Code Red in Sderot: Living in the most heavily bombed place in the world

March 02, 2008

Today’s dispatch is split into two for space reasons. To understand the context of these articles, please first read the other dispatch, titled Dying for a degree; & Ashkelon under attack.



1. “The Sderot Calculus” (By Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 26, 2008)
2. “Code Red in Sderot: Living in the most heavily bombed place in the world” (Mail on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2008)
3. “Endangered Gaza Christians mull flight amid deaths, firebombs” (Bloomberg, Feb. 26, 2008)
4. “Al-Qaeda has infiltrated Gaza with help of Hamas, says Abbas” (The Times, Feb. 28, 2008)
5. “Letter to The Irish Times” (By Benny Morris, Feb. 21, 2008)


[Note by Tom Gross]

In recent days, the Western media has been full of highly emotive articles and reports about the suffering of Gazans. There has been little or no context in these reports to explain that this is primarily the consequence of the failure of their own elected Hamas government to behave by civilized norms.

Instead of state-building following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza almost three years ago, Hamas have put almost all their energies into building bombs and rockets to kill Israelis and to clamping down on women, minorities, non-Islamists and free reporting. Nor has much of the Western media coverage properly relayed the full extent of Israeli civilian suffering. As a small counterweight to these largely one-sided reports, I attach five articles below.



The first article below, by Bret Stephens, was published last week before the present flare-up. Stephens anticipates that after enduring thousands of rocket attacks, Israel’s patience was coming to an end. He writes: “Prudence is an important consideration of statesmanship, but self-respect is vital. And no self-respecting nation can allow the situation in Sderot to continue much longer, a point it is in every civilized country’s interest to understand.”



In the second article, from Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper, Philip Jacobson writes:

I have been here before and I know what is about to happen. Nonetheless, my guide has insisted on talking me through the local ground rules again:

1. I am not to fasten my seat belt. This is the only place in Israel where seat belts are forbidden. Buckling up prevents drivers and their passengers getting out of a vehicle quickly.

2. I am not to play my car radio. It may drown out the warnings.

3. I am not to have a shower if there is nobody else in the house to hear the alarms. Last month, a woman who ignored this rule was washing her hair when she was blown off her feet.

4. Be extra vigilant when it’s misty. It can confuse the laser-activated warning systems.



In the third article below, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tells the leading pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat that al-Qaeda has infiltrated the Gaza Strip with the help of Hamas.

The fourth article reports on the increasingly dire plight of Gaza’s Palestinian Christian community at the hands of Hamas.

The fifth and final item below is a lengthy letter written to The Irish Times by Professor Benny Morris. Morris is responding to yet more anti-Israel invective in a European newspaper. He starts his letter: “Madam, Israel-haters are fond of citing – and more often, mis-citing – my work in support of their arguments. Let me offer some corrections...”

(For more on Morris, see previous dispatches on this list, among them:
* Israel’s leading new historian appears to change his mind (Dec. 11, 2001)
* Benny Morris changes his tune (Feb. 21, 2002))

-- Tom Gross



The Sderot Calculus
By Bret Stephens
The Wall Street Journal
February 26, 2008

The Israeli town of Sderot lies less than a mile from the Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of the intifada seven years ago, it has borne the brunt of some 2,500 Kassam rockets fired from Gaza by Palestinian terrorists. Only about a dozen of these Kassams have proved lethal, though earlier this month brothers Osher and Rami Twito were seriously injured by one as they walked down a Sderot street on a Saturday evening. Eight-year-old Osher lost a leg.

It is no stretch to say that life in Sderot has become unendurable. Palestinians and their chorus of supporters – including the 118 countries of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement, much of Europe, and the panoply of international aid organizations from the World Bank to the United Nations – typically reply that life in the Gaza Strip is also unendurable, and that Palestinian casualties greatly exceed Israeli ones. But this argument is fatuous: Conditions in Gaza, in so far as they are shaped by Israel, are a function of conditions in Sderot. No Palestinian Kassams (or other forms of terrorism), no Israeli “siege.”


The more vexing question, both morally and strategically, is what Israel ought to do about Gaza. The standard answer is that Israel’s response to the Kassams ought to be “proportionate.” What does that mean? Does the “proportion” apply to the intention of those firing the Kassams – to wit, indiscriminate terror against civilian populations? In that case, a “proportionate” Israeli response would involve, perhaps, firing 2,500 artillery shells at random against civilian targets in Gaza. Or should proportion apply to the effects of the Kassams – an exquisitely calibrated, eye-for-eye operation involving the killing of a dozen Palestinians and the deliberate maiming or traumatizing of several hundred more?

