ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit spent yet another birthday in captivity this week. This makes five so far. His family and supporters marked the occasion with events across the Jewish state.
Shalit is being held in Gaza after being grabbed by Hamas operatives in a cross border raid in 2006. For most Israelis, whose children must serve in the Israeli military, his fate is a symbol of everything they think is wrong with Gaza.
In the last part of our series on the Gaza Strip, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro explores how Israelis view the coastal enclave.
Unidentified People: (Chanting in foreign language).
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a muggy evening in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, near the border with Gaza. Young men and women chant Gilad's name before the start of a concert in his honor. The Shalit family is here with their supporters to remind people of Gilad's long captivity.
(Soundbite of music)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gilad was 19 when he was taken, a young soldier who was doing his compulsory service. His story has struck a chord among Israelis because, unlike the U.S. military, Israel's army is one of conscription. Israelis feel it could have been anyone's son snatched that early morning.
Mr. NOAM SHALIT: In Israel, it's a subject that concerns very much the people of Israel.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Noam Shalit is a slight, soft-spoken man. His son's plight has forced him unwillingly into the spotlight here. Media appearances and rallies like this one seem to have made him more retiring. He seems like a man deflated.
Mr. SHALIT: We demand the immediate release of our son without any delay, without any hesitations.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A parent's pain, though, has not yet affected negotiations over his release.
Some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are the price tag that has been set by Hamas, the militant group which rules the Gaza Strip. Most are agreed on, but a few dozen names have become a seemingly intractable point of contention in the sporadic, indirect talks involving German and Egyptian mediators.
Most Israelis view Gaza as hostile territory ruled by a terrorist group that is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.
In response to Gilad's capture, Israel tightly restricted the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza. That blockade has just been eased. But in a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute at Tel Aviv University, a full 78 percent of Israeli Jews said that they supported the sanctions, despite international condemnation of the measures.
On the subject of Gaza, there is seemingly a total disconnect between Israel and the international community.
Mr. DANNY AYALON (Deputy Foreign Minister, Israel): Well, I'm not happy, and I'm not sanguine and certainly not complacent about Israel's standing in the world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Danny Ayalon is Israel's deputy foreign minister. He's been having to deal with the fallout of several recent Gaza-related events. At the end of 2008, Israel launched a war in Gaza in response to rocket fire on Israeli communities.
Palestinians say some 1,400 Gazans were killed, mostly civilians. Israel puts the death toll at about 1,200 and says most were militants. Thirteen Israelis also died.
The death toll and destruction in Gaza prompted an international inquiry, which placed most of the blame on Israel but said both sides committed war crimes.
More recently, Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists on board a Turkish ship trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israel says the protesters provoked the violence.
Mr. AYALON: For a long time, I think there was a lot of hypocrisy and cynicism. We fight here a real - an uphill battle because there are 22 Arab League countries which promote the Palestinian position and actually condemn Israel and attack Israel politically. So there is here a quantity, a critical mass which we have to work against.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israelis say to understand why Israel does what it does in Gaza, you have to travel to communities that ring the strip.
Ms. YANINA BARNEA: And I have a chicken farm.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yanina Barnea is in her late 30s with long, wavy brown hair streaked with gray. She has lived in Kibbutz Nahal Oz since childhood. She drives us to the outskirts and parks next to a large watchtower.
Ms. BARNEA: Now this is the Gaza Strip, okay? Very close.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She points past the fence that encircles her kibbutz to a wall about a half-mile in the distance.
In the three years before the last Gaza war, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired over 6,000 rockets and 1,500 mortars into Israel. Nineteen Israelis were killed, including a man that Yanina knew.
Ms. BARNEA: And ever since, I think we live in constant anxiety, I would say. You have to be alert all the time. And you come to know how to live with it, you know, especially if you have kids.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Since the Gaza war, the border has been relatively quiet. Hamas says it is observing a cease-fire, but there are still sporadic attacks. The Israeli military maintains soldiers in this kibbutz and at other border communities.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yanina asks the soldier manning the watchtower if things are calm.
Ms. BARNEA: He said it's quiet today.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But that doesn't mean there isn't a state of hyper-vigilance.
The Israeli Defense Forces took NPR on a tour of the border. Lieutenant Yoni Alon deals with visual intelligence.
Lieutenant YONI ALON (Israeli Defense Forces): Well, you know, the Gaza Strip area is probably the most-watched area in the world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We were taken into one of their observation posts, but we weren't allowed to record. In front of a bank of screens sit young, exclusively female soldiers. Apparently, women are better at this kind of work.
Each monitors a different section of the border area. She is not allowed to move her eyes from the screens in front of her. If there is suspicious activity, she calls her superior. If the Palestinians are deemed to be a threat, Israel responds with remote-controlled machine guns mounted on the wall that encircles Gaza.
Lt. ALON: There are so many surveillance cameras and radar systems and so many technological tools that we use to watch this place. The threat is obviously not something that you can ignore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lieutenant Alon says almost every day, there is an incident, even if it doesn't get reported.
Lt. ALON: You cannot say it's a quiet border. Something is always happening here.
Ms. BARNEA: (Unintelligible).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at Nahal Oz, Yanina Barnea says most people here supported Israel's war in Gaza because the way they lived before was unbearable.
She says the result of the continuous rocket fire has meant that this traditionally left-wing kibbutz has moved politically to the right. Yanina says when she looks across the barriers that separate her and the Palestinians in Gaza, she doesn't wish them ill.
Ms. BARNEA: I understand that there is a whole bunch of people there that suffer the same that we do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But she feels safer because of the walls that divide them and the men with guns who protect her. Despite her fears, she says she will bring up her two-and-a-half-year-old child in this community, with its leafy open spaces and communal pool.
Ms. BARNEA: It's my home, and I can't bring myself to leave it because of that. It's not a reason for me. It's all more of a reason to stay.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, she says she knows that this quiet is only temporary.
After we left the area of Nahal Oz, a mortar landed near the kibbutz. No one was hurt that day.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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