by Annika Pinch
The day I arrived in Jerusalem, a 16 year old Palestinian, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, was found dead in a Jerusalem Forest. This killing, along with the killing of three Israeli teenagers a few days before, sparked what the Israeli government called, “Operation Protective Edge”, a violent escalation between Hamas and Israel. The killing of these teenagers revealed the great lengths to which people would go to inflict damage on the other side. Both sides were in mourning and both sides were angry, eventually leading to a devastating conflict in which many more people would be killed.
The funeral of Khdeir on July 4 sparked street riots around East Jerusalem. Several light rail stations were destroyed by Palestinian protestors, who also threw large rocks, cracking the windows of the light rail itself. These attacks on Israeli infrastructures meant that the light rail stopped its service to certain areas, including my own.
Tensions were high and rising: both Israeli-Arabs and Israeli-Jews were subject to verbal assault or even physical attacks. The majority of Arabs would not go into Jewish areas, and vice versa; I had never seen such a strict entrenchment of ethnic boundaries.
Protesting for Peace
Looking back through history, there are plenty of examples of warring places that eventually reached some sort of peace. This was my hope for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet that hope was somewhat shattered as I saw the reality of the situation. It was painful to hear stories of young right-wing extremist Jewish mobs going into stores looking for Palestinian-Israeli workers to attack. Furthermore, the conflict was not only restricted to a simple struggle between Arabs and Jews; there were also clashes between right-wing and left-wing Jews.
One of the protests I witnessed occurred in Zion Square on Jaffa Street, a major shopping area in West Jerusalem. There, a small number of left-wing Jews sat in a circle lighting candles, singing songs for peace and promoting non-violence. However, more and more right-wing extremists rapidly gathered and began chanting loudly, disturbing the anti-violence demonstration taking place. There were police standing around, but they didn’t get involved. At one point some first-aid officers, who had been standing by, jumped onto motorcycles and rode off at great speed. The right-wing mob, all in their teens, instantaneously chased after them. One of them ran by me; he had a ferocious look in his eye. At that moment, it was not clear to me whether there would ever be a solution to the Middle East conflict. The hatred on the street was so palpable that I couldn’t see how it was ever going to change. Yet people just 20 feet away continued eating, shopping, and socializing, unfazed by the commotion around them. It’s almost admirable how people can continue on with their everyday lives under increasingly abnormal and unstable circumstances.
People beginning to gather in Zion Square
Sign translates to “No blood is disregarded”
Watching Missiles from the Rooftop
In the following days, the code red alert sirens went off to warn of incoming missiles. The first time they sounded, I had no idea what was happening. Luckily, I was with a Greek Israeli in the Old City of Jerusalem. I expected us to go into a mamad (a safe room) or into his basement. Instead, he looked at me and said, “Maybe we go to the balcony on the roof. Let’s go.” He walked me up a narrow set of stairs up to his roof in order to see if we could see the incoming missiles. I felt shaky, but at the same time, having grown up in the peaceful upstate New York town of Ithaca, it was impossible for me to fathom the idea of missiles coming towards me. It seemed so unreal that it didn’t scare me. As I looked into the night sky, I heard two loud booms, indicating that the Iron Dome (Israel’s’ missile defense system) had shot down the incoming missiles. The sirens lasted just a minute, yet it seemed much longer. Then it became uncomfortably quiet. Now what?
My question was answered as I walked through the streets of the Old City. Everyone was asking each other, “Did you hear the boom boom?” Which would be followed by, “Yes I heard the boom boom!” Then they would all laugh and walk on. For them, nothing that extraordinary had just occurred. That is simply how it is here. There may be missiles, riots, demonstrations, and police forces everywhere, but life continues, and the seemingly abnormal becomes the normal.
A Visitor in Jerusalem
Everyone experiences such a conflict differently. I do not live in Israel and was merely visiting during a summer of conflict. Many Ithacans upon my return would ask me, “Wasn’t it scary to have missiles raining down on you?” No, I would reply. My fear of walking along the streets every day in a city exploding with ethno-religious hatred was far greater. People were unpredictable, and I didn’t feel the same sense of security that I was used to in Ithaca. I didn’t have a sense of safety or a sense of belonging. I was an outsider, desperately trying to make sense of this ‘situation’, as locals often called it. Yet being a foreigner had its advantages. It meant that I could go into Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, freely crossing ethnic boundaries. The constant racial profiling, however, meant that people were always evaluating you, looking at you. Are you Palestinian? Are you Israeli? Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here?
I felt like I walked around with a tag stuck to my head - blonde hair, English-speaking, backpack - all the signs of a foreigner. I was told by many that during such times it is actually better to look like a foreigner, whilst others recommended that I should try to blend in. I was told by some to try and speak Hebrew and Arabic, by others, only to speak English. The truth, I began to realize, was that there was no one right way of navigating such a conflict.
I was used to having different kinds of conversations in Ithaca, on subjects as diverse as the ever-growing deer population to the cold winters. In Israel, every conversation I had shifted to the conflict, its politics, the violence, and speculations on what would happen next? Was peace possible? At a dinner party I attended, the mere mention of Gaza or the civilian deaths brought a man to the verge of tears. It is emotional for everyone, no matter what side you are on.
Prospects for Peace?
I’m not sure how peace will be achieved, if ever. The majority of others who experienced this ever-escalating conflict unfold over the hot summer months, whether they be Palestinians or Israelis, seem to be gripped by similar sentiments.
Yet, as many peace activists would argue (See: http://www.pij.org/details.php?blog=1&id=290), peace is too precious to be left for politicians to negotiate. Instead, it is the people that need to learn to accept, understand, and try to learn about the other side. People sometimes lose sight of a fundamental fact: we are all human. Teenagers have lost their lives in a battle that isn’t theirs to fight. Innocent civilians, of all ages, have been injured or killed. When will the pain and suffering end? When will people see that the lives of one community are worth the same as another regardless of the fact of their ethnic or religious identity? As Omar Nada insightfully asserted in an essay published in the Palestine-Israel Journal: “The killer and the killed are both losers because the killed will have lost his life and the killer his humanity.”