The past week has shown the full potential of the tragedy and trauma surrounding the almost century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The relative calm characterizing the last several years was merely a façade blinding us to the tensions and problems lying at the core of the conflict, that have been left unaddressed.
As I’m writing this article, I’ve personally spent days and nights in and out of my apartment *stairwell because of the barrages of rockets that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have relentlessly launched into Israel. This is, however, nothing compared to the southern cities of Sderot and Ashkelon that have received the brunt of the more than 2,000 rockets aimed at Israel’s civilian centers. At the same time, my wife Hadas and I are unable to safely walk around outside at night in the area surrounding our home in Jaffa because of increasing levels of Jewish-Arab violence. I have never in my life been so overwhelmed with tears in my eyes multiple times a day when I think about the plight of my people here in Israel and innocent Palestinian lives that have been taken as a result of the current escalation.
After many requests to explain what is happening in Israel by someone who is living it firsthand, I felt it necessarily to write out my own experience and perspective of the unprecedented events taking place throughout the past week. This isn’t meant to cover the entire history of conflict between Jews and Arab Palestinians here, but instead, to try to explain and reflect upon what has unfolded until now in the eyes of a Jewish citizen in Israel.
Throughout the last month, Muslims have been observing Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, fasting daily from dawn until dusk. During this time, tensions are generally high, increasing the likelihood of clashes between Israeli security forces and thousands of Muslim worshipers from all over Israel and the West Bank who come and ascend to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
This year, the focal point of events began in Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Large protests including both Palestinians and Jews occurred there against the background of eight Arab families who face the threat of a court-ordered eviction from their homes, to be taken over by Jewish residents.
The eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem has generally occurred within the framework of the Absentees’ Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law of 1970. These laws allow for Jews to reclaim property in East Jerusalem that was transferred to Jordanian control following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
On the face of it, these laws may sound like a mechanism to bring justice to property owners who were forced to flee their homes as a result of war. However, the same does not apply to Palestinians who either voluntarily fled out of fear or who were also forcefully removed in 1948 from West Jerusalem.
Now, ultra-nationalist non-profit organizations such as Ateret Cohanim and Elad exploit these laws and target these properties in order to replace Arab inhabitants with Jewish families. This is part of an organized project, to increase the Jewish population in East Jerusalem at the expense of its Arab residents. As a result, over 100 families are at risk for losing their homes, the majority of whom reside in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
This kind of behavior is a gross example of an overly zealous Jewish nationalism that has been emerging here in Israel for several years now. One that, in my opinion, deviates from the core spirit of Zionism of pursuing collective freedom for a historically oppressed people. The Zionist movement was not formed based on ideas of Jewish superiority but as a solution to a centuries-old problem of antisemitism.
As a result, protests spread to Arab cities throughout Israel—Haifa, Jaffa, Lod, Umm al-Fahm and more. In Jaffa, you could hear chants saying, “First it’s Sheikh Jarrah, next it’s Jaffa.” In Lod, there’s a great loss of control and it’s now mostly ruled by Arab and Jewish mobs.
Many Jews had to flee their homes because of threat of lynching and their homes being set on fire by Arab rioters. Synagogues, cars and police cars were set fire and desecrated. At the same time, mobs of Jews, both local as well as from outside of the city including from settlements in Judea and Samaria, came to mixed towns on organized buses to protect Jews and to attack Arabs, Mosques and private property. This has been encouraged by ultra-nationalist politicians in the Knesset like Itamar Ben Gvir.
Unfortunately, violence erupting in mixed Jewish-Arab cities is the fruit of years of incitement by individuals that hold senior positions of power against the Israeli-Arab population. Thankfully, many Jewish religious and political leaders have condemned such acts and discourse. However, over a decade of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister has brought toxic discourse against the Arab minority population in Israel. Including extremists in his government like Itamar Ben Gvir has only made things worse, who promotes the transfer of Arab populations from Israel and calls for the rescinding of their citizenship.