Surely this isn’t what advocates of proportion have in mind. What they really mean is that Israel ought to respond with moderation. But the criteria for moderation are subjective. Should Israel pick off Hamas leaders who are ordering the rocket attacks? The European Parliament last week passed a resolution denouncing the practice of targeted assassinations. Should Israel adopt purely economic measures to punish Hamas for the Kassams? The same resolution denounced what it called Israel’s “collective punishment” of Palestinians. Should Israel seek to dismantle the Kassams through limited military incursions? This, too, has the unpardonable effect of resulting in too many Palestinian casualties, which are said to be “disproportionate” to the number of Israelis injured by the Kassams.

By these lights, Israel’s presumptive right to self-defense has no practical application as far as Gaza is concerned. Instead, Israel is counseled to allow goods to flow freely into the Strip, and to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.

But here another set of considerations intrudes. Hamas was elected democratically and by overwhelming margins in Gaza. It has never once honored a cease-fire with Israel. Following Israel’s withdrawal of its soldiers and settlements from the Strip in 2005 there was a six-fold increase in the number of Kassam strikes on Israel.


Hamas has also made no effort to rewrite its 1988 charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction. The charter is explicitly anti-Semitic: “The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!” (Article Seven) “In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad.” (Article 15) And so on.

It would seem perverse for Israeli taxpayers, including residents of Sderot, to feed the mouth that bites them. It would seem equally perverse for Israel merely to bide its time for an especially unlucky day – a Kassam hitting a busload of schoolchildren, for instance – before striking hard at Gaza. But unless Israel is willing to accept the military, political and diplomatic burdens of occupying all or parts of Gaza indefinitely, the effects of a major military incursion could be relatively short-lived. Israel suffered many more casualties before it withdrew from the Strip than it has since.

Perhaps the answer is to wait for a technological fix and, in the meantime, hope for the best. Israel is at work on a missile-defense program called “Iron Dome” that may be effective against Kassams, though the system won’t be in place for at least two years. It could also purchase land-based models of the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System, used by the U.S. to defend the Green Zone in Baghdad.


But technology addresses neither the Islamic fanaticism that animates Hamas nor the moral torpor of Western policy makers and commentators who, on balance, find more to blame in Israel’s behavior than in Hamas’s. Nor, too, would an Iron Dome or the Phalanx absolve the Israeli government from the necessity of punishing those who seek its destruction. Prudence is an important consideration of statesmanship, but self-respect is vital. And no self-respecting nation can allow the situation in Sderot to continue much longer, a point it is in every civilized country’s interest to understand.

On March 9, 1916, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa attacked the border town of Columbus, N.M., killing 18 Americans. President Woodrow Wilson ordered Gen. John J. Pershing and 10,000 soldiers into Mexico for nearly a year to hunt Villa down, in what was explicitly called a “punitive expedition.” Pershing never found Villa, making the effort something of a failure. Then again, Villa’s raid would be the last significant foreign attack on continental U.S. soil for 85 years, six months and two days.



Code Red in Sderot: Living in the most heavily bombed place in the world
By Philip Jacobson
The Mail on Sunday (UK)
February 15, 2008

* Click on the URL for pictures.

On a parched strip of the Israeli/Palestinian border, a dustbowl frontier town has a unique boast: per head of population, it is the most heavily bombed in the world. Philip Jacobson spends time in Sderot

A bright winter’s morning, and nothing is stirring in the barren stretch of no-man’s-land that separates the little Israeli town of Sderot from the turbulent Gaza Strip one mile away.

On the Palestinian side of the frontline, sunlight glints off the windscreen of a truck parked beside a crumbling farmhouse where the washing has been hung out to dry.

Twittering birds circle above a nearby reservoir. A gust of wind sends dust devils whirling across the sandy track used by Israeli army jeeps for round-the-clock border patrols.

I have been here before and I know what is about to happen. Nonetheless, my guide has insisted on talking me through the local ground rules again:

1. I am not to fasten my seat belt. This is the only place in Israel where seat belts are forbidden. Buckling up prevents drivers and their passengers getting out of a vehicle quickly.

