I met Andrew Dubbins, the Assistant Editor of Georgetown University's student newspaper, The Hoya, when he was in Israel last week. Here with the Washington-based organization Project Interchange, this young college newspaper editor was visiting Israel with 5 other college newspaper editors from across the US on a fact-finding mission to Israel. (Read my first post in the series here.) Their parents were worried of course, but nonetheless, these brave students traveled to Israel amidst yet another raging conflict.
Meeting reporters, and media specialists from Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, Dubbins takes a look at the Gaza-Israel conflict, reporting on what he learned during his one-week seminar.
In a recording studio in Sderot, a few miles east of Israel's Gaza strip, Sergio Arditi felt the steady pulse of Rock and Roll give way to the sporadic vibration of bombs.
It was 11:00 on Saturday, December 27th -- a day of rest in the Jewish tradition. Arditi, a 26 year old Argentinian Jewish student, was halfway through a recording session when the bombing began.
"We went out to see what was going on because we didn't know if they were attacking us or we were attacking them," said Arditi. Such uncertainty is no surprise in Southern Israel -- where Palestinian rockets and Israeli bombs have become an almost routine aspect of daily life.
This time, the bombs that shook Arditi's recording studio fell from Israeli warplanes as they pounded Hamas military installations in Gaza. The Israeli assaults came after Hamas launched hundreds of Qassam rockets into southern Israel after a six-month cease-fire expired on December 19.
Arditi is no stranger to the Qassam. In Sderot, said Arditi, "People are so used to [the rocket attacks]. There are kids who were born with that and that's all they know. They grow up knowing that "tseva adom" means to take cover." The Hebrew phrase, "tseva adom," or "code red," is the alarm that announces an incoming rocket from the Gaza Strip. After hearing the alarm, an individual has between 10 and 15 seconds to find shelter.
Aditi recalls hearing the phrase once while walking to his friend's house. Suddenly, a rocket whistled over his head and plummeted to the pavement about three hundred meters away. Aditi escaped without injury. But not all have been so lucky.
Since 2000, approximately 8,000 Hamas rockets and mortar shells have fallen on towns north and east of Gaza -- killing 18 people before last month.
"We gave them peace, and they gave us rockets"
On Sunday, December 28, Hamas missiles struck for the first time near the city of Ashdod, deeper into Israeli territory than ever before. The new range of these rockets -- 40 kilometers -- endangers nearly one million Israelis, or 15 percent of the population.
Brigadier General Shalom Harari, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, outlined the difficulty of intercepting the missiles -- describing the clash between "low tech" and "high tech." The Qassam rockets used by Hamas, said Harari, are small, varied, and unpredictable.
Harari went on to blame the increased rocket attacks on Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. The dismantling of Israeli settlements in Gaza, said Harari, opened the door for a landslide Hamas victory in 2007. "We gave them peace, and they gave us rockets," he said -- a sentiment shared by many Israelis.
On the other side of Gaza's fence, Israeli attacks have wounded 3,000 and killed 600 -- a quarter of them civilians.
Tel Aviv University Professor Ahser Susser argued in favor of Israel's strong response. "We have to create a deterrence," said Susser, "where other countries will not have an appetite to attack Israel."
In contrast, Issa Jaber, Vice Chairperson of Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), contends that Israel's response fuels, rather than destroys, radicalism. In Jordan, home to nearly three million Palestinian refugees, thousands of students marched to the parliaments in Amman, calling for expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and an end to diplomatic relations with Israel. On January 3, 250 anti-Israel protestors in Lebanon tried to reach the U.S. embassy before police resorted to tear gas.
Anti-Israel radicalism is not confined to the Middle East. On December 30, hundreds of demonstrators in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, chanted "Nuke, nuke Israel!" In Copenhagen's City Hall Square, pamphlets bore the message: "Kill Jewish people evry [sic] where in the world!"
Support for Hamas, however, is by no means universal. In Israel's West Bank -- a geographical region governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and separate from Hamas-ruled Gaza -- Fatah party president Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas for ending the cease-fire agreement and quelled anti-Israel demonstrations.
Similarly, many Palestinians in the West Bank -- despite their hatred of Israel -- have developed animosity toward Hamas. These Palestinians vividly recall Hamas's violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, during which 400 Fatah supporters were brutally murdered, often falling to their deaths from rooftops.
However, there is no telling how long this anti-Hamas sentiment in the West Bank will last. President Abbas's term expires on Friday [today], and waiting in the ranks is imprisoned Fatah radical and Hamas-supporter Marwan Barghouti.
"Three gunmen make you the law"
There are those who question whether this change in Fatah leadership will make any significant difference. Khaled abu-Toameh, a Palestinian Affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, contends that the PA under Fatah has lost all legitimacy. He argues that Fatah lost its credibility when it surrendered the 1.5 million Palestinian residents of Gaza to Hamas in 2007. Likewise, though the international community donated more than $6.5 billion to the PA from 1994 to 2003, its government, says abu-Toameh, remains corrupt and broken.
Having three gunmen makes you the law in Gaza or the West Bank city of Ramallah, says abu-Toameh. He recalls stumbling on his stolen car in Ramallah. He stopped the drivers, who turned out to be members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. After courageously asking for his car back, they charged him a fee. He reported the incident to the PA government, but no action was taken.
Agreeing on unified goal critical
Before any talk of peace can begin, says abu-Toameh, the Palestinians must show progress in reforming their broken and splintered governments. Rather than embarking on another peace process doomed to fail, he argues, the international community should freeze all financial aid to Palestine until the PA and Hamas show signs of progress, such as open debate and judicial reform.
Not only must the Palestinians fix their broken governments, they must, says abu-Toameh, agree on a unified goal. The problem, he says, lies not with Israeli leaders, who are willing to negotiate divisive issues such as withdrawal from settlements and the division of Jerusalem. Instead, he argues, the problem rests with Palestinian leaders who, thus far, have been unable to articulate a unified goal. Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel while Fatah has shown a willingness to negotiate with Israel.
Until the Palestinians reach a moderate consensus, argues abu-Toameh, peace will remain unattainable. "You can't impose moderation on people, it has to come from within," he says.
As for Sergio Arditi, Hamas rockets continue to rain down on his town of Sderot. Asked how he responded after Israeli bombs shook his recording studio, Arditi laughed and answered, "We did some other takes." For Arditi, life goes on -- the bombs and rockets fail to drown out his rock and roll.
For more about Project Interchange and how it is connecting leaders worldwide, to Israel, please visit: www.projectinterchange.org.