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Sounds of war, overhead and on my Twitter feed

by Simone Wilson

July 16, 2014 | 2:01 pm

<em>A Palestinian boy carries his belongings as he walks through the debris of a house that police said was hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on July 15. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters</em>

A Palestinian boy carries his belongings as he walks through the debris of a house that police said was hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on July 15. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters

When the first air-raid siren of summer 2014 screeched through Tel Aviv, my blood turned to ash. I was sitting in a coffee shop near my apartment, typing out a news piece on the disturbing increase in anti-Arab and anti-Jewish attacks throughout Israel, when the sound came — distinctly deeper than an ambulance, and guttural, with a metallic edge. War stuff. 

Wordlessly, a mother and father next to me, Tel Aviv-chic in pastels and eyeglasses, grabbed their two young girls by the hands and followed the baristas to the back. This particular coffee shop didn’t have a shelter, so we all just sort of squished into a utility closet to wait for the boom of the rocket we knew was flying toward us — either the boom of it hitting the ground or the smaller boom of its interception in the sky by Israel’s heroic Iron Dome defense system.

The kids squirmed, watching their parents’ faces for signs they should be afraid.

My mind was back in Gaza, December 2012, having tiny cups of coffee with three generations of the Al Kurdi family. I had just moved from Los Angeles to Israel to write freelance, and they had just lived through another war together: Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, which killed more than 150 Palestinians. For the Al Kurdis, that meant saying goodbye to a baby cousin, their son’s Arabic teacher and dozens of friends. “They didn’t do any bad things to make Israel kill them,” Muhammad Al Kurdi, a skinny 16-year-old, told me, his eyes unfocused and his knee jiggling uncontrollably.

When I got home from the coffee shop last week, I scattered old pads of paper all over my living room, trying to find my notes from Gaza and the Israeli border communities I’d visited that winter. They were gone.

Gaza is only a one-hour drive south of Tel Aviv, but feels like a trip to the moon. And for the past year, since I’ve been writing for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, I haven’t been able to get permission from Hamas, Gaza’s ruling government party, to enter the strip. 

I messaged Khader, the Al Kurdi family’s second eldest, on Facebook. He would be around 23 years old now. On a still night on his patio two winters ago, Khader had told me he wanted to be a graphic designer, but that all his dreams stopped at the Gaza border fence.

“Are you OK?” I asked him in the Facebook message, not knowing what else to say. A rocket attack on Tel Aviv, Israel’s metropolitan center, would mean unparalleled wrath on Gaza City, where the Al Kurdis live.

Two full days later, Khader responded. “How can I be?” he asked.

“People are killed everywhere, homes are destroyed in hundreds, innocent people died under these homes. I didn’t sleep for the last 30 hours,” he wrote. “My neighbors’ house is totally destroyed. I can’t have peace cause I’m afraid that my house will be next, since some houses were destroyed randomly without warning people living in it.”

My gratitude to Israel for shooting down the rockets hurtling toward my apartment cannot be overstated. But it can screw with your head, clinging to the same army for protection that another people is praying for protection against.

Gaza, a caged plot of land half the size of San Francisco, has taken around 800 tons of explosives from Israel so far, in response to more than 1,000 rockets launched at Israel by Hamas from densely populated areas. As of press time, 188 Palestinians had been killed and more than 1,100 wounded, the majority of them reportedly civilians.

Thanks to the Internet, millions around the world have been watching this new F-16 assault on Gaza — called Operation Protective Edge — in real time. Images from the ground are as horrific as any in the history of modern warfare.

One video from a hospital room shows 4-year-old Sahir Abu Namous with the back of his head blown off, being shaken by his father: “Wake up son, I got you a toy,” the boy’s father tells the toddler, sobbing. Another photo shows a young woman cradling her dead 4-day-old baby, a hellish kind of sorrow rippling across her forehead. In the opening scene of a Vice News dispatch, first responders stumble out of the rubble waving newly detached limbs. A New York Times journalist shares a photo of 15 crude graves dug into the dirt, all designated for family members of Hamas police chief Tayseer Al-Batsh. They were killed in a single strike.

“There were eight people there launching rockets,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Peter Lerner tells me of the Al-Batsh family home. “That incident is being investigated.”

I’m frozen in front of my Twitter feed. I can’t sleep. Maybe I’m afraid that if I miss a name, or another photo of a “martyr” and his or her survivors, I might forget about Gaza again.

Lerner tells me the army does everything it can to avoid civilian casualties: It calls residents to warn them five to 10 minutes before their home will be bombed, he says, then strikes the building with a non-explosive warning missile.

