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A Third Lebanon War?

The Lebanese-Israeli border has been calmer during the last two and a half years than it has been in decades. Hezbollah replenished its arsenal of rockets after the 2006 war, but has chosen to lay low in the meantime. Not one Israeli soldier has been kidnapped since the war’s end, and not a single Hezbollah rocket has landed in Israel. Nothing stays the same in the Middle East for long, though, and Israel and Lebanon may be headed for confrontation again.

One year to the day after Hezbollah military commander Imad Mugniyeh was assassinated by a car bomb in downtown Damascus, Alice Fordham “published a piece at NOW Lebanon”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=79564 that makes for sobering reading. She quotes a number of analysts in both Lebanon and Israel who fear another round of violence is coming. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah blames Israel for killing Mugniyeh, and he vows vengeance. His threat appears to be credible. Terrorist attacks against Israeli interests by Hezbollah cells have been foiled on three continents — in Europe, Egypt, and Azerbaijan.

“I wrote recently”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/52642 that Nasrallah appears to have been deterred by Israel’s devastating air and ground assault in July and August of 2006. “We did not believe,” he said on Lebanon’s New TV station, “even by one percent, that the captive operation would result in such a wide-scale war, as such a war did not take place in the history of wars. Had we known that the captive operation would result in such a war we would not have carried it out at all.” Not even during the recent war in Gaza, while the Israelis were busy and distracted fighting Hamas, did Nasrallah think it wise to risk a repeat of 2006. Unless every reported terrorist attempt since Mugniyeh’s assassination is fictitious, though, Nasrallah still seems to think it’s okay to attack Israel outside Israel.

Israel vows to retaliate inside Lebanon if Hezbollah inflicts any serious damage. “The Lebanese government bears overall responsibility, and any attempt to attack Israel will be met with a response,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. Even a relatively restrained response inside Lebanon by Israelis could escalate into a big war, as it did last time.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/a-third-lebanon-war–15073.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Many of you — an almost shocking number of you — have sent me worried emails after reading rumors on the Internet and even in newspapers about a violent attack against me and two of my colleagues in a country that is known for its occasional violence. I am fine, as are the others. I sincerely appreciate the concern for my safety, but there is no need to worry.

I haven’t yet read an account that gets all the details right, and the most compelling details are naturally missing from every second- and eleventh-hand report that’s bouncing around. I’ll be home in a few days and will publish the real story. Only three people in the world can tell you the real story, and until then I suggest you refrain from taking the global gossip mill at its word.

On the Road, Briefly

I told myself I wasn’t going to travel again for a while unless I had a really good reason because I have so much material to write up from Iraq and Lebanon. But I was invited on a short last-minute trip that I could not possibly turn down, and I have some terrific material already. My location needs to remain undisclosed for the next couple of days, but I’ll be home soon and will tell you all about it. Stand by.

A Dispatch from the Border with Gaza

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Not since the Second Intifada, when more than a thousand Israelis were murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers, have Israeli civilians suffered in a way that makes for compelling news copy or TV reports.

The southern Israeli city of Sderot sits right next to the border with Gaza, and it is the target of choice for Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s Qassam rocket barrages. The first time I visited the city under fire was immediately after the Second Lebanon War in August of 2006. Israeli civilians were still on their way back to Haifa, Kiryat Shmona, and other urban areas that had been emptied of people when Hezbollah turned the northern sixth of the country into a free fire zone. Lebanese villages were still smoldering, and their dead were still being cleared from underneath rubble. Sderot, by contrast, seemed downright sedate even though rockets packed tight with metal fragments and ball bearings still fell from the sky every day.

The city had been under fire for years before I got there, but the barrages were tolerable, albeit barely. Sderot had never been abandoned. Its residents were never made into refugees. Only a handful of people had been killed by the time I first visited, and not even a dozen more have been killed in the meantime. It’s easy to callously ask “what’s the big deal?” I wasn’t remotely nervous when I showed up myself, and even many Israelis thought the attacks weren’t worth going to war over. That’s the main reason Hamas got away with it for so long.

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Sderot, Israel

Something changed in December of 2008, however. Suddenly Hamas found itself in possession of Grad rockets that can be aimed with much greater precision than the home-made Qassam rockets that make up the bulk of their arsenal. And Hamas fighters found that they could shoot those rockets much farther into Israel and strike the cities of Beersheva and Ashdod, as well as Ashkelon and Sderot.

“The shorter rockets, the improvised rockets, have a short range,” Major Chezy Deutsch told me. “So a smaller percentage of the population are under that threat. But when they can pull out new rockets and hit a new city, a city that up until now hasn’t been hit, the terror affect is much larger. People who, up until then, thought they were fine and didn’t have anything to worry about are suddenly within range of the threat. So it has a much larger effect than hitting Sderot again.”

