On Monday, I wrote that I feared that people would lose their lives in the current escalation of tensions between Israel and Palestine, and they did, but not in the way that anyone expected.
During Monday, thousands of Palestinians were protesting their right to pray in the Al Aqsa mosque as Israeli police stormed the building throwing tear gas and stun grenades inside this Holy site. Violence had erupted in several sites across the city and thousands of nationalistic Israelis were pouring into the city in anticipation of the Jerusalem Day flag march. Streets were being closed, and we were told to collect our kids early from school and to stay indoors for the afternoon. The battle was on the streets and was spreading like wildfire, fuelled by live clips of clashes and violence.
One example of how two truths can exist within the same reality, was when a car crashed into some bollards. The Palestinian version of the story was that the Jewish driver was trying to kill them and had deliberately rammed the car onto the kerb. Israeli news instead reported that some Palestinians had been throwing stones at the car and that the driver lost control of it and crashed into the kerb.
At 6pm violence and rioting were still quite widespread but something very unexpected happened. Sirens started sounding across Jerusalem to signal that the city was under the attack of rocket fire. Sirens are quite commonplace here, as they are used to signal the start of Shabbat each week as well as to mark other national events like Holocaust Remembrance Day. We had heard the noise before, but it soon became apparent that this was unexpected, and that everyone needed to get to a place of safety quickly. All new buildings in Israel are required to have an ‘earthquake proof’ room and most older ones have identified stairwells or other safe places for emergencies. Our kid’s bedroom is the same room in our flat, so we went there and waited for the sirens to stop.
The rockets were being fired by Hamas out of Gaza. Hamas has been the ruling political party in Gaza since 2006. The EU, the UK and several other countries have designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation as it uses violent means. For many people that is the only sentence they need to hear to make their minds up about who the aggressor is in this situation. The truth is of course more difficult to grasp, and Hamas would argue that they ‘talk’ to Israel in the only language they understand: brute force.
Gaza is essentially an open-air prison where over 2 million people have been locked into an area that is only 365 square kilometres big, making it the third most densely populated place in the world. All people and supplies in and out are strictly controlled by Israel resulting in a severe humanitarian crisis. Gaza is part of Palestine but the conditions there are far worse than they are in areas of the Palestinian West Bank.
Hamas had issued an ultimatum that if Israeli police did not withdraw from the Al Aqsa mosque and from Sheikh Jarrah by a certain time that they would fire on Jerusalem. That had previously seemed unthinkable for two reasons. Firstly, the rockets from Gaza were not known to have such long range – Jerusalem being 97km away from Gaza, but also Jerusalem has such a mixed population and a special connection to the Old City that they risked firing on their own people.
Israel is very well trained in intercepting rocket fire and of the six rockets fired on Jerusalem on Monday night only one landed, in the nearby town of Abu Ghosh, 14km outside of Jerusalem. Israel responded with attacks on Gaza and within hours over 20 people had been killed including 3 children.
Overnight on Monday into Tuesday, attacks continued and escalated throughout the day. Just before 9pm last night, Hamas fired over 130 rockets in quick succession on Tel Aviv and surrounding areas. Dramatic scenes emerged from the Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Holon where there was a direct hit on an empty bus and from the other towns of Lod, Ashkelon and Rishon Lezion. The latest reporting suggests that 6 Israelis have been killed so far and that 850 rockets have been fired out of Gaza since Monday.
Meanwhile in Gaza it was reported early on Wednesday, that 43 people had been killed so far (including 13 minors) and that 269 had been injured. I fear that figure will already be out of date.
When things move quickly like this, the news focusses on factual reporting and the priority becomes de-escalating the situation and preventing further deaths. That is of course right. Two important things are being lost however. One is that many Palestinians are feeling annoyed that Hamas has taken over, as it detracts from the moral high ground that the largely peaceful protests had been enjoying. They know that Gaza and the Palestinians will be made to pay a high price for this with a reduced chance of gains. The message around the world gets confused into a sense of ‘they are both shooting at each other’ and people forget the oppression that started the unrest in the first place.
Linked to that, the second thing that is being lost in media reporting, is the disproportionate cost to civilian life. Israel has highly advanced weapons and can choose to hit military targets or civilian targets. At the moment it looks like they are adopting a mix. Gaza has come to be an ‘accepted’ crisis but the horrific conditions there are entirely manmade and should not be tolerated by the world at any time.
De-escalation is critical at this stage. But so is holding world leaders to account to address the root causes of a conflict that has dredged on for decades. Going back to ‘normal’ in Jerusalem and across Israel is not going to be good enough.