Explaining the Dead Children of Gaza – And How to Avoid Them
It is hard for outsiders to grasp the level of destruction and terror that Gaza’s rockets are currently wreaking in Southern Israel. It’s easier to focus on numbers: comparing the number of rockets with the number of dead seems to justify the defenders of Hamas who call them “primitive” or “home-made.” But everyone needs to understand how effective these rockets have been in making life impossible for over one million Israelis in several of Israel’s largest urban centers. Israel’s only moral choice may be to abandon its current policy of restrained, directed bombing, and to adopt a more aggressive policy aiming to remove the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Such a policy will inevitably result in more civilian casualties in Gaza, killing the innocent as well as combatants.
There is no such thing as a small rocket when it’s coming at your kids. I live in Beer-sheva, a city of 200,000, housing a major research university, one of Israel’s largest hospitals, and 55 minutes by train from Tel Aviv. For us, the current round of terror began Sunday, November 11. By mid-morning, rockets had been fired at several neighboring cities. We realize what’s ahead. I run and get my 4-year-old, and my wife puts her to bed in our 8-by-5 foot bomb shelter. The pink butterflies on the walls may fool her into calling it “the butterfly room,” but she hears us call it by its real name. Should I pick up my 8-year-old too? She has fun classes on Sundays, so I let her stay.
I leave the house at 1:30 p.m., and I’m outside when the air-raid siren goes off, indicating an incoming missile from Gaza—60 seconds till it hits. I run like a madman to the nearest cover, an eight-story apartment building with no accessible bomb shelter. 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’s arms, and hope that someone is holding my daughter too. We wait for the inevitable boom, 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. Her class got to the bomb shelter in time. The third graders, on the second floor, had a more difficult time. The schoolyard is full of panicked parents, with principal Sharona calming everyone down.
It gets worse. Much worse. Wednesday, November 14. At 8 p.m., the air-raid sirens start. Over and over again. They’re firing volleys, not single rockets. The kids have been sleeping in the bomb shelter for two nights already; they’re scared to sleep anywhere else. We hear multiple booms as the rockets fall. From inside the bomb shelter, there’s no way to know if the rest of the house is still standing. It restarts again and again, unpredictably, with never more than 90 minutes of respite. There is nowhere to escape, it’s much too dangerous to be outside. But at 7 a.m., I feel I ought to go to shul to ensure a minyan. And the garbage needs to get taken out. It’s a 90 second run from the house to shul, and there’s a public bomb shelter midway. I run for it, hugging the wall of the building next to us. Get to shul. Sirens go off during Torah reading, first aliyah. To the public bomb shelter. Boom. Back to shul. The fourth aliyah brings sirens again. Back to the bomb shelter. Boom. Back home again. Sirens again. Boom. Get the kids out of the bomb shelter—everyone pee now! Everyone run around the yard now! Don’t be scared, we can get back in in time. Sirens again. Boom.
By 11 a.m. we realize the impossible: this can go on for days. The kids are already frantic. So are we. We get calls from friends inviting us to stay. People are incredibly hospitable and generous. Our life begins to focus on Hamas Leader Ahmed Jabari’s funeral, scheduled for 11 a.m. in Gaza. Will they fire during the funeral as a show of force, or do they too want quiet? Can we get away? The main road to Tel Aviv is in range of rockets. So is the train. There’s no cover on the road. From 11 nothing’s been fired. At 11:45 we decide to make a break for it. We call the taxi company and ask if they’ll send us a taxi. They will. Moti arrives, experienced and taciturn. Everything’s fate, he says. Great, but let’s not rely on miracles.
I keep the kids in the house while I load the bag my wife managed to pack. To avoid rocket range, we make for Hebron, driving due east of Beer-sheva. I don’t start breathing normally till we’re into the Bedouin settlements, east of Beer-sheva. They won’t fire here, I think. (Later, I find out that I’m wrong. Rockets have landed in Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin town.) At 12:30, Moti’s wife calls him on his cell phone. Another volley’s been fired. She’s alive. Everything’s fate, he says. We stay with wonderful friends who live deep in the West Bank, in Pene Hever, near Hebron. My kids keep asking for days if every noise is a siren. My wife still can’t sleep now, five days later.
