August 30, 2006

Israel’s Other Rocket War

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – Israel’s other war-without-a-name in the summer of 2006 is eerily similar to the one in the north, the one that got all the attention, against Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.

Palestinian terrorists kidnapped the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit just across the border from Gaza and ramped up their Qassam rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel.

Shika Frista and his friend Zvika took me to Kibbutz Alumim, where Zvika lives with his family, and showed me some of the rockets that landed in and around the community recently.

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Several Qassam rockets had been placed beneath a palm tree.

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Oddly, the Gaza rocket factory took the trouble to brand their weapons in English.

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Elsewhere exploded Qassam rockets and parts were used as garden art.

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There is something slightly creepy about using Qassam rockets as garden art. But Qassams are a part of life in Southern Israel. And there’s something slightly defiant as well as creepy about integrating them into the landscape.

Turning a murderous instrument with your name on it into a community showpiece is a way of taking ownership of it, laughing at it even. Your rockets don’t scare us. They’re just garden art now. We’re still here. And you keep missing the target.

Zvika did seem to think the rocket parts were a little bit funny. He held them up for my camera with the same good cheer as a fisherman who just caught a seven pound bass.

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I, too, picked up some of the rockets, thinking while doing so that thugs from Hamas or Islamic Jihad had handled them before I did, hoping against the odds that they could use them to kill a few Jews.

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Unlike Northern Israel during the Hezbollah war, Southern Israel has not been evacuated. Rockets flying out of Gaza are fewer and smaller than those that were shot out of Lebanon. Terrorism usually doesn’t work as well as its practitioners wish. So far the only thing terrorists in Gaza have accomplished is bringing about the return of the Israeli Defense Forces.

I saw a huge pile of busted up pavement next to one of the streets. “What’s that?” I said to Zvika.

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“It is from a Qassam,” he said. “It landed right next to these houses and shattered the road.”

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“The houses look okay,” I said. But I remembered the damage I saw from Katyusha attacks by Hezbollah in Kiryat Shmona. Most of the damage done to buildings is cosmetic and easily fixable even while Katyushas are extraordinarily dangerous to human beings.

“If the Qassam lands next to you,” Zvika said, “it will kill you. But it if lands ten meters away it won’t kill you. Qassams are lightweight. If they had more explosives and weighed more the rockets wouldn’t go very far. They would land on the Palestinians.” He laughed and made a diving gesture with his hand. “The rockets are made in Gaza. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are not technologically sophisticated like the Hezbollah.”

If Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers compared with IAF missiles, Qassams are practically spit balls compared with Katyushas. Then again, a Qassam is huge compared with a bullet, and a great deal more dangerous. They have only killed a handful of people, even so. The biggest danger from the Palestinian rocket war against Israel isn’t the damage Hamas and Islamic Jihad are able to inflict today. It’s the damage they could inflict tomorrow if they find a way to equip themselves with more powerful missiles that could render Southern and even Central Israel uninhabitable.

Zvika pointed to the alarm system on top of the roof of a school.

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“You have twenty or thirty seconds after you hear that alarm to get to a shelter,” he said. “It scares the children every time it goes off.”

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“Do they ever fire rockets at night?” I said. Hezbollah hardly ever fired Katyusha rockets at night because they did not want to give away the positions of the launchers to the Israeli military.

“Oh yes,” he said. “All day, all night, all the time.”


Earlier we had coffee at an outdoor café just far enough away from Gaza that we couldn’t quite see it.

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Zvika’s two children joined us.

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They had accompanied us during our entire tour along the border with Gaza, which just goes to show how normal-seeming such places can be when you live near them. I doubt many tourists ever take their kids to that border.

A Qassam could have struck us at any moment, although the odds were low enough that I didn’t worry about it. I even tried to worry about it just so I would have an idea what it can feel like to live next to Gaza. After spending a day and a half under fire from Hezbollah, though, Qassams didn’t seem like that big a deal.

Just as we were sitting there drinking our coffee, Zvika received a text message on his cell phone telling us that an incoming rocket struck Kibbutz Kissufim.

“That happened just now?” I said.

“Just now,” Zvika said.

It was far enough away that we didn’t hear it.

I wanted to know what Zvika thought about Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year now that he has to live under rocket fire in part as a result. Was withdrawing the settlements and the army the right thing to do?

“Yes,” Zvika said. But he does not want to withdraw from the West Bank. “It is our land. They can have Gaza. But Hebron has always been ours. They have only been there for 200 years.”

The United States has barely existed for more than 200 years. No one thinks non-native Americans should have to pack up and go back to Europe or wherever else their families came from. At some point the statute of limitations has to run out on these things. George Santayana famously said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. P.J. O’Rourke went further and said it goes double for those who can’t remember anything else.

