A recent reigniting of violence between Israel and Gaza has once again brought to light the toll constant conflict has on the lives of citizens on both sides of the border. After decades of conflict and bloodshed, the emotional, psychological, and physical impact on citizens of the region has taken a horrifying toll. For many Israelis and Gazans, it seems hard to believe that such long term trauma has not been a stronger catalyst for peace.
The Israel-Palestine conflict dates back to the early 1900s when thousands of Zionist European Jews migrated to the territory of Israel-Palestine (then under Ottoman rule) – a movement that aligned with the development of a distinct Palestinian national identity amongst the Arab citizens of the land. Since then, a dispute over the ownership of the land between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs has fuelled the conflict, with seemingly no end in sight.
The Gaza strip is one of two Palestinian territories, and is the one most often involved in active combat with Israel. The territory, established originally by the United Nations General Assembly in 1947, borders Israel to the north and west, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the south, and the Mediterranean Sea to the east. It is a rectangular area of land spanning 25 miles long and about 4-5 miles wide, and has an uncomfortable population density of 812 people per square kilometer. Since 2007, the strip has been administered by Hamas, an ‘islamist political organization and militant group‘ listed officially as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the EU, and several other nations.
Relations between the Israelis and Palestinians have fluctuated frequently between violence and fragile peace for decades, cycling between wars, ceasefires, intifadas, military interventions, civilian outbursts, and the American-moderated peace process. The most recent flare up of the conflict occurred on Monday, 12 November, 2018, in response to an Israeli operation aimed at taking out a senior Hamas commander carried out the day before. The operation consisted of air strikes to draw attention away from Israeli special forces, who then infiltrated the city of Khan Younis in a civilian vehicle and successfully killed Nour Baraka, a commander of Hamas’ armed brigades. The operation reportedly killed seven Gazans. One Israeli soldier was killed in an exchange of fire, and the 40 missiles fired into the surrounding area killed at least four civilians.
Hamas announced its intended retaliation shortly after the operation. The Israeli air force immediately cleared out Gazan citizens from air strike target areas, and by the next morning, Hamas had fired 300 rockets towards Israel, forcing citizens to seek refuge in bomb shelters. Within 24 hours after the initial strike, the total number of rockets fired into Israel reached 460.
But the trauma was not one-sided. Israeli forces returned the fighting with attacks on terrorist squads and dozens of air raids.
By the end of the second day of fighting, an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire agreement was reached. Yet this end to the sudden and swift exchange seemed to dissatisfy most citizens.
Residents of Sderot, a southern Israeli town located less than a mile from the Gazan border, protested their government’s ceasefire on Tuesday, 13 November. One citizen told Israel’s Channel 2 News: ‘It’s better to suffer in safe rooms, and that once and for all they will put an end to this. I know a month from now it will be the same thing – another few days and again there will be missiles, and nothing will have changed. It’s not reasonable that this is how our lives look.’
Tzipi Livni, a prominent Israeli politician and Leader of the Opposition, told reporters that ‘True quiet will be achieved only by deterrence against Hamas and by action against Hamas. There is no such thing as an agreement with Hamas.’
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Leader of the Opposition. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Many Palestinian citizens reacted in practically the opposite manner to the ceasefire. On Tuesday night hundreds of Gazans met in the streets of Gaza City to celebrate their declared victory over Israel. However, for many others, the durability of the agreement is just as doubtful as it is for the Israelis. Palestinian school teacher Mohammed Baroud told Qatari media network Al-Jazeera that because ‘…Israel has never stuck to any agreement in the past…‘ he is not certain the deal will not hold for long.
But what is perhaps more troubling than the lack of confidence in their respective governments is the scale to which living through constant violence impacts young citizens. Baroud went on to describe his classroom to Al-Jazeera the day after the ceasefire: ‘My students, who are mostly 11-year-olds, were scared. I spent the day comforting them, reassuring them that it will be OK.’
Baroud’s students are not the only ones who have suffered emotional scars. In fact, according to Al Jazeera English, Gazans under the age of 17 (half of Palestine’s population) have lived through three wars. Yet, stories profiling individual families affected by the turmoil unfortunately only surface when conflict attracts prolonged international attention, despite the fact the suffering is constant regardless of the status of Israeli-Gazan relations.
Shimon Ben Shelaimi Zalman, and Israeli, revealed to BBC shortly after the 2014 Israel-Gaza war of the fighting’s affects on his family: ‘My elder daughter, who is married and has a young baby, refuses to visit [me and my wife] because we don’t have a sealed room.’
Civilians on both sides of the border have been suffering from personal loss for years. An Israeli human rights organization called B’Tselem has been tracking the number of Israelis and Palestinians killed monthly as a result of the conflict since September 2000. In 2014, the total number of recorded deaths reached 8,166 – 7,065 Palestinian and 1,101 Israeli.
How long will Israelis and Palestinians continue to face such trauma and heartbreak before their governments’ are finally inclined to instigate real change in the region? The answer, unfortunately, is that it could be a while. The actions taken by both sides in the recent outburst nearly mirrored those of the last war in 2014, which ended with a ceasefire that only brought peace for a mere three and a half years.
The experience of deep traumatic scars secondary to the horror of fighting and killing, and the constant threat of terrorist activity has to mean more to the leaders of these suffering people. Expressed scepticism, fleeting hope, retaliation, the need for sealed rooms and death toll reports cannot continue to be the only outcomes for the Israeli and Palestinian people.