Uri Avnery's Column 

To Die With The Philistines?

THE MOST famous words ever spoken in Gaza were the last words of Samson (Judges, 16, 30): "Let me die with the Philistines!"

According to the Biblical story, Samson took hold of the central pillars of the Philistine temple and brought down the whole building upon the Lords of the Philistines, the people of Gaza and himself. The teller of the story sums it all up: "So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life."

A story of suffering, destruction and death. It may be about to repeat itself now, only with the roles reversed: the temple may be brought down by the Palestinians (who took their name from the Philistines), and among the dead will be the Lords of Israel.

WiLL GAZA turn into a Palestinian Massada (the place where, a thousand years later, Jewish defenders chose mass suicide rather then fall into the hands of the Romans)?

The people of Gaza are worried. The Hamas fighters are preparing for action. The chiefs of the Israeli army are both worried and preparing for action.

For months now, the political and military leaders of Israel have been discussing the "big operation": a massive invasion of the Gaza Strip in order to put an end to the launching of rockets into Israel.

The army chiefs, who are usually raring to go into battle, are not eager this time. Not at all. They want to avoid it at almost any cost. But they are fatalistic. Everything now depends on blind chance. For example, if tomorrow a Qassam rocket falls on a house in Sderot and kills a whole family, there will be such an outcry in Israel that the government may feel compelled to give the order, even against its better judgment.

For every Israeli military or political planner, the Gaza strip is a nightmare. It is about 40 km long and 10 km wide. In this 360 square kilometers of parched desert, hardly twice the area of Washington DC, there are crowded 1.5 million human beings, almost all of them destitute, who have nothing to lose, headed by a militant religious movement. (It might be remembered that in the 1948 war, the Jewish community in Palestine amounted to less than 650 thousand people.)

For months now, the Hamas leadership in Gaza has been accumulating weapons, which are smuggled into the Strip through the many tunnels under its border with Egypt (as we smuggled weapons into the country on the eve of the 1948 war). True, they have got no artillery or tanks, but they now possess very effective anti-tank weapons.

According to the estimate of our military, an invasion of the Gaza Strip may cost the lives of a hundred Israeli soldiers and thousands of Palestinian fighters and civilians. The Israeli army will deploy tanks and armored bulldozers, and the world will see terrible pictures - the same kind of pictures that our army tried to suppress and that caused a world-wide outcry against the "Jenin Massacre" during the 2002 "Defensive Shield" operation.

Nobody can know how this operation will develop. Perhaps the Palestinian resistance will collapse after all, and the predictions of numerous Israeli casualties will be proved false. But it is also possible that Gaza will turn into a Palestinian Massada, a kind of mini-Stalingrad. This week, in one of the "routine" incursions by the Israeli army, an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) penetrated one of the renowned Israeli-produced Merkava Mark-3 tanks, and it was a miracle that the four crew members were not killed. In a big, bloody battle, such miracles cannot be relied on.

The nightmare does not end there. No doubt, the Israeli army will overcome the resistance, whatever the price on both sides, perhaps by demolishing whole neighborhoods and massive slaughter. But what then?

If the army leaves the strip quickly, the situation will revert to what it was before and the launching of the Qassam rockets will be resumed (if it stops at all). That would mean that the whole operation will have been in vain. If the army remains there - what alternative would it have? - it will be compelled to take on the full responsibility of an occupation regime: feeding the population, running the social services, establishing security. All this in a situation of a vigorous and ongoing guerilla war, which will turn the lives of both occupier and occupied into hell.

For an occupier, Gaza has always been problematic. The Israeli army has left it three times already, and each time the joy was great. "Gaza - goodbye and good riddance!" was always a popular slogan. When Israel made peace with the Egyptians, they adamantly refused to accept Gaza back at all.

It is no accident that both intifadas started in Gaza. (The first, exactly 20 years ago this week, broke out when an Israeli truck collided with two cars full of Palestinian workers, which Palestinians took to be a deliberate Israeli reprisal. The second exploded after Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount, when Israeli policemen shot and killed outraged Muslim protesters.)

The Hamas movement itself, which is today celebrating its 20th anniversary, was born - also no accident - in Gaza.

No wonder that our army chiefs shrink back from re-conquering the Gaza Strip. They do not relish the idea of playing the role of the Lords of the Philistines in the story of the Palestinian Samson.

THE PROBLEM is that nobody knows how to undo the Gordian knot left behind by Ariel Sharon, that master-weaver of such knots.

Sharon initiated the "Separation Plan" - one of the worst follies in the annals of this state, which are so rich with follies.