I visited Sderot and the Gaza border region again with some of my colleagues on a trip organized by the American Jewish Committee. IDF Colonel Miri Eisen accompanied us and gave us the Israeli perspective on what was happening.

Our first stop was a hill outside Sderot overlooking the fence separating Gaza from Israel. The date we had scheduled for our visit turned out, by chance, to be the first day after the war more or less ended. Twenty four hours earlier, the area still was a war zone. Even so, I heard the low thump of artillery shells fired somewhere off in the distance.

“I’m hearing artillery shells,” Colonel Eisen said, “which means that it’s not totally quiet today.”

It was almost totally quiet, however, and it was hard to imagine what it looked like the day before when the sky was filled with rocket trails and IAF jet fighters.

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Gaza City from Sderot

Gaza was right there in front of us. A fifteen minute walk would have placed us inside if it weren’t for the fence.

“The hill that we’re standing on, guys, is the tail end of the mortar range,” Colonel Eisen said. “And I have to tell you that as a military person, I have a great respect for mortars. They are very lethal and they’re much more exact. Now, when we’re talking about mortars, we’re not talking home-made. They have a shorter range, but are much more lethal and much more exact. And for a long time I didn’t take people to this hill or any hill that was farther west. Because the mortars and their trajectory and the way they fly, we had very little early warning. We didn’t know there was going to be a ceasefire, and I would have brought you here anyway. But before we had to come up here with flak jackets, and we’ve had to tumble down the hill to avoid incoming fire.”

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The border between Gaza and Israel

War correspondence is one of the strangest jobs in the world. War is shit, and only a sadist takes pleasure in watching people get shot at and bombed from the sky. I also don’t particularly care for being shot at myself. If I were a war junkie, I’d visit Sri Lanka or the Congo or some other place that’s orders of magnitude more violent than Israel.

On the other hand, I was slightly disappointed that our group was a day late for the war. I didn’t want the fighting to start again so I could watch, but at least I could have written about it as a witness instead of a researcher had we gotten there just a bit earlier.

“But I say happily that Sderot didn’t get the brunt of the mortars,” Colonel Eisen said. “The mortars were mostly on kibbutzim that are within the three kilometer range. In those places no one could be outside at all. They didn’t even have a ten second warning. Most of our casualties were from mortars, both civilians and soldiers.”

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Asher Afriat holds up a map showing Hamas’ rocket range out of Gaza

Behind us was the small city of Sderot which had been hit far more times with rockets out of Gaza than any other place in the country.

“Sderot has had four days without the sounding of rocket alarms in the last eight years,” she said. “Four days. Why Sderot of all places? 20,000 people live here. Who cares? When they initially started to construct what we call the home-made Qassam rockets, they were very crude. They were very inaccurate. I mean they were inaccurate by a kilometer or two. And their range at the beginning was only five or six kilometers. They have since grown. But when they fire from the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip and they want to make sure Israelis feel it, the largest target they have is Sderot. They get a target which is clear, which is obvious. And that’s why Sderot will continue to be the one that gets hit. It’s within the range of the lethal inaccurate rockets, and it’s the largest target on the horizon.”

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Just to the north of Gaza along the shore of the Mediterranean is the city of Ashkelon, which was also routinely hit by Hamas rocket fire. The power plant is in the southern part of the city and therefore the easiest target there for Hamas to hit.

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The Ashkelon power plant from Sderot

“The power plant is around seven kilometers away as the crow flies,” Colonel Eisen said, “or as the rocket flies. The city of Ashkelon itself — because the power plant is at the southern edge of it — is nine or ten kilometers from the northern edge of the Gaza Strip.” Much of Gaza’s electricity is generated by that plant, and yet Hamas takes great pleasure in shooting at it.

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Colonel Miri Eisen pointing at Gaza from Sderot

“You see those sand dunes over there,” she said, “and a couple of buildings next to the dunes? That’s the northern edge of the Gaza Strip. That’s not in Israel, that’s in Gaza. And that’s the main launching area for Qassam rockets with a range up to Ashkelon. That was one of the IDF ground operation’s initial areas. We went into that area in the north of the city of Gaza to stop the launchings there. If you go into those areas, the farthest north that you can reach is the city of Ashdod. The new rockets have a range of 42 kilometers, and if Hamas wants Ashdod to be in it, they need to go as far to the north as they can inside Gaza.”

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The skyline of the city of Ashdod

Ashdod is just south of Tel Aviv. Some Israelis describe it as a suburb of Tel Aviv because it’s within easy commuting distance, but it’s 20 miles south and is physically separated by a bit of countryside.

The city of Kiryat Gat has also been hit by Hamas rockets recently, and many Israelis find that disturbing.

“Kiryat Gat means something to us,” she said. “It has the only factory for Intel chips outside the United States. The make the chips there for your computer in the city of Kiryat Gat. Kiryat Gat was hit, as were many of the other cities within the radius.”

