What really happened during the Israeli attacks?
by Lawrence Wright November 9, 2009
A young man looks for his mother’s grave in a cemetery in Beit Lehia that was destroyed by tanks in January. Israel’s three-week-long attack has given rise to charges of war crimes on both sides. Photograph by Christian Als.
In southwest Israel, at the border of Egypt and the Gaza Strip, there is a small crossing station not far from a kibbutz named Kerem Shalom. A guard tower looms over the flat, scrubby buffer zone. Gaza never extends more than seven miles wide, and the guards in the tower can see the Mediterranean Sea, to the north. The main street in Gaza, Salah El-Deen Road, runs along the entire twenty-five-mile span of the territory, and on a clear night the guards can watch a car make the slow journey from the ruins of the Yasir Arafat International Airport, near the Egyptian border, toward the lights of Gaza City, on the Strip’s northeastern side. Observation balloons hover just outside Gaza, and pilotless drones freely cross its airspace. Israeli patrols tightly enforce a three-mile limit in the Mediterranean and fire on boats that approach the line. Between the sea and the security fence that surrounds the hundred and forty square miles of Gaza live a million and a half Palestinians.
Every opportunity for peace in the Middle East has been led to slaughter, and at this isolated desert crossing, on June 25, 2006, another moment of promise culminated in bloodshed. The year had begun with tumult. That January, Hamas, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist group, won Palestine’s parliamentary elections, defeating the more moderate Fatah Party. Both parties sent armed partisans into the streets, and Gaza verged on civil war. Then, on June 9th, a tentative truce between Hamas and Israel ended after an explosion on a beach near Gaza City, apparently caused by an Israeli artillery shell, killed seven members of a Palestinian family, who were picnicking. (The Israelis deny responsibility.) Hamas fired fifteen rockets into Israel the next day. The Israelis then launched air strikes into Gaza for several days, killing eight militants and fourteen civilians, including five children.
Amid this strife, Mahmoud Abbas—the head of Fatah, and the President of the Palestinian Authority, the governing body established by the Oslo peace accords of 1993—put forward a bold idea. The people of Palestine, he declared, should be given the chance to vote on a referendum for a two-state solution to its conflict with Israel. Perhaps it was a cynical political maneuver, as the leaders of Hamas believed. The fundamental platform of Hamas was its refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist, yet polls showed that Palestinians overwhelmingly supported the concept of two states. A referendum would be not only a rebuke to Hamas; it also would be a signal to Israel—and to the rest of the world—that Palestinians were determined to make peace. Abbas set the referendum for July.
Just before dawn on June 25th, eight Palestinian commandos crawled out of a tunnel into a grove of trees in Kerem Shalom. A new moon was in the sky, making it the darkest night of the month. With mortar fire and anti-tank missiles providing cover, the commandos, some of them disguised in Israeli military uniforms, split into three teams. One team attacked an empty armored personnel carrier, which had been parked at the crossing as a decoy. Another team hit the observation tower. The two Israelis in the tower were injured, but not before they killed two of the attackers.
The third team shot a rocket-propelled grenade into a Merkava tank that was parked on a berm facing the security fence. The explosion shook the tank; then its rear hatch opened and three soldiers tried to flee. Two of them were shot and killed, but a third, lightly wounded, was captured. The attackers raced back into Gaza with their prize: a lanky teen-ager named Gilad Shalit.
Within days, the Israel Defense Forces, or I.D.F., had bombed the only power station in Gaza, cutting off electricity to tens of thousands of people. The borders were shut down as Israeli troops searched residential areas for Shalit, rounding up males older than sixteen. On June 29th, Israeli officials arrested sixty-four senior Palestinian officials, including a third of the Palestinian cabinet and twenty members of parliament. At least four hundred Gazans were killed over the next several months, including eighty-eight children. The Israelis lost six soldiers and four civilians. Israeli authorities promised not to leave the Strip until they recovered Shalit, but by November he still had not been found, and both sides declared a ceasefire. Nothing had been resolved. Another explosion was sure to come. Certainly, no one was talking about peace initiatives any longer, and that may well have been the goal of those who captured Shalit.
From the Israeli perspective, at least, the Gaza problem was supposed to have been solved in August, 2005, when Ariel Sharon, then the Prime Minister, closed down the Jewish settlements on the Strip and withdrew Israeli forces. The international community and the Israeli left wing applauded the move. But, almost immediately, mortar and rocket attacks from the Strip multiplied. Five months later, Hamas won its parliament victory. Ari Shavit, a prominent columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, told me recently in Jerusalem, “We dismantled the settlements, and then we sat back and said, ‘Let’s have a new beginning.’ What we got was rockets and Gilad Shalit. People became very angry, and Shalit becomes an icon of that frustration.”
We were sitting in Restobar, a noisy café in downtown Jerusalem. Nearby, Shalit’s parents and supporters maintain a tent; from this makeshift office, they lobby for Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in exchange for Shalit’s freedom. Shalit had just graduated from high school when he began his compulsory military service. His father, Noam, has described him as “a shy boy with a nervous smile and a studious disposition,” who loved basketball and excelled in physics. Two weeks after Shalit was captured, Hezbollah abducted two other Israeli soldiers, sparking thirty-four days of war in South Lebanon. In that instance, the captured soldiers were already dead; after the war, their remains were returned to Israel, in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of hundreds of fighters. But Shalit is presumed to be alive, and his plight has driven Israel slightly mad. There are demonstrations, bumper stickers, and petition drives demanding his freedom. On Web sites and in newspapers, counters chronicle how long Shalit has been in captivity. “Israel is obsessed with Gilad Shalit in a way that no other nation in history has been obsessed with a prisoner of war,” Shavit said.
Gaza is a place that Israel wishes it could ignore: the territory has long had the highest concentration of poverty, extremism, and hopelessness in the region. Gaza makes a mess of the idealized two-state solution because it is separated from the West Bank, the much larger Palestinian territory, not just physically but also culturally and politically. In 2005, the RAND Corporation proposed integrating a future Palestinian state with a high-speed rail and highway system that would connect the West Bank and Gaza. Former President Jimmy Carter told me that, in 2005, he and Ariel Sharon had agreed to promote a land swap between the Israelis and the Palestinians that would provide a corridor between the two halves of Palestine.
Such potential solutions have been poisoned by the frustration that both Israelis and West Bankers feel toward Gaza. The political distance between the two Palestinian entities has caused many Israelis to start talking of a three-state solution, rather than two. “Hamas in Gaza is a fact of life until further notice,” Yossi Alpher, a political consultant and a former Mossad officer, observed. “All our ideas about dealing with them have failed.” Shavit and other Israeli intellectuals have proposed that the Egyptians deed a portion of the Sinai to Gaza, to make the Strip more viable—“a semi-Dubai,” as Shavit terms it. The Egyptians have expressed no interest. “Egypt’s strategy for Gaza is to make sure it’s Israel’s problem,” Alpher said.
