Caught in the Gaza Crossfire

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"You are now in a very rare moment," says Pnina Ragolsky, "because you can hear only the birds singing."

On a late spring Sunday afternoon in the Israeli village of Netiv Ha'asara, the familiar notes of conflict — periodic incoming rocket fire and the alerts that attend it, the more sustained outgoing artillery barrages — have fallen silent. But the peace won't last. A few hours later, loudspeakers emit the booming call — "shachar adom" [red dawn] — that warns residents a rocket has been launched from Gaza. They have 20 seconds to get to their bomb shelters. "It's a routine," says Pnina, 59. "Unfortunately, we are getting used to it."

Five kilometers away, in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, Safia and Mohammed Ghaben are also accustomed to leading lives under siege, to the thuds and booms of artillery shells fired into Gaza by the Israeli army in retaliation for rockets launched by Palestinian militants toward villages such as Netiv Ha'asara. Though Israel says the barrages are aimed at punishing militants, not civilians, the shelling is a constant source of fear. And for some, like the Ghabens, the sound of artillery discharges is a reminder of an incurable pain.

When Israeli settlers and soldiers pulled out of the Gaza Strip last August, many people on both sides dared to think that tranquility would follow. But since Hamas was voted into power last January, international aid to the Palestinian Authority has been suspended and hope for negotiations between the two sides has faded. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pledged to withdraw from parts of the West Bank, and to complete construction of a security wall to separate Israel from the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the near-daily exchanges of rockets and artillery between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have left civilians on both sides caught in the crossfire.

All of this was the case even before the events of June 8, when an Israeli air strike killed Jamal Abu Samhadana, a leading militant in Gaza, and the next day, when seven Palestinian civilians were killed and more than 30 wounded by an explosion while they picnicked on the beach near Beit Lahiya. The aftermath of the beach explosion was filmed by a local cameraman, whose pictures of a young girl wailing for her fatally wounded relatives generated intense scrutiny. The source of the beach blast is being fiercely-debated — Palestinians say it was an incoming Israeli artillery shell, but the Israeli military denies the charge, claiming that it was possibly a mine or some other explosive buried on the beach by Palestinians.

But there is no doubt that the event has had unmistakable and immediate consequences, most notably the subsequent announcement by Hamas that its military wing was abandoning a cease-fire it had largely held to since early 2005. Since then, it has re-entered the fray with a volley of rockets, raising the frightening prospect that sustained violence could start anew — the kind of violence that has already irrevocably marked the lives of the Ragolskys and the Ghabens, along with many others.

Separated by fences and flags, the two families live in vastly different circumstances, as cursory glances at the serene Israeli communities and the densely-packed Gazan townships make clear. And yet, like all Israelis and Palestinians, the families are linked by a conflict that governs the rhythm of daily life on both sides. They ask similar questions of themselves, their leaders and their ostensible enemies. Both have suffered grave losses that haunt them to this day. While others cast such losses as noble sacrifices, or simply collateral damage, families like the Ragolskys and the Ghabens live with the consequences.

Pnina Ragolsky was relocated once from the Sinai peninsula in 1982 as a condition of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace accord; she does not want to move again. In Netiv Ha'asara, she and her husband, Amnon, built a lovely home and raised three children. Until last year, they planned to ease into retirement while the children took over their agricultural business. The conflict was never far away, but Israeli settlements and troops in northern Gaza buffered them from the worst of it. A house for Ilan, 29, was under construction. Amir, then 24, lived with his girlfriend, Dana, 22, behind his parents' place, in the same thin-walled structure the Ragolskys inhabited when they first arrived.

A few years ago, Palestinian militants in Gaza began launching crude, homemade Qassam rockets or mortars across the border, initially causing little damage or the Ragolskys much concern — until July 14 of last year. Amir was at home that afternoon when Dana returned from classes. As she stepped inside, a mortar pierced the roof near the front of the house, sending shrapnel and chunks of wall flying. Amir was knocked over but remained conscious. Yossi, a cousin living next door, raced over with his 5-year-old daughter. Pnina, a trained psychological counselor, was driving back from Tel Aviv, where she'd been lecturing Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops on handling the removal of the settlers. Her phone rang. A neighbor said something had happened. "I called my husband," she says. "And he shouts: 'Dana is dead! Dana is dead!'"

The house is still standing — a softball-sized hole in the roof, wires hanging from the ceiling — but, like the Ragolskys and Dana's family, it's not the same. Amir left a month later, traveling in Asia for a time, then working in Amsterdam and now New York City. Ilan moved to a village 20 km north; the house meant for him remains half-finished. Yossi's daughters needed counseling, particularly the 5-year-old. "All my plans," says Pnina, "all my dreams of having a farm here, and when I get older, my family around me," were put in jeopardy.

Beyond heartbreak, she says, Netiv Ha'asara's sense of security was shattered. "People understood you can die from this." Pnina imagines someone saying, "It's not so awful, you can live with it," because most missiles land in uninhabited areas or the sea. "But you can't," she says, "because you are all the time under threat."

In April the Israeli army began responding to Palestinian rocket attacks more aggressively, firing up to 300 155-mm artillery shells back at Gaza when fired upon by Qassams; it even reduced the required distance between a target and civilian areas or homes from 300 m to 100 m (with ammunition customarily lethal up to 50 m from impact, and potentially lethal well beyond that). Since that time, it has fired thousands of shells into Gaza, which, Brigadier General Aviv Kohavi, commander of the idf's Gaza Division, said several weeks ago, has reduced the number of rocket attacks and rendered them less accurate.

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