“You cannot begin to imagine the fear that infects everyone here. Even before Cast Lead, we felt it. But then, when the bombing began, it was devastating. And no one can know whether at any moment it will resume.”
Those are the words of Dr. Eyad Sarraj, the senior psychiatrist in Gaza, a man widely respected for his development of mental health centers and for training the personnel to staff them. We are sitting in his lush garden, in an area as utterly remote from the stereotypic depiction of Gaza – crowded, desperate, noisy – as can be, a place more akin to Savannah or Scottsdale, a place of beauty, affluence, good food and good talk.
I observe that his words are almost exactly the same as the words I’d heard the day before, during a visit to Sderot, the city that in the years before Cast Lead, Israel’s three week-long war on and in Gaza in 2008-09, was hit by rockets fired from Gaza as many as 50 times a day. Travel around Sderot, and the material aftermath is blatant – shelters everywhere you turn, nursery schools without windows, playgrounds with shelters than can be reached by scampering children within 15 seconds, the time between the alarm and the explosion.
But the psychological aftermath, I am told, persists. How can it not? The occasional rocket still lands, reminding both children and adults of their ongoing vulnerability, of the menace from Gaza, just a mile away.
So it is: Two traumatized populations, neighbors in an area where good fences provide no relief. Yet when I tell Nomika Zion, my new friend in Sderot, of the coincidence between her words and those of Dr. Sarraj, she replies, “With all the difficulties and despair that we have experienced in Sderot, the reality in Gaza, as we all know, is ten times worse and we have a heavy responsibility for that. I never forget that.”
We talk at length about the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, about the pitfalls that await and the historic opportunity it provides. But Hamas, so widely seen as implacable terrorists, determined to resist and ultimately to expunge the Jewish state?
Then we are unexpectedly joined by a very senior official of Hamas, Ghazi Hamad, who is entirely affable and who insists that he and his movement are entirely flexible.
I have over the years spent enough time with “important people” to know that they invent, they lie, they spin. That’s the norm for a brief interaction. But we spend more than an hour with Hamad, and there are lengthy exchanges that seem candid, credible. He says that Hamas is willing to recognize Israel and renounce violence, but that it can do so only in exchange for meaningful commitments by the other side. Hamas has very few cards to play; recognition of Israel may be their only ace. Will Israel stop the settlements, end the occupation, lift the siege of Gaza?
We get to the “right of return.” He asks why Israel, during its War of Independence, drove so many Palestinians from their homes. I refuse to take his question as rhetorical and reply that United Nations Resolution 181, the Partition Resolution, was rejected by all the Arab states, that they then launched a war against the new Jewish state, and I remind him that his side lost that war and that when you lose a war, there are consequences. (In its War of Independence, Israel lost nearly 6400 people, one percent of its population. That war remains, by far, the costliest in human life of all Israel’s wars, accounting for more deaths than the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the 1982, 1993 and 1996 wars in Lebanon, the various wars in Gaza and both the First and Second Intifadas all combined.) He is, I think – but who can know for sure? – taken aback. There seem to be things to talk about with this man. Neither side in the bitter dispute perceives the other as “a partner for peace,” but that is a judgment that deserves to be tested by both sides.