Above the border with Gaza are surveillance zeppelins that look exactly like those I’ve seen used by Americans in Iraq.

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A surveillance zeppelin above the border with Gaza

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A surveillance zeppelin above the border with Gaza

“The zeppelins are part of the early warning intelligence system,” she said. “They’re all tethered and are only affected by wind. And it’s flat here, so that gives us the height we need.”

“They’re up there all the time?” I said.

“They’re up there all the time,” she said, “except in very high winds. They are much larger than you can imagine. They’re a good kilometer and a half up in the sky. They can go up to two and a half kilometers into the sky.”

Israelis weren’t only startled out of their complacency because Beersheva and Ashdod were all of a sudden within Hamas’ range. The implications of Hamas’ upgrade worried them even more. One more upgrade might put Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion International Airport, and the Dimona nuclear power plant within range of the rockets.

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Outside the walls of Jerusalem

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Inside the walls of Jerusalem

Any rocket or missile that could fly all the way to those targets would inevitably carry a much larger warhead that would deliver one hell of a punch. Hamas, if left undeterred and allowed to strengthen its arsenal, could snap Israel’s economy like that and kill potentially thousands of people in a very short time frame. No one would want to be in Gaza if large Iranian-made missiles were exploding into the sides of Tel Aviv skyscrapers every day.

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Tel Aviv, Israel

Two and a half years ago I spoke to an Israeli intelligence officer who said that missile war was about to replace terrorist war, and he was right.

Colonel Eisen held up a map that showed which cities in Israel would be under attack if the same kinds of rockets flying out of Gaza today were being launched from inside the West Bank.

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Colonel Miri Eisen shows which cities would be at risk if Hamas fired rockets from both the West Bank and Gaza

Every major population center in the country would be under attack except Haifa. Yet Haifa is within Hezbollah’s rocket range out of Lebanon in the north. When Hezbollah fired its medium-size Katyusha rockets at Haifa in 2006, Haifa was on fire and emptied of people and cars. It was like a city at the end of the world. It’s possible, though very intolerable, to live under Qassam rocket attack. It isn’t possible to live long at all under Katyusha rocket attack.

If this nightmare scenario ever unfolds, Israel will be in a fight for its life. And Palestinians and Lebanese will be killed in horrifying numbers in order to make it all stop.

*

Fewer than twenty Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since Hamas and Islamic Jihad adopted the tactic. A few single suicide bombers inflicted more casualties all by themselves. Hezbollah killed around ten times as many Israelis in one month in 2006 than Hamas has managed with crude rockets for years. It’s no wonder, really, that critics slammed Israel for its “disproportionate” military response in the Gaza Strip.

It’s not just about casualties, though. Leave aside the fact that Hamas was escalating its attacks with bigger and longer range rockets and that a far deadlier scenario was on the horizon. Living under Qassam and Grad rocket attack doesn’t sound like much fun, but it’s worse than the low body count makes it seem.

Thousands of rockets have fallen on Sderot. And every rocket launched at the city triggers an air raid alert. Everyone within ear shot has fifteen seconds to run into a shelter.

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A rocket shelter in Sderot

Imagine sprinting for cover 5,000 times.

Do you know what it’s like raising children in that kind of environment? It distorts their perception of the entire world.

Michael Yon visited the border with Gaza just after I did. “According to a pamphlet from the Sderot Information Center,” “he wrote”:http://pajamasmedia.com/instapundit/68703/, “a kindergarten teacher asked her pupils, ‘Why does the snail have a shell?’ The children answered in chorus, ‘So it can be protected from the Kassam rockets.’”

Major Chezy Deutsch joined us.

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Major Chezy Deutsch

“The small number of physical casualties is not because their weapons aren’t working,” he said. “The small number is because the population understands the protection guidelines. They know that they have fifteen seconds to find shelter.”

Fifteen seconds is plenty of time to reach a bomb shelter if you’re already next to one. But what if you’re outside? In a car? What if you’re asleep or taking a shower?

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“You have to remember,” Major Deutsch said, “that the damage isn’t the number of physical casualties, it’s the number of people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The kids in first grade in Sderot were born when rockets were being fired at Sderot. They have lived their entire lives having to think that when they leave the house, when they’re walking down the street, when they’re playing ball, that they have fifteen seconds to hide from an incoming rocket. And it’s not only the kids, it’s the parents. I have a friend who won’t drive with two kids in the car. If the alert goes off he doesn’t want to have to ask himself which of his kids he is going to save. He and his wife don’t go out to weddings, bar mitzvahs, or things like that at night because they don’t want to leave their kids with a babysitter.”

