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Romanian-Israelis and Palestinians told me how the war in Gaza affected them

A ceasefire was reached — but the fear, the uncertainty and the arrests continue.

— Except specifying otherwise, all pictures were taken by the author.

Last week, a protest was held in Timișoara by the local Palestinian community. Over 100 people came — of Arab, European or mixed ethnicity. It has mirrored other similar protests from around the world, which condemned the bombardments of the Israeli army.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated in April-May 2021, degenerating into war. The causes are multiple, but its main catalysts were two events.

The Israeli-Palestinian map. The Gaza Strip in south-west, the West Bank and Western Jerusalem are highlighted. Image via the UN/OCHA oPt, via Wikimedia.

Firstly, during the holy Ramadan war, the Israeli police forcefully intervened in the Al-Aqsa mosque, considered by many Muslims as the third most important religious edifice. The police fired tear gas in enclosed space. Outside, stun grenades flew while civilians responded with stones.

Secondly, the Palestinian grievances were lit by de Israeli court decisions to evacuate residents of Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Families that used to live there for generations were ordered out by the judicial system, in order to make way for Israeli settlers, some of them born in other countries.

Both events came from a background of political gridlock that smothered Israel in the past two years, while more and more accuse prime minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu of corruption. In Palestine, the first elections since 2006 were scheduled, only to be postponed last minute by president Mahmoud Abbas.

This lead to hostilities being started between Hamas — the political-military organization that rules over the Gaza Strip — plus Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ) and the Israeli army (Israel Defense Forces, IDF).

Meanwhile, civil skirmishes unfolded between the Palestinians that are protesting for decades the West Bank occupation by Israel, and Bibi’s supporters. Being an occupied cohort, the former have the (heavily militarized) Israeli police as opponents. The latter, alongside them.

(As the years pass, the Israeli law enforcement and the settlers cooperate better and better. The actions of the latter have become de facto tolerated by the occupying forces in the West Bank.)

Hamas-PIJ issued an ultimatum to the Israeli authorities to exit Al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah until Monday, May 10th at 6 p.m. local time. Not long passed after that and the rockets began to fly.

You can read here in depth about the events that precipitated the war. Or you can watch the report below.

VICE News report: Inside the Battle for Jerusalem

In the early hours of May 21st, after nearly two weeks of war and protests, a truce was declared. Both belligerent sides have proclaimed victory, whilst civilians suffered and will suffer the majority of the losses.

I remotely followed the events as they unfolded. And I tried to tell you about what the Romanian press mainly omitted to show you. Meanwhile, I sought out for people closer to the conflict, in order to make their lived experience heard. That’s how I ended up discussing with a person living in Israel, but also with relatives from Timișoara of people from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

How life unfolds knowing that the sirens can immediately go off

Ariella* is over 30. She arrived in one of Israel’s biggest cities last decade, canine accompanying her. That’s how she also experienced the 2014 conflict, but “it was at about 30% intensity compared to now”, she tells me. “In other cities, panic flooded the streets, and people were running towards the bomb shelters. It was for the first time that I lived through this, but it was shorter, so I don’t think I was that affected.”

Initially, she installed an app that notified any missile incoming towards Israel. But she uninstalled it after a while. “I told myself that it just made me live in fear, when they mostly fall in other places around the country that I have nothing to do with.”

A lot of Israelis feel safe due to one of the country’s defensive systems, the Iron Dome anti-missile shield. Photo via Israel Defense Forces / Flickr.

Despite this, Ariella believes that some residual fear still lingers. She admits she became more alert to all sort of noises, both her and her pet. “Our minds became hyper-alert. But other things worry me the most. For example, eight thousand people were called in the army now. That means that there are eight thousand worried mothers. Would future me like to be one of them?” (Israel is among the 30 countries with mandatory military service still in place.)

The recent conflict she relied on the blare of her town’s sirens, when info gets through that there is a targeted attack imminent. Some Israeli localities are less fortunate. She tells me about some of her fellow citizens that have 15, 30 or 40 seconds to reach the shelters. In her town “I’m spoiled, we have 90 at our disposal”. Close to Ariella, there are three shelters: one ten seconds away, another at half a minute and one more at about a minute’s rush.

