So familiar, so forlorn and so fantastically self-defeating

Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th July,2014)

Olga Neiman was asleep when the missile struck shortly after 9pm, exhausted by the daily exertions of looking after her two-year-old daughter. She was woken by the explosion. The bangs and booms of war have been commonplace in recent days, but she realised instantly this one was horribly close to home.

Running outside, she found her neighbour’s house on fire. Fortunately its owner – an elderly woman in her 80s who emigrated from Russia three decades ago – was staying with her daughter nearby for safety.

Two other homes lay wrecked, one in flames after a gas explosion, while another had been obliterated, replaced by a pile of rubble with an upended mattress and leatherette sofa sitting in its midst. A bent frying pan lay nearby, battered by the blast.

‘I am worried for my daughter but I am still staying here,’ said Neiman, 39, who lives in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, a repeat target for the missiles fired from Gaza. Sirens sounded again yesterday as fearful homeowners retrieved possessions from their ruins.

Yet this passionate mother was just as alarmed to see Palestinian children being killed by Israeli forces. ‘There must be some other solution than all this happening again,’ she said.

Much of the world would share her weary sentiments as Israeli forces and militants in the besieged Gaza Strip carried on trading rockets and rhetoric yesterday.

It all feels so familiar, so forlorn, so fantastically self-defeating for both sets of citizens snared in this seemingly ceaseless and hopeless conflict.

This time, around 130 Palestinians have been killed so far – most of them civilians, according to the United Nations. This number could increase rapidly as tensions rise. Victims have included many women and children. Israel claimed to have hit another 60 ‘terror targets’ yesterday, as it took its tally to well over 1,000 strikes in the five days since the struggle flared up again.

One strike on a charitable association for disabled people in northern Gaza was reported to have left at least two women dead and four others wounded, according to medical staff.

Although Israel says it tries hard to reduce civilian casualties, warning targets by phone minutes before their homes are destroyed, the victims also include a doctor and a pharmacist, a four-year-old boy and a man aged 80. Clearly they are not all terrorists.

A mosque was also demolished, although Israel claimed the building was being used to hide weapons. Someone scrawled a jibe against the Israeli prime minister on one shattered wall in response: ‘We will prevail despite your arrogance, Netanyahu.’ Both protagonists in this conflict know that propaganda is a powerful weapon.

There were claims yesterday of Israeli special forces advancing into Gaza and clashing with al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the organisation Palestinian Islamic Jihad. If confirmed, this would mark an alarming escalation.

Israel has already mobilised 20,000 reservists and its army chief, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, hinted yesterday he was ready to send tanks and troops across the boundary into Gaza. Their last such incursion was in early 2009, and lasted a fortnight.

‘We are in the midst of an assault and we are prepared to expand it as much as is required, to wherever is required, with whatever force will be required and for as long as will be required,’ said Gantz.

Israel insists it is entitled to stop missiles being fired over its borders. Dozens have been thwarted by its Iron Dome protective shield, although I also saw a petrol station in the port of Ashdod where one narrowly missed a tanker unloading fuel but still caused serious injuries.

But as diplomats try to find a solution to stop the bloodshed, Israel faces a growing global backlash over its brutal response.

Yesterday Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed concern about the loss of life in Gaza and demanded ‘de-escalation’ of the crisis, although he carefully endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself. And last night in a statement approved by all of its 15 members, the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire.

This is the deadliest conflict here since November 2012, when 180 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed. That crisis was eventually halted with mediation from Egypt.

So how have we reached this situation where democratic Israel is on the brink of its third major offensive against Gaza in under six years – and lasting peace seems as distant as ever in this bitterly contested corner of the planet?

The core issues, of course, go back many years. But the latest conflict was sparked by the slaughter of three Israeli teenagers, who disappeared while hitch-hiking home to a settlement in the West Bank.

Israel blamed Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that runs Gaza, and began rounding up activists. A 17-year-old Palestinian boy was then abducted and murdered in a horrific act of reprisal as he waited for prayers at his local mosque. This led to riots in Jerusalem and rumbling rocket fire from Gaza, which was met in return with Israeli air-raids and attacks.

At the heart of the struggle is Gaza, a crowded strip of coastal land lying along Israel’s western flank and home to 1.5 million Palestinians. Many are crammed into refugee camps and live in great poverty; two-thirds do not have access even to a sewage system.

Yet behind this lie larger issues. Many on the Israeli Right want to destroy Hamas, an ally of Iran seen as a terrorist organisation by the United States and Europe, yet others fear it might be succeeded by the sort of extreme jihadis that have emerged in Iraq and Syria.

Hamas has been weakened by Egypt’s new post-coup regime, which overthrew an elected Muslim Brotherhood government. It has closed down almost all the border tunnels that were used to smuggle in cars, weapons, fuel and missile parts.

So for all the howls of outrage, some analysts believe it suits Hamas and its ruthless leadership to have another fight with Israel in order to shore up dwindling support.

Meanwhile, the latest long-term peace talks broke down in April, seemingly because Israel was angered by a unity deal between Hamas and its rival Fatah. The two-state solution, the only realistic settlement, seems as far away as ever.

So on one side of the barbed wire impoverished Palestinians face the onslaught of one of the world’s most formidable war machines. And on the other, Israelis must sprint into stifling underground shelters as missile sirens sound again and again.

Among those Russians who emigrated to Israel three decades ago in search of a better life only to find their homes blown apart in Be’er Sheva was 63-year-old Violetta Lubich. Yet this kindly carer still invited me into her house, the bomb holes all too evident. ‘I am very scared because every minute there might be another rocket attack,’ she told me. ‘I just feel so sad about this situation we find ourselves in.’

The tragedy is that there are so many human beings on both sides of this interminable and bloodstained struggle who must share her sadness.

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