The Winter of the Gaza-Sderot Discontent

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War in Gaza

Gazans pick up the pieces after buildings are demolished in Gaza City. Credit: Creative Commons/Al Jazeera English

The temperatures rose sharply in the Gaza-Sderot region during July and August. But it wasn’t the heat that made our lives unbearable; it was the third war that tore through our area in less than six years. It was the lethal ping pong of over 5000 Israeli bombings in Gaza and over 4000 rocket attacks on Israeli communities that killed nearly 2200 Gazans, and wounded over 10,000 and that took the lives of 70 Israelis and wounded 875. In addition to the deaths and injuries, ‘Protective Edge’ – or what I termed Unprotected Abyss – forced half a million Palestinians in Gaza from their homes during the war (many still have no homes to return to), and led to the two-month escape of nearly 8000 Israelis – mostly young families – all desperate to find shelter from the bombs, rockets, mortar shells and bullets.
In the south, we knew that after Prime Minister Netanyahu declared the Hamas responsible for the kidnap and murder in mid-June of the three boys – Naftali, Gilad and Eyal – Israelis lucky enough to have ‘safe rooms’ or friends and relatives in the north, would soon be running in their direction. Even though the intelligence branch of the army knew that the terrorists came from Hebron, the air force was sent to punish Gaza. This is the script we know by heart: we go in and bomb, they respond with rockets.
It was not satisfying to be in the know then, nor is it comforting to be in the know now.
We know how devastating that war was to the souls and to the peoples of the region. We know that the people before the war are not the same people after the war. Even though it is difficult to believe, given our frightening past experiences, we are more depressed, more fearful, more distrusting of our neighbors and of what the future holds. We know that the destruction of the last war did nothing to stave off the possibility of yet another war, but rather succeeded in creating more enemies, since our leaders continue to have one mantra: Israelis and Gazans are destined to remain hated enemies. By proposing laws that eat away at our already too-fragile democracy, by keeping the blockade on Gaza in place, and by constantly delegitimizing the right of the Palestinians to live normal lives, the Israeli leadership continues to endanger not only Palestinians but Israelis as well. We know that no negotiations, no new thinking, and no desire to bring neither solace nor sustainability to war-weary Israelis and Palestinians means only one thing – a fourth war that will be worse than the three that came before.
We in the south have learned that periods of ‘quiet’ are only temporary. For years, nothing has changed. Well, actually, that is not quite true – plenty has changed, for the worse. When leaders refuse to use their power to end the Occupation and end the conflict, life gets worse. Furthermore, Unprotected Abyss, and the subsequent verbal attacks on the Palestinian leadership and the physical attacks on Palestinian citizens – in the West Bank, Jerusalem and in Gaza – unleashed widespread hatred. No one is safe in such an environment. Not children in a joint Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem and not children in the Gaza-Sderot region.
However, even though many Israeli politicians have succeeded in convincing most Israelis that it is our destiny to hate our Palestinian neighbors, some of us refuse to believe this ‘given.’ I belong to one such grassroots organization, Other Voice, a group that is committed to creating another reality that can break the cycle of fear, hatred and violence.
Our members all live and work in the area close to the Gaza border. We keep in contact with friends in Gaza via phone, e-mail, Facebook and Skype. We kept in touch during the war and we continue to do so now. We share stories about our families and our lives. We heard what life was like during the summer nightmare and how they are trying desperately to once again, rebuild their lives, while ‘common sense’ tells them that such acts are futile, since life on the ground remains the same.
On rare occasions, when a friend from Gaza manages to secure a permit to enter Israel (for example, to go for needed hospital treatment), we meet face to face. We are able to look into one another’s eyes, and to give one another a hug. We have the extraordinary opportunity to eat lunch together at the café at the Yad Mordechai junction. We become ‘normal’ neighbors, even if only for one hour.
On our side, we continue to support one another, and to bring in new members from communities in what-could-be the beautiful Negev, if only our area would no longer be a war zone. We remain committed to convincing our leaders that enough is enough. Over the last few months, we have protested outside the Prime Minister’s home, spoken at demonstrations, strategized with other peace organizations, and sent members to Europe to meet with politicians in the EU so that they can learn that not all voices from the Gaza-Sderot region are voices of war. We have a simple message: We cannot take another war. We refuse to continue to live in a region where human life is so belittled, where our leaders expect us, again and again, to sacrifice our lives in the name of national security that has only made our lives impossibly insecure.
Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in convincing enough Israelis to join us in a non-violent path out of this madness. If in the past we were usually perceived as being naïve, over time we have increasingly been seen as traitors by many, for not demanding that Gaza be leveled to the ground.
The three wars of the last six years have proven unequivocally that most of Israel is now in rocket range. The manifest hatred and the hate crimes that have erupted over the last six months has proven that it is wise for all of us in the country to have an escape plan, since our leaders have offered no plan for life. While we Israelis are able to plan ahead, at least to some extent, our Gazan neighbors do not have this luxury; they have nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. They continue to be locked up in their tiny piece of land, terrorized by the Hamas dictatorship, blockaded by Israel, occasionally attacked by the Israeli air force or army, locked out of Egypt, and forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the West Bank and in most of the world.
It is difficult to be happy with life on the Israeli side of the border. Our leaders continue to put us in harm’s way, while spinning a story that we are protected by the Iron Domes and that by “continuing to be strong”, we will prevail. We are supposed to be grateful and feel secure, and thank our ‘leaders’ for wreaking havoc on the civilian population in Gaza. We are supposed to be thankful that we have a strong army and police force that can keep the Palestinians under our control, with no hope for a decent life.
Psycho-social research on the long-term effects of inter-group conflict has shown that by keeping people separated from one another, reinforcing distrust of the enemy, and repeating negative stereotypes of people that are not “one of us”, short-term conflicts become long-term intractable ones. Furthermore, when societies are caught up in such perceptions, they only see themselves as victims, losing the ability to imagine a future of peace with the monstrous ‘other.’ We become convinced that our ‘enemy’ is sub-human and that this ‘reality’ is our fate.
Life along the Gaza-Sderot border, and now throughout Israel, is a living example of these research findings.
In the midst of the terrible war this summer, I wrote an article in which I cited Ecclesiastes (1: 9-11): What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Now that we are approaching Hanukkah, it is time to remember that we can overthrow the darkness that we have created, and bring about the light of justice, freedom, dignity and life. In our region, innocent Israelis and Palestinians have been brutally harmed by rounds of endless fear and revenge. Every terror attack, every hate crime and every military action ultimately harms every one of us. We in Other Voice say that it is time for Israelis and Palestinians to stand together, to sweep away the darkness, and spread the light that lies deep within our souls.
Julia Chaitin is the AICE visiting Israeli professor at the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas in Austin.