“But I don’t go underground. I’ve never been there. I’m more of the crazy type that, if death’s coming, home would be where to find me. Let’s say that I train my dog towards the shelters. But the sirens go off when I’m not home. What will she do? Take crazy rounds in the yard? She’s already stressed now and runs in the bathroom when hearing them, poor thing.”

“Personally, I’ve mostly seen migrants and tourists running to the shelters”

So Ariella thinks that this will only add to the general fear. “Around me, I’ve seen that Israelis usually are really relaxed, and the ones that run for cover are the immigrants. It’s a new thing for them, so they go and sleep there.”

The tourists are also among the ones more terrified. “A friend of mine came from London on a Saturday. We were at a beach and the blaring started. They do affect me — it’s not fun to hear them, and then feel the walls tremble. But her, poor soul, she sprinted straight in the incorrect direction. I had to yell ‘heeeeey, wrong waaaaaaay’.”

During the two weeks of the recent conflict, her hometown heard the alerts about eight times. No missile reached its target.

“Every year, Hamas do this. It’s a constant, repeating occurrence. But this time, due to the attacks being at maximum capacity, the press also took note. Personally, my thing that they affected the most is my sleep schedule. They issued warnings that they’ll attack at 5, then at 6, then at 7… But the authorities tell you to just carry on, or else you give in to the fear and they win.”

This is what she admires most about the Israelis: “even so, they go out and have at it. They love life.” She remembers about a previous machine gun attack at a nearby restaurant, “but they just closed it down for about two hours and then they opened it back, as if nothing happened. Life must go on. It’s peculiar, but this is their normal.”

She and her neighbors want nothing but peace. “There are some that went out to protest Bibi and the corruption around him a gazillion times (like you did with Dragnea and Dăncilă), but there are others who say that peace will only be reached when Israel goes in and kill all the terrorists.”

Israeli children running for shelter in 2012. Photo via Wikimedia.

Then, she ponders that we all integrate the cultures that we’re born in into our behaviors. She believes that Arabs and Jews can get along well, but there are always politicians and extremists that just want to make a mess and profit.

“It was frightening, yes. After a year of COVID-19 that brought the town to silence, it seemed that everything was over. Parties started, and then — bam!, war. Those who wished so, could work from home again. And thus, the streets were flooded with silence yet again, only this time we had it due to war. It was a lot more tormenting, because not even three months passed in which we enjoyed somewhat normal life.”

Before finishing our conversation, she shared that she doesn’t believe that it will be long before things calm down. “But even so, you know how things are around here — always ‘till next time.”

Why the local Palestinian community took to Timișoara’s streets

And that’s how it unfolded. Two days later, the two warring sides signed a long-awaited ceasefire. But Timișoara’s Palestinian community announced a protest against the bombardments since Thursday, which they held a day later. A similar demonstration was held six days earlier, in Bucharest.

I arrive in the central square at about 3 p.m.. Over a hundred people across all generations place themselves in front of the opera, with flags in which black-white-green-red are the main colors.

Most of them are Palestine’s, but I also identify others belonging to Jordan, Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia. Some young people arrive with other, more familiar ones — Romania and the EU. Among the accessories are also some keffiyeh, the black-blue scarves that became symbolic for either Palestinian nationalism, either solidarity with its people. A barely adolescent girl holds up a sign that says “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we are the seeds.”

Then, the megaphone petitioning start: “Free, free Palestine.” After a few minutes, “Down, down Israel” (in Romanian).

A shorter man equipped with black tee-cap-sunglasses stares in disbelief. He introduces to me as Rendo, and declares himself a bit shocked.

The event makes him realize that the world “is a lot bigger than Romania and the EU. God tells us that we should protect our neighbors as brothers, but they profit off the local context, demand things and that’s not ok with me”. Rendo says that he’s seen the things they do in France, and he’s afraid that we might be next. When I ask for specifics, he tells me that he hopes this will not bring Sharia law in Romania. At first, he thought that it’s a pro-Israel demonstration, but he didn’t notice any blue star of David.

