To call what exists between Palestine and Israel “tension” or “conflict” is to do it a grave disservice. It is an ever-widening chasm, a fissure that is instilled in each and every citizen of the region far before they are even aware of what nationalism is. In short, Palestinians believe that Israelis unjustly occupy land that is not theirs, while Israelis believe that Palestinians wish to expel them and deny their people a sense of safety and security. An oversimplification, sure, but one that illustrates that the difference between these people manifests itself in the present-day through the issue of land occupation. And while words like “tension” and “conflict” hardly begin to depict the nightmarish melting pot of wealth inequity and religious zealots, they are the only words we have to describe what we see. This is the genesis of the outside world’s inability to fully understand what the individuals on either side feel—ultimately, the strife is personal, complex, and entirely gray.
This recently dormant tension came to a head on Monday June 30th, when, after searching for 18 days, Israeli officials discovered, in a shallow grave, the bodies of three missing Israeli teenagers last seen in the occupied West Bank. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated at the start of an emergency cabinet meeting on the day of the discovery, “They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by beasts. Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.” Israel’s primary suspects, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, members of a rogue branch of Hamas who have been missing since the teenagers disappeared, have tipped the precariously balanced reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Front and Hamas. The disappearances prompted a heavy Israeli presence in the West Bank, which revealed itself to be retribution masquerading as a body search—thousands of homes were seized, 400 Palestinians were arrested and five, who resisted, were killed. Reports suggested that Israeli officials eventually knew the boys were dead, but preferred to justify their military strikes under the guise of rescuing the lost boys.
And, as with most dark stories, this one doesn’t end tidily. On July 2nd, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy was kidnapped in East Jerusalem. Until about 1 a.m., Muhammad Abu Khdeir could be found at the recreation center named after his ubiquitous family, playing foosball and watching World Cup matches with his friends. Suspected to be kidnapped by Israelis in an act of revenge for the three lost teenagers, he was found beaten and burned in a Jerusalem forest just an hour later. The autopsy found soot in his lungs, confirming that gasoline was forced down his throat and he was burned alive. Just a day later, a 15-year-old, American-born cousin of Muhammad named Tarek Khdeir was arrested and beaten brutally by Israeli officers on Thursday, July 3. He was visiting from Tampa, Florida, where he attends high school. For the victims of these crimes, there is no solace or respite. As Abir Abu Khdeir, a family member of the deceased, stated, “It’s like a monster—they want to eat us.”
Tragically, Muhammad Abu Khdeir happens to be a cousin of a good friend of mine. Perhaps it is because Muhammad looks so disturbingly, unsettlingly similar to my friend, or perhaps it’s because the story of his last few hours reminds me so starkly of nights spent with friends during Ramadan in my home country of Egypt, but I have not been able to forget this boy. To see my friends hang their head in mourning is to be reminded that this issue isn’t some ephemeral, vague dilemma involving people and places that don’t concern me. It is real, it is deadly, and it is here. Despite its gruesome details, unfortunately, Muhammad’s story isn’t particularly new or shocking, but it strikes sufficient chords of empathy and attention to draw a world audience. Shortly after the discovery of his body, protests erupted across East Jerusalem and anger and resentment escalated on social media. Israel’s military jailed four soldiers who took part in an online campaign that called for revenge on Palestinians. A Facebook page dedicated to the same cause garnered 35,000 likes and depicts Israelis holding a sign that reads,“Hating Arabs isn’t racism, it’s values! #IsraelDemandsRevenge,” as well as a soldier posting a picture with the caption, “Let us simply spray [them with bullets].” Writer Chemi Shalev of Haaretz Daily Newspaper wrote regarding Israeli backlash, “Their inflamed hatred does not exist in a vacuum: it is an ongoing presence, growing by the day, encompassing ever larger segments of Israeli society, nurtured in a public environment of resentment, insularity and victimhood, fostered and fed by politicians and pundits.”