Hamas, which was founded in Gaza during the intifada of 1987, has come to embody the fears that many Israelis hold about the Palestinians. Its charter declares, “There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by jihad.” The document, which is in many respects absurd and reflects the intellectual isolation and conspiracy-fed atmosphere in Gaza at the time, cites the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the anti-Semitic forgery, and links Zionism to the Freemasons, the Lions Club, and “other spying groups” that aim “to violate consciences, to defeat virtues, and to annihilate Islam.” Part of the paradox of this conflict is that many Palestinians who firmly embrace the two-state solution have voted for Hamas.
In Restobar, Shavit pointed to a spot a few feet away. “In March, 2002, there was a beautiful twenty-five-year-old girl dead on the floor, right there,” he said. A suicide bomber had targeted the café, which was then called Moment. That month, eighty-three Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians. Jerusalem was in a panic. Shavit was living nearby at the time, and on the night of March 9th he heard the bomb explode.
Running to the café, he saw mutilated bodies scattered on the sidewalk. People had been blown across the street. The dead girl was lying near the doorway. Inside, at the bar, three young men were sitting upright on the stools, but they were all dead. “It was as if they were still drinking their beers,” Shavit recalled. Eleven Israelis died, and more than fifty were injured. Hamas proclaimed it a “brave attack” intended to “avenge the Israeli massacres against our people.”
The Hamas attacks derailed the peace process initiated by the Oslo accords and hardened many Israelis against the Palestinian cause. Photographs of Gazans celebrating the Moment bombing confirmed the dehumanized state of affairs. Gaza became “Hamastan” in the Israeli newspapers. In 2007, after Hamas solidified its control of Gaza, the Israeli government declared Gaza a “hostile entity,” and began enforcing a blockade on a population that was already impoverished, isolated, and traumatized by years of occupation.
Hamas was not weakened by the blockade. Instead, the collective punishment strengthened its argument that Israel wanted to eliminate the Palestinians. The only thing that Gaza has that Israel wants is Gilad Shalit, but Hamas says that it will not free him until Israel releases fourteen hundred individuals, four hundred and fifty of whom have been convicted of terrorist killings, including the men who planned the Moment bombing.
On June 25, 2007, several days after Hamas took over in Gaza, the captors of Gilad Shalit released an audio recording to prove that he was still alive. “It has been a year since I was captured and my health is deteriorating,” he said. “I am in need of prolonged hospitalization.” He urged the Israeli government to accept Hamas’s demands for his release: “Just as I have a mother and father, the thousands of Palestinian prisoners also have mothers and fathers—and their children must be returned to them.”
Gaza is a sea of children. The average woman there has 5.1 children, one of the highest birth rates in the world. More than half the population is eighteen or younger. “We love to reproduce,” Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, told me on a searingly hot July day, as hundreds of young boys in green caps shouted slogans at a Hamas summer camp. Hayya, a former professor of Islamic law, has six children; a seventh was killed by an Israeli bomb.
There is very little for children to do in Gaza. The Israeli blockade includes a ban on toys, so the only playthings available have been smuggled, at a premium, through tunnels from Egypt. Islamists have shut down all the movie theatres. Music is rare, except at weddings. Many of Gaza’s sports facilities have been destroyed by Israeli bombings, including the headquarters for the Palestinian Olympic team. Only one television station broadcasts from Gaza, Al Aqsa—a Hamas-backed channel that gained notice last year for a children’s show featuring a Mickey Mouse-like figure who was stabbed to death by an Israeli interrogator. The mouse was replaced by a talking bee, who died after being unable to cross into Egypt for medical treatment. The rabbit who followed the bee passed away in January, after being struck by shrapnel from an Israeli attack.
The main diversion for children is the beach, and on Fridays, after noon prayers, the shore is massed with families. Unlike the topaz waters off Tel Aviv, here the sea is murky, a consequence of twenty million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage that is dumped offshore every day. The main water-treatment plant is broken, and because of the blockade the spare parts that would fix it are unavailable. Fishermen with nets wade into the surf as kids romp in the stinking waves.
Israeli authorities maintain a list of about three dozen items that they permit into Gaza, but the list is closely kept and subject to change. Almost no construction materials—such as cement, glass, steel, or plastic pipe—have been allowed in, on the ground that such items could be used for building rockets or bunkers. While Hamas rocket builders and bomb-makers can smuggle everything they need through the secret tunnels, international aid organizations have to account for every brick or sack of flour. Operation Cast Lead—a three-week-long Israeli attack on Gaza, which began in December, 2008—has left Gaza in ruins. “Half a year after the conflict, we don’t have a single bag of cement and not a pane of glass,” John Ging, the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, told me in July. (Later that month, Israeli authorities announced that they would allow the U.N.R.W.A. a limited amount of steel and cement. Ging says that that has yet to happen.) Humanitarian supplies that suddenly have been struck from Israel’s list of approved items pile up in large storage warehouses outside the Kerem Shalom crossing, and international aid worth billions of dollars awaits delivery. “For the last two school years, Israeli officials have withheld paper for textbooks because, hypothetically, the paper might be hijacked by Hamas to print seditious materials,” Ging complained. (Paper was finally delivered this fall.) When John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Gaza in February of this year, he asked why pasta wasn’t allowed in. Soon, macaroni was passing through the checkpoints, but jam was taken off the list. According to Haaretz, the I.D.F. has calculated that a hundred and six truckloads of humanitarian relief are needed every day to sustain life for a million and a half people. But the number of trucks coming into Gaza has fallen as low as thirty-seven. Israeli government officials have told international aid officials that the aim is “no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.”
Visitors enter Gaza at its northeastern end, through the Erez Crossing—a high-security, barnlike building that is rarely congested, because scarcely any Palestinians are allowed to exit, and so few foreigners care to visit. In 2004, the first female suicide bomber for Hamas, Reem Riyashi, a twenty-two-year-old mother of two children, blew herself up there, killing four Israelis. Since then, the Israeli staff has largely been replaced by security cameras and remote-controlled gates.
In Gaza, the rocky hills of Jerusalem have been ironed into a sandy plain sparsely adorned with oleander and cactus, as in South Texas. The area near Erez used to be the region’s industrial zone. Until Operation Cast Lead, there were several concrete plants, a flour mill, and an ice-cream factory, but they have all been bombed or bulldozed, and the mixing trucks for the concrete have been knocked over. Houses and mosques and shops lie in rubble; entire neighborhoods have been demolished. Israeli forces concentrated much of their fire, and their wrath, on northeast Gaza. From Erez, one can easily see Sderot, the Israeli town that has suffered the most rocket attacks.
There are eight refugee camps in Gaza, which form a society that is even more isolated that the larger gulag of the Strip. More than seventy per cent of Gazans are descendants of the two hundred thousand people who fled to the Strip in 1948, when the State of Israel was established. “I lived eighteen years of my life in a refugee camp,” Ahmed Yousuf, the Deputy Foreign Minister, told me. “It was one square kilometre.”
Gaza City is one of the oldest settlements in the world; it is thought to have been established by the Canaanites, around 3000 B.C. The boundaries of the modern Strip were determined after the 1949 armistice between Egypt and Israel. Gaza marked the final redoubt of the Egyptian Army, and the armistice left a ribbon of coastal land, between three and seven miles wide, in Egypt’s reluctant control. British authorities, who had once administered Gaza as part of their mandate over Palestine, considered Gaza res nullius—nobody’s property. The Egyptians administered the territory until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the entire Sinai. Israel and Egypt agreed to try to set up a Palestinian entity that would rule Gaza, but it was clear that neither party wanted responsibility for the Strip, so it remained in limbo, little more than a notional part of a Palestinian entity that might never come into existence.
