Gaza October 2023

Je suis juif, parce qu’en tous les lieux où pleure une souffrance, le juif pleure.

I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.

(Edmond Fleg, 1874 – 1963)

I lie awake at night tormented by night-time visions of suffering children, including babies. I weep for their pain. I do not know if the children in my visions are Israeli or Palestinian children, nor does it matter. I remember a 2018 meeting Dr Sarah Bernstein, Director of Rossing Centre for Education and Dialogue in Jerusalem, and recall her wise words to our mixed tour group of Jews, Christian and Muslims, ‘If you are a friend of only one side, you are nobody’s friend.’ There are said to be over 200 small peace organisations in Israel and Palestine, bringing the ‘sides’ together, building dialogue, planning peace. They are always casualties of any violent conflict because their ability to meet face to face across the internal borders always stops. Right now, just two weeks after the October 7 attacks, Rabbi Arik Asherman is on hunger strike. Why? Because he has dedicated years of his life trying to help Palestinian Bedouin, sometimes shielding them with his own body from the violence of attacks by Israeli settlers. But right now, in the current official state of emergency in Israel, he cannot reach them. So he fasts to get publicity for his cause, while his Bedouin friends are already suffering for lack of help from Arik and his friends.

No sooner did Israel’s current far right government come to power than they were already talking about reining in the peace activists, restricting their ability to bring in funds from overseas donors and preventing their supporters from visiting. What kind of government restricts peaceful dialogue? Their related plans to allow the single chamber Knesset to overrule the Supreme Court brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis onto the street demonstrating every Saturday night against them. Once or twice it seemed as if their voices were really being heard. But there are no demos now, because of what happened on October 7th, just two weeks ago. What follows is my own personal and no doubt quirky account — I give it here because without understanding my own version of what happened, there is no real understanding between me and you, my reader.

Hamas armed operatives, followed by anyone else who wanted to join in, cut down sections of the border fence and crossed through from Gaza into the much less crowded southern Israel, where they were able to run amok and kill over 1200 Israelis and others, men women and children, and capture 200 others whom they took back to Gaza, thus spreading terror and instilling fear into the hearts of the Israeli people. The Israeli army took 11 hours to arrive. Why? Hamas had a careful plan of deception, carefully created and implemented over two years, and managed to cut communications links and attack on a popular public holiday while Israeli soldiers were elsewhere, including in the West Bank where settlers had been causing problems for Palestinians. As soldiers have moved back to the Gaza border over the last two weeks, settler violence has increased markedly. There is no doubt that the extremists among them feel emboldened by the support of Netanyahu and the far right Israeli government. The need to patrol and restrain them is one of many reasons why the so often repeated slogan bittachon bittachon (‘Security! Security!’) which Israelis vote for is one this government cannot deliver. We can but hope the Israeli electorate come to realise that there can be no purely military solution to the many faceted conflict.

At the same time as the October 7th pogrom, thousands of rockets were launched towards Israel from Gaza, and immediately the Israeli air force began to respond, strafing Gaza with thousands of their own guided missiles. Gaza is a tiny area, roughly 25 miles by 6 with over two million residents, nearly half of whom are children. After two weeks, the number of children killed in Gaza is fast approaching the number killed in the entire Russia-Ukraine war so far. Even if the targeting of missiles on both sides was perfect —  which it isn’t, firing missiles either into or from Gaza is always fraught with danger for innocent non-combatants.

In 1967, when the Six Day War between Israel and all the surrounding countries broke out, I was 16 years old. I remember my father taking me to Kenton Synagogue for a rally. I found the speakers and the atmosphere quite scary. ‘Everyone must give!’ ‘ Sacrifice, sacrifice!’ ‘This is Israel’s hour of need.’ I heard the message, but none of the speakers explained the history or the fundamentals of the conflict. I was a teenage pacifist. I had never been to Israel and knew little about it. What had all this to do with me? When I became a young adult at university, I came to realise how out of step my views were with almost all my fellow Jews in the UK. The old fashioned non-Zionism, which had been dominant in British Liberal Judaism in the 1920s and 1930s, had all but vanished. From June 1967 until much more recently, Anglo-Jewry was overwhelmingly committed both to Israel and its policies. However, it gradually became clear that Israel’s victory in 1967 sowed the seeds of today’s problems. Since ancient times Jews had not ruled over other peoples. The occupation [1] had begun.

