Beit Hanoun. Beit Lahiya. Jabaliyah. These strange names keep popping up in reports of the fighting in Gaza, between the IDF and Hamas. The first two are names of small towns at the northern end of the Gaza Strip, literally a stone’s throw from the border with Israel, almost within spitting distance of the Israeli town of Sderot (where my sister works as a doctor), and Kibbutz Nir Am, and Moshav Netiv HaAsara. Jabaliyah is a large refugee camp just a few kilometers farther south, just north of Gaza City. Yes, these are just names to you, mentioned in the reports of the tunnels dug by Hamas to serve in their attacks on Israelis, launching sites for the mortars and rockets being fired indiscriminately into Israel. Yes, these are just names to you, but for me they hold memories of the dusty paths, potholed and unpaved streets, and narrow alleys that I patrolled in January and February 1988, over 25 years ago, at the beginning of the first Intifada.
My miluim (reserve duty) unit was called up to do reserve duty unexpectedly, because of the matzav, the situation. It was the first time that along with our assault rifles, uniforms, helmets, and canteens, we were also issued wooden batons, with only a short class on how to use them. We also got a few hours of lectures and instructions on the rules of engagement. I remember the stones and Molotov cocktails thrown at us, and our running after the shabab, the teenage boys and young men who threw them. Most of them got away; some didn’t. I was younger then, and could still run; with the adrenaline of danger pumping, I was unexpectedly fast. I remember the cheers and taunting of those who got away, and the wails and tears of those who were caught.
The fight back then was a piece of cake, compared to what is happening now to my nephews and their friends, to the sons of my old comrades, to my brother-in-law who was called up for Operation Protective Edge. Back then, Hamas had just recently been founded and served mostly as a religious social service organization and charity. It was quietly allowed by the Israeli government to grow, in the hope that it would provide a counterbalance in Palestinian society to Fatah and the PLO. One should be wary of one’s wishes, as you might get what you want.
I remember the people. Many of the residents of Beit Hanoun were farmers, the town surrounded by orange groves and fields of cucumbers. Many of the residents of Jabaliyah worked in Israel, getting up at 3 or 4 a.m. and going to the Erez border crossing to line up for a security check, before being allowed to cross over and get in a shared taxi to get to their (mostly) construction jobs in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Rehovot, or Tel Aviv, or to their farming jobs in the northern Negev. The women, children, and old men stayed home. Since then, Israel has imposed a blockade of Gaza, the men are no longer allowed to work in Israel, and the jobs in Gaza are few and far between.
Hamas definitely took advantage of the hopelessness and the misery of life in Gaza. They built their radical anti-Israel ideology there, along with their fighting capability, their religious extremism, their suicide bombers, and the tunnels and developed their rockets and missiles there — fueled by the squalor and frustrations of daily existence. They created their secret cells, which got more and more difficult to find as Israeli security service pushed them deeper and deeper into the shadows.
After the blockade of Gaza was imposed by Israel, the people of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, and Jabaliyah have no way, and nowhere, to escape their penury. They are locked in Gaza, where more and more, they depend on the refugee rations they receive from UNRWA. Even the well-educated have no jobs, no way to find a better life for themselves or for their children. With no peace, they have no hope. It is no wonder that extremism finds fertile ground to grow.
When the IDF ground operation to find and destroy the Hamas tunnels began, the residents of Beit Hanoun received warnings from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to evacuate. Some were able to find refuge in the UN-run schools, with fighting raging all around them, Hamas launching rockets and firing mortars from their neighborhoods, bombs and guided missiles falling constantly from Israeli planes, helicopters, and drones. But the majority can find no refuge, and they cannot leave the Gaza Strip to find safe shelter. Gaza’s borders are closed. They cannot go to Egypt; they cannot go to Israel. They’re trapped.
But the image most seared into my mind from that time I spent in Gaza is from one of my last patrols in Jabaliyah. We were going by an UNRWA girls’ school, and through one of the open windows, my eyes locked with those of a young woman, probably one of the teachers. Her face was beautiful, and I couldn’t help looking right back at her. But we were there as occupiers, and the look on her face transformed into a cold look of hate. I can still see it. I can only wonder if she’s survived all the bloodletting.
And I can only hope, and pray, that when the end to this round of death and destruction comes, Israelis and Palestinians will find a way to get back to negotiations, that we will finally reach a solution to this conflict and live in peace as two states.