IDF officials say that in the years prior to last month’s war in Gaza, Hamas fired far more rockets at some times of the day than at other times. “Those times were between seven and eight in the morning,” Major Deutsch said, “and between six and seven at night. Between seven and eight in the morning is when everyone is leaving their home. They’re on their way to work, and their kids are on their way to school. They are farthest away from protected spaces and most vulnerable. And in the evening Hamas wanted to be the opening item on the evening news. The school is a choke point. You have kids leaving from all the different places around the city, but they have to congregate around the gate to enter the school. And you’ll see that they target areas near schools.”

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Inside a rocket shelter in Sderot

“How are they able to target the schools?” said my colleague Max Boot from the Council on Foreign Relations.

“When I was little I built Estes [model] rockets in my house,” Major Deutsch said. “We bought them in a kit. We had a slide rule where we figured out at 45 degrees how far it could fly from the amount of time the engine works. It’s very basic geometry. Hamas checks and tests their weapons. They know how long a rocket burns, and they know how long it flies.”

“It’s not just a question of targeting the schools,” Colonel Eisen said. “It’s also about the hour. When kids are out and about all over the city, when parents are taking them to school. If we educate the population on how to live within this kind of environment, we can radically reduce the number of casualties. For the people of Sderot it’s the most obvious. They’re not the ones who stand outside and look at the rockets. They hear the alert, and they run into the shelter. They have ten to fifteen seconds, and they know that. They’ve kept themselves alive here. Sderot doesn’t really have casualties now.”

“The explosion on impact is lethal,” she continued, “and the explosion goes up, so all the instructions in Israel are for you to lay down flat and put your hands over your head. But if it lands right next to you, it doesn’t leave you a lot of room. A woman protected her son in Beersheva a few days ago. They got out of the car, they lay down, she was laying over him, and he got a fragment in his head. He’s been in critical condition ever since.”

She showed us a house across the street from a school. A rocket exploded in the front yard the day before. The family was watching TV in the living room and ran for shelter as soon as they heard the “incoming” alarm. They would have been killed if they hadn’t because shrapnel from the explosion tore apart their living space. Their outdoor furniture at ground level caught on fire and the exterior walls were pocked with shrapnel holes that looked almost like bullet holes. The windows were, of course, broken. The house looked as though somebody had parked in front and assaulted their home with automatic weapons fire and a grenade launcher.

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Shrapnel from Qassem rocket attack

Life can and does go on under the circumstances, but would it be possible for an entire country to endure these kinds of attacks? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. What country in the world would tolerate these kinds of attacks? Almost certainly none. They are only tolerable if a small percentage of a country’s population is exposed, and they’re only barely just tolerable for a while.

The Sderot police station has an enormous collection of rockets out back that the officers like to show visitors.

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Rockets at the Sderot police station

“This is only a sample,” Major Deutsch said. “These are only some of the rockets that have landed in Sderot most recently.”

I visited Sderot two years before and saw an entirely different collection of rockets that recently had been fired at the city. The rockets are rotated in and out.

The first Qassam rockets were home made. Now they’re built in factories as well as in houses.

Building them isn’t difficult. Minimal knowledge of chemistry is all that it takes to make home-made explosives. And materials for rocket shafts aren’t hard to find, either. Poles that hold up stop signs and parking meters can be used, for example, as can pipes used for plumbing. Some of the simplest materials in the world have dual-use. Sanctioning and blockading Gaza to keep out the rocket parts therefore is difficult.

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And Hamas has been upgrading lately.

“During the last three and a half years since we left the Gaza Strip,” Colonel Eisen said, “Hamas has smuggled in professional grade explosives. When we talk about smuggling tunnels, you have to understand that there are hundreds. They’re not big. They can be small. You can smuggle in Grad rockets, but you can’t necessarily smuggle in the launcher. So the launchers are improvised, and that’s affected the distance, the radius, that they can fire them. They have also smuggled lots of anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft missiles. The missiles themselves, which are Chinese and Iranian, can be smuggled in in parts. You can see that they come apart. They can’t have the long regular grade missiles fit through the smuggling tunnels, so they take them apart and put them back together.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like in the city if Hamas fired all of its rockets in a single day.

Michael Yon added up the number of pounds of explosives they’ve packed into their Qassams — 140,000 — and ran the numbers. “There are many types of fragmentation hand grenades that are designed to kill people,” he wrote. “One of the most widely used, the deadly American M67, contains a little more than 1/3lb of explosives per grenade. (The entire M67 grenade including fuse and casing weighs 1lb.) This means that 140,000lbs of explosives would be roughly equal the ‘net explosives weight’ of about 350,000 grenades launched randomly against civilians.”

“We have to remember not to underestimate Hamas,” Major Deutsch said. “Okay? They’re not stupid. They know what they’re doing. Even if it’s a primitive weapon, it’s effective.”

“Do you have automatic counterbatteries for the rocket and mortar attacks?” said Mario Loyola from National Review magazine.

