Picnics, orchards and missiles part of life on Gaza front line

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2006, 12:00am

Even by the standards of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the firing of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip seems a remarkable exercise in futility. From my viewpoint on an Israeli observation post on the Gazan border, a few days before graphic images of the Gaza beach deaths of eight Palestinians sparked international outrage, the border area appeared a wasteland and the smell of smoke from Israeli artillery shells was in the air.

But in this small territory, the watchtower, barbed wire and single tank of the observation post was only a short distance from orchards and farmland on the Palestinian side, and a children's playground and picnic area on the Israeli side.

That morning, Palestinian militants had fired six Qassam rockets into the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, home of Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz, and wounded one woman; one rocket landed on the bed of a child who had not long got up for school. The rocket firers sometimes hide behind citrus trees in the Palestinian orchards.

We were a few metres from the fortified fence that Israel built on the Gazan border in the 1990s in order to keep potential suicide bombers out. The fence, surrounded by a sandy no-go area on both sides, provided the model for the much larger and more hi-tech separation barrier still being constructed in and around the West Bank.

My companion, retired Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Colonel Miri Eisin, said with pride: 'No suicide bomber from Gaza has been able to breach the fence since 1994.' But the crude, homemade Qassam rockets can breach it. And the daily fire is leading Israelis to fear that if they withdraw from parts of the West Bank, they'll face more rocket attacks from these areas, barrier or no barrier. This puts the government's plan for a partial West Bank pullout at serious risk.

The Qassams are wildly inaccurate, usually falling in empty fields belonging to the farmers of Israel's Negev area. According to IDF figures quoted by Colonel Eisin, even a number of Israelis have been killed by Qassams since April 2001. The total number of rockets fired over this period is estimated at 3,000.

The other main effect of the Qassams is that they attract Israeli artillery fire into Gaza in response. Israeli shelling escalated on the day of my visit, when Israeli defence officials said Hamas was directly involved in the rocket attacks - previously blamed on a semi-autonomous offshoot, the Popular Resistance Committees. On that day, Israel fired 200 shells into Gaza.

Later in the week, Palestinians said these shells killed the family of eight who were picnicking on the Gaza beach on June 8. An Israeli army investigation attributed the deaths to a Palestinian landmine, although this is questioned by former Pentagon battle damage expert Marc Garlasco, who investigated the explosion site on behalf of Human Rights Watch. According to Palestine Liberation Organisation figures, 29 Palestinian civilians (including the beach family) were killed by Israeli artillery and air raids in the first two weeks of June.

The Qassam fire is almost a caricature of the pattern of violence here: low-tech Palestinian attacks, which are aimed at a random selection of Israeli civilians, are met by heavier counterattacks from Israel, which are aimed at militants but also kill and injure Palestinian civilians. Meanwhile, the chances of a peace agreement recede.

So what motivates these attacks? There's clearly an irrational, despairing element to the ongoing Palestinian violence against a vastly militarily superior adversary.

Under attack from a far superior and better-funded force, the physically weaker Palestinian side seeks to portray itself as morally stronger, tapping into 'David and Goliath'-style myths of heroic resistance against the odds.

As Palestinians blame Israel for the Gaza beach deaths, the tragedy is a propaganda victory for local militant groups. The weeping image of the family's sole surviving daughter, who's now been adopted jointly by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, will no doubt boost the ranks of violent Islamist organisations not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but around the world.

Add to this Israel's latest 'targeted killing' of suspected Islamic Jihad members, which killed seven Palestinians, including two children, and one could be forgiven for thinking the IDF is playing into the hands of militant recruiters.

Yet for their part, Israeli army officials say they're being relatively restrained, in the face of pressure from Sderot residents to do more. According to Captain Jacob Dallal, a young soldier and university PhD student speaking on behalf of the IDF at the border observation post: 'This artillery fire is designed to deter the terrorists from upgrading to Katyushas, which are proper weapons-grade rockets, unlike the homemade Qassams. We want to avoid a land invasion, so artillery fire is the lesser of two evils.'

Militants have already fired the longer-range Katyushas into Gaza on a few occasions - which has seriously raised the stakes.

While there is some criticism of army tactics among the Israeli left - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's left-wing academic daughter, Dana Olmert, joined a march protesting against the Gaza beach deaths - mainstream opinion seems to back both artillery fire and targeted assassinations. Saul Singer, opinion editor of the popular Jerusalem Post newspaper, said: 'Targeted killings are a base that everyone agrees on. In fact, the army is taking the minimal possible action. The debate is about whether they should do more. But Israel is reluctant to launch a land invasion.'

Whenever Israel steps up targeted killings, he said, Palestinian factions call for a ceasefire, but it never lasts. No doubt, some Gaza residents are frustrated at the rocket fire, not least because misfired rockets regularly land on Palestinian homes and cause frequent injuries.

Speaking on behalf of the PLO, legal adviser Sanaa Hamoud said: 'The PLO condemns the rocket fire, like any activity which is targeted at civilians or has a significant risk of harming civilians.'

But there has so far been scant evidence of real pressure on militants to end rocket fire, due to a combination of sympathy, national solidarity, and fear. A local humanitarian worker said no serious public pressure to end rocket attacks had been seen this year.

Much now depends on whether Hamas is willing and able to implement the ceasefire that its predecessors never managed to achieve. Without this, Israel's plan for further West Bank pullouts may yet fall apart.