Under Attack on Multiple Fronts: my experience of two days living in a country under fire.

Foreword; This is the story of my experience of living in Israel for the first time through a rocket attack. I was lucky to be an observer in Jerusalem where rockets do not often reach. For those targeted in Israeli communities in the south, and those caught in the crossfire in Gaza, I could only begin to imagine what they felt. If you want to read my analysis on the events of the day, read my last post. 

Day 1:

Each morning as I sip my coffee, I read the headlines of the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Ynet. While caffeine provides my chemical wakeup, reading the news is the mental kickstart that assists my transition from the ignorance of sleep to the realities of the world. Two breaking headlines were on Israeli news; Israel executes targeted strike on terrorist Bahaa- Abu- Al- Ata, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is sending a barrage of rockets into southern Israel. No caffeine was needed for my body to tingle and for my mind spin beyond the walls of my Jerusalem apartment. I downloaded red alert, the Israeli created app that warns people about rocket strikes to understand what was happening. Soon, my phone was buzzing 10 times a minute with the names of towns at risk. One by one as my roommates awoke, they joined the conversation in the kitchen as we tried to make sense of the past, present, and future events.

The feeling that lived inside of me during those two days is hard to explain. Every thought that hung in my brain manifested itself somatically in my body. My skin simmered and my gut burned on a constant medium. My breaths drew little air and my throat grew thin with the unrelenting fist of unending anticipation. In the rational brain, my fear didn’t derive from rockets because I knew they wouldn’t come to Jerusalem. I knew my real security risk was terrorists who would feel emboldened to commit stabbing attacks in light of Israeli retaliation, but, I wasn’t so afraid of that either. To an extent, these feelings came from a conflict within; In light of the bloodshed and propaganda wars that ensued over the hours following Al Atas killing, I forced myself to reexamine my positions and question which side was in the right. Didn’t Israel start this fight? How can I support Israel’s military campaign when they kill innocent people? To what extent can I trust Palestinian media? By the same token, to what extent can I trust Israeli media? 

That morning, after reviewing emergency procedures on how to take brace position and where to find shelter in public areas, we took a Tiyull (trip) to East Jerusalem with an organization that advocated Palestinian rights. Needless to say, it was hard for many to sympathize with the Palestinian cause on the day when a militant Palestinian faction from the South was attacking Israeli civilians. As my pocket vibrated, I learned the background of Palestinian anger in Jerusalem and was faced with navigating the uncomfortable middle ground of supporting Palestinian self determination and their right to protest while opposing terrorism and violence. Speaking in generalization; My ‘terrorism and violence’ is often viewed ‘armed resistance’ against an oppressive power. When civil resistance doesn’t work, I can understand the impulse to violence but terrorist acts are not armed resistance; Targeting civilians is to wage an offensive war against a defenseless cohort. 

As the west awoke It was midday here, and Israel had already committed retaliatory strikes against terror targets. I noticed the common trend that western media only reports on the conflict when Israel is involved. No western media reporting happened between after Al- Ata’s killing and when Israel hit terror targets in retaliation, despite the fact that the PIJ had launched over sixty rockets at civilians. 

Despite this, for me, the reporting war happened not in the news but on social media. Stand With Us was extremely active although I was not in the office, reporting the facts of the ground such as rocket counts, impacts, and Israeli strikes. My instagram stories were soon covered with SWU reposts from Jews and non- Jews at like in Philadelphia, from my program and all around. We were successful in filling in the gaps of information that are absent from the larger media which is vital to telling the full story. 

Simultaneously, the side against Israel moved into high gear as friends from home advocated against Israeli actions by reposting accounts on their Instagram stories. One profile reposted by my social justice advocate/ peace loving friend had content on their feed glorifying the perpetrators of violent Jihad, and denying the Jewish right to self determination. It doesn’t surprise me how people are taken by the propaganda; the Instagram account Is positioned to resonate with a western audience by highlighting the Palestinian plight in terms of existing social justice paradigms. Another account that was reposted says that they are telling the ‘full story,’ but their comments section is full of people chatting about a Zionist/ Jewish conspiracy against the Palestinians. Let’s be critical thinkers here; When your post has succeeded in uniting antisemites from the Middle East, Europe, and America, you’re either doing a poor job at advocating social justice… or social justice is not your prime mission. 

A comment on one of these accounts steeped in tropes about a world Zionist Conspiracy

In light of the views of my friends shared on instagram, I was faced with a decision. When people express views that are both anti- Israel and ignorant of the facts, I often stay quiet, but I felt that they may appreciate my unique perspective to offer given that I am living in Jerusalem. When I offered a friend to talk about the conflict, she said that she had heard both sides and that a conversation might not be productive. I told her that in Israel there are always three or more sides and that if she wants to hear a fourth side come back to me and talk. I got a thanks. While I appreciated her graciousness, I didn’t respect her choice for comfort. At the same time I was asking her to hear my truth- a position different from hers- I was practicing what I preached by by exposing myself to Al-Jazzeera, Arab News, Quds Social media, #gaza. That night, I reached out to my other friend, who reposted a post about the grief and anguish felt by the young daughter of Abu Al Ata. After hours of back and forth, fact checking (Gaza is not occupied after the 2005 unilateral disengagement, Israel is not seeking to annex the Palestinians, Jews are an indigenous minority in the Middle East as well as Palestinians ETC), and a Jewish money trope, I walked away again unsuccessful in being heard, but having sharpened my argumentative skills. I was confronted with another aspect behind Israel opinion; hatred of the Jewish state due to prejudice. Whether he knew it or not, his argument had Antisemetic undertones such as the idea of a thieving “Rich Zionist government.” After giving a history lesson and explanation, I suggested to him that he could be a better advocate for change if he avoided the Z word or bigoted tropes. While Zionism is an 1800s movement and Judaism is a religion (…people, culture, nationality etc.), the tenets of Zionism, Jewish self determination and wanting to go back to Israel are immutable from Judaism. They are in our prayers, in our culture, in our holidays, and in our sayings. In our ancient prayer the Shema, we say; “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our god and Adonai is one.” To toss around the word Zionist in a negative context is to use a substitute for the word ‘Jew.’ He vehemently denied ill intention, which I believe, but also denied my perception of his remarks as prejudiced. Ever heard ‘Jew’ed me down’ Or ‘Gyped me’ and thought nothing of it’? I know I have. Our socialization can breed unknown prejudice. He now sends me a daily post about ‘Israeli atrocities…’ some real, some imagined, and some more complicated than a post explain.

