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July 27, 2014 | by  | in Homepage News | [ssba]

Dispatch from Gaza

Sam Bookman is a Jewish student from New Zealand who was in Jerusalem when the the current Gaza conflict began to unfold. He sent this opinion piece from inside the conflict.

It’s surprising how much a car’s screech can sound like an air-raid siren. As I sit in my West Jerusalem apartment, every boy racer hooning down Betzalel Street sounds like the harbinger of a potential missile strike. More than once I’ve begun running to the apartment building’s secure area before slowly turning, relieved, back to my bedroom. Sometimes they have not been false alarms: we cower in the shelter until we hear the Iron Dome defence system shooting down the missile with its characteristic “boom” – now an integral part of the Hebrew vocabulary – before emerging back into daylight.

And then that celebrated Jewish guilt sets in. Catholics will also know what I’m talking about. Because I know that no matter how scared I just felt, it is nothing compared to what people are feeling in the south of Israel in the towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, Kibbutz Kerem Shalom (“Vineyard of Peace”) or the unprotected Bedouin settlements of the Negev desert. These are where the actual casualties have been. And then comes a second awareness: that no matter how bad things are on this side of the border, things are worse in Gaza.

For those of you wondering how this all started, as with anything in the Israel–Palestine Conflict, it’s hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it is the abduction of three Israeli teenagers – Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar – hitchhiking home from their West Bank school in mid-June. Three weeks later, after recovering the bodies and arresting the suspects, the Israeli Government revealed it had long been aware that they were brutally murdered almost immediately after being kidnapped. Singing and celebrations could be heard on the recording of the attempted emergency calls of one of the boys. Israel accused Hamas; the Hamas leadership denied it. It’s likely they were killed by a local Hamas-affiliated cell, although it’s unclear the leadership knew anything about it.

During the operation to recover the bodies, the Israeli army sought to destroy the West Bank Hamas infrastructure. Prisoners that had previously been released were recaptured; the brutality of the occupation was increased, particularly in the town of Hebron. The non-Hamas-associated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the murders and promised to cooperate, but the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed this. Then the rockets from Gaza – previously a trickle and normally fired by non-Hamas groups – became a torrent. Rockets reached Tel Aviv. 70 per cent of Israel was in range. Israel began airstrikes, called up reserves, and gave its operation a name: “Protective Edge”. This has been followed up by a ground invasion. Despite sounding more like a brand of razor or condom, the christening of the operation suggested a follow-up to the 2008–9 “Cast Lead” and 2012 “Pillar of Cloud” operations. Between them, those actions cost almost 1500 lives.

So far (at the time of writing), 30 Israelis and 640 Palestinians have died in this round of violence. Most estimates suggest that the majority of Palestinian casualties are civilian: whole families have been wiped out. In addition to hundreds of rockets, Hamas has attempted raids into Israel through a complex network of tunnels. So far, they have been countered by the Israeli army, but not before incurring casualties.

I can say from experience that no one enjoys being bombarded by rockets, especially when they are fired by a group that calls for the destruction of Israel and frequently engages in abhorrent anti-Semitism. Despite the Iron Dome, they can and do kill and maim. As the Israeli Foreign Ministry keeps repeating as its hypnotic mantra: “Every country has the right to defend itself. What would [insert country here] do in the same situation?”

But there are two problems with this. The first: at what cost? The first-millennium AD Jewish book of wisdom and law, the Talmud, talks of a man whose son wants the head of a rooster as a toy to play with on the Sabbath. His father, knowing that to kill a rooster would be to break the Sabbath, goes ahead anyway. He justifies it to himself on the grounds that it was not his intention to kill the rooster, only to give his son a toy: killing the rooster was moral collateral. The Talmud rightly concludes that the father’s actions are unjustifiable. So it is with the Israeli operation in Gaza. No matter how many humanitarian truces or warnings provided before bombing (frequent), or human shields used by Hamas (also likely frequent), the decision to invade one of the most densely populated places on earth has a price. Civilian casualties are not mere collateral. They are the consequence of a deliberate incursion into a desperate open-air prison, and for that, Israel is morally culpable.

More importantly, it is hard to see how the assault on Gaza will reduce the rocket fire. We’ve been here before: 2008–9 and 2012. Hamas increases its rocket fire, Israel disproportionately responds, and 18 months later it happens all again. Hamas, like most liberation movements, can’t be stopped by force. It exists because of the desperation of the Palestinian people. Whatever religious or ideological opposition there is to them – and it is rightly extensive – Palestinians have nowhere else to turn. Personally, I find myself finding it increasingly hard to honestly say I would not act differently in the same situation. I find it even harder to rationalise the Israeli decision to put the lives of its own soldiers at risk for such paltry strategic advantage.

The night after the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers were recovered, a rally in Jerusalem devolved into a lynch mob rampaging through the streets. Members of the Israeli far right chanting “Death to Arabs” assaulted Palestinians in the heart of Jerusalem’s commercial centre, clearly audible from my apartment. The following morning, the charred remains of 16-year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir were found in a forest. Burned alive. The vast, vast majority of Israelis were horrified. While the Israeli right-wing leadership distanced themselves from the horrific act and the suspected murderers are now awaiting trial, the palpable atmosphere of incitement (for which many mainstream Israeli leaders are responsible) is toxically tearing the country apart. Anti-war demonstrators, from myself to the Deputy Mayor of Israel’s third-largest city, have been threatened and attacked in the street. The Occupation is destroying not only Palestinian society, but Israel too.

There’s no doubt that Hamas are a reprehensible organisation, responsible for horrific terror attacks and war crimes. It’s sickening to see some New Zealand–based activists declaring support for their violent and anti-Semitic aims. But as long as the Occupation continues and Palestinians have nowhere else to turn, they will be empowered. We can pray for a speedy end to the current bloodbath, but a lasting solution will not come from airstrikes. Only the end of the Occupation can curb the dangerous militarisation of both societies. That Occupation is currently perpetrated not by Hamas, but by Israel. There can be no peace without justice. As the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said: “You can’t make peace with your friends: only your enemies.” It’s time for Israel to give the Palestinians their dignity.


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  1. Silena says:

    Sam Bookman, you are a young man of great wisdom. We are blessed with your presence in our mists.

  2. Eddie says:


    I was recommended this post by a friend of mine and love your writing. Though I would appreciate some more detail in your vision.

    Could you be a little more specific, though in what you mean by “the occupation”. It is my understanding that Israel removed her soldiers and citizens from Gaza in 2005.

    I also wonder what your thoughts are on the involvement of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, and other Arab nations are in this conflict (politically, historically, and their role in any peace agreements).


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