The biggest shock came the day after the end of the bloody israeli military operation in the gaza strip
Actually, the israeli military operation in beit hanun in the gaza strip, in which at least 50 people were killed, had ended on tuesday morning after almost one week. But a day later, an artillery shell struck an apartment building, killing 19 more people, most of them women and children, and setting events in motion: the radical islamic hamas called for attacks in israel for the first time in more than two years, youths clashed bitterly with police in east jerusalem, and 28 qassam rockets had fallen over israeli cities and communities in the gaza neighborhood by midday thursday.
After a shell hit a block of houses in beit hanun, a relief worker carries away an injured man. Photo: ksi-price
Reactions were not changed by the fact that israel’s government immediately apologized, offered humanitarian aid and launched an internal investigation into the incident. But while the preliminary report released thursday speaks of human or technical error, many questions remain – the most important of which is why "operation autumn clouds" was launched in the first place. While israel’s government justifies the invasion with a resurgence of rocket fire on israeli localities in recent weeks. But observers doubt that this is really the case: no more kassams, as the palestinian rockets are called, have been fired in recent weeks, they say; it is more likely that the government of prime minister ehud olmert is trying to make president mahmoud abbas strong.
My hometown sderot and beit hanun are separated by only ten kilometers, but we are divided by war, terror and harassment. We need a "road map to morality".
Amir peretz, chairman of the labor party, in the 2006 israeli election campaign
It’s wednesday morning, a few minutes after morning prayer. In the next room, a child is crying for water that is not available because the taps have been running out for days. The door opens, abed, the father of the family, peers through the crack. "Well slept?"Detonations had been heard all night in beit hanun in the northern gaza strip: shells fired by army artillery units from israeli soil to diade palestinian fighters from firing rockets.
"This is the world we live in," says the translator, who spares neither the israeli nor the palestinian leadership, nor the fighters armed to the teeth who make the streets of gaza unsafe, from his criticism. "At some point, life here makes everyone grumble. It is about this point when a loud splintering bang, followed by several explosions, brings time to a halt for a moment.
Why it all started, no one can say for sure: the army operation in the north of the gaza strip was a reaction to the increasing rocket fire on israeli cities and communities in the gaza strip’s neighborhood, israel’s government had said, explaining its move. But an official from the municipality of sderot, an israeli town just a few kilometers from beit hanun, countered that no more kassams, as the palestinian brand of rockets is called, have hit than usual. "We have been shelled for months," he explains, "in fact, in recent weeks it had been rather quieter than usual. That the government is now adopting a different strategy also surprises us."
On wednesday of last week, units of the israeli army crossed the border. Unlike the previous operations in june and july, this time they did not stop at the city limits, but began searching one house after another in beit hanun, which is considered a hamas and islamic jihad stronghold. The resistance was fierce: militants from the militant groups had set up booby traps and engaged in fierce firefights with the army, in which they almost always came out on the short end of the stick: when the general staff declared "operation autumn clouds" over on tuesday, at least 53 palestinians, including a number of civilians, had lost their lives. There was not a house or a car in the city that did not have at least a few scratches, often more.
This man was hit by a ricochet during a scuffle between palestinian fighters and soldiers. Photo: ksi-price
But for the people of beit hanun, the war did not end with the departure of the soldiers: a day later, as time resumes, a picture of horror appears just a few hundred meters from abed’s apartment: a block of flats has collapsed; flames burst from the trunks. Screams can be heard until they stop. Men desperately try to help, while ambulances slowly make their way through the crowd so that the paramedics can determine that there is no life left in the torn bodies that the involuntary helpers pull out of the remains of the houses.
At the same time, defense minister amir peretz picks up the phone in tel aviv to confess what happened to prime minister ehud olmert. Olmert, associates report, threw a tantrum: in a few days he plans to travel to washington dc to meet the newcomers in the senate and congress, his government is battered, the people expect diplomatic progress with the palestinians.
