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A Conflict Hamas Caused

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Nearly a year ago, I was in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, where, on almost any day, you could see the current war coming. "The next Middle East war may start over Sderot," I wrote back then. I came by my prescience the hard way -- in a bomb shelter. That day, three Qassam rockets had hit the city. It took no genius to see the imminence of war. It takes real stupidity to blame it on Israel.

On some days, dozens of rockets fell on Sderot. A blimp hovered over the town, and when it electronically spied an incoming rocket, the sirens went off. In Sderot, the sirens were virtually a single, long wail on some days. Everyone took shelter because shelters are everywhere -- a constant reminder of the nearness of death or, at the very least, destruction. Even a dud can bust through the roof of a house.

I get the impression that Israel is expected to put up with this. The implied message from demonstrators and some opinion columnists is that this is the price Israel is supposed to pay for being, I suppose, Israel. I am informed by a Palestinian journalist in a Post op-ed that Israel is trying to stop "amateur rockets from nagging the residents of some of its southern cities." In Sderot, I saw homes nagged to smithereens.

While I was reading the online version of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz for all the latest news about the war, a pop-up ad announced itself: "Camp Kimama, Israel, 2009 -- What childhood memories should be made of." The picture shows kids frolicking in the water. Placed next to stories about battle, it was a jarring -- but vivid -- statement of war aims: the expectation of normal life.

The CIA's World Factbook says that Israel has a population of 7,112,359. Of these, about 5,434,000 are Jews. That includes 187,000 settlers in the West Bank, about 20,000 in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights bordering Syria, and about 175,000 in East Jerusalem. It does not include, however, the approximately 750,000 Israelis living in the United States -- some for a brief amount of time, some for an extended period, some permanently. For a variety of reasons -- and often with considerable pain -- they have given up on the country of their birth.

As the leaders of Hamas understand, the war in Gaza is about Israel's incessant fight to be a normal country. Maybe that's impossible. The war between Arab and Jew predates the founding of Israel in 1948. For the Palestinians, it is a fierce fight for Arab justice, for Arab pride, for Arab myth -- for ancestral houses and orange groves that few living have ever seen. For Israel, it is so kids can swim in a lake.

Three years ago, Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Good, the world said. Next, pull out of the West Bank, the world said. But then Hamas, which has vowed to destroy Israel, won the election in Gaza. Sderot soon became hell. The West Bank is controlled by Fatah, the moderate Palestinian organization, which once had control of Gaza, too. If Israel withdraws from the West Bank, will rockets come from there? If you lived in Tel Aviv, a spit from the West Bank, would you take the chance?

Anyone could have seen this war coming. The diplomats and demonstrators who are now so engaged in the problem and the process were nowhere to be found when rockets began raining down on southern Israel. The border between Gaza and Egypt is riddled with tunnels -- some for food, some for weapons. The international monitors that are so evidently needed now were just as evidently needed then.

Conventional wisdom says that when Israel went into Lebanon in 2006, it lost that war. Hezbollah stood up to the mighty Israeli army; Israel could not muzzle Hezbollah's rockets. That may not be the way Hezbollah sees things, however. After the war, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said he had miscalculated. He was not prepared for the fury of the Israeli attack. He apologized. Now, Hezbollah takes no role in the current war. It will be back, but it still has wounds to lick.

The horrors of war are not to be dismissed or demeaned. In 2006, Israel accidentally killed 28 civilians in the Lebanese village of Qana when it attempted to take out a nearby rocket site. In Gaza, innocent Palestinians are being killed. The suffering is great and cannot be ignored. But what has been ignored is the series of events that led to this war. Anyone could see how it was going to start. As always, though, it's a lot harder to see how it ends.

cohenr@washpost.com

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