Empathy for Israelis Under Rocket Fire

(Courtesy: Flickr)

What Happened?

Early last Tuesday morning, November 12th, IDF forces killed one of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) top commanders, Baha Abu al-Ata, in an operation dubbed Operation Black Belt. In response, the terror group launched hundreds of rockets into Israel’s southern and central regions over the next few days, forcing residents to take shelter and schools and businesses to close. Israel retaliated by targeting more wanted terrorists, killing more than 20 of them, as well as about 16 civilians in the area of the rocket launching (including, unintentionally a family of eight). At the time of writing on Sunday, November 17th, there is a shaky cease-fire in place and school has resumed in all locations.

Why Does This Matter?

Who was Baha Abu al-Ata? He was the head of PIJ’s Al-Quds Brigades in Gaza and considered one of the top terrorists in the Gaza strip. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said that Abu al-Ata “undermined the quiet in southern Israel” and “worked and planned attacks. He was responsible for the majority of attacks that took place over the past year.” PIJ, which is backed by Iran and run by Damascus-based Ziad Nahala, is gaining popularity in Gaza and is the second-largest terror group in Gaza after Hamas (and, arguably, more of a threat). Hamas is a Sunni organization affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas PIJ members are believed to be Shi’ites in disguise (most Gazans are Sunnis; any Shi’ites keep their identities to themselves). Professor Hillel Frisch explains their difference in strategy: “While Hamas views violence as a means for increasing the volume of trade with Israel and securing the inflow of Qatari money, Islamic Jihad seeks full-fledged confrontation as part of an Iranian strategy to deflect attention from Tehran’s Syrian military buildup and regional expansion.” 

Targeted assassinations – Throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel has often relied heavily on the method of targeted killings, essentially using military intelligence to keep tabs on terrorists and periodically eliminate them. Ronen Bergman, in his colossal Rise and Kill First, describes the complexity of this method to quell terrorism. He says: “Of all the means that democracies use to protect their security, there is none more fraught and controversial than ‘killing the driver’ – assassination.” Times of Israel journalist Judah Ari Gross recently explored the efficacy of this method, weighing the pros and cons; the immediate aftermath of this killing sees Israel paying a heavy price (read more below), though in the long run it could prevent more terror and serve as a warning to other enemies. In another article, Gross notes the resurgence of targeted assassination, which Israel hasn’t used as much in recent years. Former deputy national security adviser of Israel Chuck Freilich stated that Israel has been using this method for decades: “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And yes, you know that there will be an immediate attack, but it’s part of a long-term effort to handle the situation.” 

Daily life disrupted – In central and southern Israel, schools and many businesses closed for safety reasons. Some one million school children were home on Tuesday; those in the center returned to school on Wednesday, but in the south continuing rocket fire kept kids home. Several couples who were scheduled to marry on Tuesday night either married in a dramatically smaller ceremony than planned, in a safe space, or in an entirely different location thanks to the generosity of venue owners throughout the country! Israeli Eurovision star Netta Barzilai even surprised one couple and performed at their wedding.

Economic expense for Israel – A factor that is often overlooked in the Israel-Gaza clashes is the economic toll that they take. In Israel, where life came to a virtual standstill in the south for a few days, it was estimated that as of Wednesday the losses to businesses totalled 1.1B Shekel, and that every day of continued fighting would result in an additional 220m Shekel ($63m dollars) lost.

A Personal Perspective from Dina Rabhan

Dina Rabhan, OpenDor Media CEO and resident of Modiin, Israel, shares her experiences of last week’s rockets:

Every parent and teacher knows this moment. It’s the moment when words fail you and you are left exposed and uncertain. No matter your training or experience, this moment is as inevitable as the sun rising. My moment came this week when my eleven-year-old daughter asked: “Mommy, where will I run if the siren goes off while I am in school? Will I be safe?”

We moved to Israel four years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream and a mid-life crisis. The year before we moved was Operation Protective Edge (Tzuk Eitan), and as an American Jew living in New York, I remember feeling terrified and deeply concerned. We watched and listened and read the news endlessly. We cried for the losses and emailed, whatsapped, and called family and friends living in Israel. My daughter made a lemonade stand and raised hundreds of dollars in no time from local Jewish community members. I felt very connected. But we all know that watching from over there is profoundly different than experiencing it over here.

As an adult living in central Israel, my fear and anxiety level is pretty low, despite the onslaught of missiles this week. I am following instructions, I prepared our safe room, and I know that we have a full minute and a half to run for safety in the remote event that we will need to — a full 75 seconds more than the families living in the Gaza envelope.

But I can’t say the same for my daughter, who is old enough to understand that no matter my steady reassurances, and all of our preparations, I can’t really promise her anything. She knows that with missiles flying overhead, or nearby, there is a real and present danger, and this is something she has never experienced before. This feeling of fear and anxiety is different from her eight-year-old sister’s blissful assuredness, as the two are at different developmental stages. Each person reacts differently. That’s normal, and that’s ok.

These past few days underscore for me how much hard work and intention is required to develop deep and authentic empathy and connection to Israel and her people when living outside of the land. As with all of life’s challenges, until you go through it, it is hard to truly understand. Hard, but not impossible. We can identify ways to better feel each other’s pain and to connect with each other’s concerns, no matter how vast the oceans are between us. As educators living outside of Israel, there are so many ways to do this with students, but it requires thoughtfulness and attention, and keen listening skills to the harsh realities of even an eleven-year-old girl in a land far away. But in the end, the effort pays off. The cultivation of deeper empathy leads to dialogue, healing, and an authentic connectedness that we aspire to and need, now more than ever, between Israeli Jews and Jews across the world.