There’s a way out of our shared hell with Gaza

Life in Gaza is unbearable. Without resolving the crisis there, the lives of Israelis living in the south will continue to be a living hell.

By Eric Yellin

A house in Ashkelon, Southern Israel, that was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, early morning on August 26, 2014. (Edi Israel/Flash90)
A house in Ashkelon, Southern Israel, that was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, early morning on August 26, 2014. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

A few days ago, on Wednesday night, I was on my way to a film screening in Sderot, a city near the fence with Gaza. A minute after setting foot outside, the rocket-warning sirens went off. I parked my car and together with my partner, quickly got out and hid behind a mound of dirt.

As we ran for shelter, we heard explosions and saw rocket trails in the sky, as well as the counter-trails of the Iron Dome, which desperately tried to intercept the rockets from Gaza. Two Qassam rockets landed very close to us, moderately wounding one person and sowing panic.

This was only the beginning of a cacophony of deafening sirens, but even more appalling were the sounds of Israel bombing Gaza. Those shook the walls of our house in Sderot, and for the first time this month, we decided to sleep in the safe room – a reinforced space that many Israelis have in their homes for protection. It was a wise decision; we wouldn’t have been able to get any sleep otherwise.

The next morning, the neighbors told us that their dog, who grew nervous from the explosions, escaped. Another neighbor asked me to drop her and her children off at the train station in nearby Ashkelon – they were making their way up to the north, where it is quieter — after the train service to Sderot was shut down because of the escalation.

We chose to take the long route to Ashkelon, one that is less exposed. On the drive back, I heard Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz stutter on Israel’s Army Radio as he tried to comment on the current situation in Gaza, and the government’s (lack of) policy on the matter.

At first, I did not recognize the speaker and assumed the guest was a left-winger; Steinitz was arguing that Hamas is firing rockets because the residents of Gaza don’t have any other choice, given their difficult living conditions. He then went on to talk about Israeli deterrence and “showing them what we are capable of doing, if we wanted to.” The interviewers scorned his feeble answers, and said that in the last operation, “only” three Palestinians were killed. They didn’t bother mentioning that two of the victims were a pregnant mother and her child.

I wanted to write about how the past day was one of the toughest in a long time, but I held back. Lately, every round of escalation is getting worse, and each one will result in one thing: a dreadful blood bath. When it is over, we will all grieve, cry, reflect, yell before returning to a lull — shorter or longer than the one before it — until the next round.

For over a year, my friends in Other Voice, comprised of residents of the towns and communities surrounding the Gaza Strip, have been protesting the government’s inability to find a viable solution for our situation. For more than a decade, members of Other Voice have been in touch with people in Gaza, and we believe it is possible to live in peace with our neighbors. Life there is unbearable, and without resolving the crisis in Gaza, our lives will continue to be a living hell.

Palestinian schoolgirls do their homework by candlelight at their home in Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 15, 2018. The Gaza power plant stopped working due to lack of fuel. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian schoolgirls do their homework by candlelight at their home in Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 15, 2018. The Gaza power plant stopped working due to lack of fuel. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

These are the well-known yet forgotten facts: two million people in Gaza live on the verge of starvation, without running water, with limited hours of electricity a day, with a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment, with rising unemployment, and massive destruction that has yet to be rehabilitated yet since the last war in 2014.

This is fertile ground for radical organizations that want to recruit hopeless youth in exchange for meager payments to their families. This is fertile ground for further entrenching hate toward Israel, which controls Gaza’s sea, land, and air. It is a fertile ground for the desperation that erupts in protests near the Israel-Gaza fence, where people fly incendiary kites and balloons, and attempt to cross the fence. All of those actions are backed by Hamas as well as various radical organizations.

Hamas controls Gaza. If we don’t recognize that today, we will have to do so tomorrow or a year from now, after even more cycles of violence. Hamas has already declared that it is willing to come to an agreement. The group’s conditions, however, make Israel uncomfortable, since the latter will have to ease the blockade, approve visas, allow the entry of goods, and agree to release prisoners in exchange for the bodies of IsraelI soldiers being held captive by Hamas.

It is uncomfortable, but it is the only possible way forward. If we allow ourselves to see beyond the next ceasefire, we might realize that this agreement might lead to real hope and benefits to both sides.

The agreement will have to ensure a long-term pause in fighting, but we cannot stop at that. To make the ceasefire sustainable, we have to inspire hope in Gazans: by lifting the siege, improving infrastructure, developing agricultural industry, allowing free movement of goods, building a port, authorizing exports to Israel and the West Bank, approving work visas to Israel, and more.

Sounds like a dream? At least it’s not the nightmare we’re currently experiencing.

Eric Yellin is a resident of Sderot and the founder of Other Voice. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.