As Gaza Braces for a Ground Invasion, the Circle of Violence Continues

Arwa Damon, who has spent years reporting on Israel and Palestine, writes of her fear that this round of violence will find its way into the very DNA of Palestinians and Israelis

As Gaza Braces for a Ground Invasion, the Circle of Violence Continues
Israeli soldiers work on a tank at the Israel-Gaza border. (Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

I messaged a friend of mine in Gaza right after the news broke of Hamas’ unprecedented attack this week. I’ve seen the aftermath of attacks by gunmen in churches in Iraq, bloody handprints on the walls. I’ve seen the aftermath of attacks by the Islamic State group, bodies strewn on the ground. Nothing immunizes one to this, to imagining those people’s final moments. I saw the images of the aftermath of the festival, bodies piled against one another, and I felt that familiar bile rise within me.

She was not “happy,” nor was she “celebrating” what happened. She was scared, quickly messaging back that she was packing her and her children’s grab bags. It’s a routine she and other Gazans know well. There are no bunkers or air raid sirens in Gaza. The Israelis do, however, employ a “soft knock” policy, although it’s not exactly soft. They will launch a smaller rocket onto the rooftop of the building they intend to strike. This gives families minutes to evacuate.

I first met this friend, Ameera, when I was in Gaza in 2012 during yet another Hamas-Israel clash and she was working with my CNN team as a fixer/producer. There is one scene I will never forget. We were in the aftermath of an Israeli strike, the ground a massive gaping wound that seemed like it had swallowed the building and its inhabitants. It was a zoo of media, rescue workers, the frantic hands of relatives scrabbling at what they could, pulling back smaller bits of rubble. Body after body was pulled out to the gut-wrenching cries of loved ones, while others stood back, silenced by their shock. One of the last bodies to be pulled out was that of a small child. I remember the stretcher going past me, the corpse it carried so small. On our way back to the workspace Ameera asked if we could briefly stop by her home, which was on the way. Her daughter at the time was 4 years old, her son just 1. She came back into the car minutes later saying, “Thank you I just had to hug my children.”

What Hamas has done now makes any other operation carried out by any other group against Israel feel like child’s play. And Israel does have a right to respond. The issue, historically, has been how Israel responds and its policy of collective punishment, whether it’s in response to rock-throwing and razing a family home or a more violent attack that results in mass bombardment of Gaza. Whenever Hamas carries out an attack, Gazans know what’s coming. But this time it’s different. This level of violence, this cross-border assault by Hamas, is about to rewrite what was a sadly familiar script.

“Arwa, I lost 20 cousins today,” Ameera writes. “Israel hit my aunt’s house without any warning.”

She sent me the list of names. Young, old. Only two people in that home survived.

“I feel like I am just going in circles. It never ends,” she messages. “Like my life was stolen.”

The man was in his 70s, immobile and blind. Hussein Aslan spoke of what he saw in his darkness, of his home that used to be on Jaffa’s shore, how the waves would break as he stood on their veranda fishing with his father when he was a little boy. They would end up in a tent in what used to be a field of tents housing the displaced, and which is now known as Qalandia, a concrete village with densely packed lopsided buildings, yet to this day still called a “camp.”

I met the Aslans when I was covering the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem back in 2017. Three generations lived in the same building, each floor representing another generation born displaced. The rooftop is where Hussein’s grandson was shot during a raid by Israeli forces searching for three missing Israeli teens in 2014. Their bodies were later found dead elsewhere in the West Bank. The Aslans obviously had nothing to do with it.

That trip, I found myself asking both Palestinians and Israelis if they could envision a future where there was no hatred and fear of the other, where hatred and fear were not ingrained in a child from the day they were born. Not a single person I spoke to, young or old, said yes, it is possible. That is not to say that people who believe otherwise don’t exist, but it seems they are hard to find.

We need to understand the past, the traumas of the past, traumas that have been passed on generation to generation, both on the Israeli and on the Palestinian side. We need to understand those intense emotions that can embed themselves in and change our DNA — paralyzing fear, the desperate need to belong, the longing for home and safety, the desire for a dignified life. We also need to understand how those emotions have been historically manipulated, twisted, and how from the start the failings of the key power brokers — incidentally neither Palestinian nor Israeli — have led to where we are today.

I find myself remembering a passage from my Syrian grandmother’s diary. There is an entry from her honeymoon in the early 1940s. She writes of driving from Syria, along the Lebanese coast and the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, and easily crossing over into Palestine (for it was Palestine back then) and spending time in Haifa. She marvels at how modern it is, but even more so at how diverse. She writes about hearing different languages populate the air, the latest fashions, and how so many cultures and religions had come together. It still boggles my mind that there was a time when one could drive that road, not just to Haifa but all the way to Gaza.

If only there was a way to turn back time, to do it all differently.

