“I haven’t slept in weeks. I can’t eat. Anything I do eat I throw up again. Can you see me? I’m physically shaking even now.”
These words from Natalia – a Tel Aviv hotel receptionist speak volumes.
Over the past seven days I’ve spoken at length with Palestinian and Israeli experts, officials and campaigners in both the West Bank and Israel proper. There was much pontification on how best to implement a two state solution. The tragedy of Gaza was also discussed at length.
Despite the facts and logic which backed up many of these people’s arguments, I’ve forgotten much of what was said. There’s a limit to how much information you can take in and remember. The more I visit the Middle East the more I realise how difficult and complicated the situations are. But Natalia’s story has stayed with me, and I think it always will.
The 20-something Israeli has had to go down to the hotel’s basement (which now acts as a bomb shelter) at least once a day (sometimes more) for the past two weeks. We were mid conversation when a siren sounded. We dropped everything and ran downstairs. Natalia wasted no time in logging on to the computer. A colleague of mine remarked that her work at the hotel doesn’t stop – even when a siren is blaring outside. “No. I’m not working. I’m finding out what’s happening and checking my family is OK,” she shot back.
Natalia’s family live in southern Israel – where some towns only have a 15 second warning to find shelter before the rockets hit. Natalia’s next door neighbour’s house was once hit. She has first hand experience of the terror and destruction Hamas have caused.
Israel’s hero – The Iron Dome
As we wait in the safety of the hotel basement we hear three loud bangs. It’s the Iron Dome – Israel’s remarkable shield that shoots down Hamas rockets – saving hundreds of lives in the process. It’s not foolproof and there have been injuries from falling shrapnel, but all things considered, if there’s such a thing as a ‘hero’ in these tough times, Iron Dome deserves the title.
This remarkably effective system has put Israelis in Tel Aviv in a strange position. On the one hand society is functioning relatively normally. People here are confident in the Dome’s ability to protect them. The bars and beaches are open. They aren’t as busy as usual, but to the first time visitor to Tel Aviv, everything looks remarkably serene as locals do their best in adopting a ‘business-as-usual’ mentality.
On the other hand (and this is clear as you look a little deeper) something isn’t right. On an arguably superficial level, Tourism has dropped off almost entirely. Few are willing to fly into what’s perceived as a warzone. Even Jerusalem’s Old City is deserted. I’m stuck here for an extra two days because both incoming and outgoing flights are canceled due to the threat of rocket attacks. Everywhere I go Israelis thank me for visiting their country at this time. They’re grateful for the support. They don’t take it for granted.
Living in fear
Beyond tourism and on a much more serious level, the psychological impact of living in a nation under fire should not be downplayed. Two days ago a motorbike revved it’s engine and our delegation immediately ran for a local bomb shelter. We had mistaken the sound for a siren. Even crashing waves on the beach can somehow sound like sirens here. I am on edge as I go to bed. Will I have to get up in the middle of the night and run for my life?
Many residents here are struggling to live their lives. They’re putting on a brave face, but Tel Aviv isn’t used to such a high level threat. I’m only here for a few days, so I sympathise with those who have lived in fear here for over two weeks.
You only have to drive 40 minutes south of Tel Aviv to find cities where 80% of children suffer from serious trauma/stress conditions. While in Tel Aviv the experiencing of running to bomb shelters is relatively recent, in Southern cities, rocket attacks have been almost constant for a decade. There’s fear that if the rockets continue, kids in Tel Aviv will suffer the same traumas that their friends in the south have had to endure.
Off to the beach?
The sirens affect everything here. But Israelis are desperate to live life as normal. They want to be on the beach enjoying the Shabbat. Why? Because according to the beach goers, the soldiers in Gaza are fighting to allow them to relax and enjoy life! If Hamas wreck the culture of Tel Aviv then the terrorists have won and the Israeli soldiers are fighting for nothing.
Are people in fear here? Yes. Are people living life as normal here? Yes. The reality of Tel Aviv is, in the words of one local “schizophrenic”.
But enough about Tel Aviv. “What about Gaza?” is a very real and very pressing question for the world in general and Israel in particular. Israel’s explanation that their strikes are highly targeted to minimize civilian casualties isn’t holding much water in some quarters. With every television report showing devastation and death in Gaza, Israel is losing supporters.
Earlier last week I met the straight talking former Israeli Prime Minister spokesperson and IDF officer Uri Dromi (you can read the full interview here). He said, “We live in a tough neighbourhood that isn’t getting any better. So you have to carry a big stick. And once in a while you need to use that stick. When you use it, it doesn’t look good on television.”
He’s a military man, so perhaps he can get away with saying such things. Many do not share Uri’s views – a few thousand protestors stood in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest the Israeli army’s actions in Gaza shortly before my flight left for London.
What would you do?
Israeli officials have reacted to their accusers by asking at least two poignant questions. “What would you do if terrorists fired rockets at your country?” And “How should we stop Hamas?” Many criticisms of Israeli policy have come from Western nations who have never had to consider answering either of these important queries.
Looking ahead, the picture looks bleak. This is not the first time Israel has felt forced to act with such military might. A depressing pattern is emerging. 1. Hamas fire rockets, 2. Israel though not immediately will eventually launch military action in an effort to stop Hamas. 3. War will ensue. Civilian casualties will mount. 4. Israel under increasing international pressure withdraw and hope the rockets will stop. 5. Hamas re arm. Repeat ad infinitum.
Right now we are at 3. – not only the most bloody stage in the cycle of violence, but the only stage which is repeatedly televised.
Military action may reduce or temporarily prevent rocket fire, but given enough time Hamas will always re-arm. This knowledge has divided Israelis into adopting one of two schools of thought when thinking about how to put a permanent end the conflict in Gaza.
Win or negotiate?
The first option is uncomfortable and perhaps even offensive to the many who feel innocents in Gaza have suffered far too much already. Quite simply the proposal is to obliterate Hamas. According to this idea Israel must be allowed to finish what it has started. Proponents of this view argue that in previous rounds of conflict, international pressure has led to Israel pulling out of Gaza too early. This must not be allowed to happen again, they say. Victory for Israel must be the final outcome.
The alternative view is easier said than done: A mediated peace agreement. Some suggest allowing the Palestinian Authority to patrol Gaza’s borders. The hope is over time the people of Gaza will rally around the PA and call for the end of Hamas’ rule of the strip. There’s also talk of Israel ending the blockade to help kick start Gaza’s economy. The demilitarization of Gaza is also on the cards.
Between periodic humanitarian ceasefires, which in reality are often broken by Hamas, the bombs are still falling. The international community is increasingly shouting “Stop!” but Israeli officials admit the only voice they pay attention to is that of the US. Other players including the UK, EU and UN are easier to ignore, they say.
There’s little room or hope for optimism. The status quo has been in place for close to a decade, so there is considerable doubt that anything will get better before it gets worse. Most agree real change in Gaza is needed. But the route to implementing that change is either blocked or unclear. Some say the route is actually non existent. But for the most part, neither Israelis nor Palestinians want to think like this. As one person told me yesterday, “If you want to live here [in Israel] and raise children, you have to be an optimist”.