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Mario Loyola, from National Review magazine, at the Gaza border

“No, no,” Major Deutsch said. “Because if they fire a mortar from inside a school, we don’t want to automatically shoot back.”

It may appear as though Israelis can’t be bothered about the well-being of civilians in Gaza, especially after they bombed that already tormented society for several weeks in a row. But I found that isn’t true.

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A temporary field hospital was set up by the State of Israel at the Erez Crossing at the northern end of Gaza.

Palestinian civilians who needed medical attention were invited to come to Erez for treatment by Israeli doctors.

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An Israeli doctor at the Erez field hospital

Humanitarian goods facilitated by the IDF also went through Erez into Gaza throughout the conflict, and the crossing was open to Palestinians with dual nationality who wanted out.

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An Israeli doctor at the Erez field hospital

“We were asked by the government and the Ministry of Health to operate this regional medical clinic,” an Israeli doctor told me. “We’ve put everything here we can provide in a first-line clinic. It’s not a hospital. We won’t be able to operate here. But we need a humanitarian clinic to treat patients who need medical assistance.”

The Erez crossing has been one of the most dangerous places near Gaza for a while now. It has been targeted by suicide bombers several times.

It was not what I expected to see. Erez looks like it was built as a border control point for a normal country like Jordan. It doesn’t look anything like an entrance into the crowded, impoverished, and war-torn dystopia beyond.

The Qalandia checkpoint into the relatively peaceful and prosperous West Bank from Jerusalem looks like a gateway to a prison camp, but “the Palestinian city of Ramallah beyond it is clean, pleasant, and tranquil”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/05/the-other-side-of-the-green-li.php — at least it is these days.

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Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank

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Inside Erez Crossing

“Think about what this kind of structure means and what it meant for Israel,” Colonel Eisen said. “I look at this as a vision of what we want. When you think about the fact that we just fought a very bloody three-week campaign, it’s very tragic. But think about what this kind of structure means. We want to go forward where we use this kind of terminal in a very different way.”

“This isn’t at all what I thought it would look like,” I said to “my colleague Rick Francona”:http://francona.blogspot.com/, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force who works now as a military analyst for NBC News. “Such a contrast to what’s on the other side.”

“It’s like the border between North and South Korea,” he said.

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Lieutenent Colonel Rick Francona, US Air Force, looks into Gaza from the Erez Crossing

“This is so us,” Colonel Eisen said and put her hand on her heart. “This is what Israel is all about, and it always has been. It makes me proud. Lots of foreign reporters come here.”

I could see that. The waiting area was packed with reporters from all over the world.

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Journalists at the Erez field hospital

“But they almost never write about this,” she continued. “We try to get the word out, but most of them just are not interested.”

I tried to imagine how different this conflict would be if Hamas set up medical facilities for Israeli civilians wounded by Qassam rocket attacks. The very idea, of course, is absurd.

“I wonder what Hamas thinks of all this,” I said to Rick Francona. “Do they even understand it?”

“They probably think it’s a trick,” he said.

Perhaps Hamas understands very well what it means that Israelis opened a clinic for wounded Palestinians. Perhaps they feel like it’s a different kind of threat altogether.

The Israelis had to close the place down. Only a handful of patients ever came through, which didn’t surprise me. I didn’t see any Palestinian patients there when I visited. “Hamas didn’t allow their wounded to be treated by Jews”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1233304655619&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull.

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It’s a Nice Place, Actually

Beirut, Lebanon, is still “the poster child for urban disaster areas”:http://www.thisislichfield.co.uk/news/Fury-Beirut-slur-dead-man-s-estate/article-671670-detail/article.html in some parts of the world.

A comparison of the Weston Road and Dimbles Lane area in which Mr Eccles lived and died to ‘Beirut’ was described as ‘the last thing the area needs’ by Mr Bayliss…

“The area has got some problems, it does need help but the last thing it needs is being described as Beirut,” Mr Bayliss told the Mercury.

“We have got enough negativity — it isn’t bloody Beirut, there’s hundreds of good people here.

“I am livid about it.”

Beirut was named “the best travel destination in the world”:http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/01/11/travel/20090111_DESTINATIONS.html?8dpc in 2009 by the New York Times. “Here is one of my photo galleries”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/05/this-is-beirut-1.php.

The New Backbone of the Sunni Resistance

When Israel retaliated against Hezbollah in July of 2006, something strange and new and unexpected took place. Arab governments blamed Hezbollah for sparking the conflict and didn’t complain about Israeli behavior until later. During the more recent war in Gaza we saw something similar; only this time the de-facto alignment of Israeli and Sunni Arab state-interests was even more obvious. Most Arab governments blamed Hamas for starting the latest round, and Egypt worked openly with the Israelis to achieve a new ceasefire arrangement that left their mutual enemy in the Gaza Strip weakened. “Saudi Arabia is no longer the backbone of the Arab alliance against Iran,” Asher Susser from Tel Aviv University said to me as the ceasefire went into effect. “Israel is.”

