In 2008, a group of Israeli former soldiers presented a traveling photo exhibit,
at a number of US locations, including Harvard Hillel. Titled “Breaking the
Silence,” it aimed to show the “dark side” of Israel’s occupation of the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip.
This was at least the second such discussion
between former soldiers and students at Harvard. In September 1990, I returned
to my sophomore year at Harvard from a year’s service in the Israel Defense
Forces, spent mostly in Gaza. To a small group of interested students, I related
my encounters with a population under occupation. I spoke about the pervasive
fear that seemed to radiate from Gazans, a fear born out of our nighttime raids
on houses, our ability to confiscate all-important identity cards at will, and
our monopoly on weapons and government. We were the bogeymen, the terrors from
whom the children of Gaza scattered.
One fall day, while we were on
patrol in the streets of Khan Yunis, my NCO, Noam, saw a kid about five hiding
behind the gate to a yard. Noam smashed his rifle butt against the side of the
gate, and the noise terrified the kid and sent him running. Later, I asked Noam
what he was doing.
“I want that kid to be scared of us when he grows up,”
Noam said. “I don’t care if the Palestinians have a state in Gaza, with a port
in Gaza and a capital in Gaza. But I want them to be scared of us.”
at Harvard, I described my horror at being an object of terror, but argued that
our alternatives were to terrify or be killed. Gaza’s anger at Israel stemmed
from 1948. The occupation in which we terrified without killing non-combatants
prevented the anger among Gaza’s teens and twentysomethings from being
translated into plans to kill us.
In 2005, the horror of the occupation
overwhelmed our fears, and Israel left Gaza. Hamas took over.
can grow up without seeing us, and we can stop being horrified that we terrify
them. Or not? Fast-forward to another fall day: Sunday, November 11, 2012, 1:30
p.m. I live 30 km. southeast of Gaza, in Beersheba, a city of 200,000. I’m
walking to my eight-year-old’s school to pick her up when the air-raid siren
goes off. Incoming missile from Gaza. 60 seconds to impact. I run like a madman
to the nearest cover, an eight-story apartment building with no accessible bomb
In the stairwell, five kids between 18 months and 11 years old
from two families cower. The mothers have gone to pick up their other kids from
school, leaving the 11- year-old in charge. These kids, too, are terrified. I
tell them to get down, sit against the wall, facing away from Gaza. “It’ll be
okay,” I keep saying. I hold the baby, who is already too heavy for the 11-
year-old, and hope that someone is holding my daughter.
We wait for the
inevitable explosion, and it’s much louder than usual. I don’t let them get
We’re supposed to wait 10 minutes after the siren. Finally, one of
the mothers arrives. I tell the kids to listen to her and run again, faster this
time, to get my daughter.
Wednesday, November 14. The rocket-fire on
Beersheba starts at 8 p.m., and it doesn’t stop until the night of Saturday,
November 17, when the Israel Air Force rains destruction onto Gaza, killing
Hamas leaders and innocent bystanders, giving Beersheba its first six-hour
stretch of nighttime quiet.
Two rockets, three rockets, five rockets,
every hour, or half-hour, or hour-and-a-half, completely unpredictably, the
siren wails, the kids cower, the explosions sound.
My kids don’t want to
leave the bomb shelter, even after 10 minutes.
They know it’s coming
My kids’ terror in 2012 is that a missile will kill them. Their
terror is justified. Mira Scharf, Yitzhak Amsellem and Aaron Smadja lived in
Kiryat Malachi, 30 km. north of us – until last Thursday. They didn’t make it to
the bomb shelter in time. They’re dead. Others have lost limbs, eyes, and their
No one emerges the same.
There is no moral equivalence
between terrifying kids by slamming a rifle butt into a gate, and terrifying
kids with lethal missiles.
The occupation was horrible. But it terrified
Gaza into a submissive quiet. There were conquerors and conquered, there was
terror and horror – but large numbers of noncombatants were not killed by the
Fifty thousand Israeli troops are now massed at the gates of
Gaza, ready to renew the occupation.
They know they may march into RPGs
and anti-tank missiles fired from behind and above, boobytrapped buildings, etc.
But they also know that we cannot live with missiles hitting our cities. And
neither can they. Our kids and their kids have a right to expect to hear birds
in the sky and not bombs, missiles and rockets.
Is the re-occupation of
Gaza the only moral choice Israel can make? Certainly, if it is the only way to
avoid our kids living with rockets and their kids living with our bombing in
But Gaza does not need to be a place where anger is translated
into killing. During our occupation, fear seemed to be our only effective weapon
against those 25 and under. But for those over 25, we had a better weapon: the
work permit which enabled heads of families to work in Israel.
working a menial job in Israel ensured a decent living.
When we would
stop and frisk men, we would often get the complaint: “Bishtrill fi-Israil.”
Literally, this means, “I work in Israel.” But in reality, it meant “What’re you
bothering me for? I want quiet here, too!” A real living wage gives men a strong
stake in quiet. It means that if quiet ends, they have something to lose.
Ensuring that fathers have something to lose is the only way to ensure that kids
on both sides of the border can live without fear.
Gaza, Israel cannot transform Gaza’s economy into one where families have a
stake in maintaining quiet. But the international community can. To be
effective, it would have to bypass the Hamas leadership, which has a vested
interest in maintaining the poverty that feeds the anger, so as to generate
fighters against Israel.
If the international community is serious about
ending the missiles on Israel’s cities, about ending Israel’s targeting killings
of Hamas leaders in Gaza, and about avoiding an Israeli re-occupation of Gaza,
then it needs to find a means to directly deliver cash and work to Gazan
It needs to take control of the economy of Gaza away from
Hamas, and create massive makework projects in which wages are paid directly to
families. The wages need to be tied to political stability.
function, as UNRWA relief currently does, without regard to the political
The goal of treating Gaza differently than any of the hundreds
of other poorly-managed economies in the world is to avoid renewed
In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is
impossible to ignore Gaza. By intensifying the rocket fire against southern
Israel over the past seven years, Hamas has ensured that Israelis understand
what dangers await them if the occupation of the West Bank ends.
has made life impossible for the million Israelis living with 40 km. of Gaza.
They account for a seventh of Israel’s population. But nearly 100 percent of
Israelis live within 40 km. of the West Bank.
Nearly every Israeli
understands that if we end the occupation of the West Bank, without ensuring
that the Gaza paradigm is not repeated, we will end the State of
An international project of the type described above would be
enormously challenging. It reeks of colonialism, of the sort of paternalism that
the West tries so desperately to avoid. But it is the only moral alternative to
a renewed long-term Israeli occupation of Gaza. And it is the only way
Because no one’s kids deserve to live in terror.
writer served in the IDF in 1989 to 90 and graduated from Harvard in 1993. He
holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of
Pennsylvania and is senior lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at an Israeli