Burns: Problems outnumber solutions


Published: Aug. 4, 2014

Burns: Problems outnumber solutions

Column by Bobby Burns

Benjamin Saidel and I had been talking about rocket attacks from Gaza and the state of Israel for about 30 minutes when an explosion boomed.

The sound startled both of us, him in a hostel in Israel and me in a conference room in Greenville. We were speaking via Skype.

Saidel recovered quickly. It’s not the first explosion he has heard. He realized this one actually was a cannon shot to alert people observing Ramadan that the day’s fast had ended. Still, he said he usually jumps.

We shared a quick sense of relief — and a sense of what life is like in the Mideast, where the East Carolina University professor spends time during the summer studying tribal behaviors for an ongoing archeological-anthropological survey.

Saidel, 53, a Harvard-trained anthropologist, arrived in Israel on June 25 to continue research on the interactions of nomadic Bedouin and more agrarian tribes in the Negev desert from the 17th to 20th centuries. It was the latest of many visits since traveling there as a boy with his father in 1970.

This time, he was based in Ruhama, not far from the Gaza Strip. He wasn’t there long before Hamas militants began firing rockets into Israel. Air-raid sirens and a smartphone app alerted him and other residents to incoming attacks so they could seek refuge in bomb shelters.

Saidel said more people are killed by a weekend of street violence in Chicago than killed in Israel by Hamas rockets. The attacks do more to terrorize people than hurt them, he said.

I spoke with Saidel on July 25. By then, Israel’s military had begun the offensive that has since killed more than 1,700 Palestinians in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday asked world leaders to stand with them as soldiers destroy a network of tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle weapons and carry out attacks.

No one is thrilled about the offensive, Saidel said. The Manchester, N.H., native who has lived with his family in Greenville since 2005 places the blame squarely on Hamas.

The group is bent on the destruction of Israel when it should be promoting the health and welfare of its people, he said. Their rockets can reach 70 percent of Israel. The tunnels are strictly for terrorist purposes.

“It makes daily life very difficult for many parts of the country. You can be sitting down to eat and, all of a sudden, sirens go off,” he said.

Saidel said restrictions that make life difficult for Palestinians in Gaza could be eased significantly if different leadership took a peaceful approach to governing the area. He pointed to relative peace and economic growth in the West Bank, which was ceded to Palestinians along with Gaza in 2005 but has more moderate leadership.

The radical policies in Gaza have even cut off the people there from one-time allies in Egypt who fear free travel and trade across their border would strengthen opponents of the Egyptian government, Saidel said.

Egypt wants to prevent the type of violence taking place in Syria and Iraq, Saidel said. He is not optimistic about what the future holds for the region.

Hamas places weapons caches near schools and hospitals against the wishes of residents who fear the locations will be targeted, Saidel said. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, is waging war to the north like “homicidal maniacs on the loose,” Saidel said.

Volatility is on the rise, he said.

“Human life is cheap here, and the way governments interact with their populations is reflective of that,” Saidel said.

He said it might be time for the United States and other nations to stop “selling democracy” in the region and let events take their natural course. Crafting a solution with the current geography is a problem, he said.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think there will be a solution, whether it’s with the Israelis and the Palestinians, whether it’s what’s going to happen in Iraq with ISIS. … I mean what’s Syria going to look like … is it even going to be Syria in 10 years?”

Academics like Saidel likely will have to go elsewhere while factions in the Middle East work or fight through their differences, he said. Saidel understands that is no consolation for permanent residents.

“For the people who live her full time, they have decisions,” he said. “They are not passive people.”

Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329-9572.