Gaza’s status as a ward of someone else’s state changed abruptly with the 2006 elections. Fatah, long the dominant force in the two Palestinian territories, had been expected to win easily, but this underestimated popular resentment against a party that was notoriously corrupt, incompetent, and so careless that it ran several candidates for identical offices. On the ballot, Hamas called itself the List of Change and Reform, although voters knew whom they were voting for. Polls had predicted that Hamas would receive about thirty per cent of the vote; instead, it won a decisive majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
International organizations declared that in order for Hamas to be accepted it would have to recognize the State of Israel, renounce violence, and respect extant diplomatic agreements. Hamas rebuffed those conditions, triggering a drastic cutoff of aid. Israel was further shaken when Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, suffered a debilitating stroke. (He remains in a coma.) His replacement, Ehud Olmert, declared that the Palestinian government was becoming a “terrorist authority,” and that the Israelis would have no contact with it.
Fatah refused to step aside and let Hamas govern. For months, there were large demonstrations by both factions in the West Bank and Gaza, along with kidnappings, gun battles, and assassinations. In March, 2007, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia arranged a peace accord, but it was merely a prelude to open civil war in Gaza, three months later. During six bloody days in June, Hamas swept aside the American-trained Fatah security force and took over the government that it had been elected to lead the previous year.
These clashes left Palestinians wondering if the differences between their major parties could ever be resolved. The residue is particularly bitter in Gaza. “We are crowded into a very small space,” Yehia Rabah, a member of Fatah and a former Ambassador to Yemen, said. “The hate doesn’t dissolve very easily. We see each other every day.”
Although the new Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, emphasized that Hamas had no intention of making Gaza an Islamic state, it took over the judiciary, appointing Islamist judges who impose Sharia on the court system. I was repeatedly assured by Hamas officials, such as Khalil al-Hayya, that they stood for “moderate Islam, the Islam of tolerance and justice and equality,” but Gazans who are not in the Party worry. “The whole place is becoming a mosque,” a young female reporter, Asma al-Ghoul, complained. She had recently been hassled on the beach by self-appointed morality police, even though she was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Jawdat al-Khoudary, a businessman, who is a native Gazan, said that since the Hamas takeover he feels like “a refugee in my own country.” An economist, Omar Shaban, said, “The siege has left Hamas with no competition. Secular people are punished. The future is frightening.”
One morning, I visited a mosque where about forty teen-age boys were attending a day camp devoted to memorizing the Koran. The Islamic holy book contains more than six thousand verses—it’s about the same length as the New Testament—and this summer twenty thousand boys and girls had undertaken the challenge, in camps across the Strip. At the mosque, a small crowd was waiting for the Prime Minister, who was rumored to be coming to talk to the boys. Because Haniyeh is one of the few veteran Hamas leaders in Gaza who have not been assassinated by the Israelis (although they have fired missiles into his office and his home), he’s constantly on the move. I was told that his visit to the mosque was my best chance to meet him.
While the boys rocked back and forth on the carpet, reciting in low voices, I was introduced to an elderly refugee and a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Bald and freckled, with a white mustache, he gave his name as Abu Majid. “On 15 May, 1948, I was twenty-two years old,” he said. Israel had formally declared itself an independent nation the day before, triggering the invasion by five Arab armies bent on destroying the Zionists. Egypt moved into the Negev Desert, approaching Beersheba, where Majid lived. “The Egyptian Army asked youngsters like me to help with logistics,” he said.
After one battle with the Israelis, Majid and a friend dragged several wounded soldiers inside a bunker. A dozen people were already hiding there. That night, Israeli troops discovered the shelter and ordered everyone out. “There were four old men over seventy, one of whom had a wife who was sixty or sixty-five,” Majid said. “When she saw the soldiers, she began to tremble.” A younger, dark-skinned woman had two boys and a girl. Upon leaving the shelter, with their hands raised, they were shot. “I don’t know why I’m alive,” Majid said. “The blood came on me. I was one of three who God saved. We were seven days in the desert of Negev before we reached the villages around Hebron.” He had family there. His parents, believing him dead, had erected a mourning tent and were receiving condolences when a friend brought news that their son was alive. His brother slaughtered a sheep in celebration. Majid wept at the memory, the tears streaming into his mustache. According to Benny Morris, the Israeli historian, the fall of Beersheba was marked by many atrocities on the part of the Israeli forces. “A number of civilians were executed after being stripped of valuables,” he writes in “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.”
After two hours of waiting for Haniyeh to arrive at the mosque, some members of the audience gave up. Suddenly, a rumor stirred the room. “He’s coming after all,” a neighbor assured me. Several television reporters appeared, followed by a small convoy, and then Haniyeh strode in, waving at his supporters. He is forty-seven, squarely built, with a round face, and cautious green eyes that float above a trim white beard. He was dressed in a stark white djellabah and a skullcap, which added to his ministerial air. A former dean of the Islamic University, in Gaza City, Haniyeh grew up in the Al Shati refugee camp, in Gaza. In 1989, after the first intifada, he spent three years in an Israeli prison. Then, in a decision that Israel deeply regrets, Haniyeh and four hundred other activists were expelled to South Lebanon, where they formed an enduring alliance with Hezbollah.
By Hamas standards, Haniyeh is a moderate. He has spoken of negotiating a long-term truce with Israel. That places him at odds with many of the Party’s top officials. Khaled Meshal, the over-all leader of Hamas, lives in exile in Damascus, Syria; a hard-liner, he is more likely to initiate radical, destabilizing actions—such as capturing Gilad Shalit. It is often unclear who sets Hamas policies. A council, dominated by representatives of its underground military wing, governs the Party. Because so many Hamas members have been assassinated, the movement operates as an unsteady collective. Even prominent Party members don’t always know who is in control. Haniyeh’s authority is further undermined by the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, dismissed him as Prime Minister of Gaza, in June, 2007, after the Hamas takeover, and appointed Salam Fayyad, a Fatah loyalist, in his place. Hamas refused to recognize the move, and since then Haniyeh has continued to govern Gaza while Abbas and Fayyad run the West Bank, under Israeli occupation.
While I was in Gaza, in July, there were talks under way in Cairo to explore the creation of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah, and to make a deal for Gilad Shalit. The Israeli papers were full of expectation about an imminent prisoner swap, but Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, told me that the reports were “ridiculous.” He was pessimistic about the prospects for a deal anytime soon. “Hamas ignores every aspect of international conventions,” he said. “They would like hard-core killers released. I feel very bad about that.” He added that his son’s abduction had become “a bottleneck” that had brought all negotiations to a standstill.
At the mosque, Haniyeh addressed the campers on the importance of reciting the Koran. “There are two kinds of people,” he advised them. “Those who know the Koran is right and who follow it, and those who turn their backs on the Koran.” When he finished speaking, Haniyeh kissed each child who had memorized a third of the Koran, and awarded him fifty Israeli shekels.