Many Gazans say they’ve witnessed this system go wrong, or not happen at all. “Yasser receives a call from IDF. Evacuate in ten minutes,” Tweets human-rights worker Mohammed Suliman, 24, from Gaza City. “He wasn’t home though. His family was. Hysterically, he phoned home. No one picked.” 

At a recent Israeli Knesset (parliament) session on incitement, Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ibrahim Sarsur took to the podium, seeming to carry with him the grief of every Palestinian. His intent was to read all the names of the dead in Gaza so far. He didn’t make it: Right-wing Jewish politician Moshe Feiglin ordered guards to escort him out, after Sarsur said they were “murdered” by the IDF. “They don’t want to hear names!” Sarsur cried as he was pushed out the door.

For me, too, an American with no allegiances, the calm and cheer on Tel Aviv’s streets can be at times infuriating. How do I explain to my friends, without triggering an emotional debate about who is to blame, that every innocent child (which is, of course, redundant) killed in this conflict gives me as deep a grief as the murder of Israeli teens Eyal, Naftali and Gilad? At what point is it OK to talk about them — the Palestinian people dying horrible deaths one hour south, buried by bombs and collapsing concrete? At what point does one’s grief become perceived as irrational?

One morning, I consider running down to the gas station near my apartment to report on a rocket shard that landed there, after being blown apart by the Iron Dome. But I start to feel sick when I see neighbors taking photos with the piece of metal piping — just like I feel sick at the bomb-shelter selfies, and the rocket-themed rooftop parties, and trips to the beach to “watch the fireworks.”

“The great thing about the rockets is it teaches my girlfriend how to get ready in a minute and a half,” a friend jokes.

I get it — they’re coping. “When you are being attacked, the main challenge of society is to cope with the situation,” an Israeli political science professor once told me. “And the ultimate way to cope with the situation is to create a very, very clear and one-sided story to justify the fact that we have to be in this situation.”

Behind their black humor, too, I feel a fierce protectiveness for the children of Israel.

Although Hamas’ rockets during this recent escalation have mostly landed in open areas or have been halted by the Iron Dome, the sheer quantity of launches has ensured some contact with bodies and buildings — mostly in southern Israel. 

Sixteen-year-old Yarin Levy of Ashkelon was walking home from the barbershop on July 13 when a rocket exploded near him, sending shrapnel into his chest. He is now in intensive care. The next day, another rocket landed in a Bedouin village near Beer Sheva, seriously wounding sisters Atil and Mar’amin Alwakili (10 and 13, respectively). 

And on July 15, Israel counted its first fatality: a 37-year-old volunteer handing out food and drinks to IDF troops poised for a ground invasion on the border with Gaza.


Israeli police take cover as a siren sounds in Ashkelon on July 16. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Micha Ben Hillel, a schoolteacher for various kibbutzim (agricultural villages) along the Gaza border, tells me that, for more than a decade now, life for children in the south has revolved largely around rockets. More than 60 Israelis have died from rocket fire — but “mainly it’s the trauma,” he says. 

Because they’ve spent their whole lives within rocket range, younger generations “are more scared, more suspicious of people in general,” Ben Hillel said. “They don’t believe in peace like they used to.”

I, too, found this to be true while interviewing sixth-graders from the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, another cluster of kibbutzim near Gaza, after the last operation in 2012. A cease-fire had just been declared, and the kids were breathing a (cautious) sigh of relief. “I hate them,” one girl declared of the people in Gaza, and described in detail an IDF video she had watched of a Hamas commander being blown to bits.

“When there’s an alarm, and all the kids are outside, they’re running just like ants,” their teacher told me. “In a few seconds, the field is empty. It’s like a trigger. They’re all programmed to be playing and happy and dancing and skipping, and within one second they switch into emergency mode.”

Watching status updates from the south this time around is like déjà vu. Nothing has changed — except that Israel’s teenagers and 20-somethings seem to be getting angrier, and more anti-Arab, with each rocket.


A Palestinian man collects belongings as he stands amidst the debris of top Hamas political leader Mahmoud Zahar's house in Gaza City on July 16. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Mostly just needing someone to talk to, I called up Julia Chaitin, 61, of Kibbutiz Urim, a village just nine miles from Gaza — where there are no safe rooms, and where the booms of Hamas rockets blend with the booms of Israeli bombs.

Chaitin is also part of Other Voice, a grassroots organization asking the Israeli government to “find ways to sit down and talk, end the attacks and the siege on Gaza, and stop playing with our lives.”

She and more Other Voice members have been texting back and forth with their friends in Gaza during the recent operation, checking up on each other after harsh rounds of rockets and bombs. “In the ’70s, we used to go to Gaza and go shopping, go to the beach,” Chaitin told me over the phone as she counted booms in the distance. “People who remember it know it’s possible. They know that not everyone is a terrorist — that there are real people there.”