“Do you just want to sit on top of Palestinians forever?” I said to Zvika.

He shrugged.

“What is the solution to this problem?” Shika asked Zvika. Zvika had no answer, not even a bad one.

“What is the solution?” Shika said again. “What do you think is the solution?”

Zvika didn’t say anything.

“You want to keep the West Bank but give them Gaza?” I said.

“We gave them Gaza,” Zvika said, “and Lebanon. But Hamas and Hezbollah still want to kill us. Why? What did we do to Lebanon? Nothing. And they want to kill us!”

“The West Bank is different from Lebanon, though,” I said.

“Yes,” Zvika said. “It is our land.”

Zvika is in the minority. Shika calls him a “fanatic,” even though they are friends. The Israeli center as the well as the left wants out of the West Bank as well as out of Gaza. Ehud Olmert was elected in part on that platform.

There’s an old formula that has been floating around for a while.

1. Greater Israel

2. Democracy

3. Jewish Majority

Pick two.

Zvika and the rest of Israelis to the right of the mainstream still think, somehow, they will find a way to hold onto all three.

It didn’t matter what I said to Zvika. He just kept saying “It is our land,” as if that settled everything and there was nothing left to be said.


Shika and I left Zvika at Kibbutz Alumim and continued by ourselves in his truck to Kelem Shalom, where Israel, Gaza, and Egypt converge.

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This is where the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on June 25, triggering Operation Summer Rain that continues in Gaza today, almost entirely beyond any media coverage.

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Shalit was inside a tank near the tower pictured above. Eight terrorists emerged from an underground tunnel 700 meters long that began in a building in Gaza and ended as a hard-to-see hole in the middle of an Israeli field. They fired an RPG at the tank and killed two soldiers. Gilad Shalit emerged from the tank. The terrorists snatched him off the tank and stole him to Gaza. The whole operation took seven minutes.

Tunnels are appearing all over the place. Tunnels from Gaza into Egypt for smuggling weapons. Tunnels from Gaza into Israel for carrying out terrorist actions.

The Egyptian border patrol (pictured below) does shut down some of the smugglers’ tunnels, even though it is not their top priority.

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Tunnels are a top priority for Israel, though, along the border with Egypt as well as underneath their own territory.

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Those tunnels get people killed. They keep finding new ones beneath the houses.

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Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without help.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:15 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 29, 2006


I'll have more Gaza material published here shortly. In the meantime, don't forget I'm also filling in for Andrew Sullivan and posting shorter pieces over there.

Here are two recent articles:

Protesters to Olmert: You’re Going to Be Even More Mud than Golda

Hezbollah Dismantles Shebaa Farms Outposts

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:42 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 28, 2006

Bandwidth Problem

Apparently there is/was a bandwidth problem around here. Photos weren't showing up in the post below this one. Can you see them now? My browser cached everything, so I can't tell if the problem has actually been fixed. Someone please verify for me that the pictures are visible. Or not. Thanks!

(I had to use a third-party server because Movable Type broke and I can't upload photos to my own server. Tech Support hasn't been able to figure out why yet. Sigh.)

If you tried to view the photos earlier and still can't see them, try clicking Refresh. If that doesn't work, I need to know so I can work on this problem some more...

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:21 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Eyeless in Gaza

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The engine of a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza into Israel by Palestinian terrorists

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – All eyes turned from Gaza to Lebanon as Israel fought a hot war with Hezbollah across its northern border. Before the Lebanon war broke out, the fighting in and around Gaza was the big story in Israel. But once the media coverage ended it stayed ended, even after foreign correspondents were free to pick up where they left off. Perhaps the kidnapping of two Fox News journalists by the latest in a long line of Palestinian terrorist groups -- the Holy Jihad Brigades -- all but guaranteed reporters wouldn’t go back.

Even though I’ve been in Israel for a couple of weeks, I still didn’t know any more about what’s going on down there than people who have never been here before. News from Israel’s other rocket war barely trickles up to Tel Aviv. So I hopped in my rental car and drove down to Mishav Klahim, just east of Netivot and 20 kilometers from Gaza, to meet Shika Frista who promised to show me what’s going on.

I missed a turn on the coastal road when I was supposed to veer left to avoid driving straight into Gaza. Suddenly mine was the only car on the road. An aerial surveillance balloon hovered in the air up ahead. It looked just like the one I saw flying on the border with Lebanon while Hezbollah fired barrages of Katyusha rockets into Israeli cities.

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The war of the rockets was supposed to be over. But I was back in it.

The left turn I needed to take was behind me. But I kept driving, slowly, so I could see what was ahead. I rolled down the window and listened for sounds of war. All was quiet, oppressively hot, and still.

