This is, of course, a much broader phenomenon across Israeli society, as a result of the separation that the Israeli government had built up and enforced between Israelis and West Bank Palestinians over the last years. The Jewish settlements in the West Bank are largely off-limits to Palestinians; the Jewish "outpost" settlements are usually founded and inhabited by hyper-religious Jews who consider the Arabs as vermin infesting the soil of "biblical" Israel; well-built and well-maintained Jewish-only roads crisscross the West Bank, relegating the native Palestinian inhabitants to other roads. And, of course, there's the ultimate separation: the huge wall that, beginning during Ariel Sharon's term as prime minister, the Israeli government has been building and extending along the "Green Line" boundary between the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel. (In fact, that wall in many areas extends well into the West Bank, illegally gobbling up territory that according to UN resolutions and international law rightfully belongs to the Palestinians.) Thus, for most Israelis, the Palestinians have become "those people" who live on the other side of the wall - people whom the vast majority of Israelis never see, never have to deal with directly, therefore never really have to care about. Brave Israeli journalists like Haaretz's Gideon Levy and Amira Hass have for years been trying to remind their fellow citizens of the humanity of their Palestinian neighbors, but all you have to do is read the comments appended to their pieces to get a sense that they are largely reviled as "Arab lovers" or "self-hating Jews."
What all of this means for the prospects of a meaningful "peace process" or lasting "settlement" should be obvious - and frightening.
February 4, 2009
In Shattered Gaza Town, Roots of Seething Spliteporting.
By ETHAN BRONNER and SABRINA TAVERNISE
EL ATATRA, Gaza — The phosphorus smoke bomb punched through the roof in exactly the spot where much of the family had taken refuge — the upstairs hall away from the windows.
The bomb, which international weapons experts identified as phosphorus by its fragments, was intended to mask troop movements outside. Instead it breathed its storm of fire and smoke into Sabah Abu Halima’s hallway, releasing flaming chemicals that clung to her husband, baby girl and three other small children, burning them to death.
The Israeli military says that it is unaware of the family’s disaster, or of any other civilian deaths in this farming village in northwest Gaza. While residents say that 11 other civilians were killed during the first few days of Israel’s ground invasion, Israel says that its soldiers killed gunmen and militants in this village, which it considers a Hamas stronghold. At least four Israeli soldiers were wounded in the fight.
The war in El Atatra tells the story of Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza, with each side giving a very different version. Palestinians here describe Israeli military actions as a massacre, and Israelis attribute civilian casualties to a Hamas policy of hiding behind its people.
In El Atatra, neither version appears entirely true, based on 50 interviews with villagers and four Israeli commanders. The dozen or so civilian deaths seem like the painful but inevitable outcome of a modern army bringing war to an urban space. And while Hamas fighters had placed explosives in a kitchen, on doorways and in a mosque, they did not seem to be forcing civilians to act as shields.
The gaps reflect not only a desire to shape public opinion, but also something more significant: a growing distance between two peoples who used to have daily interactions, but who are being forced apart by violence, mutual demonization and a policy of separation.
Palestinians almost never question the legitimacy of firing rockets at Israeli civilians as a form of resistance, and seemed shocked that Israel would go to war over it. Meanwhile, Israel sent a double message.
On one hand, it made clear that it was furious over the years of rocket fire and would not restrain its reaction. On the other, it argued that it took an exceptionally humane approach to the civilians of Gaza, in contrast to what it saw as its bloodthirsty enemy, Hamas.
Unlike most Gazans, many people in this village are not refugees from the 1948 independence war, but farmers and landowners, who for years sold strawberries to Israel until an embargo against the Hamas-run territory began a few years ago. Israel warned residents, in leaflets, radio broadcasts and telephone calls to leave, but many thought that the Israeli incursion did not threaten them.
“I figured it would be like all the other times when they dropped leaflets, so we went inside and waited,” said Rafiq Gambour, 45, a car mechanic who worked in Israel for years, including in Sderot, where Hamas rockets have taken the biggest toll.
So when disaster struck at the Abu Halima house on Jan. 4, a Sunday, many did the only thing they thought might save them: They got on the phone with their Israeli friends. As the sun set and the bodies burned, a crowd of panicked villagers waited as a village elder and farmer, Mahmoud Khlaiyel, and another farmer made frantic phone calls to merchants on the other side of the border.
“There was no one I didn’t call,” Mr. Khlaiyel said.
A man who identified himself as Danny Batua, a 54-year-old Israeli Jewish businessman whose family has been friends with the Abu Halima family for years, said by telephone that he believed the Abu Halimas were not involved with Hamas, and that their suffering was a result of inaccurate intelligence on the part of the Israeli military.
“What can I tell you?” Mr. Batua said. “The army has no idea.”
But according to Captain E., an Israeli military commander whose men took the western sector of the village on the first night of the ground war, most houses in that area were empty of civilians. What is more, he said, militants had remained and had begun gun battles with his soldiers.
The military made the commander available for an interview in Israel, but limited his identification to the initial of his first name.
