Realities of conflict in Israel
From Aug. 26 to 31, when images of US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were being beamed all across the globe, talking about the inconceivable horror of Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people and priming the public for what seemed to be the inevitability of US military intervention in Syria, I was wandering the Old City of Jerusalem. I was trying to make sense of a longer, albeit similarly intractable conflict—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During the day, I walked around the sprawling Arab souq (market) within the gates of the Old City in the heart of East Jerusalem and tried to identify the invisible green line that divided this historic city between the West Israeli side and the East Palestinian side.
From a distance, I looked out at sites of key religious importance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam—the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the ownership of which is at the core of one of the most contentious issues of this conflict.
Going around the Old City, touching the Separation Barrier (a concrete wall with a maximum height of 25 feet) between the West Bank and Jerusalem, gave me the tiniest glimpse of the day-to-day realities of life in the midst of a decades-long conflict.
If you’re a Palestinian living in the West Bank, this reality includes having to go through checkpoints, being under constant military scrutiny, needing permits from Israeli authorities to travel from one part of Palestine to another and being forbidden from using certain main highways that are meant only for Israelis.
For Israelis, this reality means not being allowed to go to a Palestinian territory, living under the threat (real or otherwise) of attacks, and, if you’re 18, having to give up three years of your life to compulsory military service.
During the night, I scanned online news sites, reading up on the latest speech that Obama or Kerry had made in the course of the day, fearing that the progressively stronger words being used in the speeches signaled the US government’s growing resolve to mount military strikes against Syria.
At that point, it did not seem to matter to either Obama or Kerry that threatening to take unilateral military action against Syria and bypassing the UN Security Council were illegal from the international law standpoint and in clear contravention of the United States’ obligations to the international community as a member of the United Nations (UN) and a signatory to the UN Charter.
Obama also seemed to be ignoring the possible consequences his planned attack would have on the region. With news reports circulating in Israeli media that any US military strike against Syria would result in retaliatory attacks from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah against Israel, regional stability was hanging in the balance. Yet for Obama, these threats were nothing out of the ordinary.
But in Israel, these threats were being taken seriously.
The Israeli Defense Force has set up Iron Dome antirocket batteries in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and drafted a small number of reserve soldiers to man these batteries. The government is also stepping up efforts to distribute gas masks, but only to Israeli citizens.
I spoke with Sarit Larry, a Ph.D. student on political philosophy, regarding the Israeli reaction to the possibility of US military strikes in Syria. I told her what I had observed over the past few weeks in Tel Aviv—a relative calm on the streets with people going to work during the course of the week and heading to the beach and celebrating the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) over the past weekend.
From an outsider’s eyes, no one seemed particularly concerned about the possibility of being caught in the middle of a regional war.
According to Sarit, Israelis were very aware of what was going on in Syria and a number of Israelis were anxious about the possible repercussions of a US military strike against Syria. While she conceded that the anxiety level in Israel was not comparable to the panic that people felt in the runup to the Gulf War in 1990, the tension could be felt, even if only slightly.
Gas mask distribution
To illustrate, she noted the noticeable increase in the number of Israelis who, in the past few weeks, had flooded the government’s gas mask distribution centers. This tension greatly abated when Obama announced that he was submitting this decision for a vote in Congress.
Jesse Fox, an American-Israeli urban planner living in Jaffa, believes that Obama made some wise moves over the past couple of weeks. In his view, it was the credibility of Obama’s threats that pushed the Assad regime to consider giving up its chemical weapons and stimulated serious debate in the international community about the Syrian conflict.
Away from cliff
Whether intentional or not, it does appear to be the case that the US threats against Syria have opened a small window of opportunity for stakeholders in the conflict to return to the negotiating table.
At the very least, we have stepped away from the cliff of a regional war, with Syria expressing its willingness to surrender control of its chemical weapons to the international community and Obama saying he would wait for the findings of the UN inspectors on the Aug. 21 chemical attacks before proceeding.
As for Israel’s possible role in the conflict, Jesse is adamant Israel should have no part in the conflict, except in self-defense should Syria or Hezbollah decide to retaliate against it. He finds the recent statements made by Israeli officials to the effect that the world should let both sides of the Syrian conflict continue to “bleed, hemorrhage to death” morally objectionable and incredibly foolish.
Undoubtedly, bigger challenges remain unresolved, the most pressing of which is how Syria’s disarmament will be enforced. Should the UN Security Council resolution on this matter contain the threat of force? Whether this question will bog down discussions and lead to another unsatisfactory stalemate within the Security Council remains to be seen in the coming days.
In the meantime, the residents of Tel Aviv, including me, are sighing with relief that what appeared to be the imminent outbreak of war a little over a week ago is now becoming less likely.
(Karen Pimentel Simbulan is a lawyer from the Philippines, taking up further studies on International Conflict Management at Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Germany. She is currently an international law research volunteer at Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, a human rights organization in Israel advocating the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The views expressed here are the author’s own.)