The road dead-ends at the Erez Crossing Point. No one was going in or out of Gaza that day. It looked like no one was even there working or watching, like the place had been abandoned and left to itself.

I took a quick picture…

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…then turned the car around and realized I had made a mistake. Any Israeli military personnel who watched me drive up, take a quick picture, and leave right away would have good reason to be suspicious and even arrest me. But no cars followed in the rear view mirror.

The map led me straight to Shika Frista’s house on his Moshav. We sat at little table under the shade of palm trees next to his swimming pool.

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Shika drank a glass of red wine.

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It was too hot for wine, so I asked for a beer. The air outside is drier in the south, though, not humid and heavy like it is in Tel Aviv.

“I can hear the Qassam rockets fired at us from Gaza,” he said and gestured to the farmland beyond. “They shake the windows of my house when they hit.”

Israel ended up with two rocket wars at the same time. One in the north, and one in the south. Unlike Hezbollah’s arsenal, Qassam rockets aren’t made in Iran. They’re made in Gaza itself. They’re smaller, though, than Katyushas. The south has not been evacuated like the north was, even though people still occasionally are killed by the rockets.

“How often does Hamas fire rockets?” I said.

“Hamas doesn’t shoot them,” he said. “Islamic Jihad shoots them.”

“How close to your house has a Qassam hit?” I said.

“About…four or five kilometers away,” he said.

“And you can hear them here,” I said, “even from that far away?”

“Oh,” he said. “Of course.”

We finished our drinks and drove toward Gaza in his truck.

“Ariel Sharon’s farm is near here, right?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “A Qassam landed twenty meters from his wife’s grave on the family property.”

We passed Sharon’s farm and in minutes reached the city of Sderot.

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“Lots of Qassams hit this city,” Shika said. “Most people killed by the Qassams live here.”

“How many rockets are hitting the city right now?” I said.

“Not as many today,” he said. “Because of the war in Lebanon.”

“What does Lebanon have to do with it?” I said.

“All the journalists forgot about us during the Lebanon war. So the terrorists are waiting for the media to come back before firing rockets again. They don’t want to waste those they have.”

“That can’t be the only reason,” I said. “The IDF has been active in Gaza this entire time. Surely that has something to do with it.”

“Yes,” he said. “Also because of the IDF.

Later two more Israelis repeated what Shika said about Hamas and Islamic Jihad cooling their rocket launchers while the media’s attention was elsewhere. I haven’t heard any official confirmation from either side that it’s true.

“How long do people here have from the time they hear an air raid siren until the rockets land?” I said.

“About 20 seconds,” he said.

We reached a small IDF base near the Israeli town of Nir Am where Shika’s friend Zvika waited for us.

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Shika’s friend Zvika

The parking lot was shielded by concrete bomb-blast walls.

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A civilian overlook tower was erected next to the military compound. It was not shielded by walls of any kind. But Gaza was still a comfortable distance away. No sniper could possibly shoot us from the other side of the vast and eerily empty no-man’s wasteland that lay between the de-facto end of Israel and the beginning of Gaza.

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An aerial surveillance balloon flew right over our heads.

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Zvika knew the area well. Shika had asked him to meet us so he could tell me what we were looking at.

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“Over there,” Zvika said, “is the town of Beit Hanun.”

Beit Hanun was far, and I had to zoom my camera lens all the way out to take a picture.

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The Gaza city of Beit Hanun from Nir Am with a zoom lens

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Here is a severely cropped piece from the photo above

“You see those towers off in the distance,” Zvika said. “With the sun shining on them? Those are apartment buildings in Gaza City that Arafat built for members of Fatah.”

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“Where are those smokestacks in the distance off to the right?” I said.

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“That’s Ashkelon,” Zvika said. “Islamic Jihad fires Qassam rockets at that city all the time.”

“Is this overlook point always open to the public?” I said. It felt strange just driving up to an IDF base, even if it was just a small one, and hanging out right next to it without having to even say hi to a soldier guarding the road.

“Very few civilians know about this place,” Zvika said. “Only the people who live nearby ever come here.”

“Is this interesting to you?” I said. “Or is it normal?”

“It is normal,” he said.

“It is interesting for me,” Shika said. “It has been three years since I saw anything like this.”

“There used to be plantations just on the other side of the fence,” Zvika said. “But the IDF uprooted them because Qassams were being launched from there. Now they have to fire Qassams from the buildings farther away.”

“If they fire a rocket you will see it,” Shika said.

“Will we see a trail of smoke?” I said.

Oh yes,” Zvika said and raised his eyebrows. “You will see the smoke.”

Just then several IDF soldiers in the base below shouted something in Hebrew and ran to one of the tanks.

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Several men jumped in, cranked up the tank’s engine, and roared with surprising speed into the field toward Gaza in front of the overlook tower.

