Dreams and Nightmares of Tel Aviv

Because I’m back in New Jersey, or perhaps because I have not grown up with it, the violence over the past few weeks in Israel felt worse to me than it initially did to my friends who are still in Tel Aviv. Are you scared about what’s happening, I would ask, and they would reply that the stabbings in Jerusalem felt like events occurring in another country. One of my friends, Yotam, did not want to talk about Jerusalem at all. He seemed embarrassed by the city’s reputation of conflict and orthodox religion. My other friend Dan spoke about the attacks in Jerusalem as though he were an analyst: cold and detached, as though unrest in Jerusalem had only political effects on his life. Political discussions that focus solely on politicians and which political faction is losing or gaining in strength are, in my opinion, the biggest and most heartless waste of time. Politics should be about the people, not about power-plays. Coverage of the baroque presidential election in the U.S. and the blame game that is Knesset politics all starts to feel like a bunch of hot air, irrelevant to life on the ground.
Dread and realization slowly spread in Tel Aviv on Thursday, October 8th, when a Palestinian extremist stabbed five Israelis with a screwdriver. Famously carefree residents of Tel Aviv were compelled now to re-calibrate their weekend plans in order to protect themselves, and I listened with anxiety as my nervous friends described their new loss of normalcy. My former roommate Lital, who was like a sister to me, was reluctant to go grocery shopping now at the Shuk HaCarmel (this was our favorite activity on rushed Friday mornings). Dan’s usual plans of going to cafes with his friends were upended by the pervasive fear of repeat attacks, and so he opted to remain close to his apartment. Instead of going to Gordon Beach to enjoy the dwindling heat, my classmate Jingjie chose to hole up in her dorm and work on her thesis. Even if the city didn’t come to a complete stop, the high security alerts and terrorists were starting to take a psychological toll.
Other have pointed out how these recent stabbings have turned out to be more worrisome than the onslaught of missiles from last year’s war. There’s an Iron Dome to stop Hamas’s rockets, and there’s checkpoints and a wall between Israel and the West Bank. What can be done to stop a determined Palestinian extremist with an ordinary knife or screwdriver? Some are proposing to seal off the West Bank, to close access in general to the Temple Mount/ Noble Sanctuary, to put Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem under a curfew. These options feel impossible, possibly practical, and horrible all at the same time. Additional checkpoints are easier to stomach, perhaps just because they’re a reality we’ve grown accustomed to.
As silver metal detectors are installed in the tawny and stone Old City and ancillary security officers are deployed to the mouths of East Jerusalem neighborhoods, we were able to see incongruous changes that had been long in the making. These new policies don’t photograph well, but they’re welcome nonetheless. Buses in Jerusalem will be supervised now by IDF soldiers, and I wish the buses in Tel Aviv were equally as protected. To avoid a lockdown, Israel needs quiet guardian angels everywhere.
There are demons that need addressing on both sides. In Dimona an Israeli radical stabbed three Palestinian construction workers and one Bedouin man on October 9th, a day after hundreds of right-wing Israelis marched through Jerusalem and chanted “Death to Arabs.” Then, soldiers and Israeli police officers are fatally shooting protesters (many of whom are just teenagers) in Gaza and the West Bank. While the protesters should not be throwing stones, I don’t understand why Israeli forces have to shoot to kill at a protest. Such extrajudicial executions only add to the blazing emotional and political fire. If gun use cannot be avoided, why not aim for somewhere less deadly, such as a protester’s legs? And why use live ammunition at all?
Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem to be trying with genuine vigor to de-escalate the present situation. Netanyahu halted the construction of 538 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Itamar. The Shin Bet concluded that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has not been inciting Palestinian violence (which has largely been the work of individuals rather than of any one group), and the Shin Bet added that Abbas has advised PA security forces to quell the unrest. Intelligence analysts, as reported in Haaretz, are also saying that Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are secretly not interested in intensifying the conflict, and that the present rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel are largely the work of Palestinian Salafists and others. While no one can handle more bloodshed in this region, Gaza especially cannot afford another episode of war so soon after last year’s Operation Protective Edge.
Right-wing citizens and politicians can be seen on the Israeli news clamoring for Netanyahu to crack down hard on the Arabs. Yet not all Arabs are responsible for the current crisis, and Israel must consider that Arab-Israelis are also citizens of the State, and that they deserve protection, dignity, and freedom. Expelling Arabs, in any way, from Israel or the territories is not an option. Restricted movement for Arab-Israelis should also be considered unthinkable for a country that prides itself on being the lone democracy in the Middle East.
Reopening peace talks with the Palestinians might be the best option currently available. It’s not the popular thing to do as innocent people are being murdered, but renewed talks might be the salve the region is seeking. People often turn to violence out of hopelessness, and dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian officials may provide hope to young Palestinians who feel that they are stuck in a stagnant place, always without a state to call their own. Much of the media’s attention had of late been taken up by the nuclear deal with Iran and the war in Syria, and some Palestinians may have sensed that their national cause was being neglected. The status quo at Temple Mount/ the Noble Sanctuary probably gives the Palestinians a semblance of control, and any threat to that ultimately feels existential. Frustrated and not without hate, Palestinians who are young and radical have turned to knives and the closest victims they could find. These terrorists must be apprehended and arrested, yet a blanket harsh response from the Israeli side will most likely invite further acts of brutality from the Palestinians. If approached with sincere conviction from all parties involved, diplomatic efforts might be able to prevent a third intifada. Palestinians will hopefully see that progress can be made without violence, and Israelis will hopefully find safety by having a state, and not a territory, as a neighbor, since clearly, the occupation has failed to generate security.
I feel homesick for Israel as I obsessively track the events that are now thousands of miles away. I recognize the bus stands, the streets near Azrieli, the uniforms. Occasionally, I can grasp a stray word of Hebrew and Arabic when I watch the news. I’m scared, though I don’t feel any safer in the U.S., where daily shootings at schools and universities have ceased to surprise. And, I know the sides of Israel and the West Bank that don’t interest the media. Both places have the kindest and friendliest people I have met, and both places are bursting with resilience, humor, and energy. Simply walking around Tel Aviv and Ramallah is a day well spent. When I think of Israel I don’t think of terrorism or security quagmires. I think of how despite everything that’s going on right now, there is no place I would rather be.
On Tuesday night, the national soccer team of Israel played against Belgium’s team in a qualifier for EURO 2016, and though Israel lost to the Red Devils, I thought wistfully how it would have been fun to have watched the game somewhere in Florentin, or on Dizengoff. Another intifada may or may not be fomenting, but a lot of other, happier things are happening there as well. Israel and Palestine are both survivors, and history shows that waves of violence can never succeed to overwhelm them. This too shall pass.