First fratricide, then fracture

The attack on an IDF patrol by settler thugs that Haaretz is reporting today would merely be the latest in a long string of such deplorable acts, including several recent but relatively harmless acts of “price tag” vandalism.

The story inspires several thoughts. Here are four:

1) These kids are nothing but thugs — and morons, if they think that this kind of thing will bring them anything positive.

2) There are people here who excuse violence against the state and its agents by Arab citizens, on the grounds that they feel targeted and discriminated against. Those people would never apply that same argument to settlers or haredim — and for that, I call them out as hypocrites. All three of those sectors have very similar feelings toward the state, and very similar reasons for having them. Excusing only one group’s thuggery while excoriating the other two exposes a failure of intellectual rigor, or of moral fiber, or both.

3) Related to the second point: None of those sectors is justified in its actions toward the state in response to those feelings; none, in fact, deserves anyone’s defense of their violence. The estrangement that each group feels from the state is much more a result of their own twisted policies of rejection of the state than any (fictitious) policy the state has of rejecting them.

4) Related to the third point: Feelings of shock and disgust at the settlers’ attack on soldiers are meaningless without the recognition that the only way to prevent such acts in the future is for the government to stop allowing and encouraging the situation in which every special interest group in this country exploits the state and undermines it in order to establish its own private authority, answerable to no one.

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Homeward bound?

noymansMaybe you really can’t go home again. But for a few former Gush Katif settlers now serving in the IDF, Operation Cast Lead is a long-awaited opportunity to return to the Gaza Strip.

To be sure, it’s not a standard homecoming. Itai Noyman, for example, a 21-year-old tank commander who grew up in the Jewish settlement of Neveh Dekalim, is currently deployed inside Gaza. A few days ago, as the IDF was bisecting the strip to cut off the movement of Hamas gunmen and their weapons, Itai let his parents know that he had reached the ruins of the former settlement of Netzarim.

The irony of the situation is not lost on the Noyman family.

Back in Gush Katif, Itai’s father Yossi owned a cement factory, where he employed Palestinians from Khan Yunis and the Muwassi area.

“Before the ‘expulsion’ they helped us put up our protest signs,” says Yael Noyman, Itai’s mother. “I know, it’s surprising, right? We asked them, do you know what these say? And they said, oh, sure, we understand.”

The family is still in touch with many of those workers, Noyman says, and they aren’t shy about saying how much they miss the Jews. “Boy, are they really crying now,” she says, referring less to the current fighting than to the stagnation and hardship that have characterized the Gaza Strip since the disengagement in 2005. “They’re just waiting for the Israelis to come back in on their tanks and put everything back to the way it was.”

Should one of those tanks turn out to be Itai’s, all the better. “I hope the army finishes this operation like it needs to be done, and doesn’t simply push for a cease-fire,” she says. “If we don’t destroy Hamas, we will have accomplished nothing.”

Even though her son is in the thick of things as the fighting rages in Gaza, Noyman says she hopes the IDF “really goes in and puts things in order there.”

Aside from being engaged in battle, former Gush Katif residents serving in Gaza right now are not authorized to talk to the press. Family members who have been quoted in the past few days, however, report high morale and a special sense of purpose among them.

“Itai is so eager to go into Gaza and fight. It’s how he was raised and what he’s been trained for, after all,” Yael says.

But Itai is not the only Noyman family member involved in the fighting. His father Yossi, a retired major who is no longer required to perform reserve duty because of his age but has volunteered to do so nonetheless, was called up on the first night of the operation to join his unit at the Southern Command’s logistics base.

THAT LEAVES Yael at home in the “caravilla” site at Nitzan, north of Ashkelon, that houses so many of her former neighbors. It’s a place very much clinging to the past, with all sorts of businesses named after Neveh Dekalim and a “museum” documenting the settlement and subsequent “expulsion” of Jews from the Gaza Strip at the entrance to the site.

Nitzan is also a place where people are trying to move on as well, though. Passion fruit vines, heavy with ripening fruit, are thriving, climbing over roofs of dozens of the temporary homes here. Many of the families, including the Noymans, have begun construction on their new (permanent) homes on lots nearby, and younger evacuees are beginning to receive building permits for subsidized housing, too.

