Spring fever

Israelis continue to get ready for the summer - whatever that might bring.

Sderot evacuation 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Sderot evacuation 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
There are some moments in life so fateful that you never forget the precise circumstances. All Americans of a certain age know exactly where they were when they learned of the Kennedy assassination. Ditto Israelis when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. My father recalls the moment he learned as a child that Britain was at war with Germany. But what about the day before? In June 1982, newly demobbed, I was in London when I learned - not in so many words - that war was about to break out. It wasn't yet a war. It was officially Operation Peace for Galilee. And it hadn't yet started but I heard the opening shot had literally been fired. Staying at the same residence for young Jewish professionals as me was a security guard from the Israeli embassy who was among the first to be informed of the attempt on the life of ambassador Shlomo Argov. A not-so-humble corporal, I knew immediately that that gunfire acted as the starting signal for a major campaign. Clearly we would respond with an attack on the terrorist forces in South Lebanon; they would throw even more Katyushas at northern Israel - they didn't need much encouragement anyway - and we would respond by sending in ground forces. I spent a fitful night - homesick and sick with fear - trying to listen to Israel Radio and figuring out when my brother and brothers-in-arms would be crossing the Litani River on their way to a war from which it was obvious some would not return. A popular Hebrew song sets out the conventional wisdom "Milhamot kvar lo korot behoref..." - wars don't break out in winter - but this time of the year is something else. There's a feeling that something's got to give. MY FRIEND Chana also wonders if another war is on the way. Chana, a single mother of three young children, lives in Sderot. Her Independence Day did not go as planned. Instead of being woken by her alarm clock at a luxuriously late hour for the holiday, her Yom Ha'atzmaut started at 7:30 a.m. to the sound of the first Tzeva Adom (Red Color) siren warning of incoming Kassams. "I decided to stay in Sderot for the day anyway because there were lots of good things planned for the kids, but my knees were knocking," she admits. "It is always very much on your mind. I was very, very aware of the threat. I spent the whole time alert and thinking 'What do I do if...' I kept going over in my mind where the nearest shelter was, how far I was from home." Not that her home is so safe. A child was killed in her parking lot three years ago; the nearby playground where she takes her sons - one six-year-old and four-year-old twins - was destroyed last spring; and her sister's house sustained a direct hit last summer. Chana, although she is the last person to admit it, is a super-trooper, forced to be both a wonder-mom and a soldier at the same time. A schoolteacher, she is not the hysterical type. Indeed she gets on with her life, and that's what she finds disconcerting. "There is a routine. But that's not normal. We have turned the non-routine into the routine. Quiet should be the norm, not the Kassams." LIKE JUST about every adult Israeli, Chana thought the IDF would carry out a widespread operation in Gaza in March. Guessing when the next campaign/war is going to break out is also not very normal but has turned into something of an Israeli habit in this country where just about everyone is a war veteran and an amateur general. Planning summer vacations is taking on the feel of a game of Russian roulette with people consulting each other on the latest rumor - will war break out again in the North and if so will it be over by August? Would it be better to try to go North next month or is that when war is more likely? Chana, who takes the kids on weekend breaks to Jerusalem and other places where they can get a taste of "normal" life, can even joke about The Situation. When I mention that previous operations in Gaza have been rather poetically known as Autumn Clouds and Summer Rains, she suggests the next one be called "Spring Flowers." So now at least we have a name. What we don't have, at time of writing, is a date. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorized a pinpoint operation following the barrage of more than 10 Kassam rockets and 20 mortar shells that fell on the Negev on Independence Day. The timing was clearly not coincidental. Hamas would love to have been Independence Day party poopers. The IDF believes the attack was meant to provide cover and distract attention from an infiltration by a terrorist cell, whose members intended to kidnap soldiers deployed on the Gaza border in a raid similar to the one near Kerem Shalom in June that captured Cpl. Gilad Schalit. Hizbullah, Hamas's ugly sister, used the same tactic when it abducted reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser near Lebanon at the start of the war last July. A spokesman for Hamas's armed wing said the group considered the truce (such as it was) over. You don't say. The message came over loud and clear and the Israeli leadership (even this leadership, some might add) could not ignore it. Olmert convened a security cabinet meeting to discuss the barrage. But the dilemmas regarding the response are bigger than ever. The precedents of Lebanon I and II are at the back of everyone's mind, and not that far back as the Winograd Committee presents its interim findings into last summer's war. The average man (or woman) on the Israeli street is well aware that the country's deterrence suffered in Lebanon II. A widespread campaign that failed would put a nail in a metaphorical coffin as well as the all-too-painfully real ones. Similarly, it's easier to guess how wars will start - as I did in London in 1982 - than to predict how and when they will end. Another question that King Solomon might have trouble ruling on, let alone our current prime minister, is whether massive military intervention would raise the chances of bringing Schalit safely home or incur greater risks of his being killed or held indefinitely. An old-fashioned scorched-earth policy could probably put an end to the Kassams for a while. But Israel, too, could get badly burned. Chana is scared of the implications of a possible campaign in Gaza. On the other hand, she says, "It's impossible to carry on like this, as if it were normal. I just don't know the solution and luckily it's not my job." The prime minister, whose increasingly uncomfortable job it is, on April 25 reportedly authorized limited operations in Gaza, but decided against a large-scale offensive. Meantime, Chana's staying put in Sderot and, in the ultimate sign of defiance from the home front, Israelis continue to plan their summer vacations - no matter what they throw at us. The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.