by Christine Leuenberger
Café Aroma on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus is one of a kind. Arabs and Jews work there together serving their ethnically diverse costumers. Both Palestinian Israelis and Israeli Jews bring their families to the café for breakfast. It was mid June 2014 when I went there to meet Esmail*, an Israeli Palestinian from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, for coffee. Instead of choosing a table in the midst of the café, he pointed to a corner, out of earshot of other costumers. “How are you?” I asked. He spoke in a hushed voice, his gaze fixed on the Arab waiter who had a blue blood-shot eye and a face disfigured by a heavily swollen lip and cheek. He told me that he had sent his wife and children to Akko as it is safer there. It is no longer safe in Beit Hanina, he said. There had been two attempted kidnapping of Palestinian children by mobs of right-wing Jews before the one that led to the kidnapped teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s death. Khdeir was doused in gasoline and set on fire in the wooded outskirts of Jerusalem. Everyone is afraid, Esmail whispered, and mothers keep their children indoors. They only go out in groups, and on everyone’s mind is only one thought: their own safety and their own survival.
The Escalation of Violence
What started this latest round of violence in Israel and Palestine? The causes you choose define you as ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-Palestinian’, ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-Israel’. It depends which events are deemed relevant, whose history is recounted, and how far back in history one goes. Was it the kidnapping of the three Jewish teenagers on June 16 inside the West Bank? Was it the Israeli government’s determination to destroy the infrastructure of Hamas and the recently formed unity government between Fatah and Hamas Embed: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/opinion/gaza-and-israel-the-road-to-war-paved-by-the-west.html)? Was it Hamas sending rockets into Israel? Was it Israel’s siege on Gaza? Or is it oil, or is it gas, or is it the Hamas-built tunnels into Israel?
With the ever-intensifying escalations underway, causes for what some called ‘the operation” and others “a war” (Embed: http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.610264) shifted. What allegedly started off as an effort to rescue three teens in the West Bank ended up as an attempt to destroy Gaza’s tunnels into Israel. Red herrings and factual sequences became quickly enmeshed in a public relations battle between two warring sides in which truth and consequences were soon blurred.
For many Israelis, the most proximate cause for the flare-up in the latest cycle of violence was the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah on June 16. Palestinians point to another trigger – the killing of two Palestinian teenagers during the Nakba commemoration day on May 15. The disappearance of the three teenagers undoubtedly spelt a bad omen for what was to come. In the following days and weeks during what the Israeli government called ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper’ (an extensive man hunt and search for the three teens inside the West Bank), Sheikh Ibrahim met with Rabbi Yakov at the place where the three disappeared so as to call for their safe return.
The rabbi and the sheikh pray together
But days turned into weeks and they did not return. By June 30, a music event was held at Kikar Zahal near the border of West and East Jerusalem to sing for peace. As people gathered with drums, guitars, and babies, Ariel came up to me “there will be some very bad news announced in about 10 minutes”. The lead singer, with his head bowed, sitting on the ground with guitar in hand, made the announcement. A woman held her hands in front of her face, sobbing. People who had previously been dancing joyfully turned somber, shadows crossing their faces. Instead of singing for peace, this became a remembrance event for the three teens who were killed by gunpoint shortly after having been kidnapped. Candle light vigils were held all over the country. They had become “our boys” and Israel fell into collective mourning.
Israelis and Palestinians singing together songs of peace
The next day Israeli leaders lamented what they called the “broad moral gulf that separates us from our enemies”. “They sanctify death, we sanctify life,” the Israeli Prime Minister Natanyahu said (see link: http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/01/world/meast/israel-teenagers-death/). He called the kidnappers “animals” and assured the grieving public that “Hamas will pay and they will pay a high price” (see link: http://www.jpost.com/Breaking-News/Netanyahu-The-boys-were-kidnapped-and-murdered-in-cold-blood-by-animals-361060). The rituals and candle light vigils that had been bringing a people together suddenly turned - nurtured by sentiments of victimhood and resentment - into public calls for revenge attacks. While left-wing Israeli Jews continued to gather in Zion Square, lighting candles and singing songs for peace, mobs of white-shirted young settlers and right-wing activists surrounded them, pushing and shoving them, and running in roaring hoards down Jaffo street. For days they roamed the streets, chanting “death to leftists” and “death to Arabs”. They would hunt “down random Arabs, picking them out by their appearance or by their accents, chasing them in broad daylight”. They approached tourists on Jaffo Street asking them to help “hunt down Arabs”, who were singled out, harassed and attacked in McDonalds, in cafés and in buses, and the local police force often had to guard Palestinian Israeli commuters on the light rail in order to protect them from right wing mobs. Chemi Shalev (http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/west-of-eden/.premium-1.602697) compared these days to racist thugs on the prowl in Berlin in 1933.