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I braced myself for the thunderous racket of combat or a possible incoming or over flying Qassam. Nothing happened. The Gaza area was tense and sporadically violent, but the conflict was significantly dialed down compared with the just-ended open war against Hezbollah in the north.

It was time to move on. Shika and Zvika had much more to show me.

Zvika hopped in his van. Shika and I climbed into the truck and followed Zvika as he drove south down the length of the Gaza Strip.

“You see that dirt road on the other side of the trees next to this one?” Shika said.

I did, and I took a picture of it.

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“Every day a machine goes over it and smoothes it out,” he said. “Trackers, mostly Bedouin, search the dirt every day for fresh footprints. They can tell when someone has come out of Gaza and which direction he’s going. If you put one foot on that road right now you will be arrested.”

“I’m partly relieved that I can’t go into Gaza right now,” I said. I’m being prevented from going into Gaza for a variety of security, logistical, and bureaucratic reasons beyond my control. “But I also partly wish that I could.”

“The beach in Gaza is amazing,” Shika had told me earlier. “It is virgin. You wouldn’t believe it.”

“You’ve been there?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “We used to go there and eat in the restaurants.”

“When?” I said.

“In the early 80s,” he said.

“It was friendly then?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Israel ruled there. The Palestinians were friendly, I think they miss that period. They had money, they could walk freely.”

We continued following Zvika in his van to the abandoned Karni Terminal.

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“That’s Gaza, man,” Shika said. “Do you want to go inside?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “Not without the army, though. If you and I go in there right now, we’re both in trouble.”

“Me more than you,” Shika said.

We were much closer to Gaza this time than we were at the overlook tower. Buildings inside the strip loomed just over the tops of concrete bomb-blast and sniper-fire walls.

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“We are probably over some tunnels right now,” Shika said. “It is very dangerous and we have to be careful.”

The Karni Terminal was a major crossing point for people and goods into and out of Gaza before the place went completely to hell. Today it is abandoned.

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The spooky silence and emptiness only hinted at the violence and anarchy being walled off on the other side after the Israeli withdrawal.

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It wasn’t a safe place to linger. So we moved along and headed further south without getting out of our vehicles.

“The last three prime ministers want peace,” Shika said. “They go out of Lebanon, they go out of Gaza. And look what [Arab terrorists] continue to do.”

“Do you think it was right to leave Gaza?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.”

“Even though there are rocket attacks?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “This is occupied land. They always have excuses to do what they do. Do you know what’s going on in Gaza now?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t.”

“Whew,” he said. “You can’t imagine.”

“What do you know about it?” I said.

“Everybody has weapons,” he said. “The strongest is the ruler. It is not like in Ramallah.”

Smoke rose from Gaza off to the right.

“You see that fire?” Shika said. “It is from missiles. Israel is shooting at where the terrorists hide.”

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Vicious dogs chased the truck and ran right alongside it, furiously barking, snarling, and threatening to lunge at us.

The only thing less dodgy about this environment than the war zone on the northern border is that I couldn’t hear or see live explosions.

I did, however, see a tank moving fast among some trees.

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Once again I braced myself for the unspeakably loud explosions of combat. Once again, though, the IDF just seemed to be moving its forces around. There was no fighting at that particular time on that particular day.

We kept driving and passed by more tanks.

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“They are getting ready to go into Gaza,” Shika said.

Some of the tanks looked idle, though. Notice in the photo below that a cover of some sort has been placed over the barrel.

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“Roll down the window,” I said. “I want to talk to these guys.”

Shika rolled down the window and shouted at an IDF officer. The officer shouted back.

“I told him you are a journalist,” Shika said. “And he said It’s about time you got down here.”

“Ask him if I can interview some of the soldiers,” I said.

Shika asked my question in Hebrew.

“No,” the officer said.

“Can I take pictures?” I said and held up my camera.

“No,” the officer said. Then why did he say It’s about time you got down here? He didn’t send us away, but he didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.

It was okay, though. Noah Pollak and I were already wrapping up the week-long process of securing interviews with IDF soldiers and military intelligence officers out of Gaza. We had plans to get that side of the story soon enough from people who know who we are and are willing to talk.

You can drive from Tel Aviv to Gaza in an hour. How strange, then, that there’s a little war down there that no one else in Israel – not even the foreign correspondents – have any interest in or are really even aware of. I felt like I had slid off the edge of the country and through a hole in the dimension into a violent alternate reality. It’s as if the Gaza war does not exist in Israel now even though it’s right down the road.

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If a terrorist army fired rockets into Jersey City and the US military deployed tanks and heavy artillery against them, those who live in New York would take a keen interest in the goings-on. So would, I suspect, the people of Britain, France, Israel (!), and Cairo.

