BY VIC ALHADEFF
Sydney Morning Herald
March 7, 2008
The code red siren sounded within minutes of our arrival. Its chilling message was that Kassam rockets had been launched from Gaza and would explode near us within 15 seconds.
A father of four had been killed by a Kassam 24 hours earlier, and there can never be enough air-raid shelters to protect the town’s entire population of 20,000. As the alert was sounded, we were being briefed by an Israel Defence Force explosives expert. He rushed us into the reinforced army headquarters and moments later raced off to where the Kassams had struck. His task: to ascertain whether they still posed a danger.
Two Kassams had landed a kilometre from where we stood. One had injured a guard of the Public Security Minister, Avi Dichter. We had been conversing with Dichter, with the guard in attendance, 10 minutes earlier.
Such is the lottery of life in Sderot, a working-class town in Israel’s Negev Desert, battling to maintain a semblance of normality under conditions that no nation should be expected to endure.
The problem is that Sderot is located 1.5 kilometres from Gaza. This means its population has been under fire – every single day – for 2½ years. Kassams, mortars, Katyushas.
More than 1200 missiles have struck Sderot in the past nine weeks. Last week a boy, 10, died from shrapnel wounds sustained after a missile exploded 80 metres from where he stood. He had sought cover in a reinforced bus shelter, but a flying chunk of metal struck a part of his body that remained exposed.
The children of Sderot are traumatised – half are undergoing counselling – the fraught uncertainty of not knowing where or when the next missile will strike taking a toll.
Protective concrete coverings have been erected over school buildings, kindergartens are instructed not to allow children outdoors and improvised bomb shelters have been thrown up. And longer-range and more accurate Grad missiles are now targeting Ashkelon, a city of 120,000.
Most of the attacks are timed for when children are on their way to or from school, maximising the chance of mass casualties.
The context for all of this is that 2½ years ago, in August 2005, Israel withdrew every one of its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in the expectation that a responsible Palestinian administration would take control of the territory and coexist in peace alongside it. The departing Israelis left behind flourishing greenhouses, and millions of dollars in aid poured in.
But with Hamas in control of the territory, Gaza has emphatically declared war on Israel – which continues to supply it with power, electricity and commodities despite the daily attacks and despite Hamas’s refusal even to recognise Israel’s existence. The situation is heading towards breaking point. No nation can allow its sovereignty to be trampled on with impunity, nor can it sustain a situation in which its citizens come under fire from a neighbour up to 50 times a day.
Israel has stepped up commando raids on identified leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who are responsible for most of the attacks, although the inability of this strategy to stop the missiles is acutely apparent. Furthermore, Hamas has acquired vast quantities of weapons through Egypt, while Iran and Hezbollah have been training and supplying Hamas fighters.
The grim reality is that a big Israeli military ground operation is looming ever closer as a distinct possibility.
The Israeli Government does not want it, and its army does not want it. It would mean significant casualties on both sides. The additional concern is that Hezbollah would use the opportunity to open a second front against Israel from its base in Lebanon, reprising its rocket barrages of 2006.
The key question is what the exit strategy would be. NATO troops on the Gaza-Israel border are an option, along the lines of the situation on the Lebanon-Israel border. Another is to wrest security control of Gaza from Hamas and hand it to any leaders who commit to peace.
The core issue is that Israel seeks peaceful coexistence with a Palestinian state, while Hamas seeks a region in which Israel no longer exists. Only those willing to work towards peaceful coexistence can have a place at the table. In the meantime, the situation on the ground has become untenable.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. He visited Sderot last week.
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