Afterward, amid a crush of petitioners, I asked Haniyeh whether the Cairo talks had made any progress. “It’s just one step in breaking the siege of Gaza,” he said, adding that he hoped the talks would allow reconstruction to begin. I asked if he had had contact with the Obama Administration. Khaled Meshal had responded positively to Obama’s June address to the Muslim world, welcoming the “new language toward Hamas” and calling for open dialogue. Haniyeh didn’t answer directly. He said that Washington had no veto power over the choice of the Palestinian people but added, “We are ready to deal.” He also said that he would step down from his post if he became an obstacle to peace. “The most important thing is the unity of the Palestinian people,” he said. “We are willing to do whatever it takes.”
I walked outside, among shuttered shops. “The term ‘economy’ is no longer valid in the Gaza Strip,” Omar Shaban, the economist, told me. In 1994, the poverty rate in Gaza was sixteen per cent. (In the U.S., it was 14.5.) But by 1996 the Israelis had virtually shut out Palestinian labor. And the second intifada, four years later, ended tourism in Gaza; before then, Shaban said, more than ten thousand people a month had visited the territory, many of them Israelis who enjoyed the beaches and the seafood. Most economic activity came to a halt in 2007, with the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Now, according to the U.N., about seventy per cent of Gazans live on less than a dollar a day, and seventy-five per cent rely on international food assistance. In 1994, Shaban said, one wage earner supported six people in Gaza; the dependency rate is now one earner for every eighteen people. Unemployment is practically universal, except for people working for international organizations, or trading in the black market. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, ninety-six per cent of Gaza’s industrial sector collapsed after Operation Cast Lead.
Ever since the Hamas takeover, Egypt, Gaza’s nominal ally, has coöperated with the Israelis in enforcing the blockade. The authorities in Cairo have their own reasons for sequestering Gaza. Hamas is a spinoff of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and the government of Hosni Mubarak worries about contagion. The wall that defines the Gaza Strip along the Israeli border simply turns the corner upon reaching Egypt. Bureaucracy, an Egyptian specialty, forms another kind of barrier. Mohammed Ali Abu Najela, a researcher for Oxfam, was in France when Hamas took over Gaza. “I landed in Cairo, and spent five days in a closed room in the airport with five other Palestinians,” he recalls. He and the others were then transported to El-Arish Airport, in the Sinai, where they spent an additional sixty days in the waiting room before they were cleared to go home. Another young man told me that his father had gone to Cairo for emergency medical treatment but was turned away at the hospital, because his travel documents had been signed by the Hamas government in Gaza, not by the Fatah government in the West Bank. The father died shortly afterward.
In January, 2008, Hamas improvised a radical solution to Egypt’s restrictions by blowing holes in the security fence surrounding Rafah, the southernmost town in Gaza. Over the next eleven days, hundreds of thousands of Gazans streamed into the Sinai with shopping lists. The Egyptian police formed a cordon that kept Gazans from straying too far into the country. The shops along the border were soon empty. The Gazans went home and the Egyptians sealed up the wall again. (Since then, Egypt has usually opened the border for a couple of days each month.)
Although the West Bank is only twenty-five miles from the Gaza Strip, it feels in many respects even more distant than other parts of the world. The Israelis began requiring special permits for travel between the two halves of Palestine in 1988. Taher al-Nunu is the chief spokesman for Prime Minister Haniyeh. When he was working in the Foreign Ministry, Nunu was allowed to travel around the world, but, like many Gazans, he’s never been to the West Bank. “I was in China, Istanbul, and Indonesia, but I didn’t go to Nablus, Ramallah, and Qalqilya,” he says.
I began to see Gaza as, I suspect, many Gazans do: a floating island, a dystopian Atlantis, drifting farther away from contact with any other society. Omar Shaban told me that, twenty years ago, he could easily drive to Tel Aviv for dinner, and more than a hundred thousand Palestinians travelled into Israel every day for work. “The Palestinian economy was structured to work with the Israeli economy,” he said. “Most Palestinians knew Hebrew. There were real friendships.” Now, he said, “two-thirds of Gaza youth under thirty have never been outside the Strip. How can they psychologically think of peace? You can fight someone you don’t know, but you can’t make peace with him.”
A nervous-looking young man was pacing on the side of the narrow coastal road outside Gaza City, just past the ruins of the Presidential Palace, which had been destroyed during Operation Cast Lead. My driver stopped for him, and he got into the back seat without a word, indicating that we should continue driving south. It was a Friday afternoon, after prayers, and the beaches were crowded.
Since the Hamas takeover, there have been many warnings that Al Qaeda has infiltrated Gaza. In the summer of 2007, Mahmoud Abbas accused Hamas of “shielding” jihadists. “Through its bloody conduct, Hamas has become very close to Al Qaeda,” he said. I had heard about several splinter groups in Gaza that were seen as Al Qaeda affiliates. After extensive negotiations, I was able to arrange a meeting with a representative of one of them. The man in the back seat would guide us there.
We drove past the site of a former Jewish settlement. Across the road were the remains of the greenhouses that the settlers had left behind, intact, with the understanding that Gaza farmers would take them over. The greenhouses were meant to become an important part of the agricultural economy. Gaza’s main exports were strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and carnations, destined mainly for Israel and Europe. But then the borders clamped shut and the fruit rotted. The carnations were fed to livestock. Now the greenhouses are nothing more than bare frames, their tattered plastic roofing fluttering in the sea breeze.
Our guide pointed to a rise ahead, where a lookout stood guard over another stretch of public beach. We turned in to a sandy drive and parked behind a row of palm-frond cabanas. The lookout ducked into a Port-a-Potty and emerged with an AK-47 and a 9-mm. pistol. Like the guide, he was quiet and unsmiling. He wore jeans and a plaid shirt. He led me to one of the cabanas, where a heavy man in a blue suit was waiting. The man said that I should call him Abu Mohammed. He politely offered tea.
Abu Mohammed claimed to represent four armed groups that have joined a jihadi coalition. (There is such an alliance, called the Popular Resistance Committees.) “When I speak, I speak for all of them,” he told me. “We consider Osama bin Laden our spiritual father.” His group follows the same ideology as Al Qaeda, but there is no direct connection. “The siege around Gaza has disconnected us from the outside world,” he said. “None of us can travel.” In Gaza, he estimated, there were about four hundred armed fighters in cells like his, down from as many as fifteen hundred before the Hamas takeover. When Fatah ran the Strip, it was easier for subversives to operate, he said, but now “Hamas is in full control, and their power is very tight.” Hamas, he explained, wanted to dictate when violence occurred in Gaza, and tried to keep the Al Qaeda sympathizers penned in.