People get used to war, though. So do countries. Arabs are firing rockets at Jews? Israelis are sending tanks after their hides? Yeah, well, what else is new. Right?

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It’s tourist season now, just one hour north. And the beach is calling.

To be continued…

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without help.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:40 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 25, 2006

Getting the Story

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I spent all day today in the southern region near Gaza and learned part of the story about what’s going on down there. An IDF soldier I ran into said “It’s about time you got down here,” “you” being the media. Most foreign correspondents left the country after the cease-fire in Lebanon, and I don’t know what the rest are doing right now. But then the rental car broke down in the evening and I was stranded for hours. (That in itself is a story.) So now I’m finally back in civilization, but in this time zone it’s way too late to write all this up. Stay tuned, though. I’ll get to it soon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:48 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 24, 2006

The Latest from Fouad Seniora

I wanted to make sure you know, since I posted this over at Andrew Sullivan's place, that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora is now talking about a peace treaty with Israel. See here and here. This is huge, really, even if it's only talk and even if Hezbollah can unilaterally jam up the deal by shooting more rockets. No Lebanese politician would have dared to say such a thing two months ago with a Syrian gun pointed at the right side of his head, a Hezbollah gun pointed at the left side, and the reactionary mentality that prevails in certain Lebanese quarters.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:56 AM | Permalink | Comments Off


Don't forget I have posts over at Andrew Sullivan's place, too, until Labor Day weekend.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:26 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

Bomb Shelters

Amichai Geva and Yehuda Beinin, the two peace activists I interviewed earlier, gave me a tour of one of the community bomb shelters at Kibbutz Shomrat, just north of Akko (Acre) near the border with Lebanon.

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The entrance leading underground is in a communal area behind several old houses. The door was unlocked and open just in case the war started again and the sirens went off.

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The stairs lead deep underground, deep enough that I felt psychologically secure down there as well as physically secure.

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The place is purely functional, though. It is not where you want to live for a month.

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This shelter is used by 20 people. There are a couple of smaller rooms that branch off from the main room pictured above.

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But I only saw one single bed.

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Here is a picture of Amichai’s bomb shelter. His house is new, and all new houses are required by law to include sealed rooms (to protect against chemical weapons) that can also absorb a direct hit by a rocket or missile. The walls are solid, thick, and lined with books. Amichai told me he rather enjoys staying in his above-ground shelter. It's just another room in his house. With books, a computer, music, a bed, and a window, what more do you need?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:21 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 23, 2006

Peace Now Under Fire

SHOMRAT, ISRAEL -- I drove up to Kibbutz Shomrat, just north of Akko (Acre) near the border with Lebanon, and met two middle-aged members of Peace Now who stayed in the line of Katyusha fire throughout the war. I expected to meet two marginalized members of the old left who were stuck on the sidelines as history roared past. Instead, they insisted the rest of Israeli society is coming around to their point of view.

Amichai Geva warmly welcomed me into his home and fed me pitas, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, and watermelon. Yehuda Beinin joined us in the living room.

Both men and their families stayed on the kibbutz during Hezbollah’s attack.

“Lots of rockets hit near the kibbutz,” Amichai said. “One fell right here in the orchard next to the houses. But none of the houses were hit. Most people without children in the house stayed. It’s hard to keep children in a bomb shelter for almost five weeks.”

“How much time did you have after you heard the siren before the rockets actually hit?” I said.

“Thirty seconds sometimes,” Yehuda said. “Sometimes five seconds. Sometimes minus five seconds…the sirens didn’t always come on until after the rockets exploded. We’re right near the border here.”

I didn’t want to meet these guys to talk about rockets, though. I wanted to get an idea of how the peace movement is faring after Israel was attacked from a country they pushed to withdraw from.

The short answer is that they’re frustrated. But their own country isn't the only one that frustrates them.

Yehuda told me he recently spoke to an Egyptian via email about an anti-Hezbollah article published in Lebanon.

“This guy came up with all of the regular tradition anti-Israel positions that we’re familiar with,” he said. “I responded to this guy and said ‘You’re living in the past. There are things that happened sixty years ago, and if you’re going to relate to them like they happened yesterday then we’re not going anywhere.' I, as an Israeli, don’t have a problem admitting that a tragedy befell the Palestinians in 1948. And this guy, first of all, couldn’t believe that an Israeli would actually admit that something happened to the Palestinians. And in a very course and dogmatic way, just wasn’t going to cut me a break.”

“The Arab Nationalists say Israel has no role to play in the Middle East and that we’ll have to leave,” Amichai said.