I question if he’s aware about the reasons why they’re protesting. He says yes, and that he’s sorry for what’s going down in Palestine, even though he’s not up to date with all the news. “They have the right to protests”, he says, adding that he would impose things on migrants, such as learning the language. “You don’t come here to order the wearing of the burqa and things like that. They should be the ones abiding by the rules. Because if I were to go to their homes and yell ‘Let’s go, Jesus’ and things like that… I’ll be chopped! Well, there’s no one to chop them here”, he believes.

I hang around a bit more as we discuss about the traumas of communism and the dangers of us turning into France or the UK. In the end, he admits that he admires how vocal the protesters in front of him are, and how much they believe in what they say.

„Libertate, libertate. Palas-tiiin, libertate!” („Liberty, liberty. Palas-tiiin, liberty”) blazes out of a speaker. I go around the vocal group and begin discussing with Hosam, who has been living here for thirty of his last fifty years. He holds a simple placard: a picture of Al-Aqsa mosque.

He was born precisely in Gaza City. “I come from a neighborhood named Sabra, and the house next to my brothers’ was bombed just a few days ago, so that one of their exterior walls fell. I’m gonna send you the pictures.”

How does he decode this conflict? “Let me tell you, sir. You are Romanian. If the Hungarians were to come and claim Transylvania, and you were to go and liberate the land from them, are you a terrorist? It’s not just you that would go, I’d also take part. Because I am also a Romanian citizen”, he speaks convincingly.

He considers that IDF are criminals — blocks of flats were leveled, and whole families disappeared. He gathered so much sorrow in his fifty years that he doesn’t distance himself too much from Hamas.

Hosam’s feelings are shared more and more among his fellow citizens, after the Palestinian Authority that governs over the West Bank loses more and more ground in the public perception as a legitimate defender of Palestinian rights. Especially in the eyes of the West Bank’s youth, who reject the political establishment and just go out and protest, although they lack rights as basic as waving their country’s flag.

Images from the archive of Hosam’s family. The exterior wall of Qusay’s building fell due to the bombings.

I meet Nabil after that, who’s eight years older. His opinion is a bit more nuanced:

“I’m not for Hamas. But any pressure will eventually lead to an explosion. That’s also what happened here, in this square in 1989”, he says referencing the Romanian Revolution. “So if you see Hamas as a terrorist organization, just stop pushing young Palestinians in their arms.”

Hamas is an organization with two wings: a socio-political one and a military one. It has been designated as a terrorist entity by the US and Canada in 1995 and 2002, respectively. The EU, initially similarly to Australia, New Zealand and the UK, designated only its military wing as such. But in 2003, the union succumbed to American pressure and changed its stance in accordance. Nowadays, both countries with a questionable human rights record don’t see Hamas members as terrorists, and European countries that chose to remain neutral, such as Norway or Switzerland. Even so, the denial of the Holocaust by the organization is inexcusable.

The Guardian report: Trapped in Gaza

“Hamas was born as a military resistance against the occupation. If the blockade there would’ve been lifted and Palestine would be occupied no more, Hamas would have probably converted itself into a political party. And I wish to underscore that I don’t agree with their politics. But that would be the key: create a two-state system, and the extremism diminishes. Logically, right?”

Nabil came to Timișoara in ’82 and settled after the Revolution. His brothers live in Khan Yunis (in the Gaza Strip) and witnessed the bombings first hand.

“Here we are protesting peacefully. We, the Palestinian community, wish to express our opinions against violence, against the injustice that burdens our people — through land grabbing, forced evictions and the illegal placement of settlers. According to international law, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered occupied territories. That needs to stop, and so does the suffering.”

His sister and brother back home described what they saw these days:

“A real-life horror movie. Dead or gutted children, limbs lost and under the rubble due to the bombardments. Most of the suffering was civilian. Their punishing just in order to create political pressures is unacceptable.”

From his point of view, the solution is to respect the peace process. “It imposed the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. To be more precise, the occupied territories of 1967. Because it was both the Palestinians and the Israelis that signed for this process, under an American umbrella. But the Israelis never really wanted that, and the promises are not kept.”

A slender youngster with a mask comes to wave a Romanian flag along the mass. When his masks come off, his tattoos show. Patrick is 21 and he tells me that he made a lot of friends from that part of the world when he was working at a internet and electronic games café.