2. I am not to play my car radio. It may drown out the warnings.

3. I am not to have a shower if there is nobody else in the house to hear the alarms. Last month, a woman who ignored this rule was washing her hair when she was blown off her feet.

4. Be extra vigilant when it’s misty. It can confuse the laser-activated warning systems.

And suddenly it comes, a noise like the slamming of a heavy door as a sleek, six-foot-long Qassam rocket bursts into the cloudless blue sky. Its trajectory is marked by a trail of white smoke as it curves towards the town. Almost simultaneously, sirens begin to wail.

A woman’s urgent voice repeats the words, “Tseva Adom, Tseva Adom,” over public address loudspeakers. In Hebrew this means, “Code Red”. It signifies a missile is on its way. Sderot’s jittery residents have no more than 15 seconds to take cover before the rocket hits.

On this occasion, they will have to wait there for a long time. For the next 72 hours Code Red alerts will sound almost continuously; Islamic militant groups in Gaza have begun raining the first of more than 100 rockets on to the town during a terrifying three-day attack.

Most miss or fizzle out. But there’s always a few that find a target.


The streets empty as families hunker down under the bombardment. The emergency services can barely cope.

One veteran paramedic, Haim Ben-Shimol, is on duty when he hears that his five-year-old granddaughter, Lior, has been wounded as she and her mother scrambled for cover.

Later, he will tell me how he found her covered in blood. “I had to wash her face to see where she was hurt, then I bandaged her and raced to hospital in the ambulance,” he recalls.

Doctors removed shards of metal from Lior’s body and put a cast on her fractured arm and leg.

When the attack finally peters out, people emerge from the shelters, some deep in shock, to discover wrecked homes, shops and offices, freshly cratered streets and jagged lumps of shrapnel embedded in the concrete “life shields” that double as bus stops.

Miraculously, nobody has been killed. Yet, as they count their blessings, many residents wonder aloud how much longer they can endure life under fire in what some describe, with gallows humour, as “the biggest bull’s-eye on the map of Israel”.

Because of its proximity to the border and the concentration of Hamas-led amateur bomb-makers on the other side, Sderot has a unique civic claim: on a rocket-per-head-of-population basis, it is the most targeted town in Israel, indeed the world.

It is more than six years since the first rocket was launched from Gaza. Since then, well over 2,000 Qassams – named after a fiery Muslim preacher – have landed in or around the town killing 13 people (including four children) and injuring several dozen more.

Since the beginning of this year, at least 300 rockets have been fired.


Last Saturday, two brothers were badly wounded when a rocket caught them in the open in the centre of town. Eight-year-old Osher Twito lost a leg, and Rami, 19, suffered multiple shrapnel injuries.

To be sure, over the same six-year period, a lot more innocent blood has been shed in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other communities, as Palestinian suicide bombers strike at crowded buses, hotels and cafés.

Even the brief war in Lebanon during the summer of 2006 claimed the lives of some 40 Israeli civilians along the country’s northern border.

But beyond the grim arithmetic of body counts, Sderot is a special case because nowhere else in Israel do ordinary people face the draining pressure of coping day in, day out with the fear that a rocket could fall at any moment.

“Everybody here lives on the very edge of their nerves,” says Noam Bedein, a young Israeli journalist who moved to Sderot several years ago.

“The peak time for Qassam attacks is while people are going to and from work and at the beginning and end of school. Believe me, that really grinds you down, mentally and physically.”

While the psychological fall-out from the rocket attacks affects young and old, poor and prosperous alike, the cruellest impact has been on Sderot’s children.

A recent survey concluded that almost one-third of those aged between four and 18 now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, while many more exhibit the symptoms of severe anxiety and feelings of helplessness that warn of more serious problems to come.

The fact that ten-year-olds receive daily tranquillisers demonstrates how they are being robbed of a normal childhood.


Only in Sderot will you find school runs conducted with military precision, as security guards rush children to and from coaches and parents’ cars at staggered intervals to guard against a Qassam falling among a crowd.

Such a disaster was narrowly averted late last year at the Haroeh School, a two-storey building covered by an enormous metal “umbrella” protecting the roof.

At 8am one day, as pupils were filing into the school for assembly, the Code Red alarm sounded. Footage shot by a video crew who happened to be there showed terrified children running for their lives towards the school entrance.