“What do you do with this?” Yehuda said. “It’s not reasonable to expect Jewish people to just roll up and go away or disappear. But on the other hand, a true injustice was done to the Palestinians. Between those two poles, you have all sorts of people coming up with all sorts of statements, theories, and whatnot. And it’s all obviously useless. Nothing has led to anything. All we see is military confrontation. When the first Zionists came to Palestine, Palestine was a feudal society. And you have a big clash between concepts that have nothing to do with religion or anything of that nature. The fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is degrading into a religious conflict is a tragedy beyond description. It never really was.”

Israel is often thought of, in the West, as an unhinged fanatically right-wing country, like the U.S. on speed. Israel is far more ‘European,’ though, than it is ‘American.’ If Israel were not constantly under fire and constantly embroiled in conflict with eliminationist enemies, Israel would resemble a Jewish France or even Sweden of the Levant. The country was founded by democratic Labor Party socialists, and only rather recently has become more capitalist and complex.

“We have always considered ourselves leftists,” Yehuda said. “Always questioning ourselves about what is going on. But there is no way to bridge the gap between the statuses of the two societies that came here. Evidently only time will tell. The gaps that were created at the beginning were wide and have become wider. My conclusion for the time being is that just, evidently, not enough people have died for people to catch on here that there is an alternative that would suit everyone better.”

“How many people are in the peace movement?” I said. “It looks pretty small, especially during this latest round of fighting in Lebanon.”

“20 to 50 thousand people generally throughout the 1980s and 1990s came to [Peace Now] demonstrations,” Amichai said. “One of the major things that happened in 1982 was the Sabra and Chatilla massacres.”

He was referring to the massacre of Palestinians in refugee camps south of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The Lebanese Phalangist militia did the deed under cover of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli Defense Forces.

“It was a tremendous shock to Israel,” he said. “Hundreds of people were being massacred and slaughtered. This caused the trauma for many many people in Israel of the Holocaust all over again. But in reverse. People said how could our country allow this to happen? Even if the people who did the actual killing weren’t Israeli soldiers. But the Israeli army was in control of that area. And they let them in. That was the largest demonstration in Israel.”

“Ever?” I said.

“Ever,” he said. “There were 400,000 people. At the time the population of Israel was less than four million. Ten percent of the population went to Tel Aviv and demonstrated.”

I wanted to know if there are many Berkeley-style leftists in Israel.

“I think what’s different from our peace movement,” Amichai said, “from the peace movements in the United States, in other countries, and in Europe is the question of serving in the army. Peace movements are usually pacifists and they don’t encourage their members to serve in the army. The Israeli peace movement believes that Israel would not exist if we didn’t defend it. There is a slogan that’s going around: If the Arabs put down their arms, there will be peace. If the Jews put down their arms there won’t be any Jews left. And I think there’s a basic truth to that.”

“Amichai is speaking in the context of Israel,” Yehuda said, “and I can understand that. My feeling goes beyond the spirit of Israeli society only. I see organizations like Hezbollah as a threat to humanity in the same manner, for me, as the settler movement is also a threat. Where you have a nationalism that hooks up with a religious idea, I see only trouble. I’m not willing to discriminate between Jews and Arabs on this score. Not at all.”

“The Saudi peace plan is on the table,” Amichai said. “It’s what’s going to be in the end anyway. It’s just a question of how many more people are going to get killed.”

“Do you guys think Hamas agrees that the end is going to look like this?” I said. “Or do they actually believe they are going to destroy this country?”

“They actually believe they are going to destroy this country,” Amichai said. “They look at the Crusades as their historical comparison. It took 200 years to kick the Crusaders out. And the Jews have been here for 100 years. Wait another 100 years. If it doesn’t take 200 years, it will take 400. But eventually they think they will succeed.”

The Israeli peace movment serves in the army. Combat units include members of Peace Now. Israel is the only Western country that still fights wars with people like this as its soldiers. Some of the ultra-orthodox, by contrast, do not serve in the army. So while the U.S. military is more conservative than America as a whole, the Israeli army is slightly more liberal than Jewish Israeli society as a whole.

“Our group came to the kibbutz in the early 1970s,” Amichai said. “We were finishing high school and starting college during the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the late 1960s. And we attended the march in Washington and a whole bunch of other massive demonstrations against the American involvement in Vietnam. And then we came to Israel as committed Zionists. And we had to face going in the army. And…all of us did. Many of us served through over 25 years of reserve duty after finishing our regular service. That changes your opinion when you go to reserve duty and put your life on the line.”

“How does that affect you as a peace activist?” I said. “Does it make you more committed or less?”

