Anxiety, Anger Over Gaza Attacks Still Alive In Israel
Third of five parts
Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit had another birthday in captivity this week. The grim anniversary was remembered by his family and supporters in events across the Jewish state.
Shalit is being held in Gaza after being grabbed by Hamas operatives in a cross-border raid in 2006.
For most Israelis, whose children must serve in the Israeli military, his fate is a symbol of everything they think is wrong with Gaza.
On a muggy evening in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, near the border with Gaza, young men and women chant Shalit's name before the start of a concert in his honor.
The Shalit family is there with their supporters to remind people of their son's long captivity and the five birthdays that have passed. Gilad was 19 when he was taken, a young soldier who was doing his compulsory service.
His story has struck a chord among Israelis because, unlike the U.S. military, the ranks of Israel's armed forces are filled by conscription. Israelis feel it could have been anyone's son snatched that early morning.
"In Israel," says his father, Noam Shalit, "it's a subject that concerns very much the people of Israel."
The elder Shalit is a slight, soft-spoken man. His son's plight has forced him unwillingly into the spotlight. Media appearances and rallies such as this one seem to have made him more retiring. He seems like a man deflated.
"We demand the immediate release of our son without any delay, without any hesitations," he says.
But this parent's pain has not yet affected negotiations over his release.
Hamas has set as a price tag for Shalit's release some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Most are agreed on, but a few dozen names have become a seemingly intractable point of contention between Israel and Hamas in the sporadic indirect talks involving German and Egyptian mediators.
On Gaza, Disconnect
Most Israelis view Gaza as hostile territory ruled by a terrorist group committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.
In response to Shalit's capture, Israel tightly restricted the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza.
That blockade has just been eased. But in a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute at Tel Aviv University, 78 percent of Israeli Jews said they supported the sanctions, despite international condemnation of the measures.
On the subject of Gaza, there is seemingly a total disconnect between Israel and the international community.
"I'm not happy and I'm not sanguine and not complacent about Israel's standing in the world," says Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister.
It's been Ayalon's job to deal with the fallout of several recent Gaza-related events. At the end of 2008, Israel launched a war in Gaza in response to rocket fire on Israeli communities.
Palestinians say some 1,400 Gazans were killed, mostly civilians. Israel puts the death toll at about 1,200 and says most were militants. Thirteen Israelis also died.
The death toll and destruction in Gaza prompted an international inquiry, which placed most of the blame on Israel but said both sides committed war crimes.
More recently, Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists on board a Turkish ship trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israel says the protesters provoked the violence.
"For a long time, there is a lot of hypocrisy and cynicism I see. We fight here an uphill battle because there are 22 Arab League countries that promote the Palestinian position and actually condemn Israel and attack Israel politically," Ayalon says. "There is a critical mass that we have to work against."
Israelis say to understand why Israel does what it does in Gaza, you have to travel to the communities that ring the strip.
Yanina Barnea is in her late 30s with long, wavy brown hair streaked with gray. She has lived in Kibbutz Nahal Oz since childhood.
At the outskirts of the kibbutz, next to a large watchtower, she points past the fence that encircles her village to a wall about a half-mile in the distance. It's the Gaza Strip.
Before the last Gaza war, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 6,000 rockets and 1,500 mortars into Israel. Nineteen Israelis were killed, including a man Barnea knew.
"We live in constant anxiety, I would say. It's like you always have this amount of alert, you have to be alert all the time. And you come to know how to live with it, especially if you have kids," she says.
Since the Gaza war, the border has been relatively quiet. Hamas says it is observing a cease-fire, but sporadic attacks still take place.
The Israeli military maintains soldiers in this kibbutz and at other border communities.
Barnea asks a soldier manning the watchtower if things are calm. He says it is quiet.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a state of hyper-vigilance.
'Something Is Always Happening Here'
On a tour of the border, Israeli army Lt. Yoni Alon tells NPR that the Gaza Strip area is "one of the most-watched areas in the world."
Inside one of the army's observation posts, young female soldiers sit in front of a bank of screens. Each woman monitors a different section of the border area and is not allowed to move her eyes from the screens in front of her. If there is suspicious activity, she calls her superior.
If the Palestinians are deemed to be a threat, Israel responds with remote-controlled machine guns mounted on the wall that encircles Gaza.
"There are surveillance cameras and radar systems and so many technological tools that we use to watch this place. The threat is obviously not something you can ignore," says Alon, who deals with visual intelligence.
He says there is an incident almost every day, even if it doesn't get reported.
"You cannot say it's a quiet border. Something is always happening here," he says.
A Temporary Quiet
At Nahal Oz, Yanina Barnea says most people there supported Israel's war in Gaza because the way they lived before was unbearable.
She says the result of the continuous rocket fire has meant that this traditionally left-wing kibbutz has moved politically to the right.
Barnea says when she looks across the barriers that separate her and the Palestinians in Gaza, she doesn't wish them ill.
"I understand that there is a whole bunch of people there that suffer the same that we do," she says.
But she feels safer because of the walls that divide them and the men with guns who protect her.
Despite her fears, she says she will bring up her two-and-a-half-year-old child in this community, with its leafy open spaces and communal pool.
"It's my home and I can't bring myself to leave it. It's not a reason for me. It's all more of a reason to stay," Barnea says.
Still, she says she knows that this quiet is only temporary.
Shortly afterward, a mortar landed near the kibbutz. No one was hurt -- that day.
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