The bombing at Jerusalem’s central bus station yesterday that killed one person and injured more than 30 others is shocking and saddening—especially after years without such an attack. We hope and pray that this action does not signal a further escalation of violence that robs more families of their loved ones. Some reports about the Jerusalem bombing also mentioned recent attacks and multiple civilian deaths in Gaza, which are less likely to garner the same level of international outrage. Every time I see such an article, I try to read it carefully, looking for the names of neighborhoods and locations we’ve visited on our trips to visit partners. I wonder: Will someone I know be among the bystanders killed in Israel and Palestine’s “100 eyes for one eye” cycle of violence?
Yesterday morning, just hours before the bombing in Jerusalem, I learned that an Israeli missile recently exploded near the home of Majeda Alsaqqa, our main contact at MCC partner the Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA) in Khan Younis, Gaza. Thankfully, Majeda was unhurt. When we met with her last month, she was her usual upbeat and enthusiastic self, despite the challenges of living and working in Gaza. CFTA’s programs are impressive, meeting the needs of children for educational enrichment, leadership development, and trauma therapy.
Majeda Alsaqqa (far left) claps as children at a CFTA winter camp perform traditional Palestinian dances.
At the time, many of her complaints focused on harassment by Gaza’s Hamas-controlled de facto government. They’ve vandalized CFTA’s offices, built a street through the middle of a Global Family-sponsored children’s center, and even invaded her home. I asked her if it’s dangerous for us to publicly report her complaints about Hamas, but she insisted that it’s important to tell the truth about their abuses. However, she was quick to point out that despite these tribulations, the real root of Gaza’s poverty, isolation, and human rights violations are the ongoing closure and blockade of Gaza’s land, sea, and airspace enforced by the Israeli military.
That reality is never more obvious than when Israel’s tank shells and missiles from its U.S.-made F16 fighter jets pound this densely populated area to punish rockets fired by militant groups. Deaths of non-combatants are virtually inevitable. A phone conversation today with another Gaza partner revealed that some of the victims of recent strikes have been children—whose body parts have been found in trees. Such grisly details feel sensational to relate, but it’s important to understand the graphic reality of what “advanced” weaponry does to residents of an urban neighborhood.
Both sides claim their actions are in response to the other, and regardless of who is targeted by either side, the main practical difference is how many people are hurt or killed. According to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, more than 1,500 Gazans–the majority of them civilians–have been killed by the Israeli military beginning with the war in 2008-2009 known as Operation Cast Lead. (To see their analysis of how many were combatants/civilians, follow this link.) In the same period, Palestinians killed nine Israeli soldiers and 11 civilians.
At least eight Palestinians, including four civilians, were killed over the course of Tuesday during heavy exchanges of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and militants in the Gaza Strip. … On Tuesday afternoon, Gaza militants fired four mortars at Kibbutz Alumim and Kibbutz Sa’ad. The rockets landed in open areas and caused no injuries.
In response, the IDF fired mortars at the suspected launching point. The IDF mortars targeted the Palestinians behind the rockets, but also hit 12 civilians. One of the four mortars fired by the IDF at a launching pad in a Gaza olive grove strayed and hit a house about 80 meters away.
Militants continued to fire mortar shells and a Grad rocket at Ashkelon as the evening progressed. There were no injuries.
Maddeningly, neither the Israeli government nor Hamas seem to exhibit significant desire for real peace. Israel’s military action against Gaza remains popular with the Israeli public, and Hamas benefits from the status quo in which it rules over an embattled enclave. Controlling the limited flow of goods smuggled in and out of Gaza seems to be a higher priority for Hamas than the well-being of its own population. Our partners in Gaza do not see a coincidence in Hamas’ actions at the very time that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah party is proposing reconciliation among Palestine’s political factions. Though Palestinian unity is the key demand of popular demonstrations in the West Bank that have been at least partly inspired by the uprisings throughout the Arab world, reconciliation would likely mean a loss of power for Hamas.
One can clearly denounce attacks against civilian areas—while praying for the success of grassroots movements aiming to usher in more democratic governments throughout the region—with or without the interference of Western powers. Israel’s ever-dubious claim to be the region’s “only democracy” is even further eroding with the emergence of freedom movements among its neighbors and as a result of its increasingly anti-democractic policies—which have never granted full equality to its non-Jewish citizens. Some of our local partners are optimistic, observing a rise in nonviolent political organizing and engagement by Palestinian youth—something that the Israeli military is deeply concerned about. Others are less hopeful, acknowledging Israel’s continued military dominance, accelerating settlement construction, and Palestinian political fragmentation. Can the youth camped out in Bethlehem’s Manger Square and Ramallah’s Al Manara Circle calling for unity and the end of Israeli military occupation hope to succeed?
A few months ago, we hosted MCC’s SALT coordinator, Eva Mazharenko. Observing the reality of Israeli military occupation of Palestine, she compared it to her childhood in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. However, these memories also gave her hope. The people of Eastern Europe could not imagine how quickly the Berlin Wall would crumble and the Iron Curtain fall. Eva observed that the same could happen here: An unpredicted series of events could usher in a rapid, even miraculous, change. At the time of her visit here, no one could have predicted the nonviolent overthrow of Tunisia’s dictatorship. Then, at the time of the Tunisian uprising, virtually all pundits declared nothing like that could possibly happen in Egypt. Now, many uprisings—most of them primarily nonviolent but facing extreme government violence—are sweeping the region. No one can predict the outcome, but as Pastor Alex Awad of East Jerusalem Baptist Church recently preached, neither should we fear the worst, while we continue to pray—and advocate—for a just and lasting peace.