I was walking along King’s Street in the northern English city of Manchester. There was a crowd of some thirty people draped in Palestinian flags and checkered keffiyehs, demonstrating outside Kedem, a store selling Israeli Dead Sea products. Nearby, separated by heavily armed police was another, smaller group, a few of them in skullcaps. They were carrying Israeli flags and playing nationalistic songs from a portable sound system.
Despite the commotion and angry speeches, patriotic chants blaring from the loudspeaker, life in the swanky city centre continued at a leisurely pace. Busy shoppers walked past the demonstration, oblivious of what the speakers on one side, holding posters with pictures of bloodied children and demolished houses, were saying, “Questions for the developed world: how can you have a normal life when this is going on?” A clamor of voices demanded BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel.
On the other side, protestors flaunting the Star of David, were distributing leaflets to a few curious onlookers. The leaflets claim that the products that Kedem is selling are manufactured in the coastal city of Caesarea, in Israel proper, and not in the occupied West Bank. By threatening to vandalize the store, the demonstrators are committing a criminal act.
“You have responsibilities,” I heard one of the speakers shout into the megaphone facing the store. “Your government is shelling children in Gaza and you are selling beauty products here, behaving as if everything is in order.”
The other side replied by turning up the volume of the patriotic music. Amid the tune of HaTikva, Israel’s national anthem, I watched the perplexed but alert policemen and women try to maintain a buffer zone of ten meters between the two groups to stop them from clashing.
A man with a heavy Israeli accent asked me, “Are you with them?” pointing to the pro-Palestinian demonstrators. A young boy in a green, red and black “I love Palestine” t-shirt, tore off one of the Kedem leaflets and spat on it.
“Ani ba emtsa”. I’m in the middle. I heard myself say in Hebrew to the man with bright eyes, to my disbelief. I wondered whether he was going to be called to fight as a reservist.
I had just come out of an event in the Portico Library, a Georgian reading hall where I had given a talk on Middle East conflict as part of the Library’s Conflict and Community season.
The failure of Kerry’s recent peace negotiations to create a buffer zone in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was now playing out in Gaza between the two warring sides – was the resounding sentiment among the audience of mostly lawyers and professionals.
A much-needed window of respite the world has yet to achieve despite seventy years of mediation.
I was speaking to them about my eight years living in Jerusalem where I had witnessed two previous Gaza wars, Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) and Operation Pillar of Defense (2012). I was asked why there was so little world condemnation this time for such horrendous massacre of children and why there was still no real call for boycott.
A member of the audience then put this to me,
“Do you think that Israel was a mistake?”
Since the start of the latest Israeli offensive against Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, I kept hearing from my Jewish friends that “Anti-Israel feeling is on the rise in Europe.”
Some were quick to liken it to anti-Semitism.
But the attendees at the talk were only torn about the heavy-handed response by Israel to the situation. I sensed their bafflement at bloodshed, rather than any anti-Israeliness.
Selima Hashmi, a British Muslim who has spent ten years in the Middle East, believes that the old excuse that Hamas’ main aim is to annihilate Israel, is no longer an issue. People in Gaza, under Hamas or occupation, haven’t had the time to think about Israel’s existential predicament. Israel cannot hide behind such destructive military might to justify its actions. It wants to wipe out Hamas. That would mean wiping out Gaza. That’s not acceptable. That’s genocide.
Hashmi was responding to a poll report that the Israeli government has the support of an overwhelming majority for its latest offensive. The pictures of a desperate and displaced population, dead children, have had little impact on most Israelis’ position that their government was right to go into Gaza.
There’s been widespread approval even among the Israeli left for this view that this time it was Hamas’s fault.
Amos Eiran is a veteran politician who was Chief of Staff in the Rabin administration. He believes that since the Six-Day war of 1967, this is the first time the Israeli military won such unanimous support. “People are living in constant fear. On average 120 missiles a day fell on Israel. Sirens went off several times a day and most people on the bordering towns are traumatized. Imagine a scene – terrorists emerging from the ground in your bedroom as you are sleeping. How can we live a normal life, with tunnels under our feet?”
