AS ELATED Gazans poured into Egypt amid the ruins of the blown-up border wall, Israelis gazed at their television screen with mixed feelings.
We are not blind to the plight of innocent Palestinians, but no one is naive enough to think that militants are not busy shopping too, for the next qassam rocket and the next suicide bomb. It is a plain Middle-Eastern reality.
“Israel refuses to rule out retaliatory attack,” said a headline of The Age online news page on January 26 – an admirably concise wording of an attitude that many Israelis find infuriating. The world, it seems, expects Gazans to keep firing their rockets on the Israeli town of Sderot and the surrounding villages.
Israel, in return, is expected to stand firm, chin up, and declare that it will not respond.
Nice symmetry, world-weary Israelis retort. Then they dig their heels in the ground and announce, in the words of Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, that Israel will keep defending its citizens as long as Hamas does not recognise “the right of anyone who is not Muslim” to exist.
Things are not that simple, of course. Israel wronged Gaza. Palestinian leaders, too, have done their worst. Fatah under Yasser Arafat made every possible mistake on the road to peace, and the Hamas government under Ismail Haniye simply deleted peace from its dictionary.
Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 left its million denizens poor, radical, violently divided from within and economically dependent on Israeli power and goods. Gaza responded with a barrage of rockets and mortar shells, intensified after the Hamas takeover. Ehud Olmert’s Government, scarred by the Lebanon War of 2006, is treading cautiously between “focused” firing on militants and a partial economic closure. The trouble is, the rockets keep landing.
Innocent Gazans pay dearly for the deeds of extremists nestled (comfortably) among them. Many non-combatants are zealously supporting violence against Israelis, but this does not clear the moral mess: civilians have been killed in Israeli raids aimed at militants. Medications are sparse, malnutrition is rife, hunger is present.
The truth must be said, and in the Israeli public sphere it is said loud and clear: Gaza is immensely worse off than Sderot. Israeli children in the western Negev face a daily routine of sirens and near-miss explosions.
Yet Sderot’s kids have food, medical care and holidays away from it all. Their parents can choose to leave, and most of them proudly opt to stay. Children in the Gaza Strip get none of these benefits.
Why, some Israelis ask, should we care for the plight of the Gazans? They elected a Hamas Government and then abided by a Hamas coup d’etat.
They hate Israelis enough to dance in front of TV cameras after a successful suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. When Israelis soldiers filed out of Gaza in 2005, dragging away thousands of Jewish settlers, the Palestinians rushed to desecrate the empty synagogues. Since the disengagement, Gazans killed and kidnapping Israeli soldiers and fired 4200 rockets at civilians across a recognised international border.
Would Britain “rule out” full military response if the southern tip of Cornwall was under attack? Would Australia keep its calm if Darwin and vicinity took constant fire? And would these fine democracies, incidentally, keep providing most of the attackers’ electricity and take their seriously ill civilians into their own hospitals? Israel does. The world is not noticing.
If the UN is anything to judge by, the world could not care less about Sderot. Libya, current president of the Security Council, has just blocked a decision condemning Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli civilians.
Why, then, should Israelis care about Gaza’s children? First, because we can. Seeing them flock out of their claustrophobic strip, free for a fleeting moment, Palestinians do touch Israeli hearts, even if terrorists are enjoying an Egyptian market day, too.
Morality may be messy in war zones, but Israel knows it cannot cut electric power supply to Palestinian schools and hospitals. Not even when Israeli schools and hospitals are under Palestinian fire.
Don’t expect easy solutions. As long as Hamas keeps warring, Israel will hover between the Scylla of economic curfew and the Charybdis of military blows. This is one of the no-win situations that history sometimes deals us.
Luckily, sinister equilibriums can change. Egypt cannot have Gazans wandering around the Sinai peninsula, nor can President Hosni Mubarak wait for Hamas to team up with his own Muslim Brotherhood opposition.
The Arab League must step in, and creative thinking is requisite: a massive Arab investment in Gazan infrastructure can help. A territorial swap between Israel, Egypt and Gaza is ripe for open discussion.
Even Israeli hawks may be willing to consider such a land deal, giving Gazans some space, some air and some hope.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is professor and Leon Liberman chairman of modern Israel studies at Monash University. She is also director of the Posen Research Forum for Political Thought at the University of Haifa.