More than 1,000 Palestinians dead. Several dozen Israelis. No end in sight.
The Gaza Strip, a Palestinian region less than half the size of Indianapolis, is now the center of worldwide attention. As the divide between the perpetually feuding governments intensifies, desperate civilians flee from impending attacks and protesters across the world take to the streets.
The current conflict followed the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The Israeli government attributed the deaths to Hamas and began blanketing Gaza with explosives. Hamas returned fire. (The Israeli police later determined that a lone cell not directly affiliated with Hamas was responsible for the deaths). Each side claims victimhood and each side attacks.
The conflict has spawned outrage worldwide.
Each weekend since Israel launched its Operation Protective Edge offensive in Gaza, activists have led pro-Palestinian rallies Downtown on Monument Circle. The first rally, held three weeks ago, attracted around 50 people. Since then, the actions have grown to include more than 200 with activists apoplectic at the disparities in the casualties of war — that civilians in Gaza are bearing the brunt of the attacks.
Meanwhile, people have gathered to show their support of Israel as well. At a rally hosted by the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) on Sunday, more than 600 people showed up, including Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, Congresswoman Susan Brooks and Israeli Consul General to the Midwest Roey Gilad. Organizers said they had to turn people away because they reached capacity at the Arthur M. Glick Jewish Community Center's Laikin Auditorium.
The official position of the U.S. government, articulated in Senate Resolution 498, is that it seeks a cease-fire, but has pledged continued military support of Israel, stating that Israel maintains the right to defend its citizens. Indiana's U.S. Senators Dan Coats, a Republican, and Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, both supported the measure.
Individually, the senators' responses to requests for comment are more circumspect with Donnelly backing continued efforts "to broker a ceasefire and restart diplomatic talks to build a lasting peace in the region," while Coats' press secretary said the senator "is following the situation in Gaza very closely and hopes that the conflict and loss of life will end soon."
Depending on the perspective of the activist, Israel is either defending itself against unrepentant terrorists or unleashing its own campaign of terrorism against unarmed and impoverished innocents.
"This war presents an existential threat to the state of Israel," Lindsey Mintz, executive director of Indy's JCRC, said in a recent interview. "This is the only democracy in the Middle East protecting their citizens from rockets being launched at them by terrorists.
"...The ground mission is to destroy the tunnels [leading from Gaza into Israel]. This is about self-defense and preservation. Israel is reminded all too often how much their neighbors are working to terrorize and cause destruction."
Fidaa Abuassi, a graduate student in international relations at the University of Indianapolis who lived through the 2008 war in Gaza, disputes that Israel's offensive is a defensive mission.
"Israel always justifies itself," Abuassi said. "They kill civilians because they want to eradicate and wipe off Gaza. Gaza is a place where you don't give up. You dig tunnels for food. If you cut off fuel, people use cooking oil. You cannot break the will of Gaza. This makes them very mad."
Originally from Gaza, she moved to Indianapolis for school. Just in the last week, Abuassi said, her aunt's house was bombed. The woman and her children live in poverty with no one to help them, Abuassi explained.
In recent years, Gaza's residents have found it nearly impossible to leave; the borders of the region are restricted on all sides.
Abuassi recalled struggling at the border to obtain a student visa.
"There is no freedom of travel or movement like we have here," she said. "You need patience and stamina. I was begging, fighting, and praying for that visa."
Only about half of the region's citizens maintain employment, largely due to the tight border restrictions. Shortages in water, food, supplies, housing, and a growing population create additional challenges. News reports out of the Middle East this week said Gaza's main power plant has been disabled, leaving the territory down to about four hours of power per day.
Hamas, which was elected to govern the Gaza territory in 2006 and took power in 2007, is considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist organization. Due to its struggles, Hamas entered into an agreement with rival political party Fatah just over a month ago to form a new government. Some analysts have suggested that Israel may view this new coalition government as a threat and the current offensive may be an effort to weaken the alliance.