Seconds later a rocket slammed into a clump of trees beside the school, narrowly missing a kindergarten. “We just heard a big explosion next to us and the glass in the windows shattered,” says music teacher Asia Weissenberg.

Aware that Qassams are often fired in salvoes, she and colleagues quickly shepherded the shaken children into the school’s reinforced shelter with a minimum of fuss.

“They do get scared, of course,” Weissenberg says, “but if they can see that we are calm, that helps to reassure them.”

For many, this precarious existence has become too much: at least 3,000 of Sderot’s population of 24,000 have already left, most of them for good. Many more would do so if they could sell their houses.

The sensation of living in and moving about Sderot is unique. At the open-air market, there is none of the cheerful hubbub found in other Israeli towns, no blaring radios or raucous stallholders.

An underwear salesman who used a megaphone to advertise his bargains has been silenced by popular demand.

“Almost every time I come here, rockets have fallen really close,” says Esa, a nonchalant Bedouin youth presiding over a blanket spread with cut-price household goods.


The recent attacks, which knocked out power supplies, have done wonders for sales of torches and candles. “Nobody wants to have to shelter in the dark,” he says.

As we pass a square where people are taking advantage of unseasonally warm weather to dawdle over pavement coffee tables or gossip on park benches, Noam Bedein points out how nobody has strayed more than a few yards from the nearest shelter.

“Everyone’s nightmare is being caught in the open when the alarm sounds,” he observes. “You find yourself calculating how long it will take to get to safety.”

If you can’t make it, he advises, head for the nearest stairwell or kneel beside a solid-looking wall, your head down and hands behind your neck.

Since Qassams sometimes arrive in salvoes, it is risky to get up immediately after one has exploded.

Bedein explains how the Code Red system, triggered when a network of lasers detects the sudden increase in heat generated by a rocket launch, is by no means infallible.

In certain weather conditions, particularly heavy ground mist, attacks can go undetected.

In May last year, 32-year-old Shirel Feldman died of her wounds after a Qassam that fell without warning riddled her car with shrapnel.

At the height of the recent three-day bombardment, Shlomi Argon’s house was hit just as the alarm began to sound. His wife and a five-year-old boy who had been playing with his son were both sprayed with shrapnel.

“Neither was badly hurt, as it turns out, but it’s like Russian roulette around here,” Argon recalls shakily. “Who knows if we’ll be so lucky next time?”


You can tell from the pile of cigarette butts in Dr Adriana Katz’s ashtray that it has been another difficult day at the Hosen Centre, where she is in charge of treating victims of shock in Sderot.

Every Qassam attack brings a batch of new patients to her cluttered office, many in tears, shaking uncontrollably, barely able to get their words out.

A middle-aged woman in the waiting room sits with her head in her hands, legs trembling.

When I met her last year, Dr Katz, a striking figure with a mane of grey hair and rings on every finger, confided gloomily that the mental-health situation in Sderot was deteriorating fast.

Today, she says, it is “catastrophic and getting worse”.

The symptoms of distress don’t change, but become more intense with every direct hit. “Mobile phones start ringing after each attack and in this little place bad news spreads fast.”

The greatest challenge Dr Katz faces is preventing shock victims developing full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. “The text-book treatment is group therapy or one-on-one counselling that will prepare patients for a return to some sort of normality,” she says.

“But all we can do here is send people back to their houses and offices to await the next Qassam, which just creates fresh circles of despair.”

It’s hardly surprising, Dr Katz suggests, that many people in Sderot opt to get by on heavy doses of tranquillisers and “of course, smoking like chimneys”. (Israel’s ban on lighting up in public places is comprehensively flouted by the people of Sderot.)

Many of the mothers waiting to collect children from the school tell strikingly similar stories of regular nightmares, bed-wetting and a pervasive sense of insecurity caused by the attack.

Hava Gad’s son Yanai, nine, was a bright and forward child, out of nappies before his second birthday, but he is now paralysed by fear whenever the Code Red alert sounds and insists on sharing his parents’ bed.

“Imagine what that does for a normal married relationship. He won’t leave the house without us, even to play with friends next door, because he thinks a rocket will hit him.”


During a recent attack, a Qassam exploded not far from Gad’s home. “My son began to hyperventilate, then he soiled himself,” she recalls. “That happens almost every time now.”

Yanai’s anxiety was compounded when another rocket hit the factory where his father, Tsfania, works. “He worries about being too far away from the protected safe room in our house or something terrible happening at his school.”