On my first visit to Israel, in 1976, rather to my surprise I felt immediately at home. I did not speak Hebrew but there was plenty of opportunity to argue in English — indeed the many debates on current topics were what distinguished being in Israel from other places I had visited. One afternoon outing, however, was disturbing. We were taken to visit the ancient city of Hebron, where we were shown round by a group of settlers. The practice of Israelis moving into the 1967 territories was only just getting under way, and this group took us to see their new homes in a place they called by the ancient name of Kiryat Arba. Their housing needs, however, were met in a very modern way — for the new Kiryat Arba consisted of four grey tower blocks brooding menacingly over the ancient town. We were then taken down into the town and the settlers told us proudly that their ambition was to live there. What we saw were rows of shuttered shops with nobody in sight. The whole place had a menacing air, which I vividly recalled on my second visit in 2018, by which time it had become far more menacing.[2]

Today’s terrible situation feels to me much like 1967 but with crucial differences. Most importantly, this time there will be no obvious solution or ‘victory’ and no simple way out. Israel fights ‘to destroy Hamas’ but with no clear strategy as to how that could be achieved without destroying Gaza as a whole. The world is in despair and fearful that the slaughter of innocent people on both sides will go on and on. The other importance difference is that unlike 1967, nearly every Jew in Britain and around the world has friends or family who live in Israel. Today’s amazing communications mean that we know what is happening almost instantly. And because Israel is a tiny country, that means all of us are only a couple of degrees away from someone killed or wounded or kidnapped. We are a community in anguish.

It is human nature that when we are attacked, we blame our attackers. How else could it be? In a state of shock we so easily forget the history, the wider problem, the complexities. And complications there are many. Benjamin Netanyahu (born 1947) first became Prime Minister of Israel in 1996. In the 1990s there was so much optimism after the Oslo accords, which we all believed would bring in an era of peace. Palestinians had started to return, mainly to live under the newly created Palestinian Authority in the 1967 territories, and a few who were permitted to become citizens of Israel. Both groups soon found their lives hedged around with numerous restrictions, outright discrimination, and lack of funding for their areas. From 1967 until 1994 residents of Gaza and the West Bank could travel reasonably freely across the whole country, but gradually fences and travel restrictions came in, mainly as a response to suicide bombings in 1994 and 1995 (deaths from suicide bombings in Israel continued until 2008).  The current conflict therefore marks the failure of the long standing policy of relying on security barriers, which in the case of Gaza has turned it into an area so often described as an ‘open-air prison.’

The first Intifada had ended with the Oslo accords but the peace did not last long. The second Intifada started in 2000. In 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, dismantling the Israeli settlements there by force. After the elections in 2006, Hamas formed Gaza’s official government, as they have done ever since. Intermittent and episodic warfare has continued ever since: rockets are fired into Israel from Gaza and Israel replies with an air bombardment, and sometimes with a ground incursion as well. Disproportionate numbers of civilians are killed every time by the Israelis, as there is no way of avoiding civilian casualties in such a densely populated place. After each episode Hamas has been able to quietly build up its resources again, ready for the next one. There appears to be no military solution, but nothing else has been tried. Hamas is outlawed as a terrorist organisation not only in Israel but in many other countries, including Britain. But it is only now that I begin to realise the role Netanyahu has played over the past ten years or so in maintaining Hamas in power in Gaza, even though he knows that Hamas military wing are committed to Israel’s destruction. Netanyahu has tactily allowed through funds from Qatar even though he knows some of it is going to build up Hamas’ stock of munitions. He has been quoted as saying that it is better to have Hamas in charge of Gaza, for so long as there is enmity between the West Bank and Gaza there can never be a Palestinian state. But now he has presided as Prime Minister over Israel’s biggest security failure since 1973. It seems there were several warnings that Hamas was about to launch an attack but he and his government for some reason did not want to believe them, and indeed they even reduced the border protection. In order to regain trust, he has brought opposition parties into the Cabinet to form a Government of National Unity. Because the Israeli Parliamentary system is largely modelled on the British one, that can be done almost instantly.

The bombardment of Gaza this time has been even more horrific than before, but it has not yet stopped the rockets being launched at Israel. So far, at least 4,000 people have been killed by the Israeli bombardment. Israel claims that many hundreds of those are Hamas fighters, which means that even on their own admission most of the dead were not among the attackers. Because of the dense population, and the fact that nearly of those in Gaza are children, it is impossible to strafe Gaza from the air without killing children. The number of child deaths in Gaza is horrific. At the present rate, if it continues for a few more days, it will exceed the total number of child deaths from the war in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last year. On average, one child is killed every three days in Ukraine. According to Palestinian figures, one dies in Gaza every fifteen minutes. Even if that is a gross exaggeration, the numbers are still huge.

Two incidents in particular stand out. On 14th October hundreds of thousands of people fled from Gaza City after Israel ordered them to evacuate the whole place – a city of a million people. There are two roads leading south —the only possible direction of travel — and refugees on both roads found themselves attacked from the air, and many died. Many others turned back, terrified.

