I spent Thursday afternoon in Ashkelon, Israel, just a few kilometers from the border with Gaza. It’s a city that has lived under the threat of rocket attacks for many years. That day, by 4 p.m. the streets were empty. The mall was closed, and the few people I did see were glued to a newspaper, television or smart-phone. Not far away, people were killing one another and dying. People were running for cover, and many weren’t finding it.
During my minibus ride back home to South Tel Aviv, I heard the city’s first air raid siren in over 20 years. Dusk fell, and the highway was much emptier than it ought to have been at that hour. Within five minutes of that heart-wrenching noise my fellow passengers were yelling at one another. “All Arabs are the enemy, because they are all Hamas,” one of them cried.
The educator in me took over. I tried to suggest to the others that what they were saying was racist, and as I did I wondered whether they would kick me out of the vehicle right there on the highway or if they would at least let me off at a junction.
In the end, they dismissed the charge of racism based on the driver’s rationalization that “they’re the enemy, so it can’t be racist.” They let me stay on board until my stop.
These kinds of debates are taking place all over Israel and Palestine, not to mention on my Facebook feed.
Soon, I was in central Tel Aviv, where hundreds of locals and activists were coming together for the second peace rally of the night. There was a counter-protest, too, with about a quarter as many people. It meant a lot to me to know that there were others who, like me, saw that more fighting is not the way to end this war. There must be real equality — in political rights, in the value of life. This war won’t end, not completely, until the occupation and the siege are ended. It won’t end until the right to self-determination is a given for all the inhabitants of this land.
Standing up for peace in a time of war is not an easy thing; the jingoistic memes that I see floating around on the Internet make this loud and clear. Hate and dehumanization are the norm. The images have maps with false histories embedded in them, or claims that photos of dead Palestinian children and bombed-out lots are not really photos from this campaign. This is all beside the point, and it only serves to make “the conversation” regress.
There is a real conflict happening here, but it certainly didn’t start last week, and it isn’t even close to an even match. The current escalation of violence exists within the context of occupation, not simply self-defense. Israel has vastly superior weapons and controls the majority of Gaza’s borders. Palestinians don’t have the sovereignty necessary to ensure their civil and human rights.
I am not suggesting that this or anything else makes shooting at, hiding behind, injuring or killing civilians acceptable. I don’t think anything could. It’s true that living under rocket fire is terrifying, and so is the daily experience of occupation and the denial of basic rights that Palestinians have endured for decades. Both can be deadly, too.
Despite being far from the worst of the fighting, the air raid sirens are now to be expected in Tel Aviv. These sirens are not something that I am used to, and each time I crouch to take cover I remind myself not to let myself get too used to this situation. I don’t want war to become normal for me, and I want it to stop being normal for others.
The likely outcome of this fighting is that things will return to some version of the precarious situation of before, with southern Israelis fearing rockets and Palestinians in Gaza living under siege, or worse. The IDF claims that the goals for Operation Pillar of Defense are to destroy the military capacity of Hamas and to end the rocket attacks. Even if it succeeds in doing these things in the short term, however, in the long term no one will be safer.
The rockets coming from Gaza and the bombs coming from Israel are being guided by people with power, but no vision. These are political leaders who are only thinking about security in the next few months or years, at best. At worst, they are only maintaining their own power by cultivating an environment of fear.
A friend of mine recently reminded me, “One can only make peace with one’s enemy.” It’s a simple truth. We need action toward justice and peace. We need leaders who care more about the future than the past and who can see that the only way out of this violence in the long term is to focus on the core issues. We need leaders who are bold enough to talk about the Palestinian right of return and about Jerusalem, water and borders. We need to support those who refuse to fight. We need to educate ourselves to think critically. All of us have the right to self-defense, but, as Noam Sheizaf of +972 Magazine put it, everyone also “has the right to freedom, dignity and justice.”
The mood in Ashkelon is full of fear, anger and uncertainty, and for the first time in a while that mood made its way to Tel Aviv last week. I can’t even imagine what the mood is like in Gaza. Still, each of us has power in this. Some of us have the power of Internet memes, while some have money, and others have their fingers on triggers, and still others represent millions in political bodies.
Hate runs deep around here, but the real enemy is the refusal to recognize the right of all people to self-determination. An assault against that enemy could end this war at last.
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