As we talked, the lookout with the machine gun dragged in a table, and a tea boy arrived, carrying a tray and glasses. It was sweltering inside the hut. Abu Mohammed took off his jacket; his shirt was soaked through. He had a quiet voice and often stared into space as he spoke. He said that he was a former political-science student who had been jailed first by the Israelis, and later by Hamas officials. He gestured to his suit jacket, now in his lap. During his second internment, “Hamas brought in a moderate sheikh with a suit and a tie and the smell of roses to discuss the way we look,” he said, in a wry tone. “If I want to dress like my comrades in Afghanistan and Iraq”—wearing the shalwar kameez, the uniform favored by jihadi veterans—“that’s prohibited.” Finally, his jailers released him with a warning: “Don’t do anything against our ceasefire!” He complained, “We feel we’re under a microscope. If an Internet café or a beauty salon is burned, immediately they come round up the people they know. If Hamas suspects I am behind all this troublemaking, they will hang me by both hands and both feet for thirty days—that’s the minimum.”
I asked what his main complaint was against Hamas.
“We thought Hamas was going to apply Islamic law here, but they are not,” he said. He spoke of the “fancy restaurants on the beach” and said that Hamas tolerated uncovered women there. “They have a much more moderate way of life, and we cannot deal with that.”
When I mentioned Gilad Shalit, Abu Mohammed smiled and said, “I cannot talk about this, but a member of our group participated.” (Three factions claimed responsibility for the abduction: the armed wing of Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees, and the Army of Islam.) Mohammed said that the participant’s name was Muhammad Farwaneh, and that he had been killed during the operation. Hamas now has exclusive control of Shalit. Mohammed said of the arrangement, “We respect this, because of the higher interest of the exchange of prisoners.” Recently, his group had tried to carry off another abduction, but had failed.
I asked him what drew young men into his movement. “First, we have a clear ideology,” he said. “Some come because they like our style, and they don’t want to live by the rules. Those we don’t usually put our money on—when they’re tortured, we’re finished. Some come from Hamas and feel that they were not treated fairly.” Others, like him, think that Hamas is not following true Islam. Abu Mohammed said that most of the recruits are fellow-refugees, but “many are locals from hard-line families—those who believe there is no middle road.”
Joint operations with Hamas, such as the Shalit abduction, had ended. “We have no meetings at all with Hamas,” Abu Mohammed said. “It’s almost as if they want to finish us.” He met my eyes at last. “We know how strong they are and how supported they are on the street, but we can’t live underground forever.”
Six weeks after this conversation, a group of radical Islamists, calling themselves the Soldiers of the Followers of God, stood on the steps of a mosque near the Egyptian border and declared Gaza to be an Islamic emirate. That afternoon, members of the Hamas military wing and the Gaza police surrounded the mosque, demanding that the radicals give themselves up. A shoot-out erupted, continuing into the night. According to the BBC, at least twenty-four people were killed, including the group’s leader, Sheikh Abdul Latif Mousa. A hundred people were wounded. I have not been able to determine if Abu Mohammed was a casualty. One of the Hamas fatalities was Abu Jibril Shimali, a commander of its armed wing. Israelis blame him for orchestrating the capture of Gilad Shalit.
Just outside Rafah, the smuggling capital of Gaza, there is a billboard with a portrait of Shalit, behind bars, juxtaposed with a photograph of a masked Hamas fighter. The Arabic text declares, “Your prisoner will not have safety and security until our prisoners have safety and security.” In a place where commercial advertising scarcely exists, the billboard is especially jarring.
Shalit’s pale features and meek expression haunt the imagination of Gazans. Though it may seem perverse, a powerful sense of identification has arisen between the shy soldier and the people whose government holds him hostage. Gazans see themselves as like Shalit: confined, mistreated, and despairing.
At the same time, the sense of specialness that surrounds Shalit rankles many Gazans. “Everybody talks about Shalit as if he’s a holy man,” Ahmed Yousuf, the deputy minister, complained. “The whole world is showing such concern about a soldier who is still young and unmarried.” Meanwhile, Israel is holding more than seven thousand Palestinians, nearly nine hundred of them from Gaza, who, like Shalit, are cut off from their families and are sometimes held without charge. “People say, ‘What’s the difference between their Shalit and our Shalits?’ ” Yousuf remarked. “We are all Shalits.”
I spoke to Osama Mozini, a professor of education at the Islamic University, who oversees the Shalit negotiations for the government. A barrel-chested man with a stiff beard, he spent five years in an Israeli prison and was arrested three times by the Palestinian Authority because of Hamas activities. I asked him why he could not be more flexible in his negotiations for Shalit. Israel was plainly eager to make a deal that would involve the release of hundreds of Palestinians, many of them convicted of bloody crimes. Mozini bridled at the implication that the Palestinian prisoners were murderers and Shalit was not. “This one who has been abducted is an Israeli soldier who was on the border throwing shells that were killing Palestinians,” he said. “We did not take him from the market or from his family. We took him from a military tank on the Gaza border.”
The I.D.F. won’t say whether Shalit had been involved in military actions against Gaza, but the tanks that line the border do lob shells into the territory, causing many random casualties. While I was there, a teen-age girl was killed, and her young brother injured, in such an incident. The Israelis maintain a buffer zone along the border about half a mile deep, which places at least thirty per cent of the Strip’s arable land off limits. In practice, the zone is even wider, according to Mohammed Ali Abu Najela, the Oxfam researcher. “Nearly every week, there are reported cases of farmers being shot at,” he told me. He said that Gazans understand the rule to be this: “If I can see you, I will shoot you.”
Mozini claimed that Gazans whose relatives were being held in Israel were not pressuring him to make a deal for Shalit. “They are backing us up,” he said. “Everybody is asking us to stand firm to get our prisoners back, because this is our only chance.” According to a recent U.N. fact-finding mission led by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone, there are approximately eighty-one hundred Palestinian political prisoners held in Israel, including sixty women and three hundred and ninety children. (Most of the children have been charged with throwing stones or belonging to an illegal organization.) The Goldstone report, as it has become known, has been decried by the Israeli government, which considers it reliant on biased testimony. In September, President Obama called the report “flawed.” Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, maintains that the report is fundamentally correct, and has demanded that the Americans specify what the inaccuracies might be.
The treatment of Gazan detainees is harsh; since 2007, they have been barred from any family visits, though they can exchange messages from family members. In March, the Israeli justice department began to consider reducing the privileges of Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners to match the likely “incarceration conditions” of Gilad Shalit.
Mozini began reciting the names of Gazan prisoners who had received sentences of more than a thousand years. Hassan Salameh, a Hamas operative, is serving forty-eight consecutive life sentences for recruiting suicide bombers. Walid Anjes helped plan the bombing at Moment and two other devastating attacks. He has twenty-six life sentences. Mozini mentioned a prisoner named Abdel Hadi Suleiman Ghneim: “He was riding in a bus. All he did was grab the steering wheel and take it over a cliff.” He laughed. “Sixteen people were dead and many wounded—even Ghneim was wounded!” Ghneim received a life sentence for every person who died on the bus. These punishments struck Mozini as ludicrous. He assured me that Israel had “no choice” but to comply with Hamas’s terms.