The other incident was the explosion in the car park of the Anglican run Al-Ahli Al-Arabi hospital in Gaza City on 17th October, where around 1000 displaced residents were taking refuge. There have been many different accounts published of which side was to blame, none of which are totally convincing. One might have hoped that such a horrific incident would give both sides pause for thought, as we have seen in previous Gaza conflicts. But this time each side is content simply to blame the other side, and carry on. The ramifications of such an incident reverberate around the world, as people take sides and anger is stoked up.

But even worse is the lack of humanitarian aid. Israel withdrew in 2005 and does not regard Gaza as occupied territory, but the international community does, because Israel has control of the air space, the territorial waters and most of the land borders. Whether occupied or not, Gaza is clearly under siege and that gives Israel a duty of care towards all the civilian residents. Because of its control, Israel was instantly able to cut off most of the electricity and all the water and food and fuel. Gaza teeters on the edge of an abyss. Last night Medecins sans Frontières – a charity I have supported for years – announced that premature babies in hospital in Gaza are about to die unless there are fuel deliveries to power the electricity generators. The few truckloads of supplies which have arrived are but a drop in the ocean of need, and they do not include fuel.

So it is hardly surprising that around the world huge demonstrations are taking place in support of the Palestinians and against Israel. It does not seem to matter that even in quieter times human rights — including LGBT rights — are unknown in Hamas led Gaza. Few Jews attend these rallies, fearing to witness glorification of or praise for the attacks on their own kith and kin on October 7th.

It is incomprehensible to me why Israel has imposed this blockade with no humanitarian relief when they know 200 captives are being held by Hamas. In the past, the rabbinic command to ‘redeem captives’ even at a high price has been a sacred duty. In Western Sephardi synagogues, prayers are still said for the redemption of captives held prisoner by the old Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. At times like this, such prayers become more than a historical curiosity. And yet this time the blockade and the bombardment carry on with seemingly no regard for the safety of Israeli captives. Desperate relatives are left to organise their own demos, and in London campaigning groups are holding rallies and handing out leaflets outside embassies.

Sometimes I am of a suspicious nature and I wonder whether the lukewarm attitude of Israel’s far right government to the hostages has anything to do with the fact that so many of them are peace loving lefty kibbutzniks. Some of them deliberately live near Gaza so they can help Gazan residents. Even when the border crossing into Israel was otherwise closed to civilians, Israel would open the gates for individuals with important hospital appointments inside Israel. Because they are not allowed to drive across and there are no bus services in the area, a charity was set up to provide a rota of drivers to and from the hospitals. One of those who volunteers is Vivian Silver, aged 74, a Canadian born peace worker and activist who has been snatched from Be’eri kibbutz and is now one of those being held by Hamas inside Gaza. Her son insists she would not want the Israeli army to invade Gaza in order to save her. ‘Her friends, family, and supporters all agree that Israel’s current attack on Gaza is not what Silver would want. “I am sure she would not want the violence to continue, certainly not in her name or in the name of saving her and the other hostages.”’   I wonder how Hamas guards will react to the discovery that they are holding her and many other Israelis who have done their best to help them. [Update14th November. DNA samples now confirm that sadly Vivian Silver was not captured but killed on 7th October. May her memory be for a blessing and renew our energy to build peace.] I wonder too how many of those who demonstrate, both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel, are aware of any of these nuances and complexities. Most moving have been the calls from survivors of the Hamas attacks for Israeli restraint, a call in which they have now been joined by President Biden, a man who has suffered multiple bereavements in his own life and is fully aware of the mistakes the USA made after nine-eleven. Magen Inon, who has lost both his parents after they were hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, has said: ‘People from both sides of the border have good reasons to hate one another. This is being used by those who feed on hate. But this cannot be the only option. My family does not seek revenge.

In the Jewish calendar, this is the week of Lech-Lecha, when we begin to read the story of Abraham, who is revered to this day by Jews, Christians and Muslims as the founder of what we now call ‘ethical monotheism.’ The bible describes his faith and his behaviour as exemplary, particularly his hospitality towards guests to his home. God promised he would be the father of many peoples and innumerable descendants, but did not promise they would all get on with each other. I believe that as part of the building of peace, we have to have not just a better understanding of each other’s modern history and family stories, but a better understanding of the deep and historic links between our three faiths.

22nd October 2023

calligraphy by Claire Hilton

[1] In Israeli and general Western discourse, the term ‘occupation’ refers to the territories captured in 1967 ( For Hamas and other groups who do not recognise the state of Israel, the term ‘occupation’ denotes the  whole of Israel/Palestine.

[2] Please read my account of my 2018 visit here.