The IDF’s incursion into the Gaza Strip is reopening the wounds of the disengagement that had just begun to heal. Itai Noyman, his mother says, is fighting now, but he delayed his induction for two years. “He never thought he wouldn’t serve,” Yael explains, “but he needed time to heal and put things in perspective before he could.”

What remains to be seen is whether Itai and other soldiers like him will be able to maintain that perspective as the fight continues. The early success of Operation Cast Lead is also allowing evacuees to entertain thoughts – three years later, now that they have begun to move forward – of returning to the places they left so reluctantly.

Dror Vanunu, for example, finds the possibility of returning to Neveh Dekalim after an IDF conquest of the Gaza Strip tantalizing. Like a lot of his neighbors, Vanunu blames the current crisis on the “messianic zeal” of Israeli leaders to concede the land and the infrastructure that Gaza’s Jewish settlers developed “in exchange for an illusory peace.”

He is waiting for an expected call-up to reserve duty with mixed emotions, saying he would eagerly fight “if the purpose is to uproot that Nazi-like and Taliban-like regime entirely,” but if the goal is “only to make sure that rockets stop for a short time, or are minimized, then it wouldn’t be worth risking life and limb.”

“We have to destroy Hamas,” Vanunu says, but “if I’m going back to Gaza, I have to know that we’re not going to mess around.”

While Vanunu allows himself to imagine a triumphant return to Neveh Dekalim, the Noymans, Yael says, won’t be joining him. They spent 23 years in the settlement and miss it terribly, and yet…

“To start fighting again? Personally, I couldn’t see myself doing it,” Yael says, sighing. “But if my kids were to be able to go back some time,” she adds, her voice and expression making it clear she holds out little hope of it happening, “I’d be happy.”

NOTHING IS conquered yet, though, and tensions are running high in Nitzan – as in all the towns within range of the rocket fire that persists despite Israel’s massive aerial bombardments in Gaza. Yael, who works for the Education Ministry instructing kindergarten teachers in the Gaza periphery, says the impact of the rocket threat is much greater than what she faced in Neveh Dekalim.

“We had thousands of mortar shells rain down on us,” she recalls, “but the rockets are much more frightening. The Kassams make such a big ‘boom.’

“I don’t know,” she says with a shrug, “maybe it’s just that we have grown older. Maybe it’s that we’re living in these flimsy wooden homes without a reinforced room. But sitting here and wondering what we can do, and where we can go, is terrible.”

The spread of the threat beyond the immediate Gaza area, far into Israel, is a bitter and unsatisfying vindication of the warnings that Gaza settlers made for years.

“When we said there would be rockets in Ashkelon, everyone laughed at us. They said there wouldn’t even be one single rocket. “Now, there are rockets in Beersheba, and everyone can see that we were right,” Noyman says.

“Before,” she continues, “we absorbed the blows. Now others are seeing what it’s like. Now everyone is seeing that you can’t just build a bypass road and consider the problem solved.”

OUTSIDE, WORKERS are installing massive concrete sewage pipes that will serve as improvised protective measures. Coming in place of shelters or reinforced “safe rooms” for the 500 families living at the Nitzan caravilla site, they are meant to provide a modicum of protection from the impact of a rocket strike.

“I don’t understand why it took until now for the government to set these up here,” Noyman says. “I mean, in [nearby] Carmiyah, they were provided with reinforced security rooms immediately after the first rocket strike. Here, we have just waited and prayed. I have drilled taking cover under the table with the kids over and over… but what good would that do?”

“Ahh,” she says, trying to let the fear and frustration go, “the very idea of a ‘secure room’ in a caravilla is an oxymoron anyway.”

In any case, she says, the answer to the rockets lies in offense rather than defense.

“We can’t just sit around and wait for a miracle,” she says.

In so much as they represent an improvement from what she has had until now, Noyman is relieved to see the pipes in place. But, she says, “I’m not sure we’d make it into them. I mean, I imagine the Color Red alarm going off in the middle of the night, and I don’t know how I could possibly get there, with my children, by myself, in 30 seconds. And that’s just us. There are 40 of us in this cul-de-sac. How are we all going to fit in there?”

