Samson in Gaza
Gaza was the place where, in Biblical times, the Jewish hero Samson took up with a harlot. That was before he met Delilah and, succumbing at last to her charms and tricks, revealed the secret of his strength. Shorn of his curly locks while he slept, Samson lost his superhuman strength. He was taken to Gaza and blinded by the Philistines with a white-hot poker. But his hair, and his strength, gradually grew back unnoticed, and at last Samson pushed over a pillar in their temple and brought the building down upon them, killing many. Or so the Bible story goes.
After 38 years of military occupation, Israel handed Gaza back to the Palestinians in 2005. But it has not led to peace. Hamas Islamist militants opposed to the Jewish state in 2007 ousted those Palestinians disposed to make peace with Israel, and have fired crude but potentially lethal rockets into the land lying to the east for months, in a constant skirmish with the Israelis. Israel struck hard with an aerial offensive a week ago.
Now, as the battle unfolds on 24-hour satellite television, you can check out the Gaza Strip on Google Earth, an impressive view from space of this cramped slice of land, shaped like a dog-bone along the southeast Mediterrean Coast. It’s small, it’s tightly built-up. It is bordered by fertile sleepy Israeli kibbutz villages of citrus groves and roads lined with eucalyptus trees. And fields now churned up by Israeli armour.
On Saturday, an Israeli pilot in an aircraft too high to identify inscribed enormous contrail circles in the blue sky over the Strip — one, two, three, four, until it looked like the Olympic rings or an Audi badge. They were visible even from Jerusalem. They were still hanging there, losing definition and dissipating slowly in the evening as the sun went down, turning the sky markers a warm pink.
Was this was some enigmatic sign? Who knows? But Saturday saw the heaviest bombardment of the Israeli offensive, by air, land and sea, from dawn till after dark. And before midnight everyone had the answer to the question of the hour. Israel launched a long-anticipated ground offensive.
Israel has not permitted foreign journalists to enter Gaza via the crossings it controls. Reuters’ team of television cameramen and photographers, and the agency’s lone text correspondent Nidal al-Mughrabi, have had little rest and no reinforcement from outside. That has so far proved impossible. Israel’s Route 232 running north-south a few kilometres east of Gaza’s 40 km border – you can see it clearly on Google Earth — is a closed military operations zone, access barred by many police roadblocks and patrols, and, deeper in, by military police. Most TV crews must film the bomb blasts from a distance, talking on their mobile phones between air strikes and fiery blasts.
Probing too far in the direction of the Gaza border is pointless. The army has barred the road with concrete blocks and heavy steel barriers in places where civilians are not supposed to go. A Humvee full of soldiers is in no mood for conversation and wants to see papers. “Do you have a camera?” is the first question. The .50 calibre machine-gun on the roof swivels automatically, its field of fire displayed on a video-screen inside the armoured vehicle. “Do not come back here,” says the young officer. “It is dangerous.” The gun points at the little car.
But the real danger is a couple of kilometres to the west, in Gaza, where yet another column of black smoke mushrooms upwards, Saturday’s umpteenth. The death toll in Gaza is over 500. On Route 232, the odd banality of war is on show. A migrating flock of impressive geese lands in a luscious green field to feed, honking contentedly as another distant bomb thumps the air. Further south, black-winged buzzards wheel over the livestock pens of a remote kibbutz, spying something there to eat.
(An Israeli Apache gunship flies over the northern Gaza Strip after firing a weapons system January 4, 2009. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants battled in Gaza on Sunday after Israeli troops and tanks invaded the coastal enclave in the most serious fighting in the conflict in decades. REUTERS/Nikola Solic (GAZA))
(Smoke rises after an explosion in the northern Gaza Strip January 4, 2009. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants battled on Gaza City’s outskirts on Sunday after Israeli troops and tanks invaded the coastal enclave in the worst fighting in the conflict in decades. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (GAZA))