Photo sent to me by my friend advocating for Gaza. The little girl crying in the video is the daughter of Terrorist Bahaa- Abu al Ata

After I ended the conversation and before I went to bed, I sent a note to my SWU social media team on WhatsApp saying Kol Hakavod (Well done!) for their hard work reporting on the events of the day and to ask if they needed anything. Noam sent me a winky face back saying ‘Coffee!’ The good intern that I am, I sent them a note saying “brewing” and then another one with the coffee emoji. 

As I stepped into my dark bedroom, I prepared for the worst; a barrage of rockets on Jerusalem in the middle of the night. I took shorts, underwear, and a shirt out of my dresser and set it on the floor next to my bed. I stuffed socks in my sneakers and set them where they could easily be slipped on. I wouldn’t have to go far to the bomb shelter; the other bedroom in my apartment is reinforced with thick concrete and a blast door… but who knows how long I would have to stay there if the absolute worst should happen? By that point, 1 million Israelis were in bomb shelter… mind you, Israel only has 9 million citizens.  

I put my clothes by my bed before I went to sleep

Day 2:

While we made it through the night, nothing prepared me to waking up to a phone buzzing at 6:30 am to more rocket alerts. With a fluttering heart I dozed back off to sleep, got up and searched the posts with #gaza on Instagram to see what was happening on the pro- Gaza side. Reports of death tolls climbed, everyone considered a civilian, none a target. My terrorists were their freedom fighters. How and why do we see this differently I thought? I have my thoughts, but I’m still trying to understand. 

Sirens wailed in the city of Jerusalem throughout these two days more than usual and I wondered what it meant. I’d learn that there were 10s of thwarted attacks by Palestinians on police or Israeli citizens. Ambulances carried the terrorists who are more often than not were injured by police before they could commit violence. I heard of an attempted stabbing by a 14 year old Palestinian boy in the Arab shuk in the old city of Jerusalem where I go often to eat. He was tased while rushing a policeman with a knife, stunned on the cobblestone ground. My first two thoughts; Sadness; Who taught him that violence brings redemption? Second; Thank god that the police used non- lethal force.

When I arrived at the office, the environment was anticipatory, with a collective groan everytime the rocket alarm buzzed. Already, the false headlines had taken hold. Amnesty International condemned the IDF for striking a human rights agency in Gaza. It was quickly debunked by a reporter on the ground but the narrative was already drawn. The building actually exploded from a PIJ rocket. People had various different positions on the targeted killing that resulted in the rockets. It was clear that there were a lot of questions to be asked; why did they have to kill this terrorist now? Didn’t Israel know exactly what would happen in response to the rockets? I would later show up in a video broadcast to our social media saying that I support Israel.

Screenshot of the SWU video where I shared my support for Israel

After work, I went to lunch with someone that day who was here during the First Intifada and had missed a bus that blew up at the next stop, killing many. He explained the unmooring feeling of being suddenly unsafe in a place that should be safe. In the 25 years since the failure of the oslo peace process, and in the wake of the Second Intifada and the rise of Hamas, the Israeli public has no doubt become cynical toward peace and collectively scarred from trauma. Everyone is connected to someone who was affected by terror, by stabbing, by car, by bomb, by rocket. 

Rockets continued that afternoon and soon a ceasefire brokered by the Egyptians was announced. the PIJ has broken it in small batches but it has generally been held. I settled a bit, knowing that things would return to normal.

In the days following the conflict, I processed the fallout. My professor told me the story of a friend in his town who was walking with her three kids when the sirens went off. She decided that she could only run with two of her kids to the bomb shelter. She scooped up her older kids and ran, leaving the stroller with her baby in the middle of the road. She prayed in the concrete bunker that someone had taken the stroller. Emerging into the harsh light, the street was empty and within two minutes someone returned the stroller to her. Jono’s senior- aged great aunt who lives in Ashdod had to move her bedroom into the bomb shelter because she couldn’t move fast enough. But those stories of women and children exist in Gaza as well; a family of eight was tragically killed. The IDF misjudged a ramshackle house as a PIJ outpost. Conflicting reports suggest that they had either confused two brothers, one a PIJ member one a citizen- or confused their places of living and working. These mistakes are deady. 

While I felt I helped tell the full story through Stand With Us, I was sadly powerless to broaden the views of my very own friends back home; Just yesterday someone re-posted a video mocking an interview of an Israeli who said she had to miss her birthday party for rockets in a tone that said “Watch your privilege as you kill Gazans who live in hovels.” Yes and no, my friend, no and yes, and whatever lies between. If only you’d come here to see this vast expanse of gray… you would be as uncomfortable and confused as me.