The fact of the matter is that Israel’s military is better funded, more capable, and more powerful than the combined force of all the Palestinian citizens could hope to be. They are in a position of power, and their leaders have been systematically teaching their youth that they are victims to the terrorists, an ostracized people who must defend themselves lest they be subjugated to the whims of angry Muslims. As American Jew David Harris Gershon says of his Hebrew School education, “I was taught that I was vulnerable, that there were people who wanted me dead … Palestinians, accordingly, were portrayed as just one in a series of people who have risen up throughout history to destroy us, being painted as a caricature of evil. As a boy, I nodded and understood.” For years now, the Israeli government has been guilty of home demolitions, child imprisonment, cleansing of Arab villages, human rights violations, and violent atrocities. A Palestinian child has been murdered every 3 days for the past 14 years. They are powerful and they believe that they are in the moral and religious right, leaving many feeling that the only way to fight back is with violence; eat, or be eaten. What is most dangerous at the moment is that both sides have demonstrated how little interest they have in peace. My Internet feeds have been flooded with social media vigilantes, including Muslims I know, openly calling for blood and revenge. Make no mistake, this is not a one-sided issue and it’s not simple enough to point one finger.
As a Middle-Eastern born Muslim, what am I supposed to say? That all Zionists are murderous, ruthless people? That I’m okay with violence as long as it’s retaliatory? That I will stop at nothing to punish my opposition? Or perhaps I can say that people are hurting. That I’ve seen people close to me, people I respect and revere, turn into grotesque caricatures, things that hate blindly and without regard. That perhaps the fact that the death toll is astronomically high doesn’t change the fact that without resolution to this deep-seated conflict, the number will climb even higher.
The only voices that are heard are those who shout to get a reaction—those who demand more blood and more violence, those who condemn one side and paint a tidy picture of heroes and villains and dragons to slay. The problem with these extreme points of view getting valuable traction is that social media creates insular communities, ones that self-prophesize and gorge themselves on victimization and violent plotting. They present just one side of the story and they encourage wild accusations, assuring that if you don’t respond with anger, you just don’t care enough.
But these events do not exist in isolation. They are part of an ongoing narrative, a story that stretches across time and place on a platform for the whole world to witness. Perhaps the most shocking implication of all this is that the only way to draw attention to this issue is to have a head on a pike. In a situation where so little is understood, the only opinions deemed worthy of sharing or understanding have been those that create a false dichotomy, a black-and-white picture where everything makes sense because the other side is so wholly evil. I cannot pretend to know what the policy-based solution to this issue is, but I can say this: if we propagate fear and violence, then that is exactly what we will continue to get. I fear that the word “extremist” is losing its value, that the minority voice of anger and violence is becoming the majority, that bloodletting is becoming the new norm for so many people in Gaza and Jerusalem. I fear that the voices of anger will drown out the voices of reason. I fear that we will start to think they are right.
Gershon, David H. “As a Jew Living in America, the past Week Has Changed Me Forever.” Web log post. Daily Kos. N.p., 5 July 2014. Web. 7 July 2014. <http://m.dailykos.com/story/2014/07/06/1311721/-As-a-Jew-living-in-America-the-past-week-has-changed-me-forever>.
Kershner, Isabel. “6 Israelis Held Over the Killing of Palestinian.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 06 July 2014. Web. 07 July 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/07/world/middleeast/israel-palestinians-muhammad-abu-khdeir.html?_r=1>.
Mackey, Robert. “Beating of Palestinian-American Boy Caught on Video.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 5 July 2014. Web. 7 July 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/world/middleeast/beating-of-palestinian-american-boy-caught-on-video.html>.
Mackey, Robert. “Video Shows Abduction of Slain Palestinian Teenager, Family Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 3 July 2014. Web. 7 July 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/world/middleeast/video-shows-abduction-of-slain-palestinian-teenager-family-says.html>.
Rudoren, Jodi. “Autopsy Suggests Palestinian Teenager Was Burned to Death After Abduction.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 05 July 2014. Web. 06 July 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/world/middleeast/autopsy-suggests-palestinian-boy-was-burned-alive-reports-say.html?_r=0>.
Rudoren, Jodi, and Isabel Kershner. “Israel’s Search for 3 Teenagers Ends in Grief.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 30 June 2014. Web. 01 July 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/01/world/middleeast/Israel-missing-teenagers.html>.