It’s bizarre, to be sure, to think of Israel as the backbone of a Sunni Arab alliance against Iran and its proxies, but Israelis aren’t the only ones who see things that way. Disgruntled Arabs from Cairo to Beirut and Damascus have noticed the same thing, and they aren’t happy about it.

“Egyptians Seethe Over Gaza, and Their Leaders Feel Heat”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/10/world/middleeast/10cairo.html?fta=y, read a headline in the New York Times a few weeks ago. “It is understood that Egypt gave the green light for the attack,” “Rannie Amiri wrote”:http://palestinechronicle.com/view_article_details.php?id=14779 in the Palestine Chronicle. “There is true and full collaboration between certain Arab regimes,” “said Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah”:http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/129095, “especially those who have already signed peace deals with Israel, to crush any form of resistance.”

I heard similar complaints myself after the Second Lebanon War. “Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!” one Lebanese Shia man “said to me in a hysterical tone of voice”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2007/01/its-like-a-phish-concert-for-t.php at a Hezbollah rally in Beirut December of 2006.

Some of these accusations are madness on stilts. Gulf Arabs will never give Israel weapons, for instance. But even the more hysterical residents of Arabic countries see clearly that the geopolitical tectonic plates in the region are shifting. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen “came out strongly against Hamas and in favor of their Fatah rivals”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1061352.html at a meeting in Abu Dhabi this week.

“Egypt is cooperating to a great extent with Israel,” Susser continued, “as are Abu Mazen and the Jordanians. There were more anti-Israel demonstrations in Dublin than there were in Ramallah.”

Most Arab governments, aside from Syria’s and possibly Qatar’s, are far more worried about Iranian regional dominance than they are about anything coming out of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. They know perfectly well that the State of Israel is not going to undermine or overthrow them, while radical Iranian-sponsored Islamists just might.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/53322.

A Minority Report from the West Bank and Gaza (Deleted)

I had published the transcript of a talk and follow-up interview with a prominent and respectable Palestinian, and it caused a bit of trouble that neither he nor I anticpated or wanted. The transcript has been removed at his request.

Who Really Won the Second Lebanon War

Israel’s recent war in Gaza was waged for the simplest of reasons: to deter Hamas from firing Qassam and Grad rockets. Whether or not the Israelis succeeded is an open question. An Israeli soldier — “who, by the way, was an Arab”:http://yaacovlozowick.blogspot.com/2009/01/muted-frightened-pride-of-israeli-arab.html — was killed by a roadside bomb next to the border with Gaza a few days ago. But if the aftermath of the less successful Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in 2006 suggests anything, Hamas is likely to cool its guns for a while. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared a “divine victory” in August of 2006, and most Israelis agreed. Bombastic boasts to the contrary, however, Hezbollah lost, and Hezbollah knows it.

I’m hardly the first to point out that Hezbollah sat out the Gaza war. Somebody fired a salvo of rockets into Israel from South Lebanon on January 8, and Hezbollah couldn’t distance itself from the attack fast enough. If the 2006 war was such a success, why wouldn’t Nasrallah want to rack up another divine victory? He could hardly ask for a more auspicious time to launch the next round if that’s what he was planning. The Israel Defense Forces were busy and preoccupied in Gaza, and much of world opinion had already turned sharply against the Israelis. If Nasrallah’s passivity doesn’t prove he feels more reluctant to pick a fight than he did in 2006, it certainly strongly suggests it.

There’s something else, though, that only a handful of analysts have remarked on. Very few people in Lebanon sincerely think Hezbollah won the 2006 war. It’s mostly Arabs outside Lebanon who take Nasrallah’s declaration of “divine victory” seriously.

Leave aside the fact that ten times more Lebanese than Israelis were killed in that war, and that the centers of entire towns in South Lebanon were destroyed from the skies. It’s theoretically possible that the Lebanese could delude themselves into thinking they won. Most Egyptians, after all, think they beat Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, though they most certainly did not. And denial is a river that flows through other lands besides Egypt.

Nasrallah, though, was all but forced to apologize to Lebanese for the death and destruction he brought down on their heads. “We did not believe,” he said on Lebanon’s New TV station, “even by one percent, that the captive operation would result in such a wide-scale war, as such a war did not take place in the history of wars. Had we known that the captive operation would result in such a war we would not have carried it out at all.”

These are not the words of a man who thinks of himself as a victor. Nor are these the words of a man speaking to those who think they have won. He did not issue his apology because he hoped to appease his Christian, Sunni, and Druze opponents in Lebanon. He routinely, and absurdly, dismisses their March 14 coalition as the “Zionist hand.” No. Nasrallah apologized because his Israeli adventure devastated his own Shia community.