As will be remembered, Sharon dismantled the settlements and evacuated the Strip without a dialogue with the Palestinians and without turning the territory over to the Palestinian Authority. He did not leave the inhabitants of the Strip any possibility of leading a normal life, but turned the territory into a giant prison. All connections with the outside world were cut - the Israeli navy cut the sea lanes, the border with Egypt was effectively sealed, the airport remained destroyed, the building of a harbor was prevented by force. The promised "safe passage" between the Strip and the West Bank was hermetically sealed, all crossings in and out of the Strip remained under total Israeli control, to be opened and closed arbitrarily. The employment of tens of thousands of Gazan workers in Israel, on which the livelihood of almost the entire Strip depended, was terminated.

The next chapter was inevitable: Hamas took military control over the Strip, without the helpless politicians in Ramallah being able to intervene. From the Strip, Qassam rockets and mortar shells were launched at the neighboring Israeli towns and villages, without the Israeli army being able to stop them. One of the most powerful armies in the world, with the most sophisticated weapons, is unable to counter one of the most primitive weapons on earth.

Thus a vicious circle was set up: the Israelis choke the people in the Strip, Gazan fighters bombard the Israeli town Sderot, the Israeli army reacts by killing Palestinian fighters and civilians, the people from Gaza launch mortars at the kibbutzim, the army carries out incursions and kills Palestinian fighters daily and nightly, Hamas brings in more effective anti-tank weapons - and no end in sight.

AN ORDINARY Israeli has no idea of what is happening in the Gaza Strip. The disconnection is absolute. No Israeli can enter the Strip, almost no Palestinian can get out.

This is the way most Israelis see things: We left Gaza. We dismantled all the settlements there, in spite of the fact that this caused us a profound national crisis. And what happens? The Palestinians just keep shooting at us from inside the strip and turn life in Sderot into hell. We have no alternative but to turn their lives, too, into hell, in order to get them to stop.

This week I heard a report from one of the most credible individuals in Gaza - Dr. Eyad Sarraj - a well-known psychiatrist, peace and human rights activist. Here are some of the things he told a small circle of Israeli peace activists:

Israel blocks all imports into the strip, except for a short list of about half a dozen basic articles. 900 trucks used to be employed daily for the imports and exports of the Gaza Strip, now their number is reduced to 15. For example, no soap is allowed in.

Local water is undrinkable. Israel does not let in bottled water. Nor does Israel allow the importation water pumps. The price of water filters has gone up from $40 to $250, there are no spare parts at all for filters. Only the well-to-do can still afford them. However, chlorine is let in.

There is no import of cement. When there is a hole in the ceiling, it cannot be repaired. The building site for the children's hospital stands silent. There are no spare parts of any kind. A medical instrument that goes out of order cannot be repaired. Not even incubators for babies or dialysis equipment.

The severely sick cannot reach hospital - neither in Israel, nor in Egypt or Jordan. The few permits issued are often delivered after a deadly delay. In many instances, patients are condemned to death.

Students cannot reach their universities abroad. Foreign citizens who happened to be visiting Gaza cannot get out if they have a Palestinian ID. Palestinians who have contracts to work abroad are not allowed to leave. Some Palestinians were allowed to pass through Israel on the way to Egypt, but were not allowed in by the Egyptian authorities and had to return to Gaza.

Practically all enterprises have been closed and their workers thrown onto the street for lack of raw materials. For example, the Coca Cola factory has closed down. After 60 years of occupation - first by the Egyptians and than the Israelis - almost nothing is produced in the Strip, except oranges, strawberries, tomatoes and the like.

Prices in the Gaza Strip have risen sky-high - fivefold and even tenfold. Life is now more expensive in Gaza than in Tel-Aviv. The black market is flourishing.

How do people exist? The members of extended families help each other. Well-to-do people support their relatives. UNRWA brings in the most basic foodstuffs and distributes them to the refugees, who are the majority of the inhabitants.

IS THERE another way out besides a massive invasion? Of course there is. But it requires imagination, boldness and a readiness to act contrary to established patterns.

An immediate cease-fire can be achieved. According to all the indications, Hamas, too, is ready for it, provided that it is general: both sides must stop all military actions, including "targeted liquidations" and the launching of Qassams and mortar shells. The crossings must be opened for free movement of goods in both directions. The passage between the Strip and the West Bank must be opened, as well as the border between the Strip and Egypt.

Such a calming of the situation may encourage the two competing Palestinian governments - Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza - to start a new dialogue, under the auspices of Egypt or Saudi Arabia, in order to heal the rift and set up a unified Palestinian national leadership that will have the authority to sign peace agreements.

In place of the cry "Let me die with the Philistines", let us take the words of Dylan Thomas: "And death shall have no dominion!"