In Jaffa, Israel’s attacks on Gaza prompt conflicting views

McCaltchy Foreign StaffJuly 18, 2014 

Mideast Israel Living With Rockets

A TV screen shows the ongoing fighting between Israel and Gaza at the entrance to a coffee shop in downtown Tel Aviv, Israel, July 13, 2014

ODED BALILTY — AP

— Khaled Damrani serves falafel in Jaffa and keeps a souvenir in his cash register: a piece of shrapnel that landed a few feet from his store this week. It was from a rocket fired from Gaza and intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

A day after Israel began a ground incursion into Gaza, Damrani struggled to make sense of it.

“I want to be finished with all this,” said Damrani, pointing to the rocket shrapnel. “If (the ground operation) will end the war – I’m for it. But if it will only lead to killing and bloodshed – I’m against.”

Jaffa is a historically Arab city that has gradually gotten swallowed up by Tel Aviv. Today it is a melange; Arab families still live there, as do Bulgarian families who arrived in the 1950s, along with Jewish artists and young people who have moved in over the past decade.

In total, about 54,000 people call Jaffa home – three-quarters are Jews. When the air-raid siren sounds, all the residents share bomb shelters and keep a count of the interceptions by Iron Dome – four on Friday. But they don’t share the same view on how to deal with the threat from Hamas.

Damrani is an Arab Israeli citizen. Like many Arab residents of Jaffa, his wife has family in Gaza, and he remembers going with her to visit family or to get medical treatment in the enclave. He has not been back in years. He speaks Arabic at home but keeps Israeli Channel 10 TV News playing in his shop; it’s easier for his clients, he said.

Motti Pinsky bought a sandwich from Damrani. He said that he trusted the Israeli army to be careful with civilian lives – and that Hamas had this attack coming. He recalled the attempt on Thursday by Hamas operatives to infiltrate and attack Israel through a tunnel; they were thwarted.

“The purpose is to go in and create a buffer zone so combatants cannot cross into Israel,” said Pinsky, a Canadian immigrant to Israel. “I find that both necessary and responsible.”

On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the ground invasion was aimed at destroying Hamas tunnels and ending rocket fire from Gaza. He said it could expand further.

“We chose to commence this operation after we had exhausted the other possibilities, and with the understanding that without action, the price that we would pay would be much greater,” Netanyahu said.

Operation Protective Edge is the third Israeli military attempt in six years to cut down rockets fired from Gaza. The first, Operation Cast Lead, was a three-week aerial and ground attack in 2008. International criticism of Israel centered on that operation’s large Palestinian death toll, which reached above 1,400, compared with 13 Israeli casualties. In 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense with the same aim of stopping rocket fire. That operation lasted eight days.

Iliana, a 50-year-old Jewish woman who decline to give her last name as she hurried to a cab ahead of the Jewish Sabbath, said this time will be different.

“We have to somehow finish it,” she said. “We keep returning to the same situation.”

Erez, a reserve soldier who declined to give his full name, stood with his green army uniform folded into a plastic bag as he hailed a cab home from his post with the home-front command, near the city of Beersheba. The war took him by surprise, he said, and he called this “the weirdest war I’ve been in.” But he was angry about the discovery Wednesday that 20 missiles were hidden at a United Nations school in Gaza.

“I think Israel is acting with a lot of restraint, and the other side isn’t,” Erez said. “It can’t be that communities in the south will live under such an immediate threat.”

The Arabs of Jaffa are part of a 20 percent Arab minority in Israel – a minority that does not share widespread Israeli support for a ground invasion.

Jaffa has been the site of antiwar protests. On Saturday about 100 people rallied against Israel’s operation in the neighborhood’s Clock Tower Square; dozens of hawkish war supporters shouted at them from across the street.

Wisam Hamdan also keeps a piece of shrapnel as a souvenir – on his phone. He works in a hotel in Jaffa on weekends with Jewish Israelis.

“I have friends at work, and then I see them in the army uniform,” Hamdan said. “They’re going to fight Arabs. Arabs like me.”

If residents in Jaffa are conflicted, in Gaza the feeling is of being under siege. Political scientist Mukhaimar Abusaada, who ordinarily teaches at Gaza City’s Al-Azhar University, said: “People are expecting the worst.”

Abusaada said he used the five-hour humanitarian cease-fire Thursday to visit his mother and brothers, who live north of him in Beit Lahiya. The Israeli army told residents there to evacuate during the current ground incursion. Abusaada said they are staying put for now because they have nowhere else to go.

“Even if there are some Palestinians who are angry at Hamas and do not want this war . . . you will not find one single Palestinian who supports an Israeli ground invasion,” Abusaada said. “If Israel thinks Palestinians are going to revolt against Hamas, this is not going to happen.”

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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