In Israel or Gaza, Declaring Sympathy for the Other Side Is a No-go Zone

Concern for Palestinians does not mean lack of concern for Israelis. But my Facebook 'friends' thought otherwise.

Reuters

I am on deadline before dinner, trying to bang out a war-related story. My husband announces he will take the kids to play in a large park that runs along the seam line of East and West Jerusalem.

I hesitate, thinking of having descended to our building’s bomb shelter the day before. There are no shelters there, I protest. What will you do if the siren for an incoming rocket from Gaza sounds? “We’ll reach up and catch it,” he says, jumping into the air to demonstrate. And then, when sees me not smiling, adds with half smile that says don’t worry, “Oh, we’ll get down on the ground, don’t worry.”

When they leave, instead of returning to the story I indulge in a quick Facebook post, the 21st century equivalent of the cigarette or stiff drink my journalistic forebears relied on to get them through. After explaining the sad scenario above, I have the audacity to add that this leads me to “think of the horror of being a parent in Gaza and knowing nowhere is safe, there are no shelters.” What was I thinking?

And so the deluge of comments begins. Most of those bothering to write are friends (and “friends”) who find it deeply troubling to hear that I sympathize with the plight of Gazans, especially before I have expressed sympathy with the people of the south, who have been under rocket threat for years. (I gently point out that I do that consistently, such as in my last two Haaretz pieces from Ashdod and Sderot.) But commenters are so excited to jump on the bandwagon – it’s Hamas’ fault for spending its energy on building tunnels and rockets rather than shelters, the Palestinian people voted for Hamas in 2006 so perhaps this is what they deserve – that they can’t even open their hearts and minds to the simple point I was trying to make: It is a horror to be a parent in Gaza right now.

“Yikes Ilene,” a fellow journalist wrote, “you're venturing into no-go territory, expressing sympathy for Palestinians being killed in Gaza.... is that allowed on social media these days without getting cursed as a sellout or a traitor?”

It’s true, it would be easy to write me off that way. I used to go to Gaza quite frequently as a journalist, and I met many people who love their kids as much as I love mine and who, I’m willing to bet, would give anything for their reality to be radically different than what it is today. Perhaps sans Hamas. I was last in Gaza following Operation Cast Lead in 2009, and seeing the destruction wrought then, I am loathe to think that Gaza could now be in for far worse. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t also hold Hamas responsible for the poor choices its makes, investing its money into building tunnels over building housing. But I, and others like me, should be able to express concern for the 1.8 million people who live in Gaza without being deemed a Hamas apologist.

A Palestinian friend noticed the barrage of comments on my post, and she was dismayed to see that Israelis were so quick to decry my words of empathy for Gazans. I asked her if there were Palestinians in her circles who were posting messages like mine. Were any Palestinians decrying the rockets being lobbed at Israeli civilians? She posted the question to her friends, and the response was a resounding no. People are so outraged over Gaza, over Mohammed Abu Khdeir, over the house raids and the home demolitions, over every aspect of the occupation and its ongoing injustices, that most find it hard to summon any empathy for Israel. On a different Palestinian acquaintance’s page, there were virtual cheers of excitement for rockets raining down on Tel Aviv – a fact that left me depressed for days.

And so it goes whenever we reach a new nadir in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We stop being able to recognize the suffering of the other, at least publicly, because how could we? We lose our appetite for understanding the nuances.

We are expected to rally around the flag. Those who don't risk being attacked not just online, but in the real world as well: Witness the attacks on demonstrators protesting the IDF invasion of Gaza on Friday and Saturday in Tel Aviv and Haifa. We’re now in a zero-sum game, and if you share news or observations about the devastation in Gaza, it’s as if you’re giving away points. Those who refuse to play this game are considered marginal at best, dangerous at worst.

But back to my post on the rockets and the park. It wasn’t a piece of reporting or analysis – I do enough of that elsewhere. It was a statement of concern, and I stand by it. If more people on both sides stood against the violence and remembered our common humanity, we might get somewhere. “There is no contradiction between the welfare of Israelis and of Gazans,” today’s Haaretz editorial reads. If people would understand that, they would know why concern for Palestinians does not mean lack of concern for Israelis.

I am still haunted by the story of the four young Bakr boys who were killed on the beach Wednesday, across from the lovely al-Deira Hotel where I enjoyed staying each time I went to Gaza. The fishermen who allowed their sons to play near the marina in the middle of the war had the same attitude that my husband adopted when he took my kids to a shelterless area. Despite the dangers, we make a grasp at living normal lives. It just happens that they live in Gaza and I live in Jerusalem. But there I go again, veering into no-go territory. Creating “moral equivalency,” as a few of my critics charge. What was I thinking?