Not everyone is taking the cautious approach to the pipes, however. In one, someone has wedged plywood slabs and mattresses, as if they were expecting an extended stay inside. Might as well make themselves at home.

All across Nitzan, children are eagerly playing around and inside the pipes, some of them inventing games that incorporate the pipes as they go along. Although they are simple, dusty concrete tubes marked only with “Home Front Command” and “Defense Ministry Construction Department” in dark stenciled paint, almost immediately they become blank canvases in the hands of eager little graffiti artists. Stick figures in brightly colored chalk spring up in twos and threes – usually identified as either “Hamas” or “Arabs” – with what are meant to be F-16s scrawled above them, dropping bombs. Along one such rudimentary narrative are large English block letters reading “Kasm” and “bom,” in classic children’s misspelling.

Watching the children outside her door decorating the pipe in her driveway, Noyman thinks back to her 23 years in Neveh Dekalim and ponders what kind of graffiti she would like to leave.

“I think,” she says after a long while, “I would just write, ‘We told you so!’”

The right alliance

Following the defeat of Georgia and the collapse of Israel’s military-diplomatic investment there, a reevaluation of Israel’s priorities in establishing alliances is in order.

Forced to play David in a neighborhood of threatening Goliaths, Jerusalem has for decades sought out other Davids: the Kurds, to offset Iraq; the South Lebanon Army, to offset the PLO and Hizbullah, and against Syrian influence in Lebanon in general; Turkey (large but fairly weak, and an “ally” with very little loyalty) to offset Syria and Iran; and Georgia and Azerbaijan, to offset Iran and Russia.

The track record of these alliances is not encouraging, with results ranging from horrendous to only nominally worthwhile. There is a lesson in Israel’s poor showing in alliance-building outside the Western world, and it is this: The Jewish state may play the part of David well, but others don’t. It’s time to join forces with a Goliath.

This is what makes the revelation that the commander of the IDF’s ground forces paid a visit to Kashmir last week to speak with Indian troops about counter-terrorism strategy such welcome news.

It isn’t that Israeli-Indian cooperation is new; far from it. India is the largest purchaser of Israeli-made weaponry (note the photo of an Indian soldier holding an Israeli-made assault rifle, to the right), and economic ties are expanding nicely. What is encouraging is the thought (or, perhaps more accurately, the wishful thinking) that the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry just might be coming around to the idea that India deserves much, much more attention than it has gotten thusfar.

With 1 billion people, a rapidly expanding economy, the strongest military in the vicinity, maritime access to Pakistan and Iran – and a major problem with Muslim terrorism stemming from the dispute over control of Kashmir – India has the potential to be Israel’s most important strategic partner after the United States.

We already have ties to India’s diamond and hi-tech industries. We already have convinced the Indians of the value of our military hardware and our know-how in fighting Islamic terrorism and insurgency. But we can do more on these fronts, and on others, as well. For example, we have the ability to help India develop a more efficient farm system to feed its massive poor, and to generate electricity from its scorching sun.

Outside of its youngsters’ drugs-filled pilgrimages to the beaches of Goa and their reckless treks through India’s enchantingly dangerous mountains, Israel pays very little attention to India. In fact, since Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India in 2003, neither Ehud Olmert nor his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, has followed suit. It’s time to make amends for these mistakes by significantly increasing Israel’s profile on the subcontinent, in an effort to make the Jewish state a valuable friend and ally in New Delhi and Mumbai.

Hamas leadership on the IDF firing line

The deaths of Hamas leaders Ali Alan and Nasser Asida are the latest in series of blows the terror group has suffered in the past month at the hands of the IDF and security forces.

Alan, head of Hamas’s military wing in the southern West Bank, was killed by IDF troops in a pre-dawn raid in a village south of Bethlehem. Asida, an Izzadin Kassam Brigades leader, was shot dead in a gun battle near a village outside of Nablus.  Their removal, along with the March 8 targeted killing of one of the group’s founders, Dr. Ibrahim al-Makadmeh, and the March 3 arrest of another Hamas veteran, Muhammad Taha, make clear the degree to which the IDF has focused on neutralizing Hamas in recent weeks.