It’s not easy finding Lebanese who are interested in a repeat. I drove from Beirut to South Lebanon shortly after the war to survey the destruction with a couple of Hezbollah’s political enemies. My guide Said succinctly summed up the reaction I heard from most when we parked amid the rubble of downtown of Bint Jbail. “So this is our victory,” “he sarcastically said”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2007/01/so-this-is-our-victory.php. “This is how Hezbollah wins. Israel destroys our country while they sleep safely and soundly in theirs.”

Don’t assume only March-14 Lebanese feel this way. The Shias of South Lebanon feel it more acutely than most since they suffered the brunt of the damage. But even many of Nasrallah’s allies elsewhere in Lebanon aren’t interested in more of the same. “Both sides lost and don’t want to do it again,” a supporter of Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun “said to me in Beirut”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/12/hezbollahs-christian-allies.php. “The situation in the South is finished. If it happens again, Nasrallah will lose his case.”

Predicting the future in a bottomlessly complicated society like Lebanon’s is a risky business, to be sure, but a clear majority have no interest in yet another bloody conflict. Most Lebanese, like most Israelis, prefer to be left alone. And most of Nasrallah’s supporters will tell you they want Hezbollah to deter Israeli invasions, not to invite Israeli invasions.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/52642.

The Mother of All Quagmires

I’ve just returned from a week-long trip through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Israel’s border with Gaza, and I’m reminded all over again of what has been beaten into me during my many visits to the Middle East: there is no solution to the problems that vex that region right now. Most Americans are inherently optimistic and think just about any problem in the world can be solved. We put a man on the moon before I was born, but that was easy compared with securing peace between Israelis and Arabs.

The American Jewish Committee brought me and seven of my colleagues to Israel and set up interviews with Israeli military officers, politicians, academics, and journalists on the far-left, the far-right and at every point in between. One of my colleagues asked the eternal question during one of our meetings. “What is the solution to this problem?” He meant the Arab-Israeli conflict, of course, and the answer from our Israeli host was revealing in more ways than one. “You Americans are always asking us that,” he said and laughed darkly.

Americans aren’t the only ones who have a hard time grasping the idea of an intractable problem. “Unfortunately we Westerners are impatient,” said an Israeli politician who preferred not to be named. “We want fast food and peace now. But it won’t happen. We need a long strategy.” “Most of Israel’s serious problems don’t have a solution,” said Dr. Dan Schueftan, Director of National Security Studies at the University of Haifa. “Israelis have only recently understood this, and most foreign analysts still don’t understand it.”

A clear majority of Israelis would instantly hand over the West Bank and its settlements along with Gaza for a real shot at peace with the Arabs, but that’s not an option. Most Arab governments at least implicitly say they will recognize Israel’s right to exist inside its pre-1967 borders, but far too many Palestinians still won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist even in its 1948 borders. Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist inside any borders at all.

“We will never recognize Israel,” senior Hamas leader “Nizar Rayyan said”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7807430.stm before he was killed by an air strike in Gaza during the recent fighting. “There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination.”

Hamas does not speak for all Palestinians. I’ve met Palestinians who sincerely despise Hamas and everything it stands for. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Hamas speaks for a genuinely enormous number of Palestinians, and peace is impossible as long as that’s true. An-Najah University conducted a poll of Palestinian public opinion a few months ago and found that 53.4 percent persist in their rejection of a two-state solution.

Far too many Westerners make the mistake of projecting their own views onto Palestinians without really understanding the Palestinian narrative. The “occupation” doesn’t refer to the West Bank and Gaza, and it never has. The “occupation” refers to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A kibbutz in the center of Israel is “occupied Palestine” according to most. “It makes no sense to a Palestinian to think about a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” Martin Kramer from the Shalem Center in Jerusalem said to me a few days ago. “From the Palestinian perspective, Israel will always exist inside Palestine.”

“Making peace with the Palestinians is harder than making peace with other Arabs,” said Asher Susser, Senior Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University. “With the Palestinians we have a 1948 file as well as a 1967 file. With other Arabs we only have a 1967 file. The 1967 file relates to our size, but the 1948 file relates to our very being. It is nearly impossible to resolve because we cannot compromise on our being.”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/the-mother-of-all-quagmires-14423.

The Mood in Israel Now

The mood in Israel during the immediate aftermath of the Gaza war is markedly different from the mood in the wake of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Things felt precarious and vulnerable then. Confidence in both the government and the military disintegrated. When Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared his “divine victory,” many, if not most, Israelis shuddered and thought he might be correct. This time, by contrast, I didn’t meet a single Israeli who thinks Hamas defeated the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is nowhere near finished, and the problems in Gaza will endure for a long time, but the Israeli military and government spent two and a half years intensely studying what went wrong in Lebanon in 2006 and corrected nearly all those mistakes. Most Israelis I spoke to in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week feel a tremendous sense of relief and seem more at ease than they have been in years.