I had gone to Rafah to examine the tunnels that have created a subterranean economy in Gaza. Everything that goes in or out of the Strip, except the three dozen or so commodities that Israel permits to enter the territory, travels through a hole in the ground, including gas, cows, weapons, money, drugs, cars (which are disassembled for the trip), and people. There are hundreds of such tunnels, and they became a primary target for the Israeli Air Force during Operation Cast Lead. When I got there, tunnel diggers were repairing the damage—practically the only reconstruction work I saw in Gaza. A long, ragged row of tents ran about fifty yards from the Egyptian border amid great mounds of sand, and shirtless men worked their claims. Across the border was a village that had once been a part of greater Rafah before the security fence divided the town. The workers aim the tunnels at different buildings across the border, where collaborators have hollowed out a bathroom floor or a spot under a bed. Most of the smuggling is done at night, honoring the conceit that the excavations are secret, even though an Egyptian police station nearby has a clear view of the tunnellers’ tents. Occasionally, the Egyptians crack down, blowing up or flooding the passageways. Tunnels also collapse, especially after bombings, which destabilize the soil. But tunnelling is one of the few functioning industries in Gaza, accounting for some thirty-five thousand jobs before Israel’s December attacks.
In the tunnel I visited, three men were on the surface and twenty were underground. A motorized pulley extracted buckets of sand. It can take three months to break through to the other side. The tunnel operator, a young man with a big smile and bright calcium deposits on his teeth, introduced himself as Abu Hussein. The other men laughed: it’s a pet name in Gaza for Barack Hussein Obama. The operator charges clients a thousand dollars to ship a ton of raw materials through the tunnel, or fifty dollars for a bag of forty kilos. He said that tunnellers frequently bump into each other underground: “It’s like Swiss cheese.”
It was through such a tunnel that the captors of Gilad Shalit crossed into Israeli territory. Old Soviet-designed GRAD rockets, now manufactured in North Korea and China, and knockoff missiles from Iran also make their way through the underground highways, which is one reason that Israel felt the urgency to act in December. These weapons have a much greater range than homemade rockets. From the northern end of Gaza, the GRADs can reach Ashkelon, seven miles away, a city of more than a hundred thousand people. A member of the Qassam Brigades, the armed faction of Hamas, had told me that they had upgraded their arsenal of rockets last year, getting “shipments from our own tunnels.” The rocketeers use Google Earth to locate a target—the power plant in Sderot, for instance. It didn’t bother the brigade member that he was aiming at civilians. “They are not limiting their war to military targets,” he said.
According to the I.D.F., between 2000 and 2008 some twelve thousand rockets and mortars were fired into Israel; sometimes as many as sixty or eighty rockets a day were launched, but because they are so inaccurate the number of Israeli casualties has been relatively modest: fewer than thirty deaths. Still, the anxiety and fury stirred up by the fusillade placed the government of Ehud Olmert under extreme pressure in the run-up to the Israeli elections of February, 2009. In the police station in Sderot, a “Qassam Museum” displays the exploded carcasses of hundreds of rockets that have landed in the area. Barack Obama visited there as a candidate, in July, 2008. “No country would accept missiles landing on the heads of its citizens,” he said. “If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.” Despite Obama’s assurances, the Israeli government decided to get the war over before the Bush Administration left power.
The stated goal for Operation Cast Lead was to “destroy the terrorist infrastructure,” but there were larger aims. “We cannot allow Gaza to remain under Hamas control,” Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister at the time, said. Six months before the operation began, Israel and Hamas had agreed to a truce. The Deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, warned that Gazans were “bringing upon themselves a greater Shoah, because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate.” Such charged language revealed the degree to which anger permeated the thinking of Israel’s military planners.
On December 19th, the six-month truce between Hamas and Israel formally expired. Israel was willing to extend it, but Hamas refused. Haniyeh complained that Israel had failed to ease the blockade, as the agreement had stipulated. Hamas rockets began flying again. By then, Gaza had run out of allies. Yossi Alpher, the Israeli political analyst, who co-edits the online forum bitterlemons.org, was in Europe when the invasion began. “I was having a good stiff drink with a Saudi colleague,” he recalled. “He told me, ‘This time, do it right.’ ”
A few weeks before Operation Cast Lead began, Colonel Herzi Halevi, the commander of the 35th paratroop brigade for the I.D.F., was flying over the Strip in a helicopter when he saw three rockets rise out of the Jabalia refugee camp. “I saw the rainbow of smoke, and then fifty to sixty seconds later you see it goes into Sderot,” he told me. “It’s eleven o’clock in the morning. Children are in school. Whether they live or die is a question of whether they are lucky or not. This is something that no other country can accept.”
Halevi, now a brigadier general, is tall and lean, and has a reputation for being an even-tempered, sometimes aloof commander. Like many Israelis, he had come to the conclusion that Gazans deserved what they were going to get. “I had a feeling that on the other side of the fence, in the Gaza Strip, we didn’t find a leadership, or even the sound of people in Gaza, saying something different except fighting, shooting rockets, and kidnapping.” His long career has taught him that, in dealing with terrorism, “if you are not decisive enough, it is not going to be effective.” He had spent much of his career in Sayeret Matkal, an élite hostage-rescue unit. It is likely that rescuing Gilad Shalit was another goal of the operation, although the I.D.F. won’t comment on that. “I told my soldiers that was not our mission,” Halevi said. “Our mission was to take care that we do not become another Gilad Shalit.”
On the morning of December 27, 2008, a training exercise was under way at the police academy in Gaza City. Scores of police officers were in a courtyard. Across the street, children were getting out of school. A pair of Israeli F-16s screamed overhead, part of the first wave of aircraft aimed at police stations, command centers, and Hamas training camps. Explosions engulfed the courtyard. In less than five minutes, dozens of people were killed, and hundreds were wounded.
At the school, many of the students were injured. An Arabic teacher, who asked not to be identified, because he works with international agencies that would not want him to be quoted, carried to Al-Shifa hospital one of his students—a fourteen-year-old boy with shards of glass blown into his back and leg. Parents frantically searched for their children as another wave of aircraft raced over the Strip, targeting the militants who were expected to respond by launching retaliatory rockets. Indeed, one Israeli was killed that day by a Hamas rocket; according to the U.N., the death toll in Gaza reached two hundred and eighty, with nine hundred wounded. It was one of the deadliest days of conflict between Israel and its neighbors since 1967.
That night, the teacher and his family stayed in the house. “The bombing started again—it felt like an earthquake, our home was shaking,” he recalls. He was afraid that the windows would shatter, so he removed them. It was freezing weather and the utilities in his home had been shut off. The next day, he went foraging for food and fuel. A mosque near his house had been destroyed. Also nearby was Beit Lehia Elementary School, which the U.N.R.W.A. had turned into an emergency shelter for fifteen hundred people. It was hit by white-phosphorous artillery shells. Such munitions are usually employed to produce smoke screens, but they are also powerful incendiaries. The teacher recalls, “The smoke was very white, and when it comes on the ground it doesn’t explode—it just burns.” The tentacles of fire that enveloped the school reminded him of a giant octopus. Two children burned to death. An I.D.F. investigation found that white phosphorous was used in accordance with international law. A Human Rights Watch report concluded that “the I.D.F. had deliberately or recklessly used white-phosphorous munitions in violation of the laws of war.”
