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While Fighting Intensifies in Gaza, Israelis Remain Disconnected

Israel’s ongoing military operations in Gaza passed the four-month mark this week, a milestone that went almost unnoticed by the general public despite the growing intensity of the fighting and the signs of an imminent escalation.

Recent days have seen some of the most intense action since the incursion began June 25, including a raid on a terror cell in northern Gaza that left seven Palestinian gunmen dead and a week-long reoccupation of the so-called Philadelphi Corridor along the Gaza-Egypt border, where more than 100 weapons-smuggling tunnels were uncovered. Top military commanders, including army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, are calling publicly for stepping up military pressure.

Up till now, however, the actions have prompted little public discussion or reaction, either supportive or critical, of the military operations.

“Neither the media nor Israelis care about what’s happening in Gaza,” said Yoram Peri, dean of Tel Aviv University’s Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society. “There’s a process right now that we like to call the routinization of the conflict. Some may call it the banalization of evil.

“It’s happened several times during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, when the intifada was at its peak and suddenly the public didn’t care. People got so used to it that it lost its significance.”

Random interviews with Israelis this week reinforced that sense of disconnectedness. “I’m not interested in what goes on in Gaza right now,” said Asaf Horvitz, 31, a software engineer from Tel Aviv. “Nothing new seems to be going on. Every day it’s the same news. Israelis are indifferent to what’s happening there, and to politics in general. Unless the situation reaches the center of Israel, it doesn’t seem like it touches our lives.”

Israeli forces staged a massive incursion into Gaza on June 25, following a cross-border raid by Palestinian gunmen who kidnapped an Israeli soldier and killed two others. Military operations have continued virtually nonstop since then, with a brief lull during the height of last summer’s Lebanon war.

Israel’s declared goals in the operation are to secure the release of the kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit, and to end Palestinian rocket fire against Israeli towns. Unofficially, Israel also seeks to pressure the Palestinian Authority into cracking down on terrorist groups and establishing order in the district, from which Israel completed its withdrawal in September 2005.

To date, none of those goals has been accomplished, despite four months of fighting that have resulted in more than 300 Palestinians deaths and one Israeli death. Shalit remains in captivity, his fate uncertain. Homemade Qassam rockets continue to be fired into Israel at a rate of about 240 per month, returning to the rate of fire in June and July after a slight drop during the summer war.

Restoring order in Gaza, the third Israeli objective, seems more distant than ever. Despite months of intense mediation by Egyptian and Qatari diplomats, the Hamas and Fatah factions remain at loggerheads while forces loyal to the two sides engage in armed clashes regularly. At the same time, armed gangs and militias loyal to neither side continue to wreak havoc. This week an Italian photographer working for The Associated Press was kidnapped and held for nearly a day. In recent months, at least 30 other foreigners have been kidnapped by armed groups.

Mediation efforts have focused mainly on creating a national unity government representing the Islamist Hamas party, which controls the P.A. legislature, and the nationalist Fatah party, which controls the executive branch. However, the talks have stalled because of Hamas’s refusal to accept any unity formula that includes recognition of Israel or swearing off violence, as both Israel and Fatah demand.

Israeli leaders say that the growing boldness of armed gangs and the increased pace of weapons smuggling from Egypt will require stepped-up Israeli ground action in the days ahead. “The fact that anti-tank missiles and large amounts of TNT entered Gaza have forced us to take a more intensive military action along the Philadelphi route,” said former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who currently serves as transportation minister and as a member of the Security Cabinet.

Mofaz, who spoke to the Forward during a visit to Washington this week, emphasized that Egypt bore responsibility for preventing the smuggling of weapons from its territory, noting that Egyptian officials had promised to step up their policing actions.

Israeli leaders, however, are divided over how forcefully to act, and for how long. Halutz told a Knesset committee this week that Israeli troops needed to control the Philadelphi strip for an extended period in order to stop the flow of weapons. Defense Minister Amir Peretz countered the same day in a speech to soldiers on a base near Gaza that any long-term reoccupation of territory in Gaza was out of the question.

Meanwhile, Palestinians charge that the Israeli operations themselves have worsened the situation by heightening discontent, weakening the P.A.’s ability to impose its will. “The main problem in Gaza is the Israeli military operations. Israel is the main reason for the deterioration of the situation in Gaza,” said Tawfik Abu Khousa, spokesman for Fatah in Gaza. “There’s heavy damage on the Palestinian side. It affects our lives on every level, especially in terms of security and the economy. It’s a joke that Israel wants the Palestinians in Gaza to get their house in order. Israel isn’t working in that direction.”

Israeli leaders flatly rejected that view. “What we are doing now in the region is balanced and responsible,” Mofaz told the Forward. Mofaz voiced alarm at the apparent strengthening of Hamas at the expense of the more pragmatic Fatah, calling the current phase in Gaza a “critical” moment.

The onetime chief of staff, who headed the Defense Ministry during the 2005 Gaza disengagement, seconded Peretz’s opposition to a long-term reoccupation, particularly of the Philadelphi strip, which he said would endanger Israeli troops unnecessarily. “Any further decision must be considered very carefully,” he said.

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