Breaking the Silence – again

A reoccupation of the Gaza Strip is a military consideration.

By SHAWN ZELIG ASTER
November 21, 2012 22:27
IDF soldiers patrol near Gaza

IDF soldiers patrol near Gaza 370. (photo credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen)

 
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In 2008, a group of Israeli former soldiers presented a traveling photo exhibit, at a number of US locations, including Harvard Hillel. Titled “Breaking the Silence,” it aimed to show the “dark side” of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

This was at least the second such discussion between former soldiers and students at Harvard. In September 1990, I returned to my sophomore year at Harvard from a year’s service in the Israel Defense Forces, spent mostly in Gaza. To a small group of interested students, I related my encounters with a population under occupation. I spoke about the pervasive fear that seemed to radiate from Gazans, a fear born out of our nighttime raids on houses, our ability to confiscate all-important identity cards at will, and our monopoly on weapons and government. We were the bogeymen, the terrors from whom the children of Gaza scattered.

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One fall day, while we were on patrol in the streets of Khan Yunis, my NCO, Noam, saw a kid about five hiding behind the gate to a yard. Noam smashed his rifle butt against the side of the gate, and the noise terrified the kid and sent him running. Later, I asked Noam what he was doing.

“I want that kid to be scared of us when he grows up,” Noam said. “I don’t care if the Palestinians have a state in Gaza, with a port in Gaza and a capital in Gaza. But I want them to be scared of us.”

Back at Harvard, I described my horror at being an object of terror, but argued that our alternatives were to terrify or be killed. Gaza’s anger at Israel stemmed from 1948. The occupation in which we terrified without killing non-combatants prevented the anger among Gaza’s teens and twentysomethings from being translated into plans to kill us.

In 2005, the horror of the occupation overwhelmed our fears, and Israel left Gaza. Hamas took over.

Gaza’s kids can grow up without seeing us, and we can stop being horrified that we terrify them. Or not? Fast-forward to another fall day: Sunday, November 11, 2012, 1:30 p.m. I live 30 km. southeast of Gaza, in Beersheba, a city of 200,000. I’m walking to my eight-year-old’s school to pick her up when the air-raid siren goes off. Incoming missile from Gaza. 60 seconds to impact. I run like a madman to the nearest cover, an eight-story apartment building with no accessible bomb shelter.

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In the stairwell, five kids between 18 months and 11 years old from two families cower. The mothers have gone to pick up their other kids from school, leaving the 11- year-old in charge. These kids, too, are terrified. I tell them to get down, sit against the wall, facing away from Gaza. “It’ll be okay,” I keep saying. I hold the baby, who is already too heavy for the 11- year-old, and hope that someone is holding my daughter.

We wait for the inevitable explosion, and it’s much louder than usual. I don’t let them get up.

We’re supposed to wait 10 minutes after the siren. Finally, one of the mothers arrives. I tell the kids to listen to her and run again, faster this time, to get my daughter.

Wednesday, November 14. The rocket-fire on Beersheba starts at 8 p.m., and it doesn’t stop until the night of Saturday, November 17, when the Israel Air Force rains destruction onto Gaza, killing Hamas leaders and innocent bystanders, giving Beersheba its first six-hour stretch of nighttime quiet.

Two rockets, three rockets, five rockets, every hour, or half-hour, or hour-and-a-half, completely unpredictably, the siren wails, the kids cower, the explosions sound.

My kids don’t want to leave the bomb shelter, even after 10 minutes.

They know it’s coming again.

My kids’ terror in 2012 is that a missile will kill them. Their terror is justified. Mira Scharf, Yitzhak Amsellem and Aaron Smadja lived in Kiryat Malachi, 30 km. north of us – until last Thursday. They didn’t make it to the bomb shelter in time. They’re dead. Others have lost limbs, eyes, and their minds.

No one emerges the same.

There is no moral equivalence between terrifying kids by slamming a rifle butt into a gate, and terrifying kids with lethal missiles.

The occupation was horrible. But it terrified Gaza into a submissive quiet. There were conquerors and conquered, there was terror and horror – but large numbers of noncombatants were not killed by the occupation.

Fifty thousand Israeli troops are now massed at the gates of Gaza, ready to renew the occupation.

They know they may march into RPGs and anti-tank missiles fired from behind and above, boobytrapped buildings, etc. But they also know that we cannot live with missiles hitting our cities. And neither can they. Our kids and their kids have a right to expect to hear birds in the sky and not bombs, missiles and rockets.

Is the re-occupation of Gaza the only moral choice Israel can make? Certainly, if it is the only way to avoid our kids living with rockets and their kids living with our bombing in response.

But Gaza does not need to be a place where anger is translated into killing. During our occupation, fear seemed to be our only effective weapon against those 25 and under. But for those over 25, we had a better weapon: the work permit which enabled heads of families to work in Israel.

Even working a menial job in Israel ensured a decent living.

When we would stop and frisk men, we would often get the complaint: “Bishtrill fi-Israil.” Literally, this means, “I work in Israel.” But in reality, it meant “What’re you bothering me for? I want quiet here, too!” A real living wage gives men a strong stake in quiet. It means that if quiet ends, they have something to lose. Ensuring that fathers have something to lose is the only way to ensure that kids on both sides of the border can live without fear.

Without occupying Gaza, Israel cannot transform Gaza’s economy into one where families have a stake in maintaining quiet. But the international community can. To be effective, it would have to bypass the Hamas leadership, which has a vested interest in maintaining the poverty that feeds the anger, so as to generate fighters against Israel.

If the international community is serious about ending the missiles on Israel’s cities, about ending Israel’s targeting killings of Hamas leaders in Gaza, and about avoiding an Israeli re-occupation of Gaza, then it needs to find a means to directly deliver cash and work to Gazan citizens.

It needs to take control of the economy of Gaza away from Hamas, and create massive makework projects in which wages are paid directly to families. The wages need to be tied to political stability.

They cannot function, as UNRWA relief currently does, without regard to the political situation.

The goal of treating Gaza differently than any of the hundreds of other poorly-managed economies in the world is to avoid renewed violence.

In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is impossible to ignore Gaza. By intensifying the rocket fire against southern Israel over the past seven years, Hamas has ensured that Israelis understand what dangers await them if the occupation of the West Bank ends.

Hamas has made life impossible for the million Israelis living with 40 km. of Gaza. They account for a seventh of Israel’s population. But nearly 100 percent of Israelis live within 40 km. of the West Bank.

Nearly every Israeli understands that if we end the occupation of the West Bank, without ensuring that the Gaza paradigm is not repeated, we will end the State of Israel.

An international project of the type described above would be enormously challenging. It reeks of colonialism, of the sort of paternalism that the West tries so desperately to avoid. But it is the only moral alternative to a renewed long-term Israeli occupation of Gaza. And it is the only way forward.

Because no one’s kids deserve to live in terror.

The writer served in the IDF in 1989 to 90 and graduated from Harvard in 1993. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Pennsylvania and is senior lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at an Israeli university.

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