Unsurprisingly, Gad, 42, has herself been affected by the constant tension and uncertainty, taking Valium regularly and attending Dr Katz’s clinic for therapy.

Dina Hoori, 44, head teacher at the local primary school for the past ten years, knows all too well how the dangers affect Sderot families.

“It’s particularly tragic that parents often feel they’ve failed children because they can’t do anything to stop the rockets,” she says.

Located in an area where rockets have struck quite often, the school is only partially protected against Qassam attacks and the playground is usually out of bounds.

“The Government won’t provide funding to reinforce the entire structure,” Hoori observes with a grimace.

On one occasion, a Qassam fell close by just as the school opened in the morning, injuring one of the youngest girls.

“Happily she’s back with us, but you feel it’s only a matter of time before there’s a direct hit when the children are in the open.”


Another head teacher, Liora Fima, finds it heartbreaking to watch pupils gradually becoming “normalised by terror”, seemingly resigned to a life under the rockets.

“One five-year-old girl who suffered panic attacks told her mother, ‘Mama, I think I want to die.’ The poor woman was crying her eyes out in her child’s classroom.”

I asked Fima if she ever spoke to her pupils about the suffering of school children in Gaza, whose lives are constantly distorted by bloody clashes between rival Palestinian factions and terrifying raids by Israeli troops.

She was silent for a moment, then said: “I know there are good people in Gaza who dream of peace as we do, but their leaders are fanatics, happy to sacrifice the lives of their own children. The school books over there are full of hatred for the Jews.”

In the courtyard of Sderot’s police station, where scores of rocket casings are stacked on shelves, each numbered and dated, a young woman officer of Ethiopian descent displays the scorched and twisted remains of a Qassam launched the previous day.

Sara Vavshet points out the slogan in Arabic painted on its fuselage, explaining that “each of the terrorist organisations uses its own colours and emblems, and they sometimes send threatening messages in Hebrew” (the Hamas faction that now rules Gaza favours the red, green and white of the Palestinian flag).

Vavshet was friendly with the families of two children, aged two and four, who were killed by Hamas rockets within a few days of each other in 2004.

Most Qassams are assembled in Gaza’s little machine shops, using lengths of iron drainpipes or lampposts (including, it has been rumoured, a consignment donated by the EU) with crude metal fins soldered on to provide stability in flight.

Propelled by a combustible fuel blend of oil, raw alcohol, sugar and fertiliser, early models had a maximum range of five miles and packed just one pound of explosives to scatter the payload of nuts, bolts and scrap metal.

Launched from metal racks and lacking a guidance system, they were highly inaccurate, but served the purpose of keeping Sderot’s residents permanently on edge.

According to journalist Noam Bedein, the rockets’ destructive capacity has steadily increased over the past couple of years.

“We know the terrorists experiment continually with fuel mixes and shrapnel payloads. That’s already led to the development of missiles that pack more than 20lb of explosive and can travel more than 15 miles.”


Several such rockets have already struck the industrial city of Ashkelon, which contains one of Israel’s largest oil terminals.

“Qassams are also becoming more accurate,” Bedein says. “The militants learn from Israeli radio reports where a particular rocket has landed, then adjust the angle of launch next time.”

Despite heavy electronic surveillance of the border zone and regular strikes, Israel’s military still cannot prevent hit-and-run attacks.

From a vantage point on the edge of Sderot, Bedein once watched a Qassam team setting up on the roof of a Palestinian apartment building.

“Those guys were really slick,” he recalls. “By the time I heard the explosions, they were already making a getaway.” After ducking into a police station during yet another Code Red, I visit a family living nearby whose home was hit the previous day.

“Luckily we were at a friend’s party when it happened,” Shlomo Ben-Zaken, 46, tells me, “but the effect this had on my son Eliran was disastrous.”

A gangling, expressionless 22-year-old, Eliran seems to be lost in a world of his own, padding silently behind us from room to room as we inspect the damage.

“He had psychiatric problems before the Qassams began to fall, but over the past 18 months he has become deeply depressed. He spends all his time on the computer and is scared stiff of leaving the house.”


Encouraged by his father, Eliran produces a treasured Manchester United replica shirt, whispering something in Hebrew.

“He wants to know if you can help him attend a game at Old Trafford.” For 15 years, Ben-Zaken worked side-by-side with Palestinians in Gaza’s industrial zone, making several close friends.

