During my research methods class last Wednesday evening, we received news that Hamas’s military leader, Ahmed Jabari, had been assassinated by an Israeli air strike. As the conflict between Gaza militants and Israel escalated over the next day, my friends and I decided to move ahead with our weekend plans to go to Jerusalem. We reassured ourselves that we would be safe in the center of the country and reminded ourselves that, as all Israelis and Palestinians know, we couldn’t just stop living because of a remote threat.
After Friday afternoon prayers ended in Jerusalem’s Old City, I joined a huge mass of people moving out of Damascus Gate into East Jerusalem to see what kind of demonstration against Israeli action in Gaza might ensue.
I thought some kind of demonstration was in the works because riot police had been loitering outside the Old City for several hours. Maybe 20 people were chanting, but most people – myself included – were just trying to move away from the demonstrators. For a few minutes, Palestinians chanted, an IDF surveillance helicopter circled overhead, and Israeli riot police and members of the press observed from a distance.
I have no idea how the violence started. All it takes is one person to feel physically threatened and shove someone else, and things begin to escalate. There’s no way I can accurately interpret the actions of either side, so I’ll just stick to what I witnessed as objectively as I can. Young, unarmed Palestinian men trying to run away from the demonstration were apprehended by police officers in full riot gear (helmets, body armor, batons, guns, sound grenades), usually three or four officers to a protester.
Many of the Palestinian women present got close to these scuffles to yell at the officers, and when they were knocked down, the crowd got angrier. At one point, a girl a few feet away from me was elbowed in the face by a police officer wrestling with a protester; later, I saw an elderly Palestinian couple get knocked down by a crowd swarming toward a young man being arrested.
I don’t think the behavior I observed was significantly different from riot police conduct anywhere else in the world, but I wonder about what contributed to the violence. What would have happened if the riot police officer hadn’t been close enough to the crowd to get shoved – why couldn’t he watch from a distance? What makes a teenage boy so blindly mad that he charges three or four fully armed soldiers who weren’t directly provoking him? Why are nearly one hundred Israeli officers in riot gear so paranoid about twenty shouting Palestinians?
We returned to the Old City a couple hours later to see the Shabbat celebrations begin at the Western Wall. A few minutes after sundown, we heard Jerusalem’s first air raid sirens since 1970, followed by several explosions in the distance. (Rumor has it that I shouted some expletives at that point, but I can’t imagine myself ever using foul language). My friends and I held hands and ran with the crowd of panicked tourists and worshippers to the closest form of shelter, which was a small cave on the opposite side of the plaza from the Western Wall.
We inadvertently picked the cave that was filled with hysterical teenage girls, but I can’t say I was more composed than any of them. I clung to my friends and thought about what my mom would say if she could see me now, just a few hours after I had promised her there was no way a rocket could reach Jerusalem. I thought about how completely vulnerable I was, and how the true terror came from having no clue what was going on. Were there more rockets coming? Had they been intercepted by Israel’s defense system? Had they caused any casualties? Were we in the right kind of shelter?
After a few minutes, everyone in our cave started to dash across the plaza to a more fortified tunnel, and we followed. We crowded together in the tunnel waiting for information – at this point we learned that a rocket had landed near the Gush Etzion settlement in the West Bank, but there were no casualties. Totally shaken, we decided to head for Bethlehem, which seemed as safe as anywhere else we could get to on Shabbat after Israeli transportation shuts down.
Our friends in Bethlehem told us that lots of young men were rushing to the Separation Wall to protest the Israeli operation in Gaza. They were throwing rocks, and the IDF soldiers were responding with tear gas and rubber bullets. Several times during the two days in Bethlehem, we heard Palestinian ambulances rushing injured protesters to hospitals. I, however, had had enough of protests for a few days and spent my time in Bethlehem catching up with some dear friends. If you’re reading this, please take a bit of time from reading news of Gaza and south Israel to learn about protests in the West Bank. Hundreds have been arrested (including this unconscious young man in Nabi Saleh, who was simultaneously denied medical attention), and many Palestinians have been injured.
(Marian, Kate, Emma and I had quite the bonding experience this weekend).
I am now completely out of rocket distance in Haifa, but still find myself struggling to process my thoughts about this weekend (and now you, reader, have the great joy of watching me try and do it!).
One thing I know is that life is hard in Gaza. From 2007 until 2010, Gaza was under such a strict blockade that the import of a ridiculous array of goods was forbidden. It’s true that Israel eased the blockade in 2010, but this has done little to change the very low quality of life in Gaza. Schools are overcrowded, freedom of movement is severely limited, unemployment is high, no building materials have been allowed in since Operation Cast Lead decimated infrastructure in 2009, and the process of getting permission to leave Gaza for medical treatment continues to be inefficient and deadly. Israeli civilians and soldiers have the security of advanced military technology – a defense shield that stops nearly all missiles headed for populated areas and fortified shelters stocked with supplies in or near most homes – while Gazan civilians have none of these luxuries. They are undeniably more vulnerable than their Israeli counterparts. It’s hard to see how these conditions that are so closely linked to Israeli policies foster anything but animosity for Israel.
I wouldn’t have written this two months ago, but I do think that Israel has a dilemma here – on a different scale from the difficulties Gazans face just trying to live every day, but a dilemma nonetheless. The Israeli government has made some peaceful overtures toward Gaza: it withdrew settlers in 2006, and eased its blockade in 2010. As many Israelis see it, these concessions have been met with more and more rockets being launched into southern Israel. I think many Israelis feel exasperated – they hate seeing Israel dragged through the mud in the international media, but they don’t know another way for the Israeli government to stop the rockets. My Israeli friends aren’t warmongers, and they’re legitimately scared for their friends and family who have been called to active duty near the Gaza border.
The conversations I’ve had about these issues since returning to Haifa have been emotional, to say the least. Often, talking about life in Gaza is incorrectly interpreted as a denial that Israel has a right to self-defense. Friends whose political beliefs I respect are blindly re-posting political cartoons that are racist, de-humanizing oversimplifications of a tragic and deeply complex issue. It is appallingly stupid to suggest that Jews in Kiryat Malachi died because they are Zionist occupiers, or that the four children of the al Dalou family died because their parents didn’t love them enough to move them away from Hamas militants.
Discussing possible alternatives to Jabari’s assassination or the military operation is immediately written off as anti-Israel. I don’t know the answers – nobody does – but for the life of me, I can’t see how this operation in Gaza is a sustainable form of self-defense for Israel. Hamas will regroup after this bombardment, it will gain more support from civilians in Gaza and from international actors, and it will strike Israel again. Laying the framework for future attacks isn’t self-defense, and it endangers civilians in Israel and in Gaza. I don’t believe all nonviolent options for peace are exhausted, and I don’t accept that the killing of Hamas operatives is ever so imperative that targeting errors resulting in the death of innocent civilians should be tolerated.
Yours in peace/salaam/shalom,
PS. I have some really smart friends here, and you should check out their blogs for other takes on what happened this weekend and some cool ideas in general: Lauren and Aaron were both in Tel Aviv/Jaffa; Emma was with me.