Mohammad Kafarna 88.
(photo credit: Orly Halpern)
Mohammad Kafarna is a sheikh, a Ph.D. professor of the Arabic language, and a member of Hamas's political wing.
Since February 2005 he is also the mayor of Beit Hanun, a job that has become practically mission impossible.
Violence and poverty plague his city of some 30,000. Unemployment is at 70%, physical abuse within families is increasing, and political factions and extended families are fighting and killing each other.
Making things worse, the town, which faces Sderot across the 1967 border, has been shelled continuously by Israel for the last few months in response to Palestinian rockets being fired from its neighborhoods at Sderot, causing fear, destruction and sometimes death.
Eli Moyal, the mayor of Sderot, has said Beit Hanun should be wiped out if necessary to stop the Kassam fire. "You think this will solve the problem?" Kafarna responded. "And is it just?"
While Israel blames the Palestinians for initiating and maintaining the cross-border fire, the 40-year-old mayor, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in his municipality office Wednesday, echoed other Palestinians in blaming Israel. "The mayor of Sderot is upset about the rockets?" he asked rhetorically. "And we are not upset that he wants to destroy our town? Which is easier, stopping the shooting on Beit Hanun or demolishing the city? You think the weak is the one hurting the strong. We are the hand trying to stop the sword."
The consequences of the fire, said the mayor, were not only harmful to those directly and physically affected. "Our children are not children. They don't enjoy their childhood. They play with toy guns. The culture of violence exists in them." Increased domestic violence was also a direct consequence of the shelling, he said.
While Kafarna said he favored "quiet and stability," he also defended the Palestinians' right to attack Israel. "It is the right of the people who were hurt to fight for their rights," he said. "Doesn't the Israeli citizen kill others to get his rights and to preserve his security? So why does he deny this to others?"
Still, Kafarna said that if Israel would stop shooting on Beit Hanun, he might be able to convince the "resistance" to stop shooting at Sderot. "We hope that the mayor of Sderot will pressure his government to stop the shelling on Beit Hanun, to give me the opportunity to talk to the resistance to stop shooting on Sderot," he said, adding, "But how do you want me to talk to the resistance when there is bombing from Sderot on Beit Hanun? It's not patriotic."
The mayor, a father of eight, insisted that the Palestinian "resistance" came from residents outside his town. "If any of them are from here then they cover their faces so that the residents don't know it and try to stop them."
In any case, he claimed, the Kassams were harmless. "These are very elementary rockets," he said. "They are not for killing. They are for rejecting the occupation."
Since the withdrawal from Gaza in August, two Israelis were killed in Sderot from the hundreds of Qassam rockets Palestinians launched from around Beit Hanoun, for a total of five Israelis killed since the intifada began in October 2000, said the army.
He cited a lack of food and medicine in Palestinian cities as spurring the Kassam fire. "Five days ago, our house ran out of gas and we have no way to get more. All this hurts the people and pushes them to launch rockets. A hungry man is an angry man."
Kafarna said he favored "a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. But the other side wants it all. They only gave up Gaza because it bothered them."
He added that seeking such a state did not automatically mean recognition of Israel's right to exist, but that such issues could be decided "step-by-step... Maybe if [after the creation of a state] I see stability and peace, and the situation changes, we can agree to live together."
Meanwhile, Ahmed al-Batran, the father of three children injured in Tuesday's Israeli missile strike on Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp, has said the IAF must have known it risked killing children in the attack.
Israel said the attack was a botched strike on an Aksa Martyrs Brigades terror cell, and 14 people were injured, five of them children.
Batran, 34, said the IAF must have seen that there would be next-to-no likelihood of shrapnel not hitting innocent bystanders on the narrow street. "How do they not see the little children on the ground?"
One of those outside was his daughter, Rabab, 11, who was standing on the steps of her father's shop holding her two-year-old brother at the time of the missile strike. "I heard a 'Boofâ€š' and then I saw my legs were full of blood and so was my little brother," said Rabab as she lay on a thin mattress on the floor of her cinder-block home above the shop. The shrapnel tore through her right knee. Her brother was still in the hospital undergoing surgery.
Batran, a father of nine who was outside the shop talking to friends on the sidewalk when the missile hit, said that "20 to 30 people" would have been killed had the missile landed on the other side of the car.
Batran, speaking the Hebrew he learned working in Israel, said he lost the top of his right index finger. "When they were stitching my finger in the hospital, my daughter was being operated on, and then they told me my son was injured, too. I thought they were hiding from me that he was killed."