Ariel Sharon died on Saturday, and his last major political act was to evict my cousins from the Gaza Strip.
When Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, I was The Economist’s Jerusalem correspondent, and spent quite a bit of my time reporting on how Israel mistreated Palestinians. Two of my cousins were settlers in Gaza who believed it was part of the land God had promised to the Jews. I was gay, atheist, and single; they were strictly religious, married, and had 16 children between them. Aside from our common great-grandfather, we might as well have come from different planets. But they were at the center of the biggest story of the year, I was a journalist, and they were my relatives. So I went to talk to them.
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Few figures could unite Israeli settlers and Palestinians quite like Ariel Sharon.
“God gave him what he deserved,” one right-wing Israeli told me several years after Sharon fell into a coma. “A Jew should not force a Jew from Jewish land,” the man exclaimed, in reference to Sharon’s decision to unilaterally remove Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005. For many Arabs, the name “Sharon” is associated with the word “massacre”—specifically with the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, which occurred after Sharon allowed Lebanese Christian militiamen to enter a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, where they killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians.
So to some Jewish settlers, Sharon was a traitor; and to some Arabs, he was a butcher. Yet Sharon, who passed away on Saturday at age 85, after an eight-year coma, was also a political architect. More so than to any other contemporary figure in the region, the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian territories can be traced to Ariel Sharon.
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Over the weekend, Israeli air strikes pounded dozens more targets in the Gaza Strip, as Hamas militants launched rockets into southern Israel and toward Tel Aviv. Israel’s recent air barrage has targeted individuals and buildings in more densely populated areas, and the civilian death toll is mounting. Local officials in Gaza have placed the death toll at more than 90 since Wednesday. International mediators are working hard to forge a deal that would lead to a truce. However, Israeli forces are still massing on Gaza’s border, and Hamas refuses to negotiate while Israel continues its air strikes. Gathered here are images from a weekend of violent exchanges between Israel and Gaza, with no clear indication whether the situation will worsen or reach a cease-fire any time soon.
See More from In Focus: Rockets Over Israel and Gaza
[Images: Reuters, AP]
Over the past few weeks, a slowly growing series of rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel, and retaliatory strikes by Israeli forces, has sharply escalated into a crisis. The skies over the Gaza Strip and southern Israel have filled with hundreds of rockets, missiles, and warplanes since Wednesday, bringing varying levels of destruction to the populations below. Tensions are growing as Israel’s military has called up thousands of reservists and deployed troops along the border. At the same time, Egypt’s new Prime Minister Hisham Kandil made an official visit to Gaza today. Meanwhile rocket attacks continued, setting off air raid sirens as far north as Tel Aviv.
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Late last week, Israel launched a targeted air strike, killing Zohair al-Qaisi, militant leader of the Popular Resistance Committee, claiming the group was planning a terrorist strike in Israel. Over the next few days, militant groups in Gaza launched hundreds of rockets into southern Israel in retaliation, and Israel responded with new rounds of air strikes. Israel also deployed an anti-missile system known as Iron Dome, claiming to have shot down more than 40 rockets. Egypt stepped in to help broker a cease-fire that began yesterday, and held for about a day, but both sides have since launched limited attacks. In all, eight people in Israel have been wounded in the fighting, and at least 27 Palestinians have been killed.
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In 2005, after Hamas won parliamentary elections in Gaza, Israel imposed an economic blockade by sealing its borders to all but a small amount of goods. Israel argues that it is punishing Hamas, a terrorist organization. Palestinians say it’s a form of collective punishment.
The economic blockade has eased somewhat since May 2010 when Israel came under international pressure for its attack on a flotilla of Turkish boats bringing aid to Gaza. Today Gazans survive, but life is hardly normal.
Above: Gazans recycle and reuse anything of value. Shoe repairmen in this open air market do a thriving business (Reese Erlich/Pulitzer Center).
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