By LIAT COLLINS
It has been exactly a year since Israel launched what is officially known as Operation Cast Lead, but often referred to as "the war in Gaza."
At some point during the campaign, my Sabra next-door neighbor found me in the kitchen helping my son pack a care package for soldiers - part of his elementary school's war effort. "Oh, it's so sad," she sighed. "I don't think there has ever been a generation that hasn't sent packages to soldiers. I remember doing it in the Six Day War."
Until Cast Lead was launched on December 27, schoolchildren all over the country had been sending care packages to children in Sderot and other communities close to Gaza which were suffering from constant missile attacks.
A friend in Sderot, fed up with the government's policy of restraint, once quipped that she had considered lobbing the stale cakes, cookies, chocolate bars and doughnuts over the border into Gaza as ammunition. When the war finally broke out - after even Ehud Olmert's government couldn't ignore some 80 missiles a day - she felt more relief than fear.
Having spent eight years raising her children under fire, she realized war would not be worse than what had been considered peace until then. Her family was already used to living with missiles: At home, not locking the bathroom door and sleeping in the safest part of the house; when out, automatically judging the location of the closest shelter. In Sderot, they have just 15 seconds from the Color Red warning until the missile lands. It's probably the only place in the world where wearing seat belts was banned as dangerous.
IN ASHKELON, the situation was different. Although under threat, residents hadn't had to live with Kassams before.
"It was really tough," says Dr. Stephen Malnick, a longtime resident. "There are so many things we had taken for granted that we suddenly couldn't do: like going shopping and walking along the promenade on the beach. My daughter, a student at Sapir College, didn't leave the apartment for two weeks - except once: She went to a salon and had her nails manicured. She told me, 'There are some things a woman just doesn't give up on,'" he recalls.
Malnick, who immigrated from England, jokes that one of his strongest memories was missing the end of a sports broadcast in which Manchester United was playing. "I mean, is nothing sacred? Can't a man watch a football match in peace?" he demands, his British sense of humor reminiscent of the spirit that got his parents (and mine) through the Blitz in World War II.
Malnick, whose wife's family were also suddenly under attack in Beersheba, says traveling to work in Rehovot, just outside the Kassam/Grad range at that time, was like visiting a different world. "We went to a restaurant and when we mentioned we came from Ashkelon we were treated like war heroes and given a 10 percent reduction."
Quickly the Malnicks got used to the situation and even Fluffy, the family dog, learned to recognize the sirens and the need to take shelter. My cat had a similar Pavlovian response to the sirens of the 1991 Gulf War.
It's not just generation after generation of children who are learning to live with war, it seems. A veterinarian in Sderot recently told a television interviewer that in addition to the usual work you would expect in a small-town practice, he has to cope with traumatized animals, and sometimes physical injury as a result of the Kassam attacks. My friend swears that all the birds fled the town.
Malnick, director of Internal Medicine C Department at Rehovot's Kaplan Medical Center, well knows the effects of stress. He has written papers, together with his colleagues, on what he calls the first known case of "Kassam colon" - the irritable bowel syndrome suffered by a 35-year-old who worked in Sderot. "IBS is very common," he says. "But to the best of our knowledge, this is the first case of IBS triggered by missile attacks or an early warning system."
A year after the war, life is back to normal in the South. Actually, it's better than before. Friends in Sderot, Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod report a rise in real estate prices. "Suddenly, everyone realizes that the whole country is in the same boat so it doesn't matter so much where you live," says Malnick. "And we've also learned that the shelters and reinforced rooms really work."
Enrollment at both Sapir College, next to Sderot, and Beersheba's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is up.
THERE ARE plenty of stories that should give our enemies pregnant pause for thought: As in every previous war, Operation Cast Lead has been followed by a baby boom, with proud parents in the South joking that they had had to find some way of reducing tension. (In the 1991 Gulf War, sexologist Ruth Westheimer memorably told Israelis how to make love while wearing gas masks.)
Twelve months later, the press is full, too, of opinion pieces debating whether or not the war was a success - hard to assess when the aims were not clearly set out.
On the negative side, the world, while grudgingly admitting Israel has a right to defend itself, has condemned the IDF response as disproportionate. This is easy to do when 1,166 Palestinians died compared to 13 Israelis (including 10 soldiers). But it ignores the fact that the terrorists chose to hide behind civilians while Israeli citizens took to shelters. Another failure: Gilad Schalit, abducted by Hamas three and a half years ago, is, at the time I'm writing, still in captivity. And although the rocket fire has been seriously reduced since Cast Lead ended on January 18, it has not stopped and the range of the rockets has even increased.
Nonetheless, whereas in 2008, more than 3,200 rockets and mortars were fired on Israel from Gaza, since the end of Cast Lead, that number has dropped to 242.
These figures mean that when friends in Sderot and nearby Kibbutz Sa'ad invite me to visit, I don't immediately think "over my dead body."
That my friends say "only" 242 missiles is both shocking and sad: What other country thinks that is a reasonable number of rockets aimed at civilian targets in one year? Just how do you define proportionate?
I truly feel for the innocent residents of Gaza. They undoubtedly suffered greatly in the war. And, sadly, I suspect they will continue to suffer: While Israel has spent the past year feverishly adding protective rooms and shelters in areas closest to Gaza, Hamas has spent the year digging more tunnels to smuggle in arms. And while my friends have resumed normal life - or in the case of the kids growing up in Sderot started to live one - residents of Gaza have had to cope with the increasing imposition of Shari'a law and ever-stricter Islamist norms.
Israelis and Palestinians both know that the current calm won't last. Hamas, and its Iranian backers, pin their hopes on the ever-increasing rocket range which now, quite possibly, reaches as far as Tel Aviv. Israel, on the other hand, is developing new missile defense systems - the Arrow 3 for long-range ballistic missiles, the Iron Dome for short-range rockets and David's Sling for medium-range ones.
It is only a matter of time before Israelis are again under attack - from rockets and public opinion. Fortunately, if nothing else, Cast Lead has shown that we will survive and bounce back - with more babies. And we'll all sigh and again express the hope that finally a generation will grow up in peace.
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