Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Winter by the Mediterranean (within rocket range)

Just thinking of more peaceful, happier times in this part of the world. Before anyone gets antsy, I took these photos last winter at a favourite spot which at the time wasn't within rocket range (though I guess close to it) and today is firmly within range.

Just thinking of me and my kid looking for shells and crabs, watching the fishermen, and the families with kids playing on the beach, the oblivious lovers. All just enjoying the serenity, the crash of the waves almost drowning out the faint bubble of children's laughter reaching us from down the beach, eyes fixed on the stunning beauty of a Mediterranean sunset.

Well they aren't there now, and it isn't because of the weather, it's because there is no where to take cover out in the open here, save for a wooden lifeguard's hut and a few thatched parasol thingies. And it is so damn sad, because life shouldn't be like this, shouldn't be thinking of rockets falling from the skies instead of watching them for migrating birds or kingfishers.

And maybe that sounds selfish, to be thinking of this while people are dying and getting hurt, and living in terror, but I don't think so. I want those kids to once again be running along that beach and building sand castles.

These thoughts were running though my mind as I caught odd snippets of tv today, a few minutes here and there while folding laundry or sorting out some cupboards, really samples of programming throughout the day I guess.

Israel Channel 1 and Israel Education TV were having a special "open studio" children's programming (sorry, can't think of the exact English translation) because of the "situation" - all over the south-west schools are closed for the safety of the children, as large gatherings of people make for more casualties in the event of a rocket strike. That and many schools lack adequate shelters. (In theory perhaps all the kids and teachers could squeeze in to their school shelters, but only if nobody breathes...)

So there sat Hanni Nahmias, legendery Israeli children's tv host, and in between cartoon clips and chatting with some youngsters talking about fun with do it yourself science projects, she was talking to children living in communities currently under fire, trying to give them an outlet for their fears and concerns.

Later I caught yet another children's programme, also speaking to a young girl from a kibbutz over the border from Gaza, a young girl calmly and matter of factly talking about things which shouldn't be in any child's vocabulary.

About rockets, and what they do when and if the alert sounds and how they've lived with this situation for so many years.

About fear, and seeking shelter, and huddling with older siblings at night for comfort.

About differentiating between the sounds of incoming rockets from Gaza and IDF return fire.

About how they sympathised with the children in Gaza caught up in the fighting, about how they were sure that just like them, the children of Gaza dreamed of peace and coexistence. About how they were sure that the kids in Gaza were innocents just like them, and they knew that it was Hamas, not the ordinary Gazans, who were to blame. They spoke of sorrow at knowing that kids were getting hurt there too.

Earlier that morning there were psychologists given advice on some breakfast show, telling worried parents how to explain the situation to their children, how to deal with their fears and uncertainty. Try to stay calm. Don't try to pretty up the situation by saying the booms are thunder, not rockets, because children can tell when their parents are covering up. If Heaven forbid someone you know is hurt or killed, don't lie to your kids, tell them what happened if they ask, maintain their trust by being as honest as you can, but don't volunteer the information if they don't ask right away. And so on and so on, advice from parents up north who suffered through Hizballah's rockets during the 2006 Lebanon War and advice from child psychologists sadly expert with child trauma in wartime.

And then at some point I happened upon an interview with a young woman from a kibbutz near Sderot talking about her life, but what really got me was her nephew, a boy of about 3, same age as my child, a little boy whose entire life has been lived in the shadow of rockets and sirens - it's all he's ever known.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Random rockets?

So being an Israeli you have to have something of a thick skin, otherwise you spend your entire life with raised bloodpressure from the deluge of offensive and often just plain stupid comments friend and foe alike make about life in this neck of the woods. I could spend my entire life responding to this stuff, but, then I wouldn't have any other life, so mostly I swallow hard, laugh, cringe, roll my eyes or engage in all three, and move on.

The following comment from a usually intelligent pro-Palestinian friend of mine just made me see red though: Random rocket firing at people living safely in bomb-proof shelters does not equate to this crap (referring to Israel's current military operation in Gaza)

Excuse me?!

