"We don't agree about launching the rockets and we are not launching the rockets," Al-Attar said after discovering the rocket launcher in his field. "But it's the only way for us to express our frustration." — Human Rights Watch to accuse unarmed farmers of War Crimes for speaking out of turn

January 31, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

By Dion Nissenbaum | McClatchy Newspapers

ATATRA, Gaza Strip — Some time before dawn on Saturday, Palestinian militants apparently crept through northern Gaza Strip farmland ravaged by Israeli tanks, set up their rudimentary rocket launcher in Mahmoud Al-Attar’s potato patch and fled for safety long before the Qassam rocket smashed harmlessly in a field in southern Israel.

Al-Attar was frustrated Saturday morning when he discovered the small metal launcher in his fields. Although Al-Attar didn’t want militants using his land as a launching pad, the 42-year-old farmer said he still supports the attacks.

Despite Israel’s punishing 22-day Gaza Strip offensive designed to cripple Hamas and bring rocket attacks to a complete halt, Al-Attar and some of his neighbors said they see no better way for Palestinians to fight back.

“We don’t agree about launching the rockets and we are not launching the rockets,” Al-Attar said after discovering the rocket launcher in his field. “But it’s the only way for us to express our frustration.”

Al-Attar is among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians whose lives and livelihoods have been upended by the Israeli military operation and its aftermath.

Israeli tanks and bulldozers tore through Al-Attar’s olive groves, flattened his date palms, churned up his potato fields and crushed his greenhouses. Israeli forces opened fire on Al-Attar’s nearby apartment building and left it a charred ruin. Al-Attar said he and his 21-year-old son were rounded up by Israeli soldiers, detained for days in a large dirt holding pen with dozens of neighbors, taken to an Israeli prison for questioning, and sent back to Gaza as the Israeli military campaign wound down.

In the aftermath of the military operation, Palestinian officials with the Hamas-led Gaza Strip government estimated that the Israeli offensive had caused more than $225 million in damage to the agricultural industry.

Al-Attar returned to discover that the Israeli strikes had killed more than 1,200 Palestinians, ruined thousands of homes like his and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage to Gaza.

Deep in debt, Al-Attar said he has no money to replant his fields or rebuild his greenhouses.

Even if he had money, there is virtually nothing for Al-Attar to buy.

Israel is refusing to allow most building supplies into Gaza while it is controlled by hard-line Hamas leaders who refuse to renounce their stated commitment to destroy Israel.

And, until Israel opens its borders, Palestinians like Al-Attar and his neighbors still see the militant rocket attacks as a reasonable form of protest.

“It’s an expression of anger,” said Ghassan Mishal, a Gaza electronics salesman who walked past olive trees toppled by Israeli forces. “Find us a solution. If the resistance talks with their mouths, would anyone listen to them?”

Curbing Palestinian rocket fire was a central goal of Israel’s military campaign. Gaza rockets have killed 12 people in Israel since the Israeli military emptied all Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005. Israel officially ended 38-years of military rule of the 1.5 million Palestinians living in this isolated Mediterranean strip.

But, since then, Israel has constrained the Palestinian economy by tightly regulating the flow of aid and supplies allowed to reach Gaza. The restrictions increased after Hamas seized military control of Gaza in June 2007.

While Egypt is trying to broker a new, more-stable cease-fire with Israel and Hamas, it appears as if the Middle East adversaries are still holding firm to complicating demands.

Hamas leaders said they have offered a one-year cease-fire if Israel opens its border crossings with Gaza. But Israel says it won’t allow aid and supplies to flow back into Gaza until Hamas releases Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier who has been held by Palestinian militants since being captured in 2006.

“You can’t have full, permanent, normal functioning of the crossings until Gilad Shalit is released,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In the meantime, Gaza militants continue to attack Israel. In the last week, Palestinians have used a roadside bomb to kill an Israeli officer patrolling the Gaza border, launched several mortar volleys into Israel and fired at least three rockets that caused no serious damage.

While Israeli leaders vowed to respond to even a single rocket attack with overpowering force, they have so-far launched limited air strikes aimed at low-level Gaza militants.

Middle East leaders are trying to cement a new deal before Israeli voters elect a new government on Feb. 10. Israeli polls show former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau and his hawkish Likud Party holding onto a strong lead over the ruling Kadima Party and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip said last week that they want to reach a deal on a new truce with Israel in the coming days.

On Saturday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas postponed a trip to Europe and planned to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday to discuss the negotiations.