“Gaza’s misery is Hamas’s problem, not ours.”
About the death and displacement of innocent people, Eiran said that that was unintended. Mistakes are made in wars. Some of the targeted attacks may have gone astray.
Shlomo Lecker, a human rights lawyer in Jerusalem told me over the phone that although Israel should have been more careful in its assaults, it had no choice but to strike back. Lecker said that he was deeply disturbed by the civilian casualties in Gaza, which only strengthened Hamas’s position.
Hashmi agrees. She believes that Hamas cannot defend the people of Gaza. In this war, Hamas is winning. And Israel’s perceived weakness only helps consolidate the frightening, fast-spreading global jihad. “As a Muslim, I am terrified and ashamed of the advance of the ISIS.”
Hashmi says that Israel’s over-reaction against a handful of Islamist insurgents is unforgivable.
“Imagine if we bombed Ireland to retaliate each and every IRA strike on Britain and caused even a tiny fraction of the kind of collateral damage that Israel has incurred – what would the world have done?”
So, was Israel a mistake?
I did not directly tackle the question that came from an audience member in Manchester. I said something like: in any conflict, domestic or global, both victims and victimizers harp on too much about the past – what happened, what should have been, what could have been done. The question now is, will there ever be peace in the Middle East?
Israel has to stop behaving as if its whole existence is about its fight to exist.
“Okay, let’s put it this way,” says Hashmi, “Once it exists, fully exists, the neighbors are happy, what happens next?”
Israelis have to think carefully where their reluctance to engage in negotiations with Hamas, is taking them. Can they really close down Gaza and take out Hamas, dismantle the tunnels? The people under siege will dig elsewhere.
Hashmi believes that holocaust would never leave most Israelis. What can you do with so much anger? Yes, justified anger. But they are only unleashing it onto themselves.
The Middle East war, says a former BBC journalist and now a financial blogger, has become a comic book series. You wait for the latest twist in the story – the tricks and escapades of various baddies and goodies. You sympathize with certain characters, you cheer, you jeer, you await the next installment in the continuing cycle of intrigue and suspense.
It isn’t apathy to the latest Middle Eastern war, why the shoppers in Manchester were indifferent to the demonstration and to the question that its fiery speaker threw at them. It’s just that the developed world has had to get on with a post-colonial, post-warfare society. Since the last Great War in Europe, the continent has been dealing with the processes of deconstruction of ethnic and national identities. Having moved on from traditional wars between bad guys and good guys, the Western society has to ensure equal opportunities, welfare state, healthcare, religious tolerance and freedom of speech.
Which of the two do you think is a more sophisticate question, he asks, the biblical in-fighting between Abel and Cain or how Cain got on with life with his progeny?
So, what should the West do about the Middle East? One of the lawyers in Manchester asked. “Can there be a solution executed by law: Two States for Two Peoples?”
I found myself in an awkward situation. A political and legal solution for two states has been tried repeatedly and the process keeps faltering. How can we draw a line between two peoples when their lives are so inter-linked? A geographic and demographic separation would involve determined political will and personal sacrifices on both sides. During my years living in Jerusalem I became convinced that neither side is really sincere enough to make that sacrifice, which would make a clear-cut division possible.
“So the negotiations based on a two-state solution are all but a waste of time?” The lawyer asked again.
I wouldn’t say that it’s been a waste of time. But for all one knows, the time has come to explore different approaches. To counter Amos Oz’s recommendation of “Help Us to Divorce” before the two sides can come together, may be it’s time to try the reverse. As a ceasefire tentatively holds, and the world urges Israel and the Palestinians to take advantage of it for broader negotiations, perhaps the two sides can agree to marry, even if it’s a short-term mut-ah, before they can try an amicable divorce.