Last Friday afternoon, thousands of young Palestinians gathered in East Jerusalem. They were burying Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the 16-year-old boy who had been kidnapped and burned alive by Jewish extremists a few days earlier.
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As they hurled Molotov cocktails and burned tires and flung stones from makeshift slingshots at Israeli troops and police officers (who responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammo), they chanted about revenge and struggle and endless war.
While this was going on, thousands of Israeli youths were gathering at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, armed with water guns and overflowing buckets. No, they weren't planning some convoy to Jerusalem to douse the fires. Much like their Palestinian compatriots, these teens were going to war alright, but theirs was a different war.
It was Tel Aviv’s tenth annual “Water War”, to be exact.
All through that afternoon, as Palestinian youths clashed with police following the gruesome murder of a 16-year-old boy that itself followed the gruesome murders of the three kidnapped Israelis teens, as rockets and mortar shells continued to batter Israel’s southern towns, as the whole country teetered on the brink of spontaneous combustion - Jewish girls and boys in bikinis and shorts were throwing, firing and otherwise bombarding each other with gallons of water.
The Tel Aviv “water war” takes place each year in the summer, and always involves loud music and great fun. Usually, though, it doesn’t happen when the whole Middle East is burning.
Yet, despite the current events and a last-minute change of location, this year’s “water war” was a great success. In the middle of the mayhem, a girl got proposed to. In the shade of trees surrounding the square, and in nearby streets, boys and girls shared awkward, wet flirtations.
Calls for blood and a towel
Two events, both involving the same age group, taking place less than 60km apart. One involves the Middle East we know: the calls for blood, the casual brutality. The other involves a Middle East that should not, purportedly, even exist: a carefree, millennial heaven of guiltless pleasure and hormone-fueled excess.
But these two worlds co-exist, and have for a long time.
It is one of the central qualities of Tel Aviv that its residents, especially its young, are unperturbed by national crises. The oft-remarked disconnect between Tel Avivis and the reality of the region in which they live, often called “the Tel Aviv bubble,” is notorious. The city’s seemingly autistic tendency to party on while the rest of the country burns tends to irk that rest of the country.
The water war, in fact, capped a week that saw Tel Avivis more preoccupied with a war of their own - over the right to buy a pack of Marlboros on Friday night. As tires burned in Jerusalem and rockets peppered the south, and young people were getting shot less than 50 miles away, Tel Aviv’s young were planning a street party in front of the house of the minister who ruled that supermarkets and kiosks had to shut on Shabbat. (The party was eventually postponed, due to a lack of police permission).
The dissonance, mainly to outsiders, must be shocking. How can people in Tel Aviv party while missiles are falling on children and another child was burned alive? How can they have fun when elsewhere, desperation seems to have taken hold? It’s a fair question.
And then the sirens sounded
Tel Aviv’s joie de vivre, exemplified by its water wars and street parties, is by now legendary. It is a sign of normality, to some. To others, it is a sign of cognitive dissonance, of acute narcissism.
It is a victory of life over the darkness; and a victory of apathy over action. It is a sign of mental health, and of mental illness. It is a symbol of both helplessness and great resource.
It is all of those things: proof of the vanity of the young; evidence of their adaptability. Partying in times of crisis or war is, after all, not unheard of. It is a human reaction in times of extreme stress.
It might be that faced with their inability to end the endless cycle of violence, the residents of Israel’s most cosmopolitan city can only react to their helplessness with a well-planned “water war”.
All this, of course, was before sirens rang over Tel Aviv, followed by the distant but unmistakable thud of rockets being intercepted. One would think that might end the partying, as if saying: “Welcome to the Middle East, Tel Aviv. It’s been a while.”
And for a day, the Palestinian rockets aimed at Tel Aviv seemed to do just that. As missile-warning sirens rang early on Wednesday morning, one could see people streaming out of a popular Tel Aviv cafe, leaving their cappuccinos, seeking shelter.
But within hours, as same familiar thud was heard from the Tel Aviv skies, at another café - no one flinched. They stayed put, coffee cups and paninis in hand, smiles undisturbed.
To paraphrase the Book of Isaiah: “Let us party, for tomorrow we may die”. But not today.