Random rocket firing is a weapon of pure terror. You never know when and where it will strike, when you're taking your kids to school, making dinner in the evening, driving to work, ploughing a field or shopping for food - you are at risk 24/7 with no warning, other than the brief 15 second alert (if you're lucky) of the Red Dawn "early" warning system. If you're caught in the open, forget it, there is no time to reach shelter, you just lie down on the ground and pray.

Israeli civilians living within rocket range of Gaza have been living with this reality for years, and it just keeps getting worse, as the numbers of rockets fired each week grows, and their range increases.

Israeli roulette is going about your daily life and wondering whether today a rocket will land in an empty lot or score a direct hit on your home while you're asleep in your bed. Whether today is the day that a rocket hits the playground seconds after the kids have gone back to class or whether it will hit in the middle of recess, and it won't just be the tangled wreckage of swings and monkey bars, but the mangled bodies of flesh and blood too.

Because both happen, and the luck that by a miracle most of the time the rockets have missed hitting people doesn't negate the shattered homes, kindergartens, playgrounds, synagogues and shops, the stark reminders that there but for the grace of God go those who live within rocket range of Gaza, the reminders of the really bad days when the rockets hit a crowded Ashkelon mall (I was in Ashkelon that day, I remember it well), or a cluster of mothers and kids outside a kindergarten, or workshop or hapless folks caught walking down the street.

Plenty of Israelis living near Gaza still don't have adequate shelters, there are many older buildings, farm buildings (Israeli refugees from Israel's evacaution of Gaza living in thinwalled trailers for example).

You can't turn every single structure into a rocket proof shelter, you reenforce what you can, say a shielded roof over vulnerable schools, concrete barricades to provide a modicum of protection while waiting for a bus, but it's a physical impossibility to say, cram the whole of Ashkelon's major regional hospital into a shelter or to reenforce every public building and private home.

The hell of a lot of use a shelter is when you are walking in the street, going to school, buying food at the market, waiting for the train, working in your field or driving to hospital.

And a shelter won't save you from a direct hit.

Have you ever lived in a shelter? The shelter in my home is typical, tiny, just enough room for two small camp beds to be squeezed in. Just about adequare for my small family, but if we had more children, no one would even be able to lie down, we'd all have to hunch up on the floor just to fit everyone in. Even sleeping the night like that would be claustrophobic, having to stay in there for days at a time with no sanitary facilities, no windows, just a narrow confined cell like space would drive most families to insanity. And at some point you have to get out to get food, relieve yourself, etc.

Israelis have been more than patient. No one should have to live with the daily threat of rockets, and the civilians of south-west Israel have been living with rockets and mortars for years. Israel pulled out of Gaza, uprooted Israeli civilians living there for decades, pulled out its soldiers, and still, the rockets just kept coming.

The Israeli government has tried non-military methods to put pressure on the Hamas government of Gaza to stop the rocket attacks, but it hasn't made a difference. Israel agreed to a ceasefire which wasn't really a ceasefire - Hamas just reduced (but did not actually stop) the number of rockets fired into Israel each month.

And then the ceasefire ran out and Hamas didn't renew it, instead increasing the rocket fire to dozens. Israelis have had enough, and no government can sit idly by and allow its citizens to be targetted this way, day after day, year after year, while the intensity of the rocket fire only increases and along with their range, casting more and more Israeli civilians in the net of rocket terror.

Unlike the Palestinian rocket launchers who randomly aim their weapons at civilians, the Israeli army is doing its utmost to only strike at military targets in Gaza, pinpointing Hamas and other guerilla groups military infrastracture - training bases, military headquarters, weapons depots, rocket launchers and the like. Most of those killed have been members of Hamas or other armed militias.

And at the end of the day the seemingly random rockets do have a wider strategic purpose for the Palestinian militias: eroding Israel's sovereignty, forcing Israeli to flee, and so weakening Israel, in the hope that eventually this will lead to the ceding of more territory to the Palestinians. Make no mistake, random rocket fire is effective terror, and terror is just another way of fighting a war.