“We faced fire mostly from snipers,” he said. “We found tunnels, maps, Kalashnikovs, uniforms from our army and many large explosives throughout the houses we searched,” he added, showing photographs of what his men had collected. “We also found a bucket of grenades inside a mosque.”
Some of what the army contends is clearly real. Rockets were launched from near the town’s elementary school, and from many of its fields, Israeli commanders and several residents said.
Hamas leaders were in the village and Israeli commanders displayed evidence of four tunnels throughout the village, though not the extensive network that higher-level commanders had reported. The militants also had weapons, but while the commanders said they had destroyed houses that corresponded only to weapons caches, that did not always seem to have been true.
“My principle for blowing up houses was not to destroy a house that just had one AK-47, but only if we found real infrastructure or large amounts of explosives,” said the brigade commander for the area, Col. Herzl Halevy, by telephone from Israel.
“I checked this out personally,” he added. Between 40 and 50 houses were destroyed.
But when the platoon of another commander, Captain Y., took over the neighborhood where a family named Ghanem lived, it blew up their house without going inside, he made clear in a phone interview. A search of it two weeks later by a correspondent for The New York Times joined by a 20-year veteran of the British Army, Chris Cobb-Smith, a weapons consultant for Amnesty International, showed no evidence of explosive material or of a secondary blast.
So why was the house destroyed?
“We had advance intelligence that there were bombs inside the house,” Captain Y. said. “We looked inside from the doorway and saw things that made us suspicious. I didn’t want to risk the lives of my men. We ordered the house destroyed.”
That seemed to be the guiding principle for a number of the operations in El Atatra: avoid Israeli casualties at all cost.
The elementary school was a similar story. Intelligence suggested that there were explosives inside, and an F-16 dropped a bomb on it, producing a house-size hole. When the Israelis inspected later, they found written material from Hamas but no explosives, Captain Y. said. Now the school is unusable, its giant metal flower decorations lying on their sides.
For the Ghanem family’s 23-year-old son, Bakr, the act will not easily be forgotten.
“A house is something physical, but also something in your heart,” he said as he stood outside his collapsed home, taken over by cats and putrid odors. “The place in our heart has also been injured. There can be no peace after this.”
This talk pains some of the older villagers, like Tamam Abu Halima, 65, who wants to return to the past she shared with Israeli neighbors, when she would fix dinners of fish and figs, and accepting an invitation was as easy as getting in the car.
Her grandson, Hamza, who grew up in a time when boundaries were stricter, has no fond memories of Israelis.
“The only ones I know shoot and kill,” he said.
Many here believe that Israelis feel the same about them, and that they were treated with suspicion and contempt, as would-be fighters. That might help explain what happened, they say, when Omar Abu Halima and his two teenage cousins tried to take the burned body of his baby sister and two other living but badly burned girls to the hospital on that Sunday.
The boys were taking the girls and six others on a tractor, when, according to several accounts from villagers, Israeli soldiers told them to stop. According to their accounts, they got down, put their hands up, and suddenly rounds were fired, killing two teenage boys: Matar Abu Halima, 18, and Muhamed Hekmet, 17.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said that soldiers had reported that the two were armed and firing. Villagers strongly deny that. The tractor that villagers say was carrying the group is riddled with 36 bullet holes.
The villagers were forced to abandon the bodies of the teenage boys and the baby, and when rescue workers arrived 11 days later, the baby’s body had been eaten by dogs, her legs two white bones, captured in a gruesome image on a relative’s cellphone. The badly burned girls and others on the tractor had fled to safety.
Matar’s mother, Nabila Abu Halima, said she had been shot through the arm when she tried to move toward her son. Her left arm bears a round scar. Her son came back to her in pieces, his body crushed under tank treads.
“Those who came this time were not Israelis,” Mr. Gambour, the car mechanic, said of the attackers. “They were not even human.”
The question of how Israel handled civilians in this war has become a matter of keen controversy. Human rights groups are crisscrossing Gaza, documenting what they believe will form the basis for war crimes proceedings aimed at demonstrating that Israel used disproportionate force.
Israeli officers said they took special care not to harm civilians.
“I can promise you that throughout the war, there were many times that civilians walked by us and we never shot at them,” said a commanding officer in a part of El Atatra, Major E.
That statement draws a hollow laugh from villagers.
“They think everybody in Gaza is a terrorist,” said Bekker Abu Halima, who had driven a truck with other bodies and said it was fired on.
Both sides engage in their own denials.
Israelis argue that this war was especially tough because they had waited so long before taking action in response to the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza over eight years.
Yet after Israelis withdrew their settlers and soldiers from Gaza in late 2005, they killed, over the next three years in numerous military actions here, the same number of Gazans as those killed in this war — about 1,275.
For their part, few Palestinian villagers even acknowledged the existence of fighters here. Hamas is now asserting that it achieved a victory.
But here in the ruins of El Atatra, perhaps the biggest damage has been to any memory of a shared past and any thought of a shared future.
“We used to tell fighters not to fire from here,” said Nabila Abu Halima, looking over a field through her open window. “Now I’ll invite them to do it from my house.”
Taghreed El-Khodary and Nadim Audi contributed r