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  • Mark Lavie

Nothing has changed

I wrote this article in 2008. It's in my book, "Why Are We Still Afraid?" The only update is Israel's successful development and deployment of the Iron Dome system that knocks down most of the rockets heading for Israeli population centers. Yet even that evokes condemnation, as if it's "not fair" that Israel spends its money to protect its citizens, while Hamas uses its resources to manufacture missiles and dig attack tunnels. Plus la change...

SDEROT, Israel -- "POW!" The sound of a little explosion pierced the sunny commercial square on a calm Friday noon. People carrying shopping bags and flowers for the Jewish Sabbath gasped, ducked and took the first step toward running for cover - even though by then, less than a second later, they knew. It was just a kid who accidentally popped a balloon. "Another rocket just fell," said a slim man with bristly gray hair and a flannel shirt, trying - and failing - to make a joke of it. Rockets are nothing to laugh about in Sderot, a town of 20,000 just a mile from Gaza, the favorite target of Palestinian rocket squads. Their homemade rockets are unguided and primitive, so it's convenient that there's an Israeli town just across the fence to shoot at. More than 1,000 rockets have been fired at Sderot over the past year. Though they cause few casualties and the property damage isn't overwhelming, they have traumatized the residents of Sderot, sending thousands, including children, to seek therapy. There is a "code red" detection system that sets off an alarm in the town when a rocket is launched from Gaza, giving people about 20 seconds to take cover. Imagine never being more than 20 seconds from a shelter. "It's depressing," said Yaakov Levy, looking out at the sidewalk from his little real estate office. "Except for Fridays, no one moves around. Everyone stays off the streets." A sign in his window advertises a two-bedroom apartment for sale for $15,000. You can't buy an apartment in Tel Aviv for even 10 times that. Israeli leaders keep saying that they will not tolerate incessant rocket fire at their people. They say no sovereign nation would tolerate that. They ask you to imagine what the response would be if militants in Windsor, Ontario, pelted Detroit with rockets every day. The distance between Windsor and Detroit is about the same as the distance between Sderot and Beit Hanoun, the Gaza town just across the fence, where Palestinian squads set up in neighborhoods and schoolyards to launch rockets this way. Would the United States order an intensive bombing campaign against Windsor? Don't be too quick with your outraged negative answer. For two solid months in 1999, NATO forces, led by the U.S., bombed Yugoslav cities like Belgrade during a civil war in the Balkans. And the Serbs weren't bombing Detroit. That campaign was accepted for the most part as a Western effort to restore order to the volatile area. Contrast that to what happens when Israel takes military action to stop the daily rocket fire at its people. Inevitably, when hitting back at Palestinian militants who locate themselves among civilians in a crowded territory, civilians are killed and wounded. Each such casualty sets off another round of recrimination, often led by the U.N. secretary-general, calling Israel's response "disproportionate," using terms like "war crimes" and even "genocide." Israel finds itself on the defensive against world groups, human rights organizations and some governments, while at the same time failing to stop the rocket fire. The Islamic Hamas rulers in Gaza, meanwhile, the same ones who reject the existence of a Jewish state and send in suicide bombers to accent the point, gain legitimacy and claim victory when Israel ends another ineffective, small but destructive operation in Gaza. So Israelis and their leaders complain loudly about the unfairness of it all, the "double standard" that holds Israel to a much higher moral plane than its neighbors or even the West itself. Part of the reason is that Israel holds itself to a higher standard. Several of the most strident human rights groups denouncing practically every step Israel takes in Gaza are Israeli human rights groups. About 25 years ago, Rabbi Julius Berman, then the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was asked about that. "Thank God for the double standard," he replied, surprising his audience in Jerusalem. "The day they start judging us the way they judge them, we're finished." Anyway, military invasions don't stop the rockets from Gaza any more than military actions prevent roadside bombs in Iraq. Airstrikes don't seem to help much, either. Sophisticated armies don't have answers for low-tech explosives.

Israel is working on a system to shoot down the little rockets, but it's prohibitively expensive and won't be ready for years. The U.S. is developing a laser countermeasure that isn't too reliable and doesn't work at all when it's cloudy. Perhaps a diplomatic offensive to isolate Hamas, block Gaza borders, urge the world to ostracize the Islamists and in parallel, show Gaza's residents that it's in their interest to kick Hamas out? Oh, right, the world has been doing that since Hamas overran Gaza last June. The results? Criticism of Israel for causing a humanitarian crisis, and ever-increasing support for Hamas among its people for standing up to the Zionist enemy. And the rockets keep exploding in Sderot. There is practically no street in this little town that doesn't include an apartment building, or a kindergarten, with rocket damage. It's an American social axiom that every problem has a solution. This problem, the daily rocket fire, may not have a solution, certainly not on the micro Israel-Gaza level. Nothing Israel can do, or would be permitted to do, would stop the barrages for long. Temporary cease-fires always break down because in the end, Palestinian militant groups gain local support by blasting away at Israel, and Palestinians consider their suffering heroic. Perhaps it could be solved in an international framework, with a peacekeeping force empowered to do whatever it has to do. That opens up areas of concern that Israelis and Palestinians prefer not to consider: splitting Gaza from the West Bank, turning over control of a Palestinian territory to a foreign force, putting Israel's safety in the hands of someone other than Israel's army, risking that as in the past, an international body would automatically blame Israel for everything, even as the rockets fall on Sderot, and more recently, the city of Ashkelon, too. But if Israel actually believes that allowing rockets to fall on its towns is intolerable, it may have to take its chances and look to the world for help.

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