The Gaza Strip isn’t a big place. You can walk across it in an hour or so. I know because I’ve done it. That was in 1979.
I had just graduated, and a group of us from Cambridge were volunteers at Kibbutz Be’eri on the edge of the strip. The kibbutzim largely ignored their neighbour, but we were curious, and talked about visiting it. One of the local Israelis suggested that we’d have our throats cut, but mainly I think the reaction was “What do you want to do that for?”. We dithered. Then one morning two of the girls in our group had enough and went on by themselves to the checkpoint nearby to walk into Gaza City. Half a dozen of us others decided that that was where they had gone, and that we had better follow them. And we went to the checkpoint, and walked all the way up to the beach, finding the two girls as we did so.
We were made to feel welcome, including the Jewish lad amongst us who did not conceal his Star of David pendant. I don’t remember much about what the Palestinian locals said, but we did meet at least one radical PLO type. I remember most clearly a lad on the beach asking me to “Tell them at home how it is here.”
How was it? It was a forgotten corner where stateless people lived, largely in poverty, and without much hope. But they were human beings like us. A lot has changed since, but not those essential characteristics.
I didn’t really fulfil that young man’s wish, certainly not in public. I have avoided saying much at all about the Arab-Israeli affairs. Opinions are so polarised that few would care to hear what I was actually saying, just try to decide whose side I was on.
Whose side are you on? That’s where the Israeli narrative starts. The world is divided between an “us”, the Western societies of Europe and America of which Israel is a part, and a “them”, assorted Arabs, Iranians and other Islamic nations, who wish “us” ill, and with whom we share little in terms values, culture and outlook. I’m sure that’s how most Israelis see the world, excepting those for whom “us” can only be Jews. It’s a view that seems to be accepted in America too. In Europe we struggle with it, having learnt, the hard way, that model of the world really won’t do.
And after that we get into a tangled web of claims and arguments. The Israelis ask, quite understandably, “What would you do if a neighbour kept firing rockets at you?” We have very little conception as to how we answer that question. It’s of quite a different order to the various terrorist threats we have faced in our own countries. Kibbutz Be’eri lives on, but under constant threat. In 1979 security was very discreet, and the sense of threat only in the far background. These Israelis did not gratuitously flaunt their weapons, as so may Israeli and Arab men do, then and now.
The rockets aren’t pocket terrorist weapons, they require a degree of state organisation to support, especially the bigger ones. Israelis must feel that Gaza civilians are to some extent complicit in allowing this to happen.
And the Palestinians point to a long history of injustice, which passes completely unrecognised in Israeli political life. They feel that all means of progressing their cause other than violence have been blocked. The Israels just want them to keep quiet so that they and the rest of the world can forget they are there. Again we can have no idea about the depth of frustration they are feeling – just as we cannot understand how random violence against the innocent is any way to progress your cause.
Both sides are in a bind. Hamas is spoiling for a fight, and they seem to be daring the Israelis to invade, so that they can bog them down in a horrible war. The Israelis know that a military solution requires just such an invasion. Both sides may draw back, but no ceasefire will tackle the fundamental issues that divide them.
Both sides seem addicted to the use of violence as the way to solve their problems – which only reinforces that conviction in the other side. Any individual leader, on either side, that tries to break free from that logic risks being undermined by those that disagree. I am a political optimist generally. But not here.