I have lived in this part of Israel for 45 years – the region that used to be called the Western Negev. However, people have long forgotten where that is; for years, they have known us as Otef Aza – the Gaza Envelope. When the Kassam rockets became a daily and deadly occurrence, well over a decade ago, we called ourselves ‘Kassam Land’.
But that name, too, entered the annals of history. Today people just call us ‘the otef’. Many people in Israel do not know exactly where it is – which is offensive, given the size of the country and what we are ‘famous’ for – but they know that it is nowhere they want to live.
What is it like living in a region that has known constant and countless military operation, rocket attacks, mortar shells and terror tunnels? What is it like living in a region in which, for nearly 120 days, arson kites and booby-trapped balloons/condoms have burned thousands of acres of farmland and nature parks? What is it like knowing that children here are traumatized by the ‘situation’ – a euphemism for the ongoing war, while parents continue to expose their children to this insane and dangerous childhood?
What is it like knowing that my two million neighbors in the Gaza Strip have been collectively punished since 2007, when the Israeli government imposed a blockade on that tiny region? What is it like knowing that while they have only three to four hours a day of electricity, and no potable water, they do have plenty of sewage running in the streets that is polluting their piece of the Mediterranean Sea? What is it like knowing that thousands of people there have been killed – many of them innocent adults and children – and thousands more wounded? What is it like knowing that the Gazans have given up giving up, have become fed up with being invisible, and for the last four months have been clanging on the jail gates to be released?
It is a nightmare.
As a social psychologist, I know the signs of trauma. I first felt them myself during the 2012 war. The brain stops functioning in any logical manner. You cannot complete a thought or a sentence. You cannot make any rational decision, because you are paralyzed with fear. You can’t sleep because of the constant drone of warplanes overhead, the constant rocket attack alerts in communities near yours or in yours, the text messages from the regional military headquarters to stay indoors, close to your safe rooms, for those who have them, and booms from us attacking them or them attacking us.
Your stomach is in knots and you become physically ill: you get urinary tract infections, toothaches, and diarrhoea. You can’t stay in your home because you fear for your life, but you’re petrified to leave because escape exposes you to the most dangerous place to be – the road – when a rocket falls. If you do decide to run, you repeat this mantra to yourself: ‘One more kilometre. One more kilometre. One more kilometre,’ until you make it out of rocket range.
However, when you reach a safer region, you can’t relax, because your head and heart are still there – in the otef. You hear a whizzing sound and you jump, since it sounds like the whirr before an air raid siren. Perhaps, more than anything else, you are completely distraught because the people who don’t live in the otef go about their lives as if everything is sababa (cool). The last thing that many want to hear about is what’s happening in the otef. The people, who do want to talk about it, are often those who are busy screaming, ‘Mow the grass in Gaza’, and ‘They’re all terrorists.’ When they tell you to ‘stay strong there in the south’, you want to wring their necks, because (a) strength is the last thing you have and (b) they are gleefully supporting a war which puts you – and all in the region – in direct and imminent danger.
After all these years of military operations and terror attacks of different shapes and sizes, I am not asking for pity. If anyone needs our pity, it is my two million neighbors in the Gaza Strip. My life is in the pits, but theirs is in Hell. I am not claiming that the 200,000 Israelis, of which I am one, who live within 30 seconds of rocket range, are to blame for the suffering of the Gazan population. However, I am not saying that we are free of guilt either. Years ago, we – the Israeli public – began voting in right wing, nationalistic, greater Israel, racist governments. For those of us, who did not cast our ballots for these parties, we did not fight hard enough in successive elections to vote in other parties who might have been willing to think, and act, in humanist, sustainable terms. The Israeli public brought this disaster upon itself. For the last 10 years, our governments have taught us that being cold-hearted, cruel and violent is legitimate when it comes to the Gaza Strip. For our ‘leaders’, Gaza+ Israel can only equal war.
For over a year, I, along with my friends in Other Voice, have been demonstrating once a week at the busy Yad Mordechai junction, which is close to the border with Gaza. We are an activist group comprised of people from the otef, who, for a decade, have been demanding a non-violent solution to the Israel-Hamas hostilities. In our decade of existence, we have repeatedly called for an end to the siege, the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, a ceasefire, a political plan and the cessation of the violations of human rights of our Gazan neighbors. Our signs, which were all handmade up to recently, have slogans such as: ‘Hope for Gaza = Hope for the Otef’. ‘Children in Gaza and Sderot Want to Live.’ ‘We Worry about Our Soldiers, So Let’s Stop the Next War’ and ‘It’s Israel’s Responsibility to Help Rebuild Gaza.’
Thousands of people drive past our demonstrations, usually held on Friday afternoons. While we get a few thumbs-up, most of the responses are violent – certainly verbally, and increasingly, physically violent. We cannot demonstrate with any sense of personal security if the police are not there to protect us. Many people who drive by swear at us, threaten us with death, throw coffee at us, try to run us over, grab our cell phones, and tear up our signs. Some become so enraged at our demonstrations that they literally stop their cars in the middle of the road, get out, and surround us physically, while screaming and swearing at us. They learned from our government leaders that such behaviors are not only acceptable; they are desirable and ‘patriotic’. We enrage these people, since they see us as traitors for claiming that the Gazans are entitled to what we have – clean running water, electricity 24 hours a day, functioning hospitals, clean streets and a clean sea, freedom of movement, employment, and basic human rights.
In spite of the physical fear that grips us here in the otef, I am not asking for your pity. If anyone needs compassion – it is the Palestinians in Gaza. However, having compassion for the Gazan victims is not enough either. We need you to work with us to change this untenable, immoral and destructive situation. People in Israel and Gaza deserve to live. We, the Israeli public, made a terrible mistake by continually supporting governments that propagate endless war and cruelty. They, the Palestinian-Gazans, made a terrible mistake when they voted for the Hamas in 2006. While we have made appalling choices, we do not deserve all this physical and psychological suffering. Certainly, our children do not. Help save us from ourselves. Press your leaders to condition further provision of political and financial support for Israel on the undertaking of concrete, measurable steps that advance a sustainable and humane reality for our tiny and bleeding region. Press your leaders to work with Egypt, the UN, and any other country or entity that can help, to bring the Gazans out of hell and onto the road to recovery.