I was pushing my 3-year-old twins in their stroller to their nursery when the siren went off. I began running toward the nursery, my children laughing all the way, and just as I reached the door I heard two loud explosions nearby. I opened the door to the courtyard, and in my haste I pushed the stroller too quickly over a step. BLAM! The stroller tipped over and my kids fell flat on their faces and began to scream. I picked up the stroller, pulled open the straps — our belongings scattered everywhere — and we ran for the building. When I opened the door, I saw all the children in the nursery squashed together in the corridor.
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They were singing a famous song about peace, written by Ehud Manor with music by Nurit Hirsh: “Next year, we’ll sit on the balcony and count migrating birds ... you will see, you will see, how good it will be — next year.”
Then I began to weep.
I live in Ra’anana, a town north of Tel Aviv full of techie types, where tumbledown cottages and old apartment buildings alternate with garish new mansions, and where my children’s biggest daily excitement en route to day care is watching the sanitation workers dump our carefully sorted trash into the garbage trucks.
I know that we are relatively safe here; My brother tells me I am more likely to be hurt in an earthquake than hit by a rocket. I also know that in southern Israel people have lived with daily rocket bombardment for weeks; that as of Wednesday 29 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip and 130 injured - as well as two citizens and now a foreign worker. I know that the Israel Defense Forces has uncovered 66 entrances to 23 tunnels, some of which have been used by Hamas terrorists to infiltrate Israel.
At the same time, though, I think every day of the Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip who are at the mercy of Israeli bombardment; of the more than 650 Gazans who have been killed as of Wednesday; of the bandaged and dying children lying in hospitals in Gaza and of the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip fleeing to United Nations shelters. I think of the four Palestinian boys — cousins — killed by an Israeli air strike while playing on a beach. I think of Samar AlHallaq, the Gaza coordinator for the Palestinian History Tapestry Project, who with her two children, aged 2 and 5, was killed on Sunday, July 20, in the Israeli attack on the Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiyeh. She was pregnant with her third child. A total of 11 people in the apartment were reported killed in that attack.
I am not naïve and I am not oblivious: I know that those rockets coming in from Gaza are designed to kill me and my family. I’ve been told by older Israelis, “We are used to this; we have been through it before.” In fact, this isn’t my first experience of terror or war: I lived in Jerusalem during the 1991 Gulf War. And on September 11, 2001, I stood on my own street in downtown Manhattan watching flames and smoke shooting from the towers of the World Trade Center. For many weeks afterwards, I lived with the indescribable smell of burning metal and human flesh. And I remember the Irish Republican Army bombings of pubs, cars, restaurants, shopping centers and public parks from my childhood in 1970s London.
I have heard all the arguments in favor of bombing the Gaza Strip: that Hamas is a terrorist organization; that it builds tunnels in order to infiltrate Israel and carry out terror attacks within Israel; that Israel has no partner for peace (we do: the Palestinian Authority); that they started the war. I have also read all the “blame-the-victim” arguments: that Gazans voted for Hamas (as if that justifies their death) and most notably that Hamas uses people as “human shields,” sending them up to the roofs of buildings or, as one Facebook friend claimed, “pushing them to stand in front of bombs when they are warned beforehand by Israel” about an imminent air strike and told to evacuate.
Aside from the obvious difficulty of standing in front of a bomb coming from the sky, I find it impossible to believe that any mother, Palestinian or Israeli, would willingly run to a roof with her child when an attack is imminent. So I asked Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, whether there was any truth to this claim.
“There are statements by official Hamas spokesmen demanding that people remain in their homes instead of evacuating. However, we also spoke to several witnesses who said the main reason for not leaving their home was not Hamas’ public warning but rather their assessment that it would be more dangerous to leave than stay at home, and also the horrific conditions at the UNRWA centers,” Michaeli said, adding, “Many have since changed their minds and have evacuated or have asked to do so. It’s very hard for us to ascertain the facts at this point. At any rate, and while still not being familiar enough with the facts to judge, if there was an attempt to prevent people from evacuating it is of course unlawful and utterly deplorable.”
I also asked Mahmoud AbuRahma, communications and international relations director of the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, to respond to the “human shield” claim. He said, “This looks to us like a big joke. I’ve never been used as a human shield, and I wouldn’t accept that my family and children are being used as human shields.” He also noted, as many others have, that targeting civilian homes with bombs and air strikes is illegal under international law. Or, as B’Tselem and nine other human rights organizations have noted in a letter to the Attorney-General, “sending alerts or providing warnings to residents does not transform them, or their homes, into legitimate military targets, and does not exempt the army from its duty to avoid executing indiscriminate attacks in the area.”
I have no respect for religious extremists of any stripe, and certainly not for Hamas, which, as Chemi Shalev describes in Haaretz is a “cruel, fanatic, fundamentalist, reactionary, totalitarian, misogynistic, Holocaust denying, human rights-abusing, anti-democratic, anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic movement that embraces terror, sanctifies martyrdom, glorifies death and condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden.” But as Sari Bashi, founder and former executive director of Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, said in an interview last week, “Gaza is not Hamas.”
We would do well to remember that. I want to remember that people in Gaza are human, just like me and my family. If I forget that, then I’ve lost part of my own humanity. I also know that the military solution is no solution, and that it will only lead to more bloodshed and hatred and war; and that the only way of ending this conflict is through a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians. The alternative is a bloody repeat of the same battle two years or five years or ten years hence: the periodic “mowing the lawn,” otherwise known as “flatten all of Gaza” in the words of Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad Sharon.
In my mind’s eye, I keep seeing myself running through the street with my children, the siren wailing, the children laughing, the crash, the children screaming. I know there are mothers in Gaza doing the same, and they are not so different from me, and that they probably have nowhere to go for shelter. I want to believe in the words of that Nurit Hirsch song, that “children on vacation will play tag between the house and the fields” and that there can be peace and equality and human rights and respect for both Israelis and Palestinians wherever they are. Because I do not want my children to grow up to kill or be killed in a senseless war that has no end.
Josie Glausiusz is a journalist who writes about science and the environment for magazines including Nature, National Geographic, and Scientific American Mind. Her weekly column, On Science, appears online each Wednesday in The American Scholar.