The results speak for themselves. The IDF wasn’t able to halt or even disrupt Hezbollah’s Katyusha rocket attacks on Israeli cities in July and August of 2006, but Hamas’s ability to fire its own crude rockets was reduced by almost 75 percent. According to Major General Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, Hamas fired 75 rockets per day at the beginning of the war, 35 rockets per day in the middle of the war, and only 20 rockets per day at the end. At the same time, Hamas was only able to inflict a tenth as many casualties on Israeli civilians and soldiers as Hezbollah did in 2006. During the final ten days of the war, again according to Ben-Eliyahu, Hamas did not kill a single Israeli. Ismail Haniyeh’s predictable declaration of “victory” could hardly sound more empty if he delivered his boast from inside a prison cell.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/52091.

Back from Israel

Okay, I’m back from my brief visit to Israel. Sorry I haven’t had time to write much in the last week. The American Jewish Committee scheduled back-to-back meetings from breakfast until dinner every day, and I took a token amount of time off to visit the Dead Sea for the first time with Max Boot and Mario Loyola. I met with Israeli military officers, academics, and journalists from the far-left to the far-right and at every point in between. Now that I’m home and can process everything I’ve learned, I can start writing again. Stay tuned. And thanks for your patience.

2008 Weblog Awards Winner

For the second year in a row “I won the 2008 Weblog Awards”:http://2008.weblogawards.org/polls/best-middle-east-or-africa-blog/ in the Best Middle East or Africa Blog category. Many sincere thanks to everyone who voted for me, and congratulations to “Professor Juan Cole”:http://www.juancole.com/ for a strong second place showing.

In Israel

I’m in Israel now and have been here since Saturday afternoon. I have one more day with a packed schedule and then I should be able to squeeze in some time to write. Stay tuned for several short analysis pieces and a long dispatch from the border with Gaza.

On My Way to Israel

At the last minute I was invited to Israel by the American Jewish Committee and will leave first thing tomorrow (Friday) morning. I’ll be heading over there with Max Boot, Anthony Cordesman, and a handful of other foreign policy professionals. We’re scheduled to visit areas hit by Qassam and Grad rockets, and are working on arranging meetings with Palestinian leaders, Israeli intelligence officers, IDF commanders, and members of the Knesset.

I have a lot of material that needs to be written from my recent trip to Iraq and Lebanon, but none of it is as time-sensitive as the war in Gaza and Israel. So I’ll continue writing about the Middle East’s current hot spot at least for a short while.

I’ll be back home in a week.

The AJC is paying for most of this trip, but I’m going to stick around in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for two extra days so I can interview a few other people I need to see while I’m over there. Please consider a donation so I can pay for a rental car and a few extra days in my hotel room. And stay tuned for more coverage.

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A Conversation with Nizar Rayyan

I’ve spoken to a handful of guerilla leaders, terrorist leaders, and members of terrorist organizations. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has spoken to more. He recalls one of those conversations with Nizar Rayyan, whom the Israelis just killed in Gaza, for a piece in the New York Times called “Why Israel Can’t Make Peace with Hamas”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/opinion/14goldberg-1.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.

It’s long for an opinion piece, and it’s pointless to summarize, so I’ll just give you the beginning:

In the summer of 2006, at a moment when Hezbollah rockets were falling virtually without pause on northern Israel, Nizar Rayyan, husband of four, father of 12, scholar of Islam and unblushing executioner, confessed to me one of his frustrations.

We were meeting in a concrete mosque in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Mr. Rayyan, who was a member of the Hamas ruling elite, and an important recruiter of suicide bombers until Israel killed him two weeks ago (along with several of his wives and children), arrived late to our meeting from parts unknown.

He was watchful for assassins even then, and when I asked him to describe his typical day, he suggested that I might be a spy for Fatah. Not the Mossad, mind you, not the C.I.A., but Fatah.

What a phantasmagorically strange conflict the Arab-Israeli war had become! Here was a Saudi-educated, anti-Shiite (but nevertheless Iranian-backed) Hamas theologian accusing a one-time Israeli Army prison official-turned-reporter of spying for Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, an organization that had once been the foremost innovator of anti-Israeli terrorism but was now, in Mr. Rayyan’s view, indefensibly, unforgivably moderate.

In the Palestinian civil war, Fatah, which today controls much of the West Bank and is engaged in intermittent negotiations with Israel, had become Mr. Rayyan’s direst enemy, a party of apostates and quislings. “First we must deal with the Muslims who speak of a peace process and then we will deal with you,” he declared.

Read the rest. “All of it”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/opinion/14goldberg-1.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.

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