A Chanukah menorah still stood on the kitchen table in the Sderot home of Aliza Amar on Wednesday, one week after a Palestinian Kassam rocket struck her house and punctured her legs with shrapnel.
“The house was blown apart,” said Mark Schiff, 53, a Los Angeles comedian who was touring the war-ravaged city as part of the Crossroads Comedy Tour that raises money for teens at risk.
Amar was taken in moderate condition to Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon for treatment, and Schiff said he was told that other family members, as well as the family next door, were treated for shock.
In his visit, Schiff said he found a population determined to stay, yet resigned to the frequent rocket and missile attacks.
“I saw a woman who said she has been here 55 years and would never leave because she did not want to give up her home to the Arabs,” he said.
“Real estate values have dropped 50 percent, nobody is buying and nobody can see any end to this.”
“You feel so powerless,” added Schiff, an Orthodox Jew on his fifth trip to Israel. He said he was planning for his third bar mitzvah there in 2009.
For another comedian, John Mulrooney of New York, it was his first trip to Israel and he said he was particularly shocked by what he saw behind the police station in Sderot.
“The bomb disposal unit was back there and there were hundreds of remnants of the rockets [that had hit the city] stacked up on shelves,” he said. “They were so cheaply made. One had Hebrew writing on it. It was obviously a street sign someone had torn down and welded into the shape of a fin. It was extremely effective. … People here are freaked out.”
Israel’s Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee decided Wednesday to declare a “special security situation” in Sderot and other communities that border the Gaza Strip until next March. The action transfers emergency authority from the state to army, thereby giving it the responsibility to decide when schools and factories should be closed. It also permits residents to be compensated for damages suffered as a result of the declaration.
The government approved the same declaration last week at the behest of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who acted after convincing Sderot’s mayor, Eli Moyal, to withdraw his resignation. Moyal resigned during a live radio broadcast, citing his inability to govern a city that was constantly under enemy attack.
This week, Israel launched its most deadly military assault on Palestinian terrorists since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Fatah in June.
Arye Mekel, the former consul general of Israel to New York who was recently named Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said 13 terrorists were killed within 48 hours, including one from Islamic Jihad who was in charge of terrorist operations and another who was in charge of firing the rockets.
“Islamic Jihad was seriously weakened,” Mekel said. “And we will continue these operations until they stop sending rockets to Israeli cities.”
Asked about a threat from Islamic Jihad to retaliate with a wave of “martyrdom” attacks, a phrase that has meant suicide bombings within Israel, Mekel said: “They can’t come from Gaza because the way is blocked by a fence that doesn’t allow it.”
He said also that Israel hopes its military action this week was “the right response and that we won’t need a major invasion. Hopefully they have learned a lesson and know that they have to stop sending these rockets.”
But some Israeli experts acknowledge that the government is in a no-win position, either enduring daily rocket attacks on communities like Sderot, near the Gaza border, or launching a military incursion into Gaza that no doubt would inflict casualties on civilians, however unintentional, as well as improve the stature of Hamas for engaging the Israelis.
Even more, such an incursion would make peace negotiations even more difficult for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the “goal of the attacks by both sides is to reach a truce.”
The former Palestinian prime minister from Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, proposed a truce this week and Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz reportedly said Israel should consider quietly pursuing the offer.
Steinberg said the Israeli government is exploring the possibility of back channel talks to determine if they would be reliable. And he said a third party such as Turkey or some European country might serve as an intermediary.
Any truce, Steinberg said, is one that would have to ensure that Hamas does not use the break in fighting to rearm. In the past, Hamas has rearmed by smuggling in weapons from its border with Egypt. To try to prevent that, he said Israel might insist that the truce permit Israel to reoccupy the Philadelphi corridor that serves as a buffer between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
“This is a condition that Israel is exploring,” he emphasized.
Although Islamic Jihad has vowed not to cease its rocket fire into Israel, Steinberg said Hamas might be willing to sign a truce because “it wants to establish a government in Gaza, and Islamic Jihad doesn’t care. Since Hamas has an interest in protecting its government, we have leverage on them.”
But Yitzhak Reiter, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Israel is wary of Haniyeh because he is of the more moderate faction that is not now in control.
“Since the overthrow of Fatah, I think the radical camp is stronger,” he said. “And those who are discussing talks with Hamas about a truce say it must include the release of Gilad Shalit,” the first of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped in 2006. “They believe such a discussion would only widen the split in Hamas … and I think that many Israeli officials think Haniyeh is too weak to deliver the goods.”
The military action this week came at the same time that 90 countries and organizations met in Paris to pledge $7.4 billion to the Palestinian Authority over the next three years, which exceeded the $5.6 billion Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had been seeking. (For a Web Exclusive analysis of the pledges, see Gary Rosenblatt’s “Editor’s Blog” at www.thejewishweek.com).
Mekel said the donor countries are now concerned that the “money is used for the right purpose” and that they plan to supervise it closely. He said Norway, the European Union, France and Tony Blair, the EU’s Middle East envoy, will be in charge of monitoring how the money is spent.
During the Arafat era, much of the money donated by the international community to help the Palestinian people ended up instead lining the pockets of corrupt leaders.
In asking for $5.6 billion, the Palestinians spelled out a three-year plan in which 70 percent of the money would reportedly be used for salaries and to reduce government debt, and 30 percent for development.
The United Nations issued a report to coincide with the donors’ conference in which it warned that Israel’s restrictions on the Gaza Strip had pushed the local economy to the brink of collapse. It said there was no hope of recovery unless the “strict imposed closure regime on the strip is lifted.”
But Israel has refused, citing the constant rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli cities like Sderot.
After seeing the havoc the rocket attacks have inflicted on Sderot, Schiff said the visiting comedians were distributing nearly $3,000 they received in donations from members of Los Angeles synagogues.
Mulrooney said he gave a $500 check to the Amar family, whose home was blown up.
“The money was raised by American Jews and Avi [Liberman, the other comedian on the tour] said to give it to those in Sderot who are in most need of it,” he said. “So we’re acting like big shots, throwing money around everywhere.”
But it still it was a depressing experience.
“We walked out of a person’s house today,” Schiff said, “and I just wished we could have done something for them except say goodbye.”