SDEROT, Israel -- Conventional wisdom holds that next week’s much-publicized peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland, will have no impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jewish communities in the western Negev, including the besieged city of Sderot, would beg to differ.
Since November 1, this part of Israel has been under constant attack. According to an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman, some 110 Kassam rockets and mortars have been launched from Gaza towards Sderot. More than 180,000 Israelis -- including the residents of Ashkelon, Sderot, Netivot, and over 20 kibbutzim and moshavim -- now live under daily bombardment. Egypt meanwhile has facilitated the flow of hundreds of thousands of weapons and ammunition into Gaza since Israel’s disengagement from the territory in August 2005. Left to its own devices, Hamas has been able to build a well-trained, organized army which numbers 13,000 fighters, most of whom have had special training in Iran. Thousands more Katyusha rockets are ready to be launched towards Israel in the near future.
Meanwhile, recent video footage shows that Gaza terror cells launch mortar shells from school yards in UNRWA schools, knowing Israel’s sensitivity about killing civilians. A senior IDF intelligence officer observes that “Palestinian terror organizations continue to abuse the civilian population in Gaza by launching attacks against Israel from their midst…They don't think twice about firing Kassam rockets near crowded public areas, even though they're fully aware that they're endangering innocent civilians." Due to the IDF trying to avoid civilian casualties, a senior Israel Air Force Commander has confirmed that the IDF has only been able to hit three percent of the rocket launchers. In addition, the IDF is not even trying to kill or to capture the Gaza leaders who give the orders to shell and terrorize Israel.
What does all this have to do with the Annapolis conference? The answer, according to a senior IDF officer, is everything. So long as Israel is conducting negotiations with the Palestinians, the IDF will not enter Gaza -- not even to kill terror leaders. This non-response policy represents a continuation of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s directive to Israel, exactly one year ago, not to retaliate into Gaza. It also marks a sharp break with past counter-terrorism policy. In the Spring 2004, for instance, the IDF targeted and killed Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantissi. Today, its hands are tied.
The grim irony that Israel cannot retaliate even when attacks from Gaza are that their most protracted is not lost on the residents of Sderot and the Western Negev. They note the further irony that the Annapolis summit is slated for the 26th and 27th of November, the date of the American-brokered cease fire between Gaza and Israel. That so-called ceasefire lasted until May 15, during which time more than 300 Gaza missiles were launched against Israel.
The American ambassador to Israel nonetheless praised that ceasefire, noting that no Israelis were killed during that period, as if that were sufficient proof that the Palestinians were honoring their obligations. Jewish residents saw things differently. “Physical damage you are able to see. The scar in the heart -- that's what you cannot see,” Osnat Ben Haiem, a Jewish resident of Sderot, told me on the day that her house was struck by a direct hit from a Kassam missile. Only two minutes before the missile hit, her six-year-old son was having a sandwich in the kitchen. The American ambassador must have been pleased to know that her boy was not killed, even if he has been traumatized.
To be sure, Israeli political leaders seem just as determined to ignore the suffering of the Negev’s residents as their American counterparts. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently drove through the Negev to mark the 34th anniversary of the death of David ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and pioneer of the Negev, he didn't even think to drop by the five communities that had been shelled the night before.
Despite this official indifference, life here goes on, with certain necessary adjustments. Townspeople have gotten used to the routine of waking up with a collective alarm clock of sirens. A Kassem can land with no sound -- sometimes during the morning, or on the way to college, the bank, or the market -- forcing people always to be on the lookout for a nearby shelter. Because Kassam rocket have in the past knocked out the town’s electricity, allowing the missiles to strike without any alarm whatsoever, shelters are now scattered all over Sderot -- in public areas and at bus stops, market places, libraries, soccer fields, schools, kindergartens, and playgrounds.
Everyone is affected. In the past few weeks, I have witnessed a rocket strike landing by a school for disabled children, with many small children in daycare. I have seen a rocket land in an elderly man’s backyard. The old man is a cancer patient. I watched as he was evacuated while mumbling and sobbing. I’ve witnessed a rocket slam into a neighborhood of people from the Caucasian mountains, poor immigrants that have no sheltered room to run to. I watched as a rocket exploded in front of a woman who felt hopeless and cried out, “This is not a life!”
In the near future, in all likelihood after Annapolis, the Israeli Army will again enter Gaza. The international media will film the bodies of dead Arab mothers and children who were used as human shields by Arab terrorists, while Condoleezza Rice and Ehud Olmert’s wife shed crocodile tears for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, even as the real humanitarian crisis spreads among the Jews of the Negev region of Israel proper. Physical damage you are able to see. The scar in the heart -- that's what you cannot see in Sderot.