“It made us more committed to that,” Amichai said. “Especially, I think, when the first intifada broke out. When there was the Yom Kippur War and the Israeli army was attacked on two fronts we felt that by serving in the army we’re defending our country. But when the intifada broke out and there was the question of masses of Arab women and children throwing stones – that was the war of the rocks – we felt that by serving and trying to oppress the justified anger of the Palestinians from trying to achieve self-determination, that made it much much harder to go into reserve duty. It made us more committed to try to leave both Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. The main goal of the peace movement was to get out of Lebanon and to get out of the Occupied Territories. I was very very active in the struggle to leave Lebanon. I served in Lebanon twice.”

“In 1967 Israel just blew it,” Yehuda said. “Ben Gurion said to get rid of those territories. No good is going to come out of it. People were overwhelmed with the victory. I don’t think Israel had a choice. Then we ended up with the territories. Nobody forced us to hold onto that and to start a settlement movement there.”

Amichai and Yehuda both think withdrawing from occupied territory in Lebanon and Gaza was the right decision, even if things did not go as planned.

“This recent war has shown how much latitude the world is willing to give Israel when we fight from our recognized border,” Yehuda said. “I strongly object when people come up with all kinds of excuses for why we can’t withdraw from the West Bank. They come up with strategic excuses or water excuses or land excuses, all kinds of excuses. But the simple fact of the matter is that this is what the world recognizes. And from that border we could wreck havoc on any attack like we did here.”

“You guys,” I said “think the recent invasion of Lebanon was a mistake?”

They both laughed.

“I think that if you ask most Israelis today in retrospect,” Amichai said, “looking at the results after the month, a large majority thinks it was a mistake.”

“I thought it was a mistake right away,” I said.

“Very few of us did," Amichai said.

“Here was a golden opportunity,” Yehuda said, “that the whole world and half the Arab world gave us on a silver plate. And we blew it. It had to happen quick. You have to understand something, though. Israel is not in the business of killing civilians. People in this country left, right, up, down really can’t tolerate that, won’t tolerate it. Because it’s bad. It’s not a value that Israel goes by. Israel also is sensitive, on the bottom line and in the final analysis, Israel is sensitive to world opinion. Nobody likes to hear all this nonsense. But there is also the realization that the whole ethos of the IDF was the lighting quick strike, boom, and finished. As soon as people saw that it wasn’t getting finished, everyone knew what the consequences were. This is also a major intelligence failure as well.”

“In the first few days,” Amichai said “and I think this was your basic question, almost all of us were supportive of the Israeli action.”

“Yeah,” Yehuda said in a tone of voice that suggested he, too, was supportive.

“We were because for years we were struggling to take the Israeli army out of Lebanon,” Amichai said. “And we did that. And we felt that the United Nations recognized the fact that Israel withdrew from the very very last centimeter of Lebanese territory. And we think this whole Shebaa Farms thing is a ploy. Hezbollah used it as their raison d'être to continue to rearm and continue their resistance movement. We felt that Israel was right to leave Lebanon. And Israel was exactly right to leave Lebanon. But if we’re attacked after we leave then we’re completely right to defend ourselves. And the basic question that I was asking myself was, how do we do that? And I think we did it very very poorly. And we did it without using forethought. Many people in Lebanon supported the action in the first few days and then we lost the support. It was the exact same with me. Sitting in our bomb shelter – and I’ll show it to you right afterwards – and we’re watching our soldiers and the army and…when I mentioned the fact that after being 1960s radicals and coming to Israel and serving in the army it’s a whole complete different mindset when our children start serving in the army.”

“What do you think Israel should have done instead at the beginning?” I said.

“Knowing Hezbollah,” Yehuda said, “there would have been ample opportunities to launch a strike. If the army would have been better prepared, and if the civilian population would have been prepared. What were these people thinking? What were the circumstances that led people into this kind of train of thought that they thought they could get away with this kind of activity being so ill-prepared. Some kind of hubris that goes way beyond, I mean, this is, from my point of view, this whole war and the results thereof have weakened Israel a great deal. And it almost certainly dictates a second round.”

“Yes,” Amichai said. “Many people are talking about the second round.”

“That in itself is a grave error,” Yehuda said. “You don’t want to create a war where you have to have another war to fix the first one. It’s just bad error of judgment.”

“What, as specifically as possible, should have been done instead?” I said.

“I don’t know,” Amichai said. “None of us do. I think what we do know is what shouldn’t have been done. Look at what we did in the past. There were two major bombings of Lebanon in the past. One of them was by the Labor government in 1995 or 1996 called The Grapes of Wrath.”

“That was the first Qana incident,” I said.

“Prior to that,” Amichai said, “there was Judgment Day which was very very similar to that. Trying to bomb Southern Lebanon to force the people to flee and cause pressure on the Lebanese government. This is the third time we’re doing that. And it’s not a very clever way of doing it. And they failed three times. All three cases failed. You would think that an intelligent country would learn from its first mistake or even from the second mistake. Why would you do it the third time? I am flabbergasted by this military strategy. I cannot understand it. I think it had to be done differently and cleverly without causing masses of civilian casualties and civilian destruction.”

