Life under bombs in Israel and Gaza

When I stood at the border of Israel and Gaza strip, a couple of days ago, the confusion in my thoughts grew bigger as I was trying to remember key issues behind this old conflict between Palestine and the Jewish state. A war I had heard on radio and read in newspapers since I was a child!

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over who gets what land and how it’s controlled; both Jews and Arab Muslims date their claims to the land back a couple thousand years.

But in this unending conflict, Gaza is a Palestinian region with unique situation; First, Gaza is a densely populated strip of land that is mostly surrounded by Israel. Second, it is in theory under the governance of Palestinian Authority but controlled firmly by radical Islamist groups, mainly Hamas.

The population of Gaza depends entirely on Israel for daily life. But the big boys with guns controlling Gaza enjoy sending sporadic rockets to Israel. Foodstuff, medicines and many other supplies pass through this crossing of Kerem Shalom from Israel into Gaza.

When I asked, jokingly, the director of the crossing, Ami Shaked, why he sends basic necessities to people who only return rockets, his response isn’t enough: “I’ve lived in Gaza and they are good people under control of bad guys”.

An elaborate response comes from Yaki Lopez, a Jerusalem-based diplomat with Israel’s ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Under international humanitarian law and Oslo accord, Israel must allow supplies to the people of Gaza”.

When I put to him news reports about Israeli blockade of the flow of commercial goods into Gaza, Lopez agrees that whenever Hamas bombs, his government sends a message which is probably understood by stopping the bombings from Gaza.

At ordinary border and customs posts outflow goods are less controlled, but it’s the opposite at Kerem Shalom crossing as explained by its manager, Ami Shaken, during a tour. 

Every day a representative of Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza sends a list of goods imported from Israel; those goods are transported by trucks to Kerem Shalom crossing and offloaded which is followed by a thorough screening by hand, scanners and dogs; the point is to explore anything which can be used to make weapons; Even if a product like cement still goes thru, it is monitored as it can be used to construct war tunnels.

After screening, Mr Shaken closes the gates on the Israel side and allows in trucks from Palestine to pick up the goods. The manpower work is done by around seventy men residents of Gaza.

Constantly on alert, armed men who work for Mr Shaken to secure the crossing border are trained professionals belonging to a private security firm contracted by the Israeli Ministry of Defense. 

That is another surprise to me because when I drove to Gaza that morning, my mind was playing a film of armored vehicles, tanks, artillery machines and heavily armed soldiers. I didn’t see any of those, but surveillance balloons and cameras, as well as bomb shelters every couple of meters in the entire region near the border crossing. When a bomb is launched from Gaza, sirens go up from the walled border and everyone in that zone have only 60 seconds to run into bomb shelters. 

Less than a day after my visit, Hamas shelled the region; and Israeli response was immediate, reportedly hitting at key targets including weapon factory and storage in Gaza.

But since those deadly military targets, belonging to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, are known to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), why don’t they destroy them wherever they are completely?

An IDF spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, answered in a military language “we only follow orders”. But he also adds that “Hamas and other armed groups have adopted the tactics of their Hezbollah friends which is using civilians as human shields”.

This implies establishing military operations in residential areas, near schools or hospitals, so that in fearing civilian casualties, Israel won’t attack them. 

I looked at Gaza and left Kerem Shalom disappointed because there’s no end of conflict in sight and the “land-for-peace” remains out of reach. Hamas and other Islamist groups don’t recognize the state of Israel, and both parties don’t talk directly. In rare negotiations, communication is via intermediaries mostly the Egyptian government.

Kerem Shalom actually means ‘Vineyard of Peace’. Its name includes the word shalom since community founding members believed that the location would play a role in establishing peace and ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The writer is a media professional based in Kigali

Twitter: @semukanyam

The views expressed in this article are of the author.