Amid Israel-Gaza violence, a personal drive to preserve humanity and hope
bridging the divide
It's a challenge to prevent fear from overwhelming compassion. Even before the latest violence, animosity and distrust have run deep on both sides of the Israeli-Gazan border. For some Israeli residents of the region, there's no alternative but to reach out to preserve hope.
Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel
Minutes after Imad walked into the kibbutz dining hall just over two weeks ago he was engulfed by a wave of Israelis hurrying to him with open arms, pulling him in for long hugs.
It had been over a decade since this Palestinian man in his 50s, a resident of Gaza, had seen these friends or stepped foot in this communal village where he worked most of his life.
A week later and a few miles away along the Gaza-Israel border, 64 Palestinians were killed and more than a thousand wounded by Israeli soldiers as protesters – demanding their “right to return” to Israel and an end to the crippling Israeli economic blockade of Gaza – surged toward a perimeter fence.
Between the Gazans and Israelis, animosity and distrust runs deep. Three successive wars in recent years between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamic faction ruling Gaza, have left both sides battle-scarred. The Israeli blockade has left people in Gaza, especially the swelling ranks of the unemployed, reeling from shortages of fresh water and electricity.
Tami Suchman, a Kibbutz Be’eri member and friend of Imad (not his real name), is among the few who maintain ties with friends and connections in Gaza. Speaking to a Monitor correspondent days after the one-day surge in Palestinian deaths, which coincided with ceremonies in Jerusalem marking the relocation of the US Embassy to Israel, Ms. Suchman says she is deeply disturbed by the loss of Palestinian life over the last several weeks of violent protests.
Most Israelis blame Hamas squarely for the recent deaths, citing the militants’ calls to rush and breach the fence despite warnings Israel would use live fire to deter them in the name of protecting border communities like this one. But Suchman is among a minority who also put blame on Israel itself.
“I don’t see anyone working on the diplomatic front,” says Suchman. “Even if there is war it will not solve anything. Everyone knows that without negotiated deals there are no solutions.”
Fear of tunnels, anger at fires
The Israeli communities skirting closest to the Gaza border are kibbutzim and moshavim, collectives that were originally agricultural villages.
Israeli soldiers are mobilized along the Israel-Gaza border in the name of defending them from infiltrators. Local residents fear the Palestinian militants who dig fortified tunnels in the sandy soil, attempting in some cases to burrow under their very feet in order to kidnap and attack both soldiers and civilians. And they grow angry when they see their own fields and groves scorched black by fires lit by burning kites that young Palestinians ignite and fly over the border.
But through it all, there are those who hope dialogue will eventually triumph over trying to impose a military solution. Maintaining personal ties with people on “the other side” is part of their quest for agency, for laying the groundwork for a change in approach, and for maintaining a sense of humanity and hope amid a situation they admit they cannot control but are convinced will eventually change.
“They teach their kids it is their land, but it is also our land. We have to share it. On both sides we need to digest that – if we want a future – so we can stop living by the sword,” says Suchman.
She scrolls through photos of Imad’s visit on her cell phone – images of him beaming with friends. Some he has known since he started work building houses at the age of 16 in this setting of palm trees and citrus orchards.
In the aftermath of Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza in 2006, Israel, citing security concerns, imposed a closure on the territory, limiting the flow of some goods and putting an end to the flow of workers like Imad into Israel.
When, because of the closure, Imad and three other Gaza workers were prevented from working at Be’eri, Suchman and a friend started a fundraising drive among members to help support them. The kibbutz also contributes, and the men have been sent 1,000 shekels ($280) a month each for the past several years.
For his recent visit, Imad was only given an Israeli permit to cross the border to escort his brother, a cancer patient who was traveling that day for tests at an Israeli hospital.
Advocate for dialogue
Nearby, on Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, Roni Keidar is sitting near an olive tree in her garden later that same day and fielding text messages from friends and contacts in Gaza.
One, from a young man, is a reply to her recent query into how he is doing. It reads, in English, “Hello aunt roni, im ok but feel sad of what happens 2 days later I lost two of my friends and there are many of them got wounded.”
Like other border communities, the moshav has been hit by rocket fire from Gaza, and two of its people have been killed, one in 2007 and another in 2010.
Ms. Keider notes that things have become quiet again on the border, at least for now. The sky is a pale blue; wisps of clouds float above. Nearby are tomato, pepper, and sunflower fields.
“People are saying, why is it quiet today? Saying it’s because we gave them a walloping,” she says. “But the pain and scars are there, the vengeance is there, and we have to really do something extraordinary to change that.”
She says she tries in her own way, using whatever connections she has to help facilitate travel permits for Gazans for reasons other than medical appointments.
Keidar is also a member of Other Voice, an organization of residents in southern Israel who advocate for dialogue.
It’s not easy, she acknowledges, staying the course. The flaming kites sent by Gaza protesters setting fields alight on her own moshav and others anger her deeply.
“It makes it more difficult for me,” she says, “and sometimes I want to say, ‘What are you doing?’”
The burning kites, the tunnels, she says, are “not the way we are going to get peace. I’m so sad, what can we do? Where do we go? Someone in Gaza wrote me and said she rented a house further from the border. Some ask if we can help them finance their dinners for Ramadan because they don’t have enough money.”
The weight of doubt
Keidar gets pushback about her ongoing ties with Gazans, even from close friends.
She blames fear for the lack of compassion among her fellow Israelis for civilians in Gaza.
“They are afraid,” she says. And she understands their fear, lives it even. Just the other night, she recounts, she heard a tapping noise she suspected could be the sound of tunneling underneath her living room by Palestinian militants. Her husband dismissed the thought, but still, she wonders.
She encourages her critical friends to read up, as she has, on controversial measures Israel has employed now and in the past. “When you see two sides, it’s difficult,” she says. “When you see only one side it is easy. With two sides there is suddenly doubt, and they don’t like to doubt.”
A plane flies overhead and she looks up, wondering. Later, a distant boom is heard.
“I am torn with fear for this side and that side,” she says. Mentioning the kites again, she says, “I wish to goodness they would not do this. But I keep remembering and cannot get out of my mind that these are desperate people. And desperate people are dangerous. So we have to give some sort of hope, some sort of light.”
Soon after he returned to Gaza, Imad contacted his friends on Kibbutz Be’eri to let them know he had arrived safely back. So did a large suitcase stuffed with supplies like coffee, sugar, flour, cigarettes, and snacks for his grandchildren that the kibbutzniks had packed for him, Suchman says.
She says Imad asked her to send him the photos she took. His family wanted to see for themselves who these friends are. He told her, “You don’t understand. There are 20 people here. And I’m telling them, ‘You are our family.’”