For an alternative viewpoint on how some Israeli Arabs see Netanyahu, read:
- Arab Voters Praise Bibi for Bringing Peace
- Netanyahu Courts Arab Voters; Nazareth Mayor: We Support You!
In response, the violent group forcefully ruling the Gaza Strip who seeks Israel’s total destruction, Hamas, has bombarded Israel with over 2,000 rockets and missiles in just four days. Last Monday, I was at the Knesset in Jerusalem (Israel’s parliament) when an air raid siren went off. I was placed in a bomb shelter along with Israel’s members of parliament. My wife Hadas and I spent the following two nights in and out of the stairwell in our building joined by our neighbors after Hamas and the Islamic Jihad launched barrages of rockets at Tel Aviv. Israelis all over the south have spent day and night in bomb shelters. Close to 10 Israelis have been killed, among them women and children, both Arab and Jewish.
Every single rocket fired by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad is aimed at civilian population centers and not military targets. Every single one has the potential of killing innocent civilians. Yet, the world tends to blame Israel for having too much defensive capabilities while the Palestinians in Gaza have none. While senior leaders of Hamas have bomb shelters and spend most of their time during conflict in underground bunkers, their soldiers are launching rockets and storing weapons in population centers while non-combatant Palestinians are left with no bomb shelter and nothing and no one to protect them.
In response, Israel has bombarded the condensed Gaza Strip using fighter jets, aiming at Hamas and Jihad military targets. This includes several headquarters of Hamas’s military wing, police stations, banks and a deep underground Hamas facility. The Israeli Air Force has also implemented targeted assassinations against senior Hamas and Jihad commanders. Aside from these targets, Israel has also leveled tall civilian buildings after calling the residents telling them to evacuate before the strike is carried out. As a result, over 100 non-combatant Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes, among them 27 children (last report I read).
What is taking place right now in Israel-Palestine is a tragedy. Unfortunately, it’s been years in the making and the short-sighted vision of Israel’s government has kept it from addressing the root of many inter-ethnic problems between Jews and Arabs under the surface. At the same time, Israel is the only country in the entire world whose mere right to exist and defend itself is denied both at home (Palestinian factions) and abroad. Both Israeli and Palestinian societies live with trauma from violence from the other side.
One of the key words I’ve heard come up again and again in the media is “power.” The power discrepancy between Israel and the Palestinians is real and its important. The military might of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank is nothing compared to Israel’s, which is one of the most powerful armies in the world.
However, power does not necessarily determine victory in war; it does not define who is right and wrong; and does not decide who feels pain and how much of it is felt.
We can’t ignore the pain of others and simply arbitrarily decide who is right and who is wrong. We must express empathy with and mourning for the children of Gaza who grow up traumatized by Israeli air raids and years of war with hardly any hope in sight—no matter whose fault that is. At the same time, this should not cancel our desire to stand in defense of the families in Ashkelon and Sderot who’s children are also from birth all too familiar with the trauma of being bombarded with a barrage of rockets and missiles every few months.
My feeling is that pursuing justice in this world tends to lean towards identifying and punishing a single perpetrator—one who must be right and another who must be wrong.
Many pundits and writers around the world seem to be trying to do this very thing—vilify and demonize one side (both Israel and the Palestinians), while glorifying the other as the one who is on the “right side of history,” where truth and justice are found. This just fans the flames of conflict and distances the kind of thinking that is directed towards finding solutions.
In the meantime, all of the dwellers of Zion are mourning, Jews and Arabs alike.
Jewish-Arab partnership is in drastic need in these perilous times. The irony is that even though Jews and Arab Palestinians are engulfed in protracted conflict, there are many pockets of co-existence, mutual understanding and respect as well as partnership. We need to fight for that, denounce violence against both communities, and actively seek out the spaces where both Jews and Arabs can join hands and create a more prosperous and safer future for Israel and the Palestinians.
(*For buildings without bomb shelters, the stairwell offers relatively good protection.)