"I don’t think ‘operation autumn clouds’ was really about stopping the rocket fire," says ofer misrachi, a security expert with israel’s state broadcaster kol israel: "rather, the military waged an all-out war against hamas and islamic jihad."Someone in the defense ministry or the prime minister’s office must have decided that it was time to weaken the extremist groups as much as possible in order to strengthen the position of president mahmoud abbas.
Even burning tires couldn’t stop this tank from rolling into beit hanun last week. Photo: ksi-price
A theory that has many friends among observers on both sides these days: "it’s the most likely explanation if you look at the whole thing in the light of what has happened in palestine in recent weeks," says palestinian journalist anwar hatib: "the situation has come to such a head in recent months that it was only a matter of time before israel got serious."
For example, negotiations between hamas, whose "change and reform" electoral list won an absolute majority in january’s parliamentary elections, and president abbas’s fatah over the formation of a unity government have so far been unsuccessful. Although it had repeatedly looked as if an agreement was imminent, the project has always failed at the last minute: "i no longer believe that hamas is really interested in forming a unity government," says hatib: "it is the side that has lost out, because it has had to make compromises that could, in turn, cost it support."
In addition, hamas has been working behind the scenes in recent months to expand its position of power as far as possible. It began establishing its own police forces in the gaza strip and an increasing number of cities in the west bank, whose members are recruited primarily from members of the essedin al qassam brigades, the organization’s armed wing-a direct challenge to the security organs of the autonomous authority, which continue to be dominated by fatah even after hamas’ electoral victory.
The whole thing has meanwhile taken on coup d’etat-like proportions. Alone, abbas can hardly counter this: hamas people are well-equipped and full of religious conviction; regular police, on the other hand, don’t have enough weapons and often haven’t been paid for months. Besides, the president would hardly risk an open civil war.
But from an israeli point of view, this development is unacceptable, says radio journalist ofer misrachi: "the fact that hamas has been able to completely dominate the palestinian territories is an absolute nightmare for many israelis. Hardly anyone has yet come to terms with the idea that the rough time of the plo [an umbrella organization of palestinian factions that includes fatah but not hamas, d.A.] could be over, because that would mean that israel would have to talk to hamas in the near future." he is sure: "operation autumn clouds" was meant to stop this development.
For this boy any help came too late. He could only be rescued dead from the rubble. Photo: ksi-price
But with the event on wednesday morning, any conversation, no matter with whom, has become impossible for the time being: it quickly became clear that at least one shell hit the block of houses in beit hanun, fired by an artillery unit outside the gaza strip. Independent israeli experts even speak of at least two projectiles, casting doubt on the military’s previous investigation report, which spoke of human or technical error. "That could be the case with one shell, but not with several," says mickey levy, the former jerusalem police chief: "one artillery shell alone simply does not have such destructive power. And furthermore, how can it be that no one notices such a mistake??"An employee of the military prosecutor’s office is more explicit: "i would not be surprised if the soldiers had excelled in target practice: who will hit the city limits the most closely? We are watching the events very closely, and if this theory proves to be true, we will press charges against the culprits."He has the impression that the military has a leadership problem at the moment: "incidents like the one between the air force and unifil troops in southern lebanon are either ordered from above or silently accepted. I guess the latter."
For most palestinians, israeli attempts at damage control will not make much difference: hamas has called for attacks in israel for the first time in years, abandoning a long-standing, unilateral cease-fire. In east jerusalem, youths fought fierce street battles with police throughout thursday morning.
Meanwhile, in beit hanun, the dead were laid to rest on thursday afternoon. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, lined the streets as a never-ending procession of dead bodies made its way to the local cemetery. While hundreds of fighters fired bullet after bullet into the air, the crowd chanted slogans of hamas, islamic jihad and hezbollah, demanding more rockets, the death of israel. But among many residents of this city, where "operation autumn clouds" left no house, no car undamaged, behind the anger there was above all a trace of despair:
The people here have nothing: no work, no money, no security, they are pawns of the will of the israelis. Most people here had nothing to do with hamas or islamic jihad before. There were even good relations with the israelis. But every time the israelis invade here, the extremists gain a little more support.