Reverberations from the conflict in Gaza echoed across the Twin Cities Monday with hundreds of Palestinian supporters chanting “Free Gaza!” on the steps of the state Capitol and Israel’s defenders arguing elsewhere that the attack on Gaza was a clearly justified act of national self defense.
While the political and historical chasm that separates the two sides is well defined, it is not at all clear what could stop the bloody conflict that is raging in Gaza now with more than 500 dead.
Israel’s goal is to stop rocket and mortar attacks that have been launched from Gaza into southern Israel, said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
I completely understand why Israelis don’t want to be targets. Hunegs said more than 8,000 weapons have been lobbed over the border since 2001, and the range has grown to the point that missiles are reaching cities, a large port and a major university.
But I was looking for more specifics as they relate to the fighting at hand: What would it take to satisfy Israel that the attacks truly had been stopped? Would Israel be finished in Gaza if it took out the rocket launching facilities of the governing Palestinian group, Hamas? Would it keep going until it had taken out all of Hamas’ leaders? Does it plan to take control of Gaza City, the scene of the latest intense fighting?
Ask Israel’s Consul General in Chicago, Hunegs suggested.
What would stop Israel?
Orli Gil, the consul general of Israel to the Midwest, took my call. She explained Israel’s rationale in close to home terms: “Think about Minneapolis. How long would you take rockets and missiles fired from across the border? Would you take it without retaliating for years and years?” (From militant cheeseheads in Wisconsin? Scary thought.)
But she didn’t answer the basic question.
“It’s very hard to answer this question because I don’t want to tell you when we will stop this operation,” Gil said. “I don’t want to say what would satisfy us because that would get into the army operation right now.”
She continued almost in riddles.
“We will reach an understanding with whoever rules Gaza, and I hope it is not Hamas because the way I see Hamas, it is nothing but a terrorist organization,” she said of the militant leadership chosen by Palestinians in a 2006 election.
Some trustworthy authority in Gaza must promise to stop the rocket fire, she said, and “ending Hamas control in Gaza certainly would help.”
But she quickly added that Israel has no intention of forcing regime change in Gaza.
“Right now we are trying to achieve one thing and that is to destroy the ability of Hamas to throw rockets over Israel,” she said. “We are not interested in things that happen in Gaza internally. We have no claims there. We do not have one single Israeli civilian there. We have no territorial demand of them. . . . Let them strive and build and flourish and have their self rule. We have no interest in ruling them. What we are interested is that we will be able to live in peace on the other side of the border.”
What would stop Hamas?
There was no clear consensus on a related question I asked at the state Capitol where hundreds of Palestinians and their sympathizers denounced the bloodshed in Gaza.
“What would it take to convince militants in Gaza to stop firing rockets into Israel?” I asked several of them.
Many analysts say that openly defying Israel is a sure way to win support from Palestinians and their sympathizers in the region. Those rockets could help Hamas regain political ground it was losing. But they also invited the terrible price Palestinians now are paying in the Gaza Strip.
If Israel says it will stop when the rockets stop, why not stop the rockets?
The answers were mixed from the crowd that fired hot anti-Israeli rhetoric into the chilly wind sweeping the steps of the Capitol.
“I do agree that citizens are citizens and sovereign countries have to protect their citizens,” said Fuad Hannon, a U of M freshman who grew up in California with Palestinian roots.
“It would be ignorant to say, though, that [ending this conflict] is as simple as saying, ‘Hamas, don’t fire rockets,'” he said.
Like America’s Revolutionary War, he said, this fight pits a mighty power against a relatively powerless people who are desperate enough for their own land and self rule that they must turn to unconventional fighting tactics.
Others at the rally organized by the Al-Madinah Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota were less equivocal.
Zahi Haidari of Minneapolis, who called himself “a stateless Palestinian,” insisted the rocket fire into Israel must continue whatever the consequences.
“We are getting our country back by force because we have tried everything else for the past 65 years,” he said. “It’s done! . . . If Hamas today said, ‘We will do what they ask us to do,’ we would be controlled. We are a free nation and we cannot be controlled.”
Several said that after decades of failed bids to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they do not trust Israel to honor any negotiated peace agreement. They repeatedly called Israelis the true terrorists. Many chided President-elect Barack Obama for his silence on Israel’s assault on Gaza.
Ikram Huq of Apple Valley led the crowd in a prayer: “Forgive us – not because we are launching the rockets into Israel…but because we looked the other way when the conflict was growing…Wiping a nation off the face of the Earth is not the path to peace.”
Again and again, the crowd chanted a call to action: “Free free Gaza. Free free Gaza. The people of Gaza are under attack. Stand up and fight back!”
And so the fighting continues – with words here, with bullets and blood half a world away in Gaza.
Official Israel has given hints in the past few days to what it wants to achieve before the assault ends in Gaza.
In a statement circulated to reporters, Brigadier-General Avi Benayahu, who is the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said the central goals are “to deal a heavy blow to the Hamas terror organization, to strengthen Israel’s deterrence, and to create a better security situation for those living around the Gaza Strip that will be maintained for the long term.”
I still wonder how heavy a blow is heavy enough. How strong must the deterrence be? And what’s the precise definition of a better security situation?
And how do the deaths of so many civilians in Gaza relate to the goals of either side?
Most recently, three young Palestinian men were killed on Monday night when an Israeli missile struck a United Nations school in Gaza where about 400 Palestinians had taken refuge from the fighting, the Washington Post reported.
The Post also reported that fresh Palestinian rocket attacks hit Israeli territory on Tuesday, including a Grad missile that landed in the town of Gedera, about 20 miles south of Tel Aviv. It was one of the northernmost points reached by Palestinian rocket fire, the Post said, citing the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as a source.
One of some 30 rockets Hamas fired Monday struck an empty kindergarten in the Israeli city Ashdod, and a mortar shell injured two people in the village of Shaar Hanegev, the Post said, attributing the information to the Israeli military.
Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, summed the endless nature of the tragic conflict in a grim statement on Hamas’s television station: “The Zionists have legitimized the killing of their children by killing our children.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs, science and other topics. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.