From the beginning, there was a dispute about who among the dead and wounded qualified as a “civilian.” Some police officers in Gaza had been recruited from the military wing of Hamas, but the Israelis regarded them all as Hamas apparatchiks. In several instances, armed drones killed children who were on rooftops. Were they “spotters,” as the Israelis speculated, or children at play, as human-rights workers in Gaza contended? Such questions demonstrate the difficulty that any urban conflict poses in separating actual combatants from innocent civilians. They also underscore the biases that had taken root in each camp: the Israeli belief that Hamas terrorists and the Gazan people were one and the same; the Gazan tendency to support any act of resistance against the Israelis, no matter how self-defeating it might be.
The air operation lasted for more than a week. Gaza’s main prison was struck, even though prisoners were still in their cells. Drones crisscrossed the Strip, using high-resolution cameras for precisely targeted missile strikes. Despite the accuracy of such weapons, Israeli and Palestinian human-rights groups reported that eighty-seven civilians were killed by drone strikes, including twelve people who were waiting for a U.N. bus.
On December 30th, the Air Force began demolishing government buildings and cultural institutions. “The Israeli authorities said they were going to destroy the infrastructure of terror,” John Ging, the U.N.R.W.A. director, told me. But they also attacked what he called “the infrastructure of peace,” such as the American International School in Gaza, the premier educational institution in the Strip. “It was attacked on two occasions by the extremists,” Ging said. “They did not succeed in destroying it. It took an F-16 for that.” The caretaker of the school was killed in the attack. The Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs, the Presidential Palace, and the parliament were also struck. “These are the buildings of democracy,” Ging said. “We in the international community have been building these for a decade, for a future state of Palestine, and they now lie in ruins.” Over a six-hour period, several buildings in the U.N.R.W.A. compound housing the agency’s food and fuel supplies were shelled repeatedly, despite numerous calls from U.N. officials protesting the onslaught. Three people were injured.
Meanwhile, Hamas rockets continued flying into Israel. One hit a construction site in Ashkelon, killing a Bedouin construction worker and injuring sixteen colleagues. A mother of four died when a rocket exploded near her car in the center of Ashdod. Another rocket landed in Beersheba, twenty-five miles from the Gaza border, injuring six Israeli citizens, including a seven-year-old boy.
The Israeli military adopted painstaking efforts to spare civilian lives in Gaza. Two and a half million leaflets were dropped into areas that were about to come under attack, urging noncombatants to “move to city centers.” But Gaza is essentially a cage, and the city centers also came under attack. Intelligence officers called residents whose houses were going to be targeted, urging them to flee. The Air Force dropped “roof knockers”—small, noisemaking shells—on top of some houses to warn the residents to escape before the next, real bomb fell on them.
During the eight days of bombings, the Strip’s water and electrical facilities were hit, and many mosques were destroyed. The Israelis assert that mosques served as arms depots for the resistance, and that Hamas placed its own citizens at risk by launching attacks from civilian areas.
All the while, ground troops stood by on the perimeter of Gaza. None of the goals of the operation had been achieved: every day, there were rocket and mortar attacks from the Strip, Hamas remained in control, and Gilad Shalit was still missing. Hamas officials even baited the Israelis, saying, “We are waiting for you to enter Gaza—to kill you or make you into Shalits.” That prospect was very much in the minds of some military leaders. The Israeli press reported that soldiers were ordered to kill themselves if they were captured. “No matter what happens, no one will be kidnapped,” a company commander told his troops, according to the Tel Aviv newspaper Yediot Ahronot. “We will not have Gilad Shalit 2.”
A ground invasion began on January 3rd. According to Amnesty International, some Israeli troops were encouraged to fire at “anything that moved.” A number of soldiers spoke to a human-rights group called Breaking the Silence about the behavior of Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead. One said that his orders were “You see a house, a window? Shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. . . . In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.” Another soldier said, “The goal was to carry out an operation with the least possible casualties for the Army, without its even asking itself what the price would be for the other side.” A military rabbi told soldiers, “No pity, God protects you, everything you do is sanctified,” and “This is a holy war.”
The ground troops attacked Gaza simultaneously from the north and the east. The soldiers expected fierce resistance, but the border areas were spookily empty. Some units spent a week in the Strip without seeing a single Arab. Halevi led the paratroopers into the northeastern zone. The first night, he occupied a small town, El Atatra. “This is what I found,” he told me later, in his office, on a military base near Tel Aviv. He unfurled a map, drawn by Hamas fighters, showing where snipers were to be stationed, tunnels had been dug, and improvised explosive devices had been planted. Halevi said of Hamas, “They took a civilian neighborhood and turned it into a military camp.” He showed me photographs of arms caches that his soldiers had uncovered in mosques, and of houses that had been booby-trapped. “This is the house of one of the Hamas officers in El Atatra,” he said, projecting a photograph of a dummy standing beside a dark staircase. “The dummy is to make us think he is a soldier,” Halevi said. “Behind him was an I.E.D. There was also a tunnel. The idea was that our soldiers see the dummy, they run to shoot him, and the I.E.D. explodes. Then the terrorists come out of the tunnel and kidnap our soldiers.”
Human Rights Watch has reported eleven instances of Israeli troops shooting civilians carrying white flags, including five women and four children—one of many incidents that human-rights groups say may constitute a war crime. According to Halevi, Hamas fighters had stationed weapons in various houses so that they could fire on the Israelis. When the troops approached, the fighters came outside unarmed, carrying a white flag. Maintaining this guise, they ran over to another arms cache and resumed firing.
The Israeli government has refused to coöperate with investigations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, citing “their biased dispositions.” It has also declined to participate in the U.N. inquiry led by Richard Goldstone. The U.N. delegation heard ample testimony about the use of civilians, including children, as human shields. The I.D.F., which is conducting its own investigations into possible misconduct, says that it has the right “to defend its civilians from intentional rocket attacks” and that it “discharged that responsibility in a manner consistent with the rules of international law.”
The Goldstone report cites evidence that Hamas also committed war crimes, by targeting the civilian population of Israel with rockets. Halevi said that Hamas also used human shields: “If you launch a rocket and two seconds later hold a child in your hands in order to protect yourself from our helicopters, you are committing a war crime.” Amnesty International has reported that it found “no evidence that Hamas or other Palestinian fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks.”
Halevi told me, “The easiest thing would have been to attack from the air with cannons—just erase the town. We didn’t even think about that.” He believes that his unit took extra risks in order to avoid civilian casualties. One of his officers was killed. “To speak about us like the tribes in Darfur or Bosnia that really exercise war crimes, this is something I can’t understand,” he said.
Most of Israel’s immediate military objectives were achieved within hours of the ground invasion. What followed was the systematic destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure. Al Quds hospital, where many of the wounded were being treated, was shelled, under the apparently mistaken belief that a Hamas headquarters was in the building. Meanwhile, tanks fired on houses, mosques, and schools. The Israeli Navy strafed buildings along the coast and the intelligence headquarters in Gaza City, which is rumored to have been built by the C.I.A. when Fatah was still in control. Armored bulldozers took down houses and factories. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister, Eli Yishai, later said, “Even if the rockets fall in open air, or to the sea, we should hit their infrastructure and destroy one hundred homes for every rocket fired.” Houses that weren’t destroyed were sometimes vandalized. Halevi himself had to send several soldiers back to Israel for ethical violations. “We told them, ‘We don’t want you, you have a level of morality we don’t accept.’ ” But most of the damage was officially tolerated, if not encouraged. According to various international agencies, fourteen per cent of the buildings in Gaza were partially or completely destroyed, including twenty-one thousand homes, seven hundred factories and businesses, sixteen hospitals, thirty-eight primary health-care centers, and two hundred and eighty schools. Two hundred and fifty wells were destroyed, three hundred thousand trees were uprooted, and large swaths of agricultural land were made no longer arable, in part because of contamination and unexploded ordnance.
