Simply put, this was nothing other than a day of national disgrace for Israel. The sickening violence of the Israeli forces, who killed 62 Palestinian civilians and wounded more than 1,200 others, should have sent reverberations across the country and beyond. But instead, in many circles both within and outside of Israel, these scenes have been met with little more than a shrug, followed by manufactured defences seeking to justify the unjustifiable.
The protests in the Gaza Strip, known as the “Great March of Return”, have been ongoing for over six-weeks but came to a climax last Monday. Tens of thousands turned up to protest not only because of the highly controversial moving of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but also because the following day was Nakba Day (or “Day of Catastrophe) – a time of mourning for Palestinians as they remember the displacement of their people as a result of Israeli independence in 1948. The vast majority of the protestors were unarmed, and whilst there were a sizeable minority who threw rocks and other homemade flaming objects, the IDF responded in the most disturbing way possible: through sheer death and destruction. Of the 58 casualties, 6 were under 18 years old. This was in no way a necessity, this was a choice. A cynical, evil choice reflective of the contempt that this current Israeli government has for Palestinian lives.
These scenes seem even more gruesome when contrasted to the celebrations only a few dozen miles away. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cried “What a glorious day! Remember this moment!” at the glitzy opening ceremony of the newly moved US embassy. The failure to acknowledge the events taking place in Gaza was deafeningly silent – speaking volumes about the constant state of denial of which those who are brokering peace live in , from both the Israeli and American camps.
Furthermore, the lack of remorse shown by both Netanyahu and Trump’s administrations have both been staggering. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Education Minister and leader of The Jewish Home (who prop up Netanyahu’s weak coalition government), told Israel Radio that the protestors were “murderous rioters” and implied that by taking part in the protests, the Palestinians were self-identifying as terrorists. Likewise in Washington, Trump’s deputy press secretary Raj Shah, after calling Gaza “Southern Israel”, told the media that “the responsibility for these tragic deaths rest squarely with Hamas…Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response, and as the secretary of state said, Israel has the right to defend itself.”
In the UK, similarly disheartening statements were released by the Board of Deputies – the self-professed “voice of the British Jewish community” – attesting that “the responsibility for the violence lies with Hamas”, and apportioned no culpability whatsoever on the Israeli forces. Although unlikely, I deeply hope that the Board of Deputies retract this statement and alter it to reflect the variety of opinion among British Jews (to achieve this please sign this petition from Yachad, here).
Living in Israel for 7 months, the hyper-partisanship of the political state here has been clear to see in every newspaper I’ve read, on every Israeli TV station I’ve watched, and in every different city I’ve travelled through, from major cities to the settlements and illegal outposts. But this week, new rifts began to form in an already splintered society.
Let me briefly explain something utterly bizarre which I encountered this week. As a Shnat-Netzer group, we attended a large Masa event (the organisation in charge of the majority of gap year programs from the diaspora) of about 250 people on Thursday, only 3 days after the disaster in Gaza. The seminar began with a talk from former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro who spoke at lengths about his support for the embassy move to Israel and went on to lay total blame for the 58 deaths with Hamas and implied that Israeli forces had no choice in their actions. Frustrated by his claims, I asked him a question about how America can still be reliable peace brokers when their actions regarding the embassy, and the lack of balance reflected by Trump in general in regards to the conflict, played at least some part in the deaths of these 58 innocent Gazans. To this question, I got some boos from the audience and some cheers and Shapiro gave a very insubstantial answer where he mainly just called the event a “tragedy” again and again.
Later that day, whilst eating lunch, two Americans I had never met before came over to me because of the question I had asked before and said “What are your sources that these 58 people are not terrorists and why do you sympathize with terrorists?”. Along with other Netzerniks, we stood our ground and argued this out, but minute by minute, people from other movements began to flock to the impromptu discussion taking place. After 15 minutes, about 100 people had piled in to criticise and shout at myself and the other Netzerniks on account of our supposedly radical views. The attacks on us began to get personal as the conversation turned to people saying that I shouldn’t be allowed in Israel, or be entitled to the IDF’s defence, because of our sympathy for the Gazans and the consistent allegation from the crowd was that we were terrorist sympathisers. The conviction and the emotional backlash we received for simply stating out views was startling. It was an eye-opening experience for me, not only because of the extent of the partisanship, but also because it shocked me to discover that at an event of hundreds of young Jews, only a handful shared my views.
This has only furthered my conviction that it is imperative the reform zionist movement does not cave into the disturbing belief that Israel can do no wrong. Although it may seem like an impossible balancing act to some, to many of us in the community it is a nuanced and wholly legitimate position to both have a deep connection to zionism and the state of Israel whilst also rigorously criticising the state and holding it to the same humanitarian standards as any other country. In the UK, we should call for economic and diplomatic action against Israel for their actions and condemn what I believe to be a racist government under Netanyahu.
As the Israeli author David Grossman, whose son was killed in combat in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, said in a Memorial Day Speech to Bereaved Israelis and Palestinians earlier this year “if the Palestinians don’t have a home, the Israelis won’t have a home either. The opposite is also true: if Israel will not be a home, then neither will Palestine.” Palestinians must feel safe and secure in their own land not only for their own cause, but also for the sake of Israel’s future existence. And the first step forward we can take right now is clamouring for accountability from the Israeli government and army, to attempt to bring some form of justice for those Gazans counting their dead.