The murder of three Israeli teenagers and the retaliatory killing of a Palestinian teen have sparked a crisis in Gaza, with rocket and mortar attacks and a ground invasion possible. Freelance writer Nigel O’Connor talks to people on the ground.
The images are too familiar. Smoke and fire rise in mushrooming clouds over the crowded urban landscapes of the Gaza Strip, blurred and grainy video footage of faceless figures disappearing in the flash of an impacting missile. In Israel, scenes of military mobilisation and civilians making their way to public shelters to the sound of warning sirens.
At the time of writing more than 80 Palestinians had died in the latest conflagration between Israel and Gaza’s militant factions, which began Monday. Two Israeli soldiers have been injured by a mortar round fired from Gaza. The current crisis, in which Israel has hit over 800 targets by land, sea and air, along with scores of rocket launches from Gaza into Israel, was sparked by the murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on June 12. An Israeli ground invasion into Gaza now appears a distinct possibility.
In Beit Lahia, a village in the northern Gaza Strip where residents are reportedly receiving messages from the Israeli military to evacuate their homes before a ground invasion, Majda Tantish remains indoors with her family as much as possible while the bombing continues. It is the third time in five years they have lived through such horror, and the mother of four says the family prepares by stocking up on food and water.
“We are beginning to get used to it. You can tell if a missile is close or far away, but it’s always terrifying, and the children cry and scream,” she told Crikey in a telephone conversation. “The explosions make the house shake to and fro; yesterday my 11-year-old son spent the day hiding under the table.”
Following the disappearance of the three yeshiva students last month Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly blamed Hamas and launched the largest military undertaking seen in the West Bank for nearly a decade. Hamas, which in April supported a Palestinian unity government in order to pave the way for national elections, denied any knowledge of the crime and, so far, no evidence indicating the group’s involvement has been presented publicly. During the West Bank operation, which shut down major cities and imposed travel restrictions on individuals, Hamas’ membership and associated institutions were targeted in 18 days of raids on homes, businesses, universities, media outlets and charities. More than 560 people were arrested and six Palestinians were killed during the raids.
The discovery of the bodies of Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and their funeral on July 1 brought calls for vengeance by Israeli politicians and the retaliatory killing of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem. Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, was burned to death after being forced to drink petrol by Jewish extremists, sparking days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police and military in Jerusalem and across Israel and the West Bank.
“Incitement in the media and above all in the political sphere, led to the burning of a child,” Gideon Levy, a prominent Israeli writer and columnist with Ha’aretz, told Crikey.
The political fortunes of Hamas have suffered greatly since the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was deposed in a military coup last year. Civil servants have not received full salaries since September, and the enclave faces shortages in fuel, electricity, drinking water and access to food and medicine. While Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007, keeping peace depends on the co-operation of militant factions, such Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, which began the current round of rocket attacks. Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigades, has also joined the current round of rocket launches.
According to Levy, Israel’s attempts to crush Hamas through military means will always fail.
“Israel has been trying to eliminate Hamas for years, and the more they try the stronger Hamas always get. What will replace Hamas if Israel succeeds in eliminating them? The replacement will be much worse,” he said. “You don’t kill political movements by force.”
Levy says compassion and empathy is the only way forward.
“Whenever Palestinians do something we ignore the context and deny their rights,” he said. “Humanisation is the name of the game. Without it Israel couldn’t have done what it has done for the past decades. If the Israeli public saw Palestinians as human beings and human beings with equal rights it wouldn’t have happened — without humanisation there are no limits.”