MIDDLE EAST BUREAU
GAZA CITY—It approaches at something greater than the speed of sound, approximately 1,152.57 kilometres per hour here at sea level. It is invisible, but that hardly matters as you are asleep, anyway.
Then, two teeth-rattling whumps course through your body at thousandth-of-a-second intervals, packing so colossal a wallop they simply defy description. Whump-whump. You, my friend, have just been carpet-boomed. Something in the neighbourhood of 139 decibels of wakey-wakey courtesy of your friendly, neighbourhood Israeli F-16 warplane.
As the sonic boom hits, you find yourself swimming on the mattress, arms akimbo, legs flailing. As your body begins to process the twin thunderclaps, you take some comfort in the fact that the walls are still in place and the room is in fact not on fire.
The air pressure seems different now. And your bones feel almost electrified, as if a portion of the double-sound wall somehow converted to live current in your joints.
You stick your head out the window just in case you were wrong. Maybe this was more than sonic — a real bomb, perhaps. But Gaza City looks the same. A few children can be heard crying from the adjacent buildings. Hardly surprising, given that half of the territory`s 1.4 million Palestinians are 15 or younger.
How to explain the oomph of a sonic boom in Toronto terms? Say that someone chops down the CN Tower and it lands beside your head. Say they chop down a second CN Tower and it lands on the other side a nanosecond later. And say that, at the very moment of impact, a cardiac surgical team shouts, `Charging to 120 — Clear!` and proceeds to defibrillate your torso.
You laugh at the alarm clock on the bedside table, and your earlier worries you might sleep through its ring. Not to worry. Another F-16 should be by in an hour or so. And another after that.
For journalists who were here last winter, when sonic booms first erupted over Gaza in the wee hours, their resumption this week comes with a sleepless sense of déja vu.
Then, as now, Israel Defence Forces characterized the boom-boom assault as purely coincidental.
`There is a wide range of aerial activity happening around the clock as part of Israel`s military operation to recover our kidnapped soldier,` an IDF official said yesterday on the customary condition of anonymity.
`The sonic booms, however, are simply a side effect of ongoing operations. The IDF is not using them specifically as a way to increase pressure on the Palestinians.`
That was not the case over Syria two days ago, the spokesman added. When Israeli Air Force planes buzzed President Bashar al-Assad, the boom-boom was intentional.
The sonic booms are probably the last of Gaza`s worries, now that the Israeli hostage drama has enlarged into a project of multiple missions. This is no longer just about getting Cpl. Gilad Shalit back from his Palestinian captors, who demanded in a statement today that Israel free 1,000 Arab prisoners held in its jails and end its offensive as a condition of his release. It is not even a question of stopping the flow of homemade Qassam rockets, a task that no previous Israeli incursion — and there have been some very big ones already — has managed.
Depending on who prevails within a reportedly quarrelling Israeli leadership, it may ultimately be a project of regime change. Writing yesterday in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Israeli analyst Alex Fishman said the working plan on Israel`s table involves `the arrest and physical liquidation of the Iz a Din al-Kassam operatives, the Murabitun and the Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. In other words, an end to the Hamas rule.`
Many analysts have remarked upon the internal dimensions of the standoff. Specifically, the overarching need for the two relative novices now in charge of Israel`s security — mercurial Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and dovish Defence Minister Amir Peretz — to demonstrate to their citizenry that even without the formidable Ariel Sharon dictating the lines of fire, the IDF remains in steady hands.
There is perhaps some irony in the fact that, so far, Israelis appear less than overwhelmed with the Olmert/Peretz flexing of IDF muscle. As of yesterday, barely 53 per cent of Israelis graded Olmert`s performance in the crisis as good, compared with 32 per cent for Peretz, according to a Dahaf Israeli opinion poll.
And with the IDF in freeze-frame yesterday, awaiting the final word on whether it is to proceed with the next thrust of ground invasion into Gaza, 53 per cent of Israelis favour negotiation, compared with 43 per cent who wish the tanks to roll, the survey found.
Israeli government sources indicated that no decisions are likely before tonight, after the end of the Jewish Sabbath. Be it the polls, international calls for restraint, or perhaps both, the army is now poised in pregnant pause awaiting the leadership`s call. A window of diplomacy remains, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak emerging as the principal agitator of a negotiated solution.
For boom-addled Gaza, one can only hope it is the pause that refreshes. They can really use the sleep.