When the sirens wail in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, residents have just 16 seconds to reach shelter before the rockets fall. In the last month, the sirens have been sounding almost continuously as Sderot and (in the last several weeks) nearby Ashkelon, a city of 117,000 that traces its history back to the Canaanites, have been targeted by 50 rockets a day. The elderly, who cannot sprint to bomb shelters, simply ignore the sirens. They have little choice. But they, like all of Sderot's residents, particularly the children, suffer from anxiety, sleep deprivation and depression. Those who could afford to move have done so, but many remain trapped -- unable to sell their homes.
The rockets, Qassams and Ketuyshas, which have caused several deaths and countless injuries, are fired into Israeli civilian areas by Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Since 2005, when Israel quitted Gaza completely (uprooting 10,000 Jewish settlers), some 4,000 rockets have been launched. This raises a simple question often purposely obscured in discussions of the Middle East conflict: If the dispute is all about Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, why have the Palestinians chosen to use their newly won autonomy in Gaza to launch attacks on Israel? Why have they not been seeking investment from oil-rich Gulf states and sympathetic Europeans to develop industry, build bike paths, and open restaurants?
Hamas is the instigator? Well, Hamas is without doubt a serious problem, having wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in June 2007. Hamas is dedicated to Israel's destruction and does not even pretend to be engaged in a peace process. But the Qassams have been flying since 2005, when the "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas controlled the area. If this sounds familiar, it should. Back in the days when Yassir Arafat controlled the PLO, the argument was constantly advanced that all would be well if the Palestinians could simply get hold of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a homeland of their own. Of course, the Arab League created the PLO and Arafat launched his first terror attack on Israel in 1964, three years before Israel came into possession of the West Bank and Gaza.
The response of the Israeli government to the bombardment of Sderot has ranged from cautious to flaccid. Demonstrators from Sderot have regularly marched on Jerusalem demanding some sort of action. The town's mayor resigned to protest the government's inanition last year but was persuaded to resume his post.
In January, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza. The international reaction was predictable. There were protests from human rights groups and governments about "collective punishment." News reports around the globe featured Gazans suffering without electricity or cooking oil. A friend was lectured at her Episcopalian church by a "canon for Global Justice and International Reconciliation" who delivered a sermon about the Christian responsibility to help the Palestinians get through this crisis. During the more than 24 months that the residents of Sderot have been suffering from ceaseless attacks, there was not a word of comfort from any of those quarters.
Nor has the international community shown any sensitivity to the moral climate in the Palestinian areas. Those rockets from Gaza are routinely fired from civilian areas in order to deter Israeli counterattacks. This proves that Palestinian propaganda, which routinely accuses Israel of targeting civilians, is utterly fallacious.
Last week, a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem burst into a seminary in the Jewish section of the city and began firing his weapon. He killed eight students -- all but one of them teenagers -- before being killed himself by an Israeli soldier who ran to help. Celebrations erupted in the West Bank and in Gaza. There was dancing in the streets. Children were given candy. Hamas leaders blessed the attack and promised more, while Abbas issued a weasely statement that condemned "all attacks that target civilians whether they be Palestinian or Israeli." The official PA newspaper, on the other hand, published a front-page picture of the attacker naming him a "shahid" or martyr.
This pattern has played out countless times before. There is a moral gulf separating the two cultures and until the Palestinians cease relishing the murder of Israelis, the conflict will go on.