Recently, Hamas has begun to use its limited funds for rockets, a move scrutinized by international observers interested in peace, but supported by many Gazans, who are growing more defiant as the Palestinian death toll rises.
In each of its attacks, Israel claims to send advance warnings to its bombing targets, including hospitals. But to where, ask Gaza supporters, are they to evacuate?
On Thursday, rockets struck a United Nations-run school that was being used as a Palestinian shelter, resulting in at least 16 casualties. Israeli officials denied launching the attack, suggesting Hamas rockets may be responsible; they also claimed to have warned Palestinians to evacuate the school three days earlier. Disputes over responsibility for civilian deaths continue.
"My take is that Hamas is the only group that actually stands against Israel," Abuassi said. "They fight for their rights and for human rights."
Though she disagrees with Hamas' decision to fire rockets at Israel, Dotti Gerner, president of the Indianapolis chapter of Christians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, said that the self-defense argument cuts both ways.
"What are they to do?" Gerner asked. "There is no way for the Gazans to escape. So Israel has the right to defend themselves. Doesn't Palestine?"
According to the United Nations, around 75 percent of Palestinian victims have been civilians. Data from the Gaza Health Ministry mentions that the Palestinian deaths have included more than 132 children, 66 women, and 36 elderly men. A vast majority of Israeli casualties have been soldiers. The uneven death toll is a key reason for the backlash against Israel.
"There are other ways to fight Hamas," said Abuassi. "There is no comparison between the two sides. They have killed so many civilians."
Sammy Katz, an Indiana University student from Carmel, arrived to Israel for vacation the day after the bodies of the three teenage boys were discovered. There were riots in Jerusalem his first day.
"It kept escalating," Katz said. "There were Red Alerts and a series of rockets being shot off from Hamas multiple times a day. In Israeli culture, you can't live thinking like it's your last day. They're used to the idea of taking shelter and then going back to life like nothing happened. They're always under pressure."
Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system provided Katz with a sense of security.
"It knocked the missiles out right above my head," he said.
Katz remains an avid supporter of Israel's approach to Gaza, noting, "all of the fighting is kept way away from civilians. Israel has a humanitarian mission for all people. They will not kill people if they don't have to."
Just as Gaza's civilians are paying in blood for the actions of Hamas militants, Jewish civilians worldwide are beginning to be blamed for the actions of Israel's government.
The International Business Times reported that, during a German pro-Gaza demonstration, protesters were allegedly heard chanting, "Gas the Jews." Similar episodes are unfolding in France where, according The Times, the rioters have burned Jewish-owned shops in Paris and chants of "Gas the Jews" and "Kill the Jews" have allegedly been heard.
Several calls for boycott of Israeli-based companies are also ongoing.
"The U.S. is helping terrorize a whole nation by sending money and military aid to Israel," Abuassi said. "Gaza is being terrorized and someone must hold Israel accountable for their crimes. There was a huge rally in Chicago that gave me hope that people aren't taking the lies anymore. People have started to open their eyes."
Supporters of both Israel and Gaza urge people to stay informed by exposing themselves to a broad range of media outlets.
Still, the pursuit of peace continues to seem elusive.
"There is a possibility of stopping bombing and rockets. That's not something I would call peace," Gerner said. "Peace is more than just non-violence."
For Mintz, the prospect of peace will remain elusive as long as Jews feel under constant attack.
"Until Israelis and Jews around the world don't feel physically threatened, until they feel their existence is accepted, it's going to be hard to move forward with lasting peace," Mintz said. "Once people have recognized Israel's right to be here, the mood would change and pave the way for peace. ...There can be peace. ...I hope and pray that it's soon."
Abuassi struggles with the notion of peace as well.
"I like to remain hopeful and optimistic that peace will prevail," she said. "But whenever I talk to my family, it seems they have no hope for peace."
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