Op-ed: Peace, art and rockets: A story seldom told

Nate Turk | Class of 2019

Israel is a country of powerful unity and pronounced division, of incredible innovation and rich tradition. It is a state with an obsession with security because of frequent tragedy. Yet, one of the most remarkable aspects of Israeli society is its unity through tragedy, terror and war. It is hard to understand the extent to which this adversity affects the fabric of Israeli life without actually visiting communities in Israel which are very often impacted by rocket and terror attacks.

This summer, I embarked on a journey with 24 other Washington University student leaders to explore the geopolitical complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We traveled from the high-tech buildings and beaches of Tel Aviv to the green, mystic hills of the Upper Galilee. We toured the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem and spoke with Palestinian officials in the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah as well.

One morning, we visited Netiv HaAsara, a small town on the border of the Gaza Strip, which constantly faces the threats of rockets and terror tunnels from Hamas, a brutal terrorist group which repeatedly attacks innocent Israelis while subjugating Gazans to harsh and inhumane conditions. When rockets are fired towards Israel, this community has only 15 seconds to find shelter. Fifteen seconds.

Hearing stories from community members about their complex and painful reality was distressing—children running to bomb shelters during school recess, kindergartens being damaged by Gazan rockets, community members struggling with lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder from growing up under constant fear of that all-too-common siren. So often are rockets launched into this part of Israel that the government changed the sound of the siren to make it less psychologically jarring to community members.

The village almost seemed too “normal-looking” to be a place that faces the constant threats of rockets and terror tunnels. We caught a glimpse of the community pool, but also the bomb sheltered changing area; we saw the elementary school, but also the bomb-proof concrete surrounding it. As we walked past the gray, ominous security structures for the community nearly everywhere, I continued to ask myself: How does the community cope with living under constant threat?

My lingering question was soon answered in an unexpectedly encouraging way. We walked near the border with the Gaza Strip, where a community artist created a remarkable peace mural, a mural so large—the artist hopes—that Palestinians on the other side could read one critical word, written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Peace.”

The mural’s vibrant and colorful designs overshadowed the conflict and its complexity, engendering a hope for peace and beauty at a time when peace, to some, seemed further away than ever before. Thousands of people had already participated in developing the mural by placing tiles with hopeful messages onto the wall. This is how community members cope with their reality and teach their children that regardless of the circumstances, they should work towards peace.

I left Netiv HaAsara inspired and reassured—inspired by the people I met who, despite living through rockets and violence, are able to create a strong and supportive community to overcome adversity, and reassured that there were tangible peace efforts on the ground by those same people who just want to live in a future without rockets and hate, a future of peace.

Drifting off to sleep on the bus back north, I felt secure in a sort of optimistic feeling of hope—hope for a prosperous and safe future for the Israelis who live near Netiv HaAsara and the Palestinians on the other side.

Yet I woke up on that bus ride to another reality. Hamas shot over 150 rockets into Israeli communities near the Gaza border, including Netiv HaAsara, only a few hours later. Five people were injured and eight were treated for panic attacks, including two pregnant women. While I had heard of rockets being shot into communities like Netiv HaAsara on the news in the past and sympathized with those communities’ struggles, this time was different. We had been there just hours earlier.

I cried for the families that spent the night in bomb shelters sleeping through sirens. I lamented the people who were injured by the rockets as they were running to shelter and the people whose homes were damaged or destroyed. I pictured the children I saw playing outside in Netiv HaAsara a few hours before huddled in bomb shelters, and I ruminated on the meaning and attainability of peace.

Despite this being a regular occurrence, nearly every Israeli I talked to in few days after experienced a personal sense of loss and despair. The country united in supporting the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip and felt a collective and cohesive sense of duty and obligation to the families who struggled with security every day.

Every time Israelis fall victim to war, terrorist attacks and other tragedies, the country unites to not only verbally support the victims, but to tangibly make an impact. When a soldier dies, everyone knows their name and story. Every Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s day commemorating fallen soldiers) and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Israelis stop what they are doing and pull their cars over when a siren goes off to remember the people murdered in the Holocaust and Israeli military personnel killed in the line of duty. Israelis of all religious practices, backgrounds and cultures unite in these powerful moments because of their common sense of tragedy.

Perhaps the most poignant and current example of this collective Israeli mindset is that after American-Israeli citizen Ari Fuld was murdered outside a shopping mall by a Palestinian terrorist, Israelis raised over $1 million online to support his family. Similarly, when Kim Levengrond Yehezkel and Ziv Hajbi were stabbed at work in a Palestinian terrorist attack in October, hundreds attended Yehezkel’s funeral and campaigns sprung up online to support both victims’ families. This collective sense of obligation to every Israeli’s security and well-being is very powerful.

I know that as Americans, it is hard to fathom living with rocket sirens, surrounded by threats from brutal terrorist groups like Hamas. Nonetheless, it is important to be educated about these events in Israel and to consequently support the victims when possible. After I visited Netiv HaAsara, witnessed their daily life under constant security precautions and learned about the struggles the community faces, I could not sit by. I understood that it is our responsibility to help support the victims of terror by advocating for Israel’s security interests and for peace in the region. I encourage the greater Wash. U. community to join me in getting involved and learning more.

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