Hamas would not have been able to gain such strength and popularity were it not able to point to the crimes committed by Israel and the West’s hypocrisy toward Palestinians, such as the lack of accountability for anything that Israel does, from the murder of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh to the illegal settlements popping up like mushrooms, the razing of Palestinian orchards and homes and the detentions and killings of Palestinians, especially children. It’s gasoline on an already burning fire of rage and injustice.

The crimes committed against the Palestinians run a gamut. There are the detentions of teenagers, like that of my friend’s young cousin. He was just 15 years old when soldiers stormed into his home, beat him when he tried to resist and dragged him out as he left a trail of blood on the floor and his mother screamed helplessly. There are also the daily realities, things like being prohibited from moving around freely. Once, when I was in Jerusalem, I messaged a friend of mine who happened to be in the West Bank to come and meet up.

“I can’t,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I responded.

“I don’t have a permit for Jerusalem and there isn’t enough time to apply for a pass,” he explained.

At the time, it sort of floored me how I, as a foreigner, could easily cross these checkpoints while a citizen of Palestine could not even move within Palestinian territories.

That is not to say that Israel is the sole factor to blame, but it is a major one, and its actions most certainly did, and do, validate Hamas’ positions and Palestinian sentiments toward occupation. This is not an endorsement of what Hamas has done. There is not and never will be an acceptable “reason” to slaughter civilians and take others hostage.

Haaretz, Israel’s leading paper, published a scathing editorial placing the blame for this Hamas operation squarely on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating that he “completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession … while embracing a foreign policy that completely ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”

We need to understand that groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, and others exist because violence begets violence. That, it seems, is just human nature. A seemingly unbreakable cycle that now is doomed to become even worse.

By that token, Israel cannot and would not receive the financial and military support that it does without the threat presented by Hamas and other groups. The irony is that all armed parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gain power and prestige because of the armed conflict. It poses the question of who, really, wants peace?

In around two years, from 1947 to 1949, around 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes, often at gunpoint, often with just what they could carry, sobbing, hysterical and in shock. In 1967, Israel’s Arab neighbors again waged war and were again defeated, losing even more Palestinian land to the Jewish state, creating another wave of around 300,000 Palestinians forced from their homes, their villages razed.

The descendants of both those wars still have frail and frayed bits of deeds to their former homes and rusted keys that would no longer work. Proof of what was. Proof that they once had a “home.” Last year, in Lebanon, I was visiting a charity working in one of the Palestinian camps. I’ve always found it strange that these haphazardly built-up areas, with their mazes of winding roads and electrical lines strung across narrow alleyways, are still called “camps.” Perhaps it is not that strange, though, given that the camps’ inhabitants are still born as “refugees,” with no way to escape that title. They are born into a world filled with trauma, a craving and longing for “home.” They miss something they never knew, a feeling of belonging, a land they are not permitted to visit, one they can only see in their imagination, following the vivid descriptions passed down to them.

“My parents always spoke to me about Palestine. About the olive trees, the salty smell of the seas,” Zaineb tells me, her brown hair swishing around her shoulders. “I don’t know what that is. I dream of going to Palestine.”

She is stuck, her identity forever tied to a land that remains off-limits, unable to even begin to forge a new one as Lebanon, like all other Arab countries, does not give Palestinians nationality or the same rights as its citizens. There are no “first generation” Palestinian Lebanese, Jordanians or Syrians like there are “first generation” Americans and Europeans, children of refugees and immigrants who are able to build a new identity, as difficult as that may be, and start to put down roots in new homelands.

The cycle of violence and dispossession is never-ending. And sadly, I don’t see how it ends unless the status quo ends — the status quo of Israel doubling down on its aggressive occupation, intensified over this last year. Israel’s key supporters, with the U.S. at the top of the list, know this. But no administration is willing to make the necessary changes, is willing to exert pressure on Israel; they have too much to lose at home politically given the strength of the pro-Israel lobby. Now, with these events, it seems impossible.

Palestinian parties have done Palestinians no favors. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which took over in 2007 and has not held elections since. The West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which is often criticized as being a wet rag and incapable of advocating for Palestinian rights. The two despise each other.

Embedded in the DNA of Israelis and many Jews elsewhere is the trauma of the Holocaust. Stories are passed down of the sheer unimaginable nightmare of it all. Existential fear is compounded by the bone-chilling images of festival-goers gunned down, civilians young and old hauled off as hostages.

Embedded in the DNA of Palestinians are the stories of being forced from their homeland, the constant abandonment by Arab nations, the West’s hypocrisy, and the constant reminder that they are a people without a homeland, a people who are occupied in their own land, a people for whom no one will stand up, whose rights are eroded everyday with complete impunity, a people clinging to an ever-elusive dream. Palestinians are not Hamas. Gazans are not Hamas.

And now with this, with this level of horror, this level of heightened emotion that plays straight into both Hamas and Israel’s hands, it’s hard to comprehend just how costly the endgame is going to be or what that even looks like. But the trauma of this, like the traumas of the past, I fear is also going to end up embedded in the DNA of generations to come.

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