Israel's 'Autumn Clouds' campaign darkens Gaza border
The stepped-up effort to protect Israelis from rocket attacks has killed some 50 Palestinians.
NEBI MARI, ISRAEL — From this lookout point near the northern Gaza border, an escalating volley of violence is darkening the afternoon on Day 5 of Israel's "Autumn Clouds" campaign.
An Israeli Apache helicopter swoops toward northern Gaza and drops a missile on Bet Hanoun, leaving a plume of dust and destruction in its wake; A Palestinian Qassam rocket leaves one of the fields nearby and crashes into a home in nearby Sderot, inside Israel.
Which launch precedes which – or who struck first – is almost irrelevant now. In a worsening cycle of attack and counterattack, both sides say they are responding to the other's aggression. It is a pattern that many here expect to continue, at least for several days, or until a breakthrough deal is reached on an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for a captured Israeli soldier, potentially paving the way for further cooperation or an unofficial cease-fire.
While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has insisted that Israel has no intention to reoccupy the Palestinian territory, he has declined to give any concrete timeline for the stepped-up campaign, launched last Wednesday.
Israel says it is seeking out rocket-launching cells of Palestinian militants who are continuing to shower deadly little projectiles at the nearby Israeli population. Palestinians say they are simply putting up resistance against the ongoing Israeli military incursions, attacks, and "siege" of the Gaza Strip, as one Hamas-led government official put it.
Among Palestinians, the toll has been far more grave: Some 50 Palestinians have been killed since Wednesday and more than 250 wounded, according to a spokesman for the Palestinian ministry of health. Israel lost one soldier Thursday. But on both sides, particularly in the nuclei of the current conflict – Bet Hanun for Palestinians and Sderot for Israelis – there is a sense of slipping toward a breaking point for the families caught in the crossfire.
Bet Hanoun, largely an agricultural area, has borne the brunt of the violence because, Israeli officials say, the domestically produced Qassam rockets are being launched from there. But most of the local farmers deny that their land is being used for attacks on Israel, and say their lives have been turned into an inescapable battlefield in recent days.
"The Israelis have destroyed dozens of houses and have turned so many houses into military posts for them," says Mohammed Oudeh, a farmer who says Israeli troops have stationed themselves in his garden.
"The Israelis do not allow us to make the izzan, call for prayer, because they shoot at anyone who moves, including people who are trying to go to the mosque," says Zaki Kafarna, who won't allow his seven children to leave the house since his neighbor's son was killed last week. "The Israelis are everywhere – there are tanks everywhere, cutting up our citrus trees. Our children live in fear and they don't sleep at night," he says.
But in Sderot, Rassa Mishaha's children also aren't getting any sleep these days. She and her husband, Israelis who came here over 15 years ago as immigrants from Ethiopia, have had their family fall victim to Qassam attacks twice this year. In one, her 12-year-old daughter got injured in the arm by debris. On Thursday, their living room took an almost direct hit, leaving them in a home spread with shattered glass and metal fragments.
"I heard a big boom, and then it was just shock," says Mrs. Mishaha, on the verge of tears. "No person can live like this." Israeli officials have defended the operation as one that is necessary to combat an influx of weapons and other materials smuggled from Egypt into Gaza, and to prevent the launching of Qassam rockets into Israeli territory.
"The real answer is for the Palestinian government to take the steps they promised and stop the rocket launching," says Mark Regev, spokesman of the Israeli foreign ministry. "If they had, the operation wouldn't be happening.... If the rocket launching were to cease, we'd have no reason to be in Bet Hanoun."
Mr. Regev says that over 300 rockets have been launched from Bet Hanoun since the beginning of the year. "Does anyone expect us to stand by and have our civilians been hit?"
Amid the despair, there have been frequent reports that a deal for an exchange of Palestinian prisoners in return for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas militants in June, could encourage both sides to quiet their guns. Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas government, says that this would accompany a national unity deal in the Palestinian Authority. But it won't be inked by Hamas, Mr. Hamad says, unless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can assure Israel will lift restrictions on Gaza.
"We are waiting for Abbas to tell us that there are guarantees that the siege will be lifted after forming the national unity government," Hamad says. "Hamas doesn't care about people in prison more than it cares about [achieving] its political program."
• Safwat al-Kahlout contributed from Gaza City.