We could flee. Hundreds of thousands can’t. Hospitals and services need to function. Elderly relatives can’t flee and can’t be abandoned. So for the past six days nearly a million people are enduring the same routine we endured for 18 hours. Not for a few border towns, but for two of Israel’s eight largest cities (Ashdod and Beer-sheva), for a dozen mid-size towns, for one in seven Israelis, the impossible has become life. After six days, they are beginning to crack. More and more cases of mental trauma are being reported in the media.
This can’t continue. Israel cannot afford to surrender a seventh of its citizens to this fate. It cannot evacuate them and survive as a country without the Negev, half of Israel’s sovereign territory. And even for the cynical who want to do this, Hamas won’t let them. Rockets have been fired at Tel Aviv (one a day for three of the past six days), bringing the conflict closer to home for another two million Israelis.
Increasingly, this seems like a zero-sum game, in which our choices are stark. Beer-sheva’s first break from the insanity came on the night of Saturday November 17, when the Israel Air Force accelerated its bombing of Gaza, killing Hamas leaders and innocent bystanders. The bombing created Beer-sheva’s first six-hour stretch of nighttime quiet. The intensity of Israeli bombing needed to give us quiet makes it impossible to target the bombing only on weapons dumps and Hamas leaders. Hamas has created a calculus in which either our children go crazy or we kill their children. It has re-created the conditions under which Churchill authorized the bombing of German cities.
Few expect the current ceasefire to hold. Hamas’s version of a ceasefire says it will stop the rockets if Israel agrees to stop targeting Hamas leaders. Essentially, Hamas is asking that Israel agree to give Hamas immunity to plan attacks on Israel through Sinai, through tunnels under the Gaza fence, and across the Gaza fence. This means abandoning Israelis in border communities and farther inland to their fate, a patently immoral choice.
Unless Hamas succumbs to massive pressure from Egypt, exerted on Egypt by the US, the ceasefire will collapse. The alternatives to the ceasefire are clear: intensified air bombing of Gaza, or a ground invasion. Either will cause heavy civilian casualties in Gaza. It is a fantasy to imagine that a ground invasion will cause less dead Gazans than air bombing. Hamas has transformed Gaza’s cities into a nest of RPGs and anti-tank missiles fired from behind and above booby-trapped buildings. To clear these, buildings need to be knocked down by tanks and powerful bombs, incurring more civilian casualties in Gaza.
At this point, Israel seems to have no moral alternative to more intensive Israeli attacks, causing increased civilian casualties in Gaza. When the death toll of children in Gaza mounts, the West must understand how and why this happened.
The U.S., not Israel, holds the key to avoiding civilian casualties. The Egyptian economy is entirely dependent on the three billion dollars of aid it receives from the U.S.. If and when Hamas renews its attacks, and Israel responds, the U.S. can order Egypt to open its border with Gaza and allow civilians from Gaza to flee into Egypt.
In the short term, the U.S. can and must make any aid to Egypt contingent on Egypt actively disrupting the flow of weapons to Hamas. The long-range rockets that hit Israeli cities are smuggled through Sinai. Given enough political will, Egypt can stop them.
Longer term, the West must take ownership of the situation in Gaza. It is key to any of the progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which the U.S. and the EU see as central to their own interests. The U.S. and EU wish to see further Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank. In the current situation, holding the West Bank is absolutely key to Israel’s survival. It offers the only route into the Negev out of range of Gaza’s missiles. More importantly, nearly every Israeli believes that the situation in Gaza will be replicated in the West Bank as soon as Israel withdraws from the West Bank. The corrupt Fatah officials who were replaced by Hamas in Gaza will be replaced in the West Bank, and everywhere within 40km of the West Bank will be within rocket range, just as everywhere within 40km of Gaza is. The current area into which Hamas can shoot volleys of rockets (40km from Gaza) covers one seventh of Israel’s population. The same range (40km from the West Bank) covers four-fifths of Israel’s population. Until the Gaza paradigm is eliminated, any withdrawal from the West Bank is suicide.
For the West to take ownership of the situation in Gaza, it must completely 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 avoiding civilian casualties in Gaza while allowing Israel to survive, and about avoiding an Israeli re-occupation of Gaza, it needs to find means to directly deliver cash and work into the pockets of Gazan citizens. It needs to privilege Gaza over the hundreds of other poorly-managed economies in the world. It needs to take control of the economy of Gaza away from Hamas, and create massive make-work 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.
We are going to survive. But unless the West involves itself more directly in exercising leverage through Egypt and Arab allies against Hamas, we may have no moral alternative to creating horrifying sights in Gaza.