At the same time, many of the Arab neighborhoods around Jerusalem exploded – there were riots all night on the Mount of Olives, in Shuafat and in Isawiya. There were stone-throwing Palestinians facing off security forces, and roads were littered with stones the next morning. Arab Israelis did not spare Israeli Jews either – they threw stones at their cars, hurled pipe bombs at the light rail, and they too wished death upon the Jews. Simply standing at an intersection in French Hill, on the border to Shuafat, became a test of nerves as groups of young Palestinians would peer out of a mini-van and shout at passers by. Nothing felt safe anymore – and for us internationals, looking as foreign as possible suddenly became our most preferred option. Armed with sun hat, water bottle, and a backpack was one way to try to stay light on our feet in a city that seemed to be increasingly dominated by ethnic-religious warfare.
From Riots to Warfare
There had also been raids in West Bank cities. There were clashes not only in Hebron, but also in Jenin, Nablus, and even Ramallah. Suddenly, what locals call the ‘Ramallah bubble’, where Palestinians and internationals frequent fancy coffee bars and restaurants with panoramic views over the city, started to resemble a war zone. Remnants of fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians littered its streets.
Streets started to resemble a war zone
The notorious Qualandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah had become a daily site of demonstration, fighting, and death. The escalation was as remarkable as it was shocking. The low-level warfare that usually simmers under the surface between the Israeli military, Jewish settlers, and Palestinians inside the West Bank; the cold war between Israeli Arabs and the Jewish state; and the more volatile and frequent eruptions of violence between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel; all had suddenly boiled over.
Now there were street riots in Nazareth, Haifa and Bethlehem. By July 6, Jabr wrote to me from Nazareth to say that “in fact it is not a good time to visit Nazareth this week”. By July 8, Israel had launched ‘Operation Protective Edge’. After initial airstrikes on Gaza, Israel amassed tanks at its borders, ready for a ground invasion. That day, Fadi canceled our meeting in Ramallah: “it seems that there are escalations, so let’s postpone to next week. Let’s see tomorrow”. During the escalations there was one thing that kept us going: the hope of tomorrow. Abbud would tell me that “this will not last much longer – one or two days”. Ilan also assured everyone every day that “there will be a ceasefire by Friday, I am sure”. Hoping for tomorrow was like a lifeline. Everyone said: this cannot last. But Friday turned into another Friday and yet another Friday.
“War is exhausting”, Fatimah declared, “we can get nothing done”. Amos wrote to me from Ra’anana: “I have been so caught up in taking care of the family and myself, I completely forget about everything else”. In Jerusalem, streets were empty, and riots subsided under the heavy police and military presence. The light rail still ran, although intermittently. There were no more Israeli Palestinians on it, just a few Jews. Amidst fears of a bubbling third intifada, soldiers and security officials with heavy machine guns frequently outnumbered passengers. At night on Mount Scopus, there were sirens in the distance, fighter jets overhead, and the sound of explosions nearby. Young Caroline would ask me, “are those fireworks?” “I hope so,” I’d say. While people stayed home in Jerusalem, waiting out the war in their living rooms and seeking shelter upon the sound of the red code alarm, exhausted mothers in Gaza, who had no respite from bombing and no shelters to retreat to, reportedly told their children that when there is a bombing raid they should all go to the same room so they may at least all die together.
Hoping for Peace
In the midst of the ever-escalating cycle of violence and hate, peace activists called for a Sulcha (a reconciliation ceremony) meeting. In their call for participation they cited the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “We live so close yet we don’t know each other”. That evening only a few Israelis came and even fewer West Bank Palestinians. Most either refused to join so as not to normalize Israeli occupation policies, whilst others were refused permits to enter Jerusalem by the Israeli authorities. In the end, there was only one Palestinian family at the event. As people gathered in the garden, the father, Hakim, lectured his daughters about the impossibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet, as Yoav avowed, after five hours of togetherness people soften. They talk together, they eat together, and they sit around a campfire together. Whilst staring at the flames shooting into the heavy summer air, Orit acknowledged how bad the situation had become. Hakim sat across from her, hanging on her every word. A soft smile flickered across his lips whenever she looked up. By the end of the evening, a student from Tel Aviv hugged what could have been her Palestinian twin from Ramallah: “I will see you again soon,” she smiled. It is said that such attempts to achieve peace through friendship (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/opinion/sunday/peace-through-friendship.html?emc=edit_tnt_20140822&nlid=47148895&tntemail0=y&_r=0) often wear off once adversaries return to their normal life, but the positive effects of having known “the other” can quietly reverberate across social divides for a long time.
More recently I went again to Café Aroma, this time to meet Liora. She was waiting for me at a table by the counter. She was one of those progressive, liberal, and committed Jewish Israelis who would risk her own safety, comfort, and career for the sake of peace. There had been right-wing rallies, ethnically-motivated attacks, clashes all over the West Bank, bombing raids in Gaza, and missiles fired into Israel. Right-wing ministers promised to build more Jewish settlements inside the West Bank, and Hamas leaders promised to unleash hell on Israel. “It has never been so bad”, Liora declared. “During the second intifada it was Palestinians against the military, but now it is Jew against Arab and Arab against Jew”. I looked at her despairingly: “There is no hope, is there?” She turned to me reproachfully: “I live here. I cannot afford to give up hope”.
**All personal names, other than those of public figures, have been changed.