The targeting of the group’s senior officials comes against the backdrop of the virtual destruction of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces by the IDF, and Hamas’s ambitions of dominating Palestinian politics in its stead. Indeed, one stimulus for dismantling the group’s terrorist infrastructure was the PA’s recent failure to reach an agreement with Hamas in Egyptian-mediated talks aimed at declaring cease-fires both with Israel and rival Palestinian factions.

From stabbings and shootings of individuals and small groups – civilian and soldier alike – to well-planned infiltrations and massive, demoralizing bombings, Hamas has surpassed all competing terrorist groups in bloodying Israel since September 1993. Since then it has claimed responsibility for at least 65 attacks in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, killing more than 300 people. In the past two and a half years alone, it has murdered more than 250 in over 40 attacks.

The group sprouted from a minor offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to a brutal militia capable of altering Israel’s political landscape. It was the first to shatter the hope of the Declaration of Principles, with the stabbing death by one of its members of Yigal Vaknin in a citrus grove in September 1993. It inspired a Shin Bet informant to kill his handler in February 1994, started bombing buses with the April 1994 attack in Afula, and left the country breathless by kidnaping Cpl. Nahshon Wachsman in October of the same year. Its bombings of two No. 18 buses in Jerusalem within days of each other in the spring of 1996 were instrumental in swaying the country to vote Binyamin Netanyahu into power rather than Shimon Peres.  The group also counts to its credit the Seder night massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in 2002, the worst single terror attack in Israel since the 1978 beachfront invasion and hijacking in which more than 30 were killed. Said by senior officials to have received training and support from Hizbullah and al-Qaida, it has scored military successes as well by destroying several IDF tanks and terrorizing Sderot with its Kassam rockets.

Crippling Hamas would mark not only a major security achievement, but could also provide Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a significant opportunity to renew diplomatic initiatives with the Palestinians. If the war clouds over Iraq are distracting international attention from the IDF’s military maneuvers against Palestinian terrorism now, then the eventual resolution of that conflict is sure to sharpen the spotlight on the ability of Sharon’s new government to ‘make painful concessions’ in the pursuit of peace later on. But any such initiative is likely to be acceptable to the public only if its deadliest enemies have been neutralized.

Can the combination of arrests and assassinations achieve that result? Israel’s experience with Fatah-based groups in the West Bank suggests it can.  Tanzim and the Aksa Martyrs Brigades were engaged in a macabre contest of killing when Sharon ordered massive call-ups for Operation Defensive Shield. The slow, house-to-house searches in the West Bank’s most populous (and dangerous) cities did not immediately end Fatah terrorism, but they decimated the group’s factions, which had until then operated too freely in PA-controlled areas. 

Perhaps more important than the ‘targeted killings’ of the cell members and masterminds responsible for so many bombings and roadside ambushes, were the close-up confrontations in the crowded alleyways where Palestinian terrorists hide. Although the IDF suffered a few dozen losses, it ultimately overwhelmed the poorer-equipped Palestinians with its well-trained troops, supported by armor and helicopter gunships.  The nature of those urban battles removed the terrorists’ advantage in guerrilla strikes, offering them a choice: surrender or die. Most surrendered.

The watershed arrest of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti – until then considered a possible challenger to Yasser Arafat – delivered the message that even ‘political’ leaders of terror groups were no longer immune.

Some commentators and politicians have warned of dire consequences of these actions, but the numbers bear out a different reality. The rate of attacks in the West Bank dwindled from over 500 in March 2002 to only 100 two months later, and that number continues to decrease. Attacks inside Israel have dropped from an average of 31 per month in the first year and a half of this conflict to just under 13 per month since April 2002. Far from growing stronger, the Fatah groups and PA policemen who joined or supported them have become less capable, more isolated, and have less access to vital funds.

The ‘kill or capture’ strategy is beginning to reap similar rewards in the Gaza Strip, where the noose is tightening around Hamas. The real danger now lies not in retaliation for IDF operations, but in a job left half-done. If Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantissi are allowed to continue cultivating martyrs, then the army’s efforts may very well ultimately be in vain. But if Sharon brings them and their top lieutenants to justice, then he is more likely to affect a momentous turning point in Israel’s fight against terrorism.