Inside the Promised Land
First 5,576 Qassams. That's the number on the roadside billboard. There's a crudely painted green rocket spewing bright-red flame.
In Sderot, central Israel, they count the explosives-stuffed rockets that rain on them.
You can see the rusted, mangled remains of the Qassams fired this year, stored neatly in racks behind the Sderot police station. A close look reveals the frustration, anger and hatred that drive the makers of the rockets.
The rockets are no more than water pipes, the threadings clearly visible. Some have slogans in Arabic, some are painted red and green, the colours of Sderot's neighbours, the Palestinians who live in the city of Beit Hanoun in the Gaza strip, an area 41 km long and between 6 and 12 km wide, stuffed with 1.4 million Palestinians governed by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas.
Some Qassams are painted yellow, the colours of Islamic Jihad, an extreme Al-Qaeda affiliate whose driving ambition is to exterminate Sderot and Israel.
Sderot is the latest frontline of what is now one of world's most enduring conflicts and rift between two peoples.
It is also the story of how 7.5 million people of varying races and cultures have Judaism and high-technology more than half the world's Nobel laureates have been Jewish to forge an advanced nation that flourishes in the midst in a largely hostile Arab-Muslim neighbourhood of about 300 million.
Sderot was established in 1955 in the then-emerging, tenuous land of Israel (it declared independence from British rule in 1948). Many of Sderot's Jews came, ironically, from Arab countries like Morocco, Iran, Yemen and Iraq.
It's a neat working-class town with children and families. Its people have nowhere else to go, so they reinforce their rooftops, and the high-tech Israeli army floats balloons, eyes-in-the-sky, with infra-red cameras that peer into Beit Hanoun night and day.
But the rockets keep coming. "We don't really have a defence," explains Calid Ben David, a writer with the right-of-centre English-language Jerusalem Post. "Qassams are in the air for only a minute." So if the ground radars and air balloons pick up a Qassam launch, loudspeakers across Sderot blare: 'Code Red!'
Townsfolk in houses have maybe 30 seconds to rush into a reinforced 'safe room'. Outside, they just lie flat. The length of a cricket bat, Qassams are like mortar shells. They cannot be aimed. That's why no more than 12 people have died since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip two years ago.
But the steady rain of Qassams has left Sderot nervous and tense. "So far, we have found only one way to stop the Qassams," says David. "We kill them (the Palestinians)."
David is referring to the Israeli policy of 'targeted killings', using technology and air power to find and kill individual Gaza fighters. But the problem is bystanders, including women and children, sometimes die in these strikes; just one of many troubles that the Gazans must live with. Israel is their economic lifeline, but with the borders now closed, it is hard to record their daily misery. Trade between Gaza and the main Palestinian territories of the West Bank (along the River Jordan) flourished before the Israelis sealed off Gaza, its only contact to the outside world being through a 7-km border with Egypt. Lorries pile up at checkpoints, and a trip that should take two hours can take up to four days. An estimate in The Economist says that sending a container to Gaza now costs $5,000 or Rs 2 lakh. Sending a container to China costs $800.
David, a lean, neat American immigrant with a strong New York accent, argues that targeted killings of Palestinians are "the most humane solution". He says: "Of course we can fire artillery into the Gaza Strip, but that will kill many civilians."
David is not a government spokesman, but like so many Israelis who cheerfully perform multiple roles many that Indians would consider demeaning he also works with the Israel Project, an American-Jewish organisation that calls itself a "non-profit, non-partisan organisation impacting world opinion to help achieve security and peace for Israel". It is, clearly, strongly allied with the government. David has conducted more than 75 "intellicopter tours", as the Project calls free helicopter tours for journalists and opinion-makers from around the world. His colleague on today's flight is Leah Soibel, a former (or possibly still serving) military intelligence officer. An attractive woman in her 30s, Soibel is an Argentinean immigrant who is doing a PhD in "Arabic public diplomacy". She speaks Arabic, English, Spanish, Hebrew and is learning Persian. She talks with authority of the 500 or more websites run by Hamas. It emerges gradually that she's an expert in cyber-terrorism. Today, she's a guide.
As the helicopter wheels east in the warm, afternoon air over highways, orange farms and a sprawl of concrete housing high-tech industry, Israel's small size a combat jet can go from north to south in three minutes and utter lack of elbow room between Palestinians and Arabs is apparent. At Herzelia, where the helicopter has lifted off, the Israeli-held corridor is just 7 km wide.
All through the helicopter flight, Jewish and Palestinian settlements are sometimes as close as Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate or Bandra and Mahim sometimes, as in the 2,000-year-old disputed capital of Jerusalem, it is impossible to extricate Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods.
That's why, despite one of the world's most efficient defence forces (every Israeli has to serve two years in the military), the country has lost hundreds to attacks and suicide bombings by Palestinian zealots. So have the Palestinians, to thousands of Israeli incursions.
That's why Israel is now throwing up a controversial wall, variously called separation barrier, anti-terrorist fence, or simply the wall. Part wall, part wire-mesh fence, built partly on land taken from the Palestinians, the barrier will stretch 730 km: about half is now complete, sometimes cleaving villages and town into half.
To the Palestinians, the barrier has become a symbol of their isolation and unending sorrow. To the Israelis, it has meant a sudden peace from a once-endless rash of suicide bombings. Streets across hardworking, hard-partying Tel Aviv and holy Jerusalem are dotted with numerous memorials to victims of Palestinian human bombs.
Not forgetting tragedy, learning its lessons and weaving it into the national Judaic narrative create the modern Israeli. On the shore of the Dead Sea, on the eastern fringe of the Judean desert, atop a sun-browned plateau, whopping groups of schoolchildren among them Ethiopian, Indian and European faces fall silent.One of many passionate part-time guides, some of whom are professional archaeologists, explain how the palatial fortress now a lovingly restored world heritage site of Masada, the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters, fell to the Romans amid the violent destruction of the Biblical kingdom of Judea 2,000 years ago. "Masada shall never fall again!" declare postcards at the foot of the mountain, accessible by a vertiginous cable car.
That metaphor of Jewish determination is evident too among the hushed young soldiers, most teenagers, who stockpile their M-16 automatic rifles before visiting Yad Vashem, an immaculately documented museum to the Holocaust, when six million Jews were put to death by the Nazis. Also here are colonels and wing commanders, sent to remember why they defend what they do and why they cannot ever fail.
When they do fail, the grief is deep, enduring and silent. In an open, breezy farmhouse-cum-art-studio between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the walls are covered with photographs of and by Itay Steinberger, a 21-year-old soldier who died two years ago in the clumsy war by Israeli standards it was a failure with 180 soldiers dead that left Hizbollah, the Islamic Lebanese group, badly bloodied but intact.
Frieda Steinberger, a ceramic artist, and her husband Arik, a dentist, explain how their son, while trying to save a wounded colleague, took a direct hit from a shell. They are hospitable, serving nuts and liqueurs under a starry sky. Later, after midnight, Arik talks of how they coped. "You have to learn to walk again, you have to learn to talk again," he says quietly. "You have to learn to live again."
(Samar was in Israel on invitation of the Israeli government for six days)
Courtesy Hindustan Times
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