„The Arabs came here for university, and now they’re in Israel and working. They were the clients that I went along with the best, regardless if we were interacting during daytime or the night.”

Patrick came with the Romanian flag out of solidarity. He says that he also knows a lot of Romanians in Israel and vice versa.

“The way that the Palestinians were bombed by the Israeli army is just horrible and unjust. I’ve watched the events unfold mostly from the foreign press. But even they show you just what they want you to see. Luckily my friends from there send show me the situation from the spot. They’re at a terrace and all of a sudden you can hear shots in the background, to which they’re not even reacting. Stuff like that. Things that were happening even before this conflict. Now, it just got worse.”

But the youngster is optimistic about a reconciliation between the two peoples. “If it were up to me, I’d end all wars. They bring nothing good. Maybe only for politicians, because for civilians — only loss of life and territory.”

Wrapped in the Tunisian flag is 24 years old Haifa. Even though she’s from another country, she tells me that she could almost feel the suffering of those locked in the Strip.

“What infuriated me the most were the deaths of very young children. We’re seeing daily bombing pictures. All that we can do is go out and manifest our solidarity.”

She can’t follow the Romanian press, mostly due to language restrictions, “but the one back home shows the situation very well. Unfortunately, I believe that a country and religious war as old as this is hard to solve. But I believe that they should at least stop throwing explosives on innocent people.”

She came along with Ahmed, a Syrian four years her junior.

“The Israeli state tries constantly tries to kick Palestinians out of their homes. If no one will talk about this, no one will know what’s going on”, he tells me and gets back to chanting.

Without a flag, but in a yellow vest, black cap and mask on her chin I meet Boutaina. She’s 21, is from Morocco and came to study medicine. “Classic”, I say.

“Yeah, I came for studying the classical way. And to this manifestation I came in order to support our brothers from Gaza, which have been suffering for a long time. What determined me the most to protest is that they signed a ceasefire this morning, but today Palestinians were attacked again in the mosque that they were praying in. It seems like it’ll never end… but I wish two things for Palestine: freedom and to get back their lands.”

Ibrahim is holding an EU flag. He’s only 14, but the things he saw these days intensified his disgust for a whole country.

“I wish nothing but the worst for Israel. They invaded our lands, and I’m sorry to say that the Romanian press presents the Palestinians as terrorist and them as the victims. I spoke to my relatives from back home the past few days and they told me that they’re terrorized day and night by the bombings. Just hearing a plane is enough for them to be frightened. Upon hearing this, I can only feel hate and sadness. I don’t know if there’s room for peace, I don’t think so. The solution is to pray to Allah and home that he’ll help someday. I brought an EU flag because I’d like to see support from the Europeans. That’s why I’m also grateful for the Romanians that came here today.”

A white-haired guy sits next to protesters. Mihai is 49 years old, and he has a keffiyeh hanging from his bike. He moved to the United States, but was visiting his hometown, so he said he would join the protest.

“I live in New York and I also took part there in many pro-Palestine marches, including with Hasidic Jews. Their religion says that they have no right to a country, so that’s why they managed to live in peace even with Iranians, Iraqis or Syrians. But once radical Zionism came, the problems started”, the Timișoara expat tells me.

Regarding the conflict, he feels that “there is no fairness in what’s going on. And mass-media doesn’t presents a lot of the facts, with the exception of reporters such as Abby Martin.”

„All the time Hamas is put forward and the rhetoric goes ‘look, see what they’re up to?’, but almost no one shows that it’s a reaction. In most of the cases, Israel is the one that puts the pressure on, and you’ll seldomly see this in the press. In Gaza hospitals and infrastructure were demolished, but rarely you’ll hear about this in Romania.”

BBC News report: The Israeli settlers Chelsea boss Abramovich helped fund

Mihai says he noticed a gradual colonization in Palestinian territory. “Either they take their houses according to court decisions, and immediately Israelis show up to evict them, ‘because if not, someone else will steal it’. Either the settlers go with trailers just to live inside Palestinian territory. Then the state of Israel builds electricity infrastructure up to them. Well, that’s it then, the blocks are built almost immediately.”

