; any child, anywhere.
But rather than blaming Israeli forces, who did not target her, blame should be placed on those who are encouraging the escalation of Palestinian violence and those who are not condemning it.
And it should be noted that bus bombings and missiles fired indiscriminately on towns and communities are not just acts of war, they are war crimes.
US Secretary of State John Kerry recently warned that Israel would face a third intifada if it does not reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority in the current round of negotiations. Those of us trying to keep a mental track of the ever-mounting figures of a stabbing here, a Molotov cocktail there – six fatalities since July – realize that the third intifada is already under way.
That’s why there was something ironic about the US travel advisory warning against using sherut (shared) taxis in addition to buses in the wake of the Bat Yam bombing. It is one of those ironies of the Middle East that Kerry and his ilk fail to understand that the period of relative peace and stability ended the minute he started trying to force the two sides into negotiations. It’s a dynamic sadly familiar to those of us who live here. As soon as talks start, terrorists try to derail them by force; the minute they fail, they react with more terror attacks, ostensibly to express their frustration, as common wisdom has it. Meanwhile, Israel is committed, courtesy of Kerry, to releasing more Palestinian prisoners as part of the momentum to keep the peace talks on track. It is, as I have noted before, meant to be a gesture of goodwill.
And it is, after all, supposed to be the season of goodwill. Not that the Israeli press hoping to give people a taste of the holiday atmosphere in the place where Jesus was born had much to celebrate. As the Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh noted, the Palestinian Authority expelled Israeli journalists who came to Bethlehem’s Manger Square to cover the festivities. The move was initiated by Palestinian journalists, not because they fear competition, but because they don’t like the Israeli free press, which, they claim, “is contributing to misinformation and relaying a false and harmful image of the Palestinian reality.”
The Palestinian journalists, like the journalists in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, are also waging a campaign against “normalization” with Israel. I don’t think releasing convicted terrorists is normal, by the way, but that strangely doesn’t seem to bother them.
And I can’t see how we’re going to reach peace if we can’t have normalization.
The peace train might have set out according to Kerry’s timetable, but I wonder how it is going to safely reach its destination. My idea of normal is being able to invest in growth and prosperity for the benefit of all, without having to sidetrack funds to fortify railway stations and hospitals.
And with that thought in mind, I wish readers everywhere a year of true peace in 2014.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.