People like Chaitin give me hope for Israel, and a future Palestinian state. As I’ve watched “Death to Arabs” mobs try to overrun Jerusalem in the past few weeks, I’ve also gotten to know a group of equally determined Israelis fighting for a more realistic solution than isolating Gaza and bombing it every few years. “It’s just raising a whole new generation of people who are poor and angry, with nothing to lose,” Chaitin said. “And they just live a couple kilometers across the way.”

In the far-left +972 Magazine, Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf writes: “Even today, when rockets are exploding above the city I love most in the world … Even now, I oppose this military operation wholeheartedly. The sight of the IAF’s (Israeli Air Force) attack helicopters crossing the sky, going south along the Tel Aviv coastline does not fill me with pride or gratitude — it horrifies and depresses me.”

His is an unpopular stance to take right now in Israel — and its friction, with a loud, government-led call for blood, is tearing up the country from the inside.


Right-wing activists showed up to protest a peace rally in Tel Aviv on July 12. Photo by Simone Wilson

On the evening of July 12, hundreds gathered for a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s central Habima Square, with the slogans “The children of Gaza and the children of Sderot are the same” and “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” Hamas had just announced it would unleash a barrage of new, powerful J-80 rockets on the city at exactly 9 p.m., and a group of right-wing activists, led by Israeli rapper Yoav “The Shadow” Eliasi, showed up to taunt the peaceniks for defending Hamas while in its crosshairs.

“There is no room for traitors in Israel,” they chanted. “Let the IDF win!” 

When, on cue, a series of sirens sounded over Tel Aviv — followed by explosions in the sky, and bigger crashes and booms than we’d heard in Tel Aviv yet — cops scattered, and conservatives pounced. They hurled chairs and cups from a nearby coffee shop at the other side and beat them with sticks, with such force that many peace protesters ended up injured. One was rushed to the hospital. Meanwhile: BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

The whole thing was surreal. “I feel that this is like a scene from Munich 1931,” Eli Cohen, a 73-year-old Tel Aviv resident, told me at the rally. “This is the lower end, the mob, but it goes up to the Knesset as well. This is what frightens me — that we are turning into pre-Nazi Israel.”

A writer for Israel’s Mako news site later called it the night “the civil war began.”

As the riot dispersed around 11 p.m., stragglers threw out some of their most vulgar insults of the evening, including, “Go get f----d by Arabs in Gaza” and “We will throw you to Hamas.”

Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel, has become a comically evil entity in Israeli society. Hamas henchmen are easy to mock: the empty threats, the hyperbolic battle cries, the blatant anti-Semitism.

For Palestinians living under Hamas’ control, the government-civilian relationship is more complex.

Suliman, the 24-year-old human-rights worker and gifted writer who has become one of the most popular Gazan voices on Twitter, says that, like most under Hamas’ rule — 63 percent, according to a recent Pew poll — he is against the group’s policies. However, he explains that he “can’t be neutral” when he sees that this is so clearly “not a case of an even conflict between two equal sides.”

Israel’s daily grip on the Palestinian territories, he says, “is absolute injustice that no human being can take. It affects every Palestinian citizen personally — it affects my brother, my sister, my wife, my father.”

But it is only during wartime that Suliman returns to Twitter.

“Is it comforting, in a way?” I ask him over the phone. He’s in northern Gaza, where his family has been ordered to evacuate.

“No,” he answers. “I find it’s really annoying, because people think you’re tweeting about your life. People send you emails and try to get in touch with you if you don’t tweet for a couple of hours. They don’t understand that this is not about me — this is about every Palestinian that lives here.”

After noticing Suliman’s Twitter account, I went back through his old blog posts obsessively. And the further back I looked, the more sensitive and optimistic his writing became.

In a 2010 review of the Holocaust film “The Pianist,” he wrote, “I desperately wanted Szpilman to survive. For a moment, I was Jewish.”

That was before Suliman went to graduate school in London, then returned to Gaza amid the opening booms of Operation Pillar of Defense. “It has absolutely gone,” he said of his optimism. He pauses. “Because when I went to the U.K., I saw what life really looks like.”

There is an eternal debate running on my Twitter feed. It never sleeps. When I wake up at 4 a.m. thinking I hear sirens, it is still there. The two sides can’t decide: Is this #IsraelUnderFire or #GazaUnderAttack

Regardless, no one is winning. Another siren sounds in Tel Aviv, and I look at my phone. It’s reflexive. “Amir, 12, and Mohammed, 10, want to buy yogurt,” Suliman has just written. “Things are calm, they tell their mom. They leave the house. A blast is heard. They’re dead.”

Several hours later, he adds: “I look at pictures of brothers Amir and Mohammed wrapped in white shroud stained with their blood. I feel dizzy. War is a nightmare.”

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