One saved his life when he fell into a diabetic coma. Terrorist attacks ended cross-border economic co-operation, but Ben-Zaken still keeps in touch by mobile phone. “They’re ordinary working guys, just like me, and they also suffer when Israel retaliates.”

With few exceptions, Sderot residents believe that their Government couldn’t care less about their plight.

“If Qassams started hitting Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it would be a national emergency,” says one shopkeeper, whose business is clearly failing. The politicians drop in for a quick visit, tell us to stay brave and resolute, then disappear.

“They don’t want to know about the 800 houses that still lack properly protected safe rooms, or the endless problems people have claiming compensation for rocket damage.”

When the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, came to town in his armoured limousine last month, accompanied by TV cameras, he was greeted by posters declaring: “Olmert’s Government. No Security. No Protection. You’ve Failed. Go Home.”

Yet for all that, something akin to the spirit of the London Blitz persists in Sderot, whether it is the elderly Russian immigrants drinking tea in the cafés and insisting that they will stay put, or the proprietor of the Shufan Ladies Hair Salon, whose latest creation resembles a Qassam rocket.

One afternoon while I was in Sderot, a battered truck pulled up in the town centre and disgorged several Orthodox Jews in their trademark long black coats and broad brimmed hats.

A sound system was quickly erected and started blasting out Israeli folk songs at top volume while they capered around on the pavement, curly side locks swinging.

Pausing for breath, their leader told me that it was their mission to bring a little light relief to Sderot’s residents.

“Aren’t you worried that the music is so loud you could miss a Red Alert?” I asked. He smiled broadly, then said: “We leave that in the hands of the Almighty.”

And then there is the mayor, Eli Moyal, a fast-talking lawyer who was born and bred in the town and likes to recall that when he took the job a decade ago, “I thought I’d be dealing with stuff like schools, leisure centres and rubbish collection.”

An accomplished self-publicist, Moyal announced his resignation last December in protest against Government inaction, then allowed himself to be persuaded to stay.

He has staged “Solidarity with Sderot” demonstrations all over Israel, and once led a march of residents to the border with the Gaza Strip to brandish mocked-up Qassams at the Palestinian side.

When a TV reporter informed him that Hamas leaders had threatened to drive the Jews out of Sderot, he seized the microphone and announced: “I am Eli Moyal, looking straight into the eyes of the terrorists to tell them that we’ve been standing firm against their rockets for the past seven years.

“We will do so for the next seven hundred.”



“Endangered” Gaza Christians mull flight amid deaths, firebombs
By Daniel Williams
Bloomberg news agency
Feb. 26, 2008

The stone walls of St. Porphyrius church in Gaza were raised in the fourth century, a reminder of Christianity’s long role in the Mediterranean city’s history.

The saga may be coming to an end. Christians, a minority of 3,000 among the Gaza Strip’s 1.2 million Muslims, are increasingly menaced by Islamic fundamentalists in this besieged Palestinian territory. Christians say they are on the verge of being driven out.

“Never in Palestinian history did we feel endangered until now,” said Archimandrite Artemios, the Greek Orthodox priest who heads St. Porphyrius. “We face the question of whether we are part of this community or not.”

Insecurity intensified last June when Hamas, the Muslim-based party at war with Israel, ousted the secular Fatah party, which favors peace negotiations, from control of Gaza. Fatah continues to control the West Bank.

While there are few indications Hamas itself is trying to intimidate Christians, the change brought to the surface underground Muslim groups that are actively hostile to Christians, said Hamdi Shaqura, 46, an official with the independent Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

“One problem is one that affects all: a state of lawlessness that lets extremism raise its head,” Shaqura said.

On Feb. 15, arsonists firebombed a library operated by the Young Men’s Christian Association and destroyed 10,000 books, police and YMCA officials said. Last fall, kidnappers killed a Christian bookstore owner and the shop was blown up twice. In August last year, vandals damaged a Catholic church and school.


Christianity, along with other minority religions, is under threat in several Middle Eastern countries. In Iraq, Christian churches and residents suffered assaults in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul since the March 2003 U.S. invasion, and thousands fled to Syria and Jordan.

Against the backdrop of political turmoil in Lebanon, Maronite Christians are migrating. In Egypt, Copts, an ancient Christian denomination, complain of discrimination. Public Christian worship is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, where foreign workers have been jailed for holding prayer services in private homes, according to Saudi Arabian press accounts.

