The signing of the Oslo agreements between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993 raised hopes for peace on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border. Tens of thousands of Palestinians found work in Israel. Along with their Israeli neighbours, mostly farmers who have cultivated fields adjacent to the border, a shared dream of peace and prosperity was woven.
In those days I served as mayor of the regional council that stretches along the Gaza-Israeli border. The optimism of the time provided me and my Palestinian neighbours with an opportunity to develop a multifaceted relationship: hundreds of young Gazans studied in our academic college; women’s organisations joined forces in summer camps for Israeli and Palestinian children; Israeli environmental experts assisted the mayor of Dir el-Balakh in the strip in dealing with sewage flowing into the sea; and, with the help of European countries, a large plant was designed to provide purified water for agriculture on both sides of the border. Many personal friends from Gaza spent their weekends at the swimming pool in my kibbutz, while I used to dine with my family at the excellent fish restaurants in the neighbouring city.
Things seemed like a dream. At the time we asked ourselves why we had wasted so many years on a bloody and futile conflict. But the time of good neighbourly relations ended abruptly in September 2000, when Yasser Arafat decided to launch the second intifada and drag us all into the bloody whirlpool that extracts an intolerable price from us all to this day.
Even the bold decision, made by prime minister Ariel Sharon, to uproot 7,500 Israeli settlers and raze their homes, in addition to the withdrawal of nearly 15,000 soldiers from the Gaza Strip, did not halt the fire. The targeting of farmers working in the fields, the bombardment of their houses and families, only increased. The rise of Hamas to power following the 2006 Palestinian elections severed the last connections remaining with authorities in Gaza, while at the same time Hamas intensified its actions against members of Fatah.
On a Sabbath evening last May, families in the kibbutz, all dressed in white, headed toward the communal dining hall for the traditional supper. The hall was brightly lit, white tablecloths covered the tables, and candles were placed at the centre of the room. As children and parents calmly made their way, a heavy bombardment of mortar rounds rained into the heart of the kibbutz.
Jimmy Kedoshim, 48, father of three young children, was killed by one of the bombs in front of his wife and children. During those fatal seconds, many people were torn between the need to assist a friend and their obligation to seek shelter for their children and themselves.
The violent death of Jimmy is one aspect of the long and complicated saga we have endured in the last eight years. Thousands of families living near the Gaza border have been affected by the daily bombardment of their communities. Even more have endured this reality in recent days. Over eight years, children have been born into the sound of exploding rockets, and carry these experiences with them every moment. Post-traumatic symptoms have become widespread among children and adults, whose only wish is to lead life in peace.
The time has come for a responsible government to regain its sovereignty and provide its citizens with the personal security they deserve. The Israeli government does not seek to adopt Hamas’s tactics. The Islamist organisation has indiscriminately fired over 8,000 missiles, rockets and mortar rounds into a civilian population over the last eight years. During that time the Israeli military has gone above and beyond to minimise the damage inflicted on the Palestinian population, at times placing Israeli soldiers and civilians at risk.
It is important to remember that the operation taking place in Gaza is not aimed at the Palestinian population with whom we have had close relations in the past, nor is it a punitive act. The operation seeks to restore calm and stability to a region that lacks both due to Hamas’s acts. Peace is a mutual interest. The Palestinians chose to elect an extremist group that has inflamed hatred and suffering instead of investing in education and reducing poverty.
As the battles subside, Israeli forces will return to their bases. We will return to cultivate our fields. The people of Gaza will have to decide whether to maintain a radical and suppressive regime, or whether to seize the opportunity to establish a peace-seeking leadership that will help us all bring back the days of good neighbourly relations.
The choice is theirs.
Shai Hermesh, a Kadima member of the Knesset and longtime resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza Strip.