“How do you do that with a guerilla army, though?” I said. “There’s no bad guy bullet that just hits Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah.”

“It’s very very hard to destroy Hezbollah,” Amichai said. “I don’t think you can destroy it without sending in tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers and suffering hundreds and hundreds of casualties. That’s one possibility. And it would last a very very long time. That’s what many people said should have been done from the very beginning. Other people said – and this was a debate in the cabinet – that after one week when you’ve tried all the things that you’ve tried with the bombing in first week and you didn’t succeed you try to achieve a cease-fire that will force the international community to disarm Hezbollah.”

“This was the point of view of the Foreign Minister,” Yehuda said.

“And this is the position that I support,” Amichai said. “And this is what we’re trying to do now. And the terrible loss of life on both sides, it’s a tragedy.”

“Do you guys feel alienated from the Israeli mainstream?” I said.

“I think the mainstream has become much closer to what we think,” Amichai said, “than twenty years ago. I mean, leaving the Gaza Strip, we were against the settler movements in Gaza Strip for 30 years. The father of the settlements, Arik Sharon, is the one who removed them. If you would ask me two years ago – it happened exactly one year ago – if you asked me two years ago was that possible, I would say it would be impossible. The people who voted for him in power were all the settlers. They are his political supporters. It’s as if, like, suddenly Bush, who is supported by the Evangelical Christians in the United States, suddenly becomes pro-abortion and anti-NRA. That’s the switch that happened in Israel.”

“That’s why the Likud Party split,” Yehuda said.

“But 70 percent of the people of Israel supported it,” Amichai said.

“How many would support doing the same thing in the West Bank?” I said.

“The same 70 percent,” Amichai said.

“Absolutely,” Yehuda said. “This is the point. The settler movement has shown itself to be very pernicious and has its tentacles very deeply in a lot of different government ministries. The general population perceives this as a basic threat to the country. There were official government decisions not to build any more settlements, and building is going on. In addition to the obvious anti-democratic aspects of this activity, people perceive it as a threat. I mean, we’re trying to get something done here. There is a kind of dialectic here between the left and the right. But people want to be in the center where they’re comfortable.”

“One of the things,” Amichai said, “that I think has put a damper on the idea of removing settlements and leaving the Occupied Territories in the West Bank has been the example of Gaza. Since the day we left we’ve had Kassem rockets fall on our territories. So people say, here’s your example. I was always saying, for years, let’s remove the settlements and let’s let the Palestinians rule, and this will show us that it’s possible to reach peace, by not controlling the Occupied Territories. And anyone saying, well if you open your eyes and look what happened, you’ll see we’ve been proved wrong.”

“So what do you do then?” I said.

“I think my criticism of the Israeli government from the very beginning of leaving the Occupied Territories…was not trying to strengthen the moderates. If Israel would have made gestures of support to Abu Mazen and tried to strengthen the moderate wing and engage with him and give the Gaza Strip back to him rather than not have any negotiations with him, I mean, I cannot understand the logic of that. I mean, they strengthened the radicals who have the glory of kicking the Israelis out of the Gaza Strip. Or out of Southern Lebanon. That’s a stupid way of going about it.”

“But if the moderates are strengthened,” I said, “the radicals haven’t gone anywhere. They still have their Kassem rockets. What do you do with these guys? I mean, you can’t just take rocket hits.”

“No,” Amichai said. “You can’t. You have to strike back. You have to strike back.”

“What do you think about the fact that peace movement don’t exist in Arab countries?” I said.

“Disappointing,” Amichai said. “It is disappointing.”

“I hope this is not an offensive question,” I said, “because I don’t mean it to be. But, do you ever feel like a sucker?”

“No,” Amichai said. “I think my best interest is not to have an occupied people under my foot and under my boot. I think that affects my freedom when Palestinians don’t have their natural rights to live alongside of me. My desire for freedom is to have an independent Jewish state next to an independent Palestinian state. That will liberate me. And I just hope we can find a partner so there will not be Kassem rockets flying from that state into the Ben Gurion airport when they’re just a few kilometers away.”

“I think the occupation makes people think unclearly,” Yehuda said.

“You mean Israelis?” I said.

“Israelis,” Yehuda said. “And Arabs. Everybody’s playing with matches.”

Post-script: Unfortunately I am not allowed into Gaza right now, due in part to security and in part to bureaucracy. I do intend, however, to visit the Israeli areas right next to Gaza so I can get as good an understanding of what’s going on down there as possible. Please hit the PayPal button and help me out.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:20 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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