A year after war, Gaza-Israel front is calm


A woman and child looks out from a shrapnel-ridden home following the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after 8 days of strikes in Gaza city, in November 2012. The period since the cease-fire has been the calmest between the two sides in more than a decade. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
November 13, 2013

Just a year ago, Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers fought a lopsided eight-day war in the skies that the United Nations said left more than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis dead.

The period since last November’s cease-fire, though, has been the calmest between the two sides in more than a decade.

Israeli military commanders, although still wary of armed factions in Gaza, offer unexpected praise for Hamas, the Islamist militant and political organization that governs the enclave. Not only have Hamas and its armed military wing shown restraint, the Israeli commanders say, but they also have demonstrated that they can rein in the more radical factions, such as Islamic Jihad, that operate alongside them.

“Hamas was able to prove to us that it can control rocket fire from Gaza,” said Brig. Gen. Mickey Edelstein, commander of the Israeli military’s Gaza division. “This is an achievement.”

Only about 50 rockets and mortar rounds were lobbed from Gaza toward Israel in the past year, and senior Israeli military officials say most were fired not by Hamas but by other militant groups. All the projectiles landed harmlessly in fields or were knocked out of the sky by Israel’s U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile-defense system. There were no Israeli deaths.

“The last year has been a great one,” Edelstein said. “Our kids didn’t hear alarm sirens. The farmers could work in their fields. There were almost no attacks from Gaza against civilian or military targets.”

Calm, of course, is a relative term when discussing Israel and Gaza, whose heavily fortified frontier is still marked by occasional skirmishes and mortar or rocket fire, as well as bobble-headed Israeli security cameras peering down from towers 24 hours a day to monitor any militants probing the defenses.

This month, an Israeli airstrike killed three Hamas militants in Gaza, hours after a firefight left a fourth Palestinian fighter dead. The skirmish occurred as Israeli security forces breached the Gaza border to demolish a mile-long “terror tunnel” uncovered by Israel in October. Five Israeli soldiers were wounded when an explosive device left in the tunnel went off, igniting a cache of petroleum.

That Nov. 1 incident represented the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the strip in a year.

“The numbers are sharp. There has been a 98 percent decline in high-trajectory firing,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit Tuesday to troops nearby. “There is no doubt that significant deterrence has been achieved.”

Netanyahu added: “We are not deluding ourselves. We know that Hamas and the other terrorist organizations are continuing to arm themselves in various ways.”

During the operation last year, the Israelis claimed to have killed 30 senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants and destroyed 980 underground rocket-launch sites, more than 200 smuggling and militant tunnels, and dozens of militant command centers and weapons-storage depots.

The cease-fire, however, is just that, not an accord. Israel doesn’t talk directly to Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization, and Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Gaza’s Hamas government, called last month for continued armed resistance. He also condemned ongoing peace talks brokered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

Life in the Gaza Strip a year after the war is worse, residents say, with long lines for gasoline, rising food prices and electricity outages that last 12 hours a day.

“We don’t have the basic materials for life,” said Fadi Abdul­majeed, 33, a merchant in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City. “No solar, no diesel, no electricity, no gas, no crossing points. It’s a dead country.”

The merchant and others blamed Hamas even more than Israel, which maintains an air and sea blockade against the coastal enclave but allows most trade goods — except building materials such as cement — to pass through its single commercial crossing.

“We’re going back 50 years, and it’s all because of Hamas,” Abdul­majeed said.

He and others said the division between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is run by the Fatah party and President Mahmoud Abbas, has created a crisis.

“No one in Gaza is optimistic. If the crossings opened and they let us out, you would not find a soul left in Gaza,” Abdulmajeed said.

Abu Yousif, 33, a street vendor, said the fighters in the resistance against Israel performed well last year. “But for me as a citizen? I didn’t gain anything. On the contrary, the situation becomes worse.”

“Israel squeezes us, but do not forget Hamas and Fatah, what they have done,” said Adnan Abu Helal, 57, a clothing merchant. “As long as we are divided, we will remain weak.”

During the war, Palestinian militant factions in Gaza fired almost 1,500 rockets at Israel, although 143 landed inside Gaza and 421 were reported intercepted by Iron Dome, according to the United Nations.

The Israel Defense Forces say they struck 1,500 sites in Gaza.

Retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, former chief of Israeli defense intelligence and the director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said lessons were learned by Israel’s military between Operation Pillar of Defense last year and a similar operation in 2009 known as Cast Lead.

“In Pillar of Defense, at the very start, a commander of Hamas was killed, and their strategic assets, like the missiles that reach Tel Aviv, were all destroyed,” Yadlin said. “Hamas was shocked. They understood that they could not survive this in the same way they survived in Cast Lead.”

Yadlin said that these days, Hamas is racked by internal and external challenges that have little to do with Israel.

The Egyptian military is waging war in the northern Sinai against jihadist groups and trying to smother the Muslim Brotherhood, a longtime supporter of Hamas. The Egyptian army has sealed most of the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza that provide Hamas with $230 million in annual tax revenue and a lifeline of cheap goods. At the same time, Iran has reduced its financial support for Hamas because of the latter’s opposition to the governing regime in Syria. Qatar also has cut back support.

A year ago, in the early evening hours, Yael Gerasi, a mother of three and a tax adviser, had just returned home after walking her dog in Rishon LeZion, a town near Tel Aviv. The sirens began to wail, and she huddled with her kids in the fortified safe room in her apartment.

Then, she said, a Fajr-5 rocket fired from Gaza scored a direct hit on her apartment building, causing extensive damage but no serious injuries.

This week, she came home for an hour at lunchtime to check on the final details of her year-long renovation.

“I don’t think about the politics,” Gerasi said. “I just want to raise my kids and live in peace and quiet.” Asked about people in Gaza, she said, “I think they want to live in peace and quiet, too.”

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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