As Israelis and Palestinians blame each other for the plight of the Gazan people, we can only look on with despair at this never-ending cycle of violence.
A message in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, July 2014.
I am sitting here in the safety of my Jerusalem apartment looking at videos of what is happening in Gaza….and I feel so far removed from it. Everyone is going about their daily routine here- I have coffee and the hairdresser planned for later. What do the people of Gaza have planned for later? I am receiving phone calls and messages from friends and family back home worrying if I am safe, and it feels immoral to tell them that I am- knowing that the Iron Dome is protecting me, knowing that I owe my security to the IDF who are carrying out this “operation”. I put these words in quotation marks because I feel uncomfortable using them, yet being here makes me understand, though not agree with, the reasons behind them. It is a morally unsettling situation to be in. I am in a conflict zone without the consequences, in the strangest kind of “war” you can imagine…..
I had my first experience running to a bomb shelter two weeks ago. To say I was scared would be an understatement. I was outside, on the street in the dark, when the sirens went off. I had never heard them before. I just saw people around me start to run. At first I didn’t know whether to turn right or left. As it happens, I had gone out to find out if next door had a bomb shelter, as our one was locked. (Yes, locked!). Before I had time to check next door, the sirens were blaring. When I managed to unfreeze myself, I ran back the way I came- it was not the time for exploring. The residents of my building all congregated in the stairwell as far down as we could go- right up to the locked bomb shelter door. The Israelis were fairly calm about it and told us not to worry, that it was unfortunate we had to be here at this time but that we would be safe down here. It was also the evening my sister was flying into Tel Aviv- whilst a barrage of rockets was heading towards the airport… I could not rest until she made it safely here.
However, since then, life has been relatively calm. The siren has sounded only twice more in Jerusalem. Each time we heard the “boom” of the Iron Dome intercepting the rockets. None have fallen in populated areas. We feel relatively safe given the situation. However, everyone agrees that no country can accept to have rockets fired on it every day (there have been over 1637 rockets fired at Israel since the beginning of the “operation”, the south of Israel taking most of the hits). Yet, is this the way to handle the situation? Whose fault is it? Who started it?
The blame game bears no productive fruit here. Israel blames Hamas unequivocally for the escalation in tension due to rocket fire, and holds them responsible for any civilian deaths, claiming that civilians are being used as human shields. Israel has dropped leaflets over civilian areas urging people to leave their homes, yet Hamas tells them not to leave. However, has Israel asked itself where these people should go, even if they could slip out from the grips of Hamas? Nowhere is safe. Homes are considered “command and control centres”, and even UNRWA schools are “ammunition storage places” (rockets having been found this week at a UN-run school). Where can they go that would not be a military target? Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world- about 1.6 million people live in 146 square miles. The innocent people of Gaza are as much victims of Hamas, who claim to protect them, as Israelis are under rocket fire. In fact, even more so, as they have no sirens, Iron Dome or bomb shelters. Knowing this, is it still morally acceptable for Israel to bomb a civilian population?
On the other side, Palestinians blame Israelis for the breakdown of the ceasefire. Following the kidnapping of the three young Israelis on their way home from school, Israel arrested over 500 Hamas members as well as killing over a dozen Palestinians in the West Bank during clashes, which is what led to Hamas in the Gaza Strip renewing rocket attacks. Instead of just arresting those they suspected of being directly involved in the kidnapping, Israel used the situation to crack down on Hamas in the West Bank, re-arresting many they had released under the Shalit deal, and many believe that Israel was intentionally trying to break the newly formed Palestinian Unity Government formed by Fatah and Hamas barely a month ago. Few people I have spoken to here believe that Hamas was responsible for the kidnapping- it would not have been in their interest- though the perpetrators may have been Hamas members. Many Palestinians even doubt that the boys were even kidnapped, seeing it as an Israeli plot to frame Hamas and serve as an excuse for a brutal crackdown. But this is neither here nor there- the reality is that each side blames the other for the breakdown of the cease-fire, and each legitimises its violence by that of the other.
Meanwhile a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Gaza. 508 people are reported to have died and over 3150 are injured so far, according to Palestinian news agency Ma’an and Israeli news agency Haaretz. A ground operation currently underway, which the Israeli military say is aimed at destroying “terror tunnels” used by Hamas militants to infiltrate into Israeli territory, looks likely to be expanded. There have been several attempts by Hamas to infiltrate Southern Israel- yesterday 13 militants used one of these tunnels only to be intercepted by an IDF patrol. A few days ago Hamas militants tried to swim across to Kibbutz Zikim. Each of these actions only gives Israel’s blockade of Gaza by land, sea and air more legitimacy. However, has Israel asked itself why these people hate so much? Why Hamas exists? Why Hamas was supported and elected democratically by the people of Gaza? It appears that in conducting Operation Protective Edge, Israel is not asking the right questions- or rather, it is coming to the wrong conclusions. It wants to stop the rocket fire and use of “terror tunnels”- so it bombs. However, when the bombs stop, what will happen? Hamas will rebuild. And in a year or two, the same process will begin again. What is missing from the entire equation is a “stepping into the other’s shoes”. Why does Hamas want to fight? Might it be because they can only fish up to six nautical miles out at sea (when the Oslo accords stipulated twenty)? Might it be because 80% of Gazans are dependent on food aid? Might it be because 90% of water from the Gazan aquifier is unsafe for human consumption? Might it be because of the restriction of movement of goods and people? The vast majority of Israelis will react to these questions by immediately blaming Hamas for the plight of the people of Gaza, and while this is a legitimate point (as is blaming the blockade, we could go round in circles), continuing the exchange of blame is not getting us anywhere. What is needed is a desire to change these conditions, to make life better, simply because the people are tired of war. Unfortunately, I do not see this happening any time soon. Israel is too well protected to really feel the impact of this “war”; whilst the people in the south of Israel are living with the fear of having to run to a bomb shelter within fifteen seconds, they have not witnessed the casualties the Gazans have. 20 Israelis to 508 Gazans. The figures convey the suffering, more words are not needed. A response is needed to attacks and rocket fire to be sure, but this is not the right one. It is only a short term solution to the manifestation of the problem, rather than dealing with the roots of the conflict itself. A response is also needed to the blockade of Gaza, but Hamas has chosen one which will hurt even more of its people. When will both sides wake up?