Thirteen Israelis died, including nine soldiers—four of them from friendly fire—and four civilians, who were killed by rockets. (Israeli civilian casualties were kept to a minimum because many residents near the border fled the area, and those who remained hid inside fortified bunkers.) Hamas claims that only forty-eight fighters were lost during the entire operation. The toll on Gaza civilians was far higher. According to Amnesty International, fourteen hundred Gazans died, including three hundred children; five thousand were wounded. Israel claims that only eleven hundred and sixty-six Palestinians died, two hundred and ninety-five of them civilians. The Israeli human-rights organization B’tselem has documented seven hundred and seventy-three cases in which Israeli forces killed civilians not involved in hostilities. So far, the group says, Israel has convicted only one soldier of a crime during the operation—for stealing a credit card.
Because the Israeli military forbade international observers and journalists to enter Gaza during the operation, the scale of the destruction was largely hidden from view. One voice in Gaza that became familiar to Israeli television viewers was that of Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian gynecologist and peace activist who had trained and practiced in Israel. He often spoke to Israel’s Channel 10, giving reports, in Hebrew, about the medical crisis in the Gaza hospitals. On January 16th, the day before the war ended, a tank shell went through a bedroom window of his fourth-floor apartment in Jabalia, killing two of his teen-age daughters and a niece, and seriously injuring another daughter and several relatives. His oldest daughter ran into the room to see what had happened, only to be struck dead by a second tank shell.
Moments later, he rang the Channel 10 newsman Shlomi Eldar on his cell phone, in the middle of a broadcast. Eldar answered on air, and the anguished wails of Abu al-Aish on the other end of the line jolted many Israelis. “No one can get to us,” the doctor cried, begging for help to get his injured family to a hospital. “My God. . . . Shlomi, can’t anyone help us?” Eldar persuaded the Israeli Army to let ambulances through to rescue the survivors.
The I.D.F. initially claimed that Palestinian rockets had struck the building, and then, after that was disproved, that the tank was responding to “suspicious” figures on the third floor. Later still, the I.D.F. concluded that an Israeli tank had fired the two shells that killed the girls.
“We have proven to Hamas that we have changed the equation,” Tzipi Livni said on January 12th, five days before Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire and started to pull out of the Strip. “Israel is not a country upon which you fire missiles and it does not respond. It is a country that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild.”
The morning that the Israelis began their withdrawal, Hamas launched five more missiles at Sderot, then declared its own ceasefire. Khaled Meshal, who was in Damascus, far from the action, claimed victory for Hamas.
Five months after Operation Cast Lead, Hamas sponsored a workshop in Gaza City on “How to Talk to Israel.” Two dozen people attended, most of them academics or journalists. “What Israel knows about Hamas is that Hamas wants to eliminate them,” one of the panelists observed. Governing imposes new responsibilities, he said, but since coming to power “Hamas has not changed its speech.” A member of the audience said that Hamas had not even decided what to call Israel, pointing out that some speakers had used the term “Israeli entity” and others had called it the “Zionist entity.” “You can’t say to our own public you are going to throw Israel into the sea and then talk another way to the outside world—you have to have one speech,” the audience member said. “We address moderates in Israel with words, and then we also sent rockets to them. . . . We should be responsible but also clear in what we want. The world is not going to wait for us forever.”
Many Gazans I spoke to were introspective about Israel’s crushing retaliation. A Palestinian aid worker saw the invasion in geopolitical terms. “The war has a double meaning for the whole world, but especially for Iran,” he said. “This is how it will be for anyone who would think to play with Israel.” Eman Mohammed, a young photographer, told me that she was shocked by the indifference of the Arab world. “Look at the U.S. and Britain, sending convoys of aid,” she said. “Maybe we needed this war to look at things in a different way.” The sight of buildings being destroyed in Gaza made her more sympathetic to the reaction of America to 9/11. “I thought Osama bin Laden was a hero, but he’s not. He’s just a corrupted man taking us all to hell.”
The teacher in Gaza told me that many children have been reluctant to return to class, because that’s where they were when the bombs began to fall. (The Ministry of Education and Higher Education has reported that a hundred and sixty-four pupils and twelve teachers were killed during the operation.) Some of the children have become extremely aggressive, forming gangs. “They don’t listen, they don’t care what you’re saying,” the teacher told me. Others are mute, but “as soon as they hear a loud sound they start screaming.”
The boy he took to the hospital has become one of the disruptive ones. Before the war, the boy was good at his lessons. “Now he has a dark future,” the teacher said. “If he doesn’t continue his learning, he is not going to be able to go to the university. He will lose his opportunity to be an effective member of the community. Soon, you will see him on the street.”
Ahmed Yousuf warned me, “If there’s not a solution in the near future, things will go out of control. At every level, you find people suffering from a siege mentality. They don’t know which direction to take. There’s no guidance from the world community or from our local leaders. We have lost the wise men among the Palestinians.”
Hamas is more firmly entrenched in Gaza than it was before the invasion. It controls the only newspaper and the local television station, and it bans any Palestinian paper that does not reflect the views of the Party. Moreover, according to Israeli intelligence, Hamas is already rearming with high-quality weapons, many of them supplied or paid for by Iran. “They are now smuggling in rockets and rebuilding,” General Halevi said. “I tell you, we will come again, in better shape, because we have learned our lessons.”
The blockade of Gaza has not been lifted, or even reduced. Soon after the troops returned to Israel, Haim Ramon, then the Vice-Premier, declared that “Israel is facing a serious humanitarian crisis, and it is called Gilad Shalit.” He added, “Until he is returned home, not only will we not allow more cargo to reach the residents of Gaza, we will even diminish it.” In July, the incoming Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, echoed this position.
On October 2nd, Hamas released a proof-of-life video of Gilad Shalit, in exchange for the release of twenty female Palestinian prisoners. Shalit appears gaunt but healthy. Three months earlier, Shalit’s father, Noam, had travelled to Geneva to testify before Goldstone’s fact-finding panel. He made the case that his son’s abduction, and the refusal of his captors to allow the International Red Cross to determine if he is alive and well, were war crimes. He used the forum as an opportunity to address the people of Gaza. “Your leaders are fighting to return your sons and daughters from captivity,” he said. “This is an understandable desire.” But, he added, “the fate of an entire prison population cannot depend on the ransom of one young man. . . . You know that the injustice done to my son was the trigger for war. You also know that the release of my son is the key to peace.
“I know that you are short of food,” he went on. “Some of your loved ones have been killed—women and children, young and innocent. . . . As a parent speaking to a multitude of parents, I ask you to understand my family’s anguish.” ♦