“Afterwards, American presidents go on TV and say that Israel has the right to defend itself. But what defense act is it to bomb civilians? Let’s be honest, the sole thing they want is for Palestinians to leave. Ethnic cleansing.”

Ola recently turned 18. She came from Sudan in October to obtain a degree in medicine. “We, the peoples of Arab culture, are raised to be along our Muslim brothers. I felt hopeless when I saw on the news what was happening there. Then, when I posted about it on the internet, I felt a weight on my shoulders that I wasn’t doing enough. So as soon as I saw people taking to the streets today, I said I had to come, to do something for Palestine.”

She’s amused that she has no flag to wave, but at least she’s holding a supermarket bag in his hand.

What bothered her most was seeing the children there die and suffer. “It’s so unjust for them. Children in other countries have homes and shelters, while they grow up like this. My heart breaks.”

For the situation to change, she believes that other countries should sever ties with Israel. Or to send people to Palestine to help rebuilding. She says that there are protests at home, in Sudan. “And the presence in the street is the most important on a human level. Even if you don’t talk to people or make new acquaintances at such events, it’s something else to feel connected with them, through common grievances”.

I get back to Ariella in the following week, curious if the situation calmed down after the official end of the hostilities. “I was calm most of the time”, she says, “but yeah, it seems that peace was reinstated and we’re back to normal now.”

The palestinian victims in the Gaza Strip (upper part, confirmed by May 21st) and the West Bank, respectively (lower). The figures are the UN’s and the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Assembled using graphics via The UN.

“In my town, I believe that people are still pissed at Bibi. But I think that they’re pretty admirative of the army.”

Until the bombing stopped, 256 people from the Gaza Strip lost their lives. According to the UN, most of them were civilians (66 children și 40 women), in the attacks that the IDF claimed were aimed just at the Hamas-PIJ members. (Some of these deaths were caused by a Islamist fired rocket that fell in the same territory.) 27 were killed in the West Bank, with thousands of people injured in both of the Palestinian regions, especially due to the protests that were held those days.

At the 21st of May ceasefire, 72 000 persons from the Strip ere displaced. At the peak of the bombing campaign, their numbers rose to around 110 000. Besides homes, the explosives destroyed a hospital and other health clinics, energy infrastructure and water pipes, as well as the biggest library there.

After this date, the majority began returning to their leveled or half-demolished living places. And to rebuild with what was available, until the Israeli military bureaucracy will allow construction materials to enter the Strip.

Israeli vicitms, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Infographic via the UN.

On the other side, 12 people lost their lives, and over 700 were injured. Most of the Hamas-PIJ rockets hit the Iron Dome, and in the few exceptions the Israelis will have to repair holes in the road or a fuel pipe.

According to the Israeli Tax Aut, over three thousand citizens filed for claims of compensation, over half of which were for vehicles. For buildings, most of the claims came from Ashkelon (792), Ashdod (228) and Ramat Gan (227).

Hosam sends me an article about his brother from a Gaza newspaper. “Qusay Salih works in civil defense. He married his daughter today, and right after he went to help rescuing people from underneath the rubble, even though his house is half destroyed”, some Arabic-speaking friends translate.

On May 25th, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken arrives in Israel. Officials there receive him by killing a Palestinian refugee in Ramallah, in a raid by Israeli police disguised as Arabs.

Israeli forces escort their own settlers to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa complex for the third day in a row. All the while, mass arrests continue for Palestinians in the West Bank who have protested the occupation state’s decisions in the Gaza war.

It is still unclear whether Bibi has garnered overall political points as a result of the war, but he has certainly gained time and admiration from the extremist voting base.

But, as usual, civilians were the ones to lose the most. Two days ago, Haaretz posted on their front page pictures of all 67 children killed in the bombings in Gaza. “This is the cost of war,” the Israeli daily newspaper headlined.

“This is the cost of war”. Screengrab via Twitter/@MairavZ.

* Ariella’s name was modified in order to preserve her privacy.

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Vlad-Marko Tollea

Vlad-Marko Tollea

Ferească Pulitzer ca jurnalismul să fie nu doar ascuțit, ci și ilariant! // Libertatea, VICE România, Inclusiv și Asociația DREGEM (in.TM.ro). Uneori: altele.