My wife was 11 when the first gulf war started in 1991. Saddam Hussein warned that he would “burn half of Israel”. And on the night that coalition forces invaded Iraq, he launched salvos of Scud missiles into Israel, mostly aimed at the greater Tel Aviv region where she lived.
She still feels sick at the smell of those rubber gas masks. She remembers decorating her gas mask box with colourful stickers, the natural reaction of a child to normalise the horrific. She remembers the fear of chemical weapons, sealing up the windows with plastic sheeting and keeping wet towels under the door, she remembers her class constantly practising how best to get into the school’s air raid shelter as fast as possible. She remembers being huddled round the radio listening out for news. She remembers having to give the dog a Valium as the sirens sounded.
How little has changed.
From my mother-in-law’s house, the nearest air raid shelter is in a small park about 500 yards away, beside the children’s swings. But when the sirens sound, it may already be too late to make it over there. The house is old; it doesn’t have a specially designed safe room. So she stands in the corridor between the loo and the bedroom. That is where the walls are the thickest. The dog wails and she waits.
Qassam rockets have no guidance system. They fall where they will. Hundreds were fired in her general direction yesterday. Most were intercepted. Some not. One of them fell less than a mile away, in Giv’atayim, next to her partner’s flat – twenty kilograms of hate and frustration flung from one world to another.
Luckily, her son and grandchildren do live in a house with a reinforced strong room. She phones to see if they are OK. The children are terrified but safe. When they were younger, these moments were explained to the little ones as a drill, a kind of game. Hide and seek. But that will no longer wash. Just as it is for my wife, the experience will stay with them forever.
Perhaps you are thinking, but what about the children of Gaza. And you would be right to do so. When I visited Gaza in 2004, someone fired a machine gun at me and a group of Palestinian children as we went to visit the homes that the IDF had destroyed close by the Egyptian border. Earlier in the day we were playing football, them lauding their hero: “Zidane, he is arabi.” These children would have an hour of anger management classes before school, throwing balls against a wall to express their frustration, to get it all out so that they could concentrate on their lessons. I expect some of them will have been recruited by Hamas and may now be lining up rockets, pointing them towards Israel. Some of them may well be dead. Palestinian health officials have reported 13 children dead in the last few days.
More children have died in Gaza than Israel. But it’s not a competition. And one of the ugliest reactions to the current tragedy is the instinct to play up the sufferings of one group and to minimise those of another, so as to make a political point. But the taking sides instinct is too great for many to resist. So to the idea that because of the overwhelming military superiority of the Israelis, they are necessarily and always the aggressors and Palestinians simply the victims.
David Baddiel makes the important point in his recent book Jews Don’t Count that because of the perception that Jews are wealthier or more powerful – and we know the poisonous history of that idea – they are considered by some to be somehow less deserving of concern. The Nazis smashed down the doors of both wealthy and poorer Jews, leading them off to be murdered. Being middle class was no protection against genocide. And it is no protection against rockets falling from the sky either.
When I went to Gaza all those years ago, I too thought the situation reasonably clear cut. I would lie in bed in Gaza City and listen to Israeli drones buzzing about overhead. Gaza felt like a one massive prison camp, locked into poverty and despair.
Seventy miles up the coast, and in sharp contrast, Tel Aviv feels a little bit like Barcelona. It’s got great restaurants, million-dollar beachfront penthouses, beautiful tanned women. Yes, it has a darker side too. And there is much poverty in Tel Aviv also. But its little wonder that people are signing up to go there for a holiday now Israel is on the Covid Green list. It’s a fabulous city.
But it is also a problematic one because this striking contrast can triage our sympathies in profoundly unhelpful ways. When I was on the Left, I felt an instinctive default solidarity with whoever I perceived to be less powerful in any given situation. And, insofar as it goes, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. But this same take can also be accompanied by an instinctive hostility to those who are considered to be the more powerful within any given situation. And that is when things start to get tricky. For this kind of power analysis can be used as a convenient shorthand for finding your way around political antagonisms about which one knows very little. Find the weaker party, be on their side. Find the stronger, oppose them. Put like that, it is obvious rubbish. Power clearly does not track right and wrong. But embarrassingly, that is how I used to think.
Moreover, if you think Palestine and Israel represent some sort of David and Goliath respectively, then what about Israel vs. Iran/Syria/Lebanon, a tiny democratic state set within a vast sea of enemies? So who is the big bully now?
So I don’t have my own obvious fix for the Israel/Palestine. I am a Zionist because I believe in the right of the Jews to a homeland of their own. And that goes with a right to defend themselves. I also believe that Palestinians deserve the same, which is why I believe in two states for two peoples. I may not know how best to achieve what most others want too. But this much I do know: frightened children look very much the same, wherever they come from. And there is something especially hateful about taking the suffering of some and using it as justification for the suffering others.
In such a situation, the much derided “thoughts and prayers” are probably a much more helpful and sophisticated response than so many of our prêt-a-porter political takes rolled out as instant answers. Not that religion is an innocent party in all of this. Not a bit. Nonetheless, prayer is able to hold even adversaries in a kind of loving attention, while refusing to be sucked into the sort of boo-hurrah politics into which our political instincts can all too easily descend. The Psalmist had it right, all those millennia ago: pray for the peace of Jerusalem.