According to a 2006 survey carried out by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, the West Bank’s Christian population has grown little in recent decades: from about 40,000 in 1967 to an estimated 45,800 in 2006.


In Gaza, Christians and Muslims share a walled-off, physical isolation from the outside world, unemployment over 30 percent and anxiety about periodic Israeli armed assaults. Israel has sealed off Gaza in its effort to contain Hamas and keep it from launching rockets at southern Israeli towns.

John Holmes, United Nations undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and relief coordination, said during a Feb. 16 visit to Gaza that 80 per cent of residents depend on food aid.

“If the current state of affairs continues, there is a real risk that what is left of the Christian Palestinian community will opt to go somewhere else, ending centuries of indigenous Christian presence in that part of Palestine,” said Bernard Sabella, a sociology professor at Bethlehem University.

Christian fears, and attacks on Christian property, pre-date Hamas, said Artemios, 31, the priest at St. Porphyrius.

Street gun battles between Hamas backers and Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, created a climate of anarchy even before the takeover, he said. Periodic Israeli embargoes on the Gaza Strip also occurred under Fatah rule.


“The lack of work has long been the main problem,” said Artemios. “If young people get out, they don’t come back.”

The Oct. 7 murder of Rami Ayyad, 30, who operated the Palestinian Bible Society Bookstore in Gaza, was the first time that a Christian was killed for religious reason, Artemios said. Five Christian families have fled to the West Bank since, he noted.

Three months before Ayyad’s death, a pair of bearded men warned the bookseller, who was a Baptist, to convert to Islam or die, said his mother, Anisa Boutros Francis, 55.

“On the day he was killed, he called home and told his wife, `I’m busy with some people. I will be late home,”‘ Boutros Francis said. “That was the last we heard, until the next day when his body was found.”

Ayyad’s body was punctured by stab wounds and bullet holes. No one claimed responsibility for his death. After four months, Gaza authorities have found no suspects, said police spokesman Islam Shahwan.

“Before, Israel was the only enemy. Palestinians were together,” said Ayyad’s mother. “Now, you don’t know who is who.”

Names of freelance fundamentalist groups roaming Gaza include Sword of Righteousness and Sword of Islam, said Shaqura, the human-rights worker.

Whoever is at fault, the bonds linking Christians to Gaza are breaking, Artemios said. He observed that, according to legend, the old columns in his church were from a temple destroyed by Samson after his haircut at the hands of Delilah. “The edifice of tolerance is crashing down over our heads,” he said.



Al-Qaeda has infiltrated Gaza with help of Hamas, says Abbas
By James Hider in Jerusalem
The Times (of London)
February 28, 2008

Al-Qaeda militants have infiltrated the Palestinian territories with help from Hamas, according to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President.

The charges are the most serious yet in the war of words between Mr Abbas, who controls the West Bank, and Hamas, whose Islamist guerrillas expelled his Fatah-dominated security force from the Gaza Strip last summer.

“Al-Qaeda is present in Gaza and I’m convinced that they [Hamas] are their allies,” said Mr Abbas in an interview with al-Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper. “I can say without doubt that al-Qaeda is present in the Palestinian territories and that this presence, especially in Gaza, is facilitated by Hamas.”

Israel has long accused al-Qaeda of infiltrating the Palestinian territories. The Israeli army’s intelligence chief said this week that more al-Qaeda members had entered the Gaza Strip after Hamas blew up the wall on the Egyptian border in January.

Mr Abbas’s comments were the first time that such a senior Palestinian statesman has added his weight to the charges.

The accusation came as Hamas fired rockets into a southern Israeli college campus yesterday, killing an Israeli man. Israeli forces carried out a series of strikes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, killing at least seven suspected militants, including several Hamas senior commanders. Last night Israeli jets struck the offices of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister, and the nearby premises of his interior ministry. He was not there at the time.

Hamas, a nationalist Islamist organisation whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, has been at pains to distance itself publicly from the fanatical al-Qaeda. “There is no truth in these allegations,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman, in turn accusing Mr Abbas – regarded as an Israeli stooge for his faltering peace negotiations with Jerusalem – of “seeking to mobilise international opinion against Hamas”.

Last year a group calling itself the Army of Islam kidnapped Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter, in Gaza and held him for more than three months while claiming to have links to Osama bin Laden’s organisation. The kidnapping took place before Hamas seized control in June, and the Islamist organisation – which had previously conducted anti-Israeli operations with the Army of Islam – forced it to release Johnston.

