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An Israeli Death and the Tangled Conflict Left Behind

RAMAT GAN, Israel — Four holes in the wooden door to his tiny apartment mark where shrapnel from a Hamas rocket penetrated the home of Gershon Franco, 56, and killed him. It was the early afternoon of May 15, a Saturday, the Sabbath in this bustling town just east of Tel Aviv.

Mr. Franco’s death has drawn little attention. He was a poor Israeli, a loner, had no close family, a neighbor, Ovitz Sasson, said. The victim’s apartment, a single room, measures about 60 square feet. His belongings are still piled inside. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, far from Gaza, when a brief war paid an unexpected visit.

It is the indiscriminate nature of Hamas rocket attacks, designed to create panic and havoc among civilians in random corners of Israel, closing the international airport during the latest 11-day conflict, that enrages many Israelis. What they see, as a Foreign Ministry statement put it Friday, is Hamas “firing from civilian locations inside Gaza, at Israeli civilians.”

“My mother moved to a hotel, she’s completely traumatized,” Mr. Sasson said. “How can they do this?”

Mr. Franco was one of 12 people killed in Israel; more than 230 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including 67 children.

Almost two weeks after the attack here, a pile of wood, twisted aluminum, broken glass and rubble lies near the rocket’s point of impact on a street now surrounded by damaged three-story apartment buildings. A discarded toilet sits in the debris. Workers busy themselves repairing apartments, hanging blinds, installing new windows in store fronts.

Most of the laborers are Palestinians. They have journeyed more than three hours from their homes in the occupied West Bank to fix damage caused by Palestinians in Gaza. They work for Israeli contractors. They replaster kitchens beneath Israeli flags that have been draped down the length of surrounding buildings since the attack.

One of the men identified himself as Nahed Abdel al-Baqr from Zeita, a village near Nablus. What did he think of his situation, repairing what Hamas wrought, for an Israeli boss, against the backdrop of Israeli flags?

“That’s life,” he said, with a slight smile. “Nothing changes.”

It’s life in the Holy Land, where the absurd always lurks just beneath the tragic, where peace can always be imagined but never implemented, and Jewish and Arab existences are at once conflictual and intertwined.

The lines on maps that politicians draw in an attempt to define or resolve the conflict are defied by the fluidity and harsh imperatives of economics. The explosions of war interrupt but do not put an end to this reality.

Tzahi Gavry, the Israeli contractor employing the Palestinians, said, “Look, what you see on TV are the hard-liners, but that’s not everything. Some of us also know how to live together. These guys are all OK, I’ve been working with them for years. They do work Israelis do not want to do.”

Mr. al-Baqr, 56, who later said he was anxious about revealing his identity, gets up every work day at 3 a.m., takes a bus, negotiates a checkpoint into Israel, and boards another bus to Ramat Gan. He works until about 3 p.m. His round-trip journey takes about seven hours.

He said he earns about $185 a day, less $20 for the daily journey and about $150 a month paid to a Palestinian fixer who secures his work permit and his smooth passage through checkpoints into Israel. That is still far more than he could earn in the West Bank. With this he supports a family of six children.

His views lie somewhere between pragmatic and resigned. Everyone talks of peace, he suggested, but a small dispute could be enough for another war to begin. Politicians on both sides forget the people they serve; they line their pockets. “We can get along,” he said. “But our governments can’t.”

Mr. Gavry said his mother had told him as a child that when he joined the Israel Defense Forces, he would not have to fight because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be over. “Now my son is 14 and when he serves, he may well see combat,” he said.

His thoughts took a somber turn. “We work together, joke together, eat together,” he said, pointing to the Palestinians. “But one day if they are called to defend Jerusalem, all the Muslims will come. In the end, they just don’t want us here.”

The rocket that killed Mr. Franco was one of more than 4,000 fired by Hamas from Gaza during the conflict. It might have fallen anywhere and killed anyone.

A feature of the repetitive short wars between Hamas and Israel is that Hamas targeting is indiscriminate, while Israel’s often appears disproportionate. Both indiscriminate and disproportionate harm to civilians can constitute war crimes under international law. The two sides, however, will never agree as to which do.

Mr. Sasson, a retired chef, lives across the road from the apartment Mr. Gavry was contracted to repair. The rocket shattered his windows. He is still in shock. “Everything just exploded,” he said.

From his balcony, Mr. Sasson, 51, can see Mr. Franco’s small room and the wooden door with four shrapnel holes in it. Mr. Franco, who suffered from various medical problems, had no fortified room for shelter.

“It was Shabbat,” Mr. Sasson said, the Sabbath, which Jews traditionally welcome with candles, wine and a braided loaf of challah. “The challah was on the table when the rocket hit. If I had known Mr. Franco was alone, I would have invited him in, and he would have been saved.”

Mr. Sasson was sobbing, in shock still, his eyes pleading for some consolation. “My father came here from Romania in 1950,” he said. “And now this.”

The wall being repaired in another of the damaged apartments had a sign on it, hanging askew: “Home sweet home.”

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