Gaza is mostly sand, but things grow there, just as they do in Israel, the land the enclave's residents remember as their own. Back in 1956, Israeli military hero General Moshe Dayan urged his countrymen to keep that history in mind at the funeral of a young kibbutz commander killed by Arabs who had sneaked out of the coastal strip, already brimming with people and hard feelings. "For eight years now," said Dayan, "they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home." He predicted the enmity would last for generations, and it has.
But half a century of history has allowed the cycle of violence to settle into a routine. In an Israel that has put down roots, some officials describe dealing with Gaza as "cutting the grass." The phrase refers to the business of launching military assaults into the Gaza Strip every so often, whacking away at the militants who have grown too bold, in their eyes, like weeds. What the rest of the world regards as war--Israeli officials prefer to call it an "operation"--has become a chore, more than a little dangerous but not to be avoided.
Except that the issues at its root have not gone away. And the missiles are flying farther and farther. More than a million Israelis live within range of the smaller rockets--homemade projectiles and Soviet-era Grads--that militants routinely launch from Gaza, and a million or two more reside within the Tel Aviv environs reached by a handful of longer-range missiles in the latest fighting. The sirens sound, and even if the country's Iron Dome antimissile system knocks 9 out of 10 rockets from the sky, there is that 10th one. You still have to run to the shelter or dive under a table. Schools close. Work is missed.
For Gazans, it's far worse. There are 1.6 million people crammed in a space twice the size of Washington, D.C., and the noise of Israel's mower is terrifying. In the first six days of Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israelis sent more than 1,500 shells and missiles into Gaza and exploded tons of ordnance, blackening an urban environment that already resembled Baghdad. Despite Israel's emphasis on surgical strikes, civilian casualties have jerked upward. A family of nine was crushed in a single searing blast. According to Gazan officials, more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the operation thus far. (Five Israelis have died.) President Obama, who gave the Israeli air campaign his blessing, saying, "No country on earth ... would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens," cautioned against a ground assault and sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region even as Egypt tried to negotiate a cease-fire.
The proposed terms, like everything else in the cycle of conflict, had the ring of familiarity. If Hamas ceased firing the rockets, Israel would stop targeting the group's leaders with missiles and drones, and the 45,000 Israeli reservists gathered just outside Gaza would return to their lives as clerks and fathers. Until next time.