Hamas said that the Army of Islam had been financed by Muhammad Dahlan, the hated Fatah security chief in Gaza, who is close to Mr Abbas.

In January, another group calling itself the Army of Believers, Al-Qaeda in Palestine Organisation, ransacked the private American International School. A Christian bookseller was also recently murdered in Gaza, while a gunman shot up a YMCA centre. Western journalists have been alerted to possible kidnap threats.

Some independent analysts believe that al-Qaeda – losing ground in Iraq as local Sunni insurgents reject its ultra-violent tactics – may be seeking to establish itself in new areas. Osama bin Laden said that he was focusing on the protracted Israel-Palestinian conflict in comments disseminated on a jihadist website in December. “We will not recognise a state for the Jews, not even one inch of the land of Palestine. Blood calls for more blood and demolishing calls for further demolishing,” bin Laden said.

The man believed to be the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, this month described Israel as an “evil germ that has infected the body of the Umma [Islamic motherland] and must be extracted”.



The Irish Times
Letters Page
February 21, 2008

Madam, Israel-haters are fond of citing – and more often, mis-citing – my work in support of their arguments. Let me offer some corrections.

The Palestinian Arabs were not responsible “in some bizarre way” (David Norris, January 31st) for what befell them in 1948. Their responsibility was very direct and simple.

In defiance of the will of the international community, as embodied in the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29th, 1947 (No. 181), they launched hostilities against the Jewish community in Palestine in the hope of aborting the emergence of the Jewish state and perhaps destroying that community. But they lost; and one of the results was the displacement of 700,000 of them from their homes.

It is true, as Erskine Childers pointed out long ago, that there were no Arab radio broadcasts urging the Arabs to flee en masse; indeed, there were broadcasts by several Arab radio stations urging them to stay put. But, on the local level, in dozens of localities around Palestine, Arab leaders advised or ordered the evacuation of women and children or whole communities, as occurred in Haifa in late April, 1948. And Haifa’s Jewish mayor, Shabtai Levy, did, on April 22nd, plead with them to stay, to no avail.

Most of Palestine’s 700,000 “refugees” fled their homes because of the flail of war (and in the expectation that they would shortly return to their homes on the backs of victorious Arab invaders). But it is also true that there were several dozen sites, including Lydda and Ramla, from which Arab communities were expelled by Jewish troops.

The displacement of the 700,000 Arabs who became “refugees” – and I put the term in inverted commas, as two-thirds of them were displaced from one part of Palestine to another and not from their country (which is the usual definition of a refugee) – was not a “racist crime” (David Landy, January 24th) but the result of a national conflict and a war, with religious overtones, from the Muslim perspective, launched by the Arabs themselves.

There was no Zionist “plan” or blanket policy of evicting the Arab population, or of “ethnic cleansing”. Plan Dalet (Plan D), of March 10th, 1948 (it is open and available for all to read in the IDF Archive and in various publications), was the master plan of the Haganah – the Jewish military force that became the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) – to counter the expected pan-Arab assault on the emergent Jewish state. That’s what it explicitly states and that’s what it was. And the invasion of the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq duly occurred, on May 15th.

It is true that Plan D gave the regional commanders carte blanche to occupy and garrison or expel and destroy the Arab villages along and behind the front lines and the anticipated Arab armies’ invasion routes. And it is also true that mid-way in the 1948 war the Israeli leaders decided to bar the return of the “refugees” (those “refugees” who had just assaulted the Jewish community), viewing them as a potential fifth column and threat to the Jewish state’s existence. I for one cannot fault their fears or logic.

The demonisation of Israel is largely based on lies – much as the demonisation of the Jews during the past 2,000 years has been based on lies. And there is a connection between the two.

I would recommend that the likes of Norris and Landy read some history books and become acquainted with the facts, not recycle shopworn Arab propaganda. They might then learn, for example, that the “Palestine War” of 1948 (the “War of Independence,” as Israelis call it) began in November 1947, not in May 1948. By May 14th close to 2,000 Israelis had died – of the 5,800 dead suffered by Israel in the whole war (ie almost 1 per cent of the Jewish population of Palestine/Israel, which was about 650,000).

Yours, etc,
Prof. BENNY MORRIS, Li-On, Israel.
February 21, 2008

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.