Most people have heard of Sderot. It is the place always mentioned when there are rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza. There have been 4,000 rockets fired from Gaza since 2001. It should go without saying that this is against International Humanitarian Law but perhaps it is worth pointing out the specific details. There are rules governing how war is conducted, the first of which is the Principle of Distinction which requires that distinction should be made between combatants and civilians. Another is the Precautionary Rule demanding that parties to a conflict should take feasible precaution to avoid and minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. It is also worth pointing out that Israel broke these two rules also during Operation Cast Lead, when it invaded the Gaza Strip.
We had come to Netiv HaAsarain the Sderot area to meet Roni Keidar one of the movers and shakers in the association ‘The Other Voice’. She has an interesting story.
Born in Britain, she married an Egyptian agriculturalist and moved to be part of an early settlement enterprise in the Negev in 1973. It was planned as a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt after the capture of the Sinai during the Six Day War in 1967. Each family was given 10 acres of land. This was to be paid back on easy terms once the land had started to earn. It was a great success. The climate was good and crops grew swiftly. Then suddenly in 1973, they were told they had to move. The Sinai was to be returned to Egypt as part of a peace deal after the signing of the Camp David Accords. This was a terrible blow. “We had to destroy all that wonder and beauty we had created.”
The 56 families involved wanted to remain together as a community and in 1982 were eventually granted the site where the village now stands, close to the northern border with Gaza. Once again it was a success story; they created a thriving agriculture. They employed Palestinian agricultural labourers from Gaza. ‘They were the ideal foreign workers. They used to come in the morning and leave in the afternoon.’ There are now 180 families in the community including 800 children. Some of them are returning children that want to settle back home. It was ideal until the Second Intifada and the rockets. Sometimes there were up to 100 rockets a day. They learned to live round it. Everyone has a shelter, there are shelters at bus stops and the kindergarten is itself a rocket shelter.
Roni told the story of one day when she was out and there was a rocket attack near her home. She had left her husband in the house and her grandson was playing somewhere in the garden. She didn’t know if they were involved. ‘I did what I had never done before, I went completely hysterical.’
I could identify with this story. I was at work at the Quaker headquarters, Friends House, in London on 7 July 2005, the day when a series of bombs went off in London. I had just had a call from my daughter, Clare, then 16, to say that there was something wrong with the underground system and that she was going to continue her journey into town by bus. Just then the bomb on the bus went off two streets away from Friends House and news of the bombs on the underground started coming through. Mobile networks went down. I can still remember that hour of blind agony before I finally got word that she was safe.
It was a turning point for Roni. She felt there had to be another way. She was appalled by ‘Operation Cast Lead’. She is also against closing the borders, depriving people of a livelihood and giving them nothing to do. She set up ‘The Other Voice’ an organisation of about 50 people which attempts to create dialogue with people in Gaza. They want to show that they know there are people on the other side. They have meetings together and they give lifts to people from Gaza who have permits to come through for medical treatment. They connect schoolchildren who draw cards for their counterparts on the other side of the wall.
Roni took us up to a viewing point near a military watch tower where we looked over the wall into Gaza. She helpfully told us where to run in the case of a rocket attack with the manner of someone pointing out a tree under which to shelter if it began to rain. On the other side of the wall, the Gaza strip stretched out before us. It is an area of 360 square kilometres and is home to more than 1.5 million people. According to the UN website 1,167,572 of these are registered refugees, either those who fled here in 1948 or their subsequent families. Most of them at this end of the strip came from the Sderot region. The town of Sderot itself was built on land belonging to the Arab village of Najd and is situated a few miles south of its ruins. Netiv HaAsara is only 400 meters away from the town of Beit Lahiya in Gaza. One might question why Israel chooses to use its population as a buffer zone.
When Hamas came to power in June 2007, Israel imposed a blockade which controls everything that enters Gaza by land, sea or air. The restrictions are such that 80 per cent of the population of Gaza is now dependent on international assistance; 35 per cent of its farmland and 85 per cent of its fishing waters are totally or partially inaccessible; 90 per cent of the water is unfit for human consumption. According to a recent UN report the Gaza Strip will not be “a liveable place” by 2020 unless action is taken. It estimates that by then the population will have risen to 2.1 million. Israel says the restrictions, which are policed with Egyptian co-operation, are necessary to prevent weapons reaching Hamas. Palestinians and human rights group denounce them as “collective punishment”, illegal under International Humanitarian Law.
The first step in any peace-making is to talk with the other side. Roni and her friends have made brave steps along that road, all the braver as they are still getting rockets fired at them from that same other side. It should not be under-estimated how difficult this is in Israeli society. Israelis who advocate talking to ordinary Palestinians face at best, ridicule; at worst, accusations of wanting to destroy Israel.
The second step is to address legitimate grievances. One of our number asked Roni, ‘Given that there is a lot of fertile land round here, what about allowing people from Gaza to live here.’ I think of what Roni has built up in her lifetime and how she has already relinquished her home once for the sake of peace. She didn’t duck the question. ‘That would have to be by negotiation. But it is true, they can’t go on living like this.’
I work for Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) as an ecumenical accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (QPSW) or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting it on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the QPSW Programme Manager for I-oPt firstname.lastname@example.org for permission. Thank you.