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Smoke and fire rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Adel Hana, Associated Press

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At home in Florida, I’m searching for Israeli bomb shelters. A reflection on Middle East violence

As I tried to help an old friend in Tel Aviv find the nearest bomb shelter, I felt pulled between the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the latest conflict

As a dear, old friend in Tel Aviv cowered in a stairwell — taking cover from a barrage of rockets fired Tuesday from the Gaza Strip — I searched online for the public bomb shelter nearest to him, and felt a flicker of guilt.

How would my Palestinian husband feel right now if he knew I was talking to people “inside” — that is, Jews in Israel? How would he feel knowing that, whenever violence escalates, my heart and intellect are aligned with the Palestinian people but as an American Jew who holds Israeli citizenship, my fingers move, instinctively, across the keyboard to check first on loved ones in Tel Aviv? Am I betraying my husband and the Palestinian side of his — our — family?

And when I say “our family,” I don’t just mean my in-laws — ties that can be broken, anyway, by estrangement or divorce. Our 5-year-old daughter is registered as a Palestinian. When she’s older, she’ll receive a green ID, which will irrevocably mark her as belonging to both the Palestinian territories and the Palestinian people, while I will continue to hold a blue Israeli ID, emblazoned with a menorah and Hebrew, marking me as forever belonging to the other side.

Am I betraying my daughter by reaching out to my friend in Tel Aviv, by trying to help him?

I push the questions aside as I continue my frantic search. My old friend lives in the same south Tel Aviv neighborhood I lived in back in 2007 and 2008. I spent hours exploring the area, coming to know its alleys, the sandy paths between buildings and red-roofed houses, its small parks and synagogues, the cactuses and lemon trees. When my friend told me that he’d sought shelter in the stairwell of his building, one of the area’s public bomb shelters flashed before my mind’s eye. I could see it. I just wasn’t sure exactly where it was.

After googling his address, I switch to street view, taking screen shots of the signs on his street that read miklat tzibury (public shelter), the arrows pointing toward a small, white building, half above ground, half below. Then I pull up the municipality’s spreadsheet of bomb shelters, confirming that there is, indeed, a shelter there.

“You have a bomb shelter on your street,” I message him via Facebook, sending the spreadsheet and the pictures along so he can visualize it before he dashes out of the stairwell.

“If it’s not locked,” I add, because they often are.

“And the other problem,” he pings back, “is that I only have something like four seconds after the siren.”

While tensions have been simmering for a month now, violence intensified Monday, when clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque left over 300 Palestinians injured; the same night saw rocket fire from Gaza. By Tuesday, the conflict seemed to be spiraling out of control — as Israel intensified its bombardment of the Gaza Strip and the rockets flew into Israel, mixed Arab-Jewish towns inside of Israel were rocked by riots.

As of Wednesday afternoon in the United States, more than 60 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip had been killed in Israeli airstrikes and Hamas’ rockets and missiles had claimed six Israeli lives, Reuters reports, including, two Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Some say the latest round of violence represents a pathetic — and dangerous — bid on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s part to hold on to power in the wake of his inability to form a coalition. Others would peg the current escalation to the recent right wing nationalist marches in Jerusalem, the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah that would be turned over to Jewish settlers, and the Israeli assault on Al-Aqsa Mosque.

And still others — who probably haven’t been paying attention to all the aforementioned recent events — would simply blame the Palestinians, in general, and Hamas in particular.

But I can’t help thinking of the numerous escalations that came before it: 2008, 2011, 2012, 2014, to name a few. On the surface, the immediate causes of all these escalations differed but the underlying issue — inequality — has always been the same.

I think of the summer of 2014, when I was living in the West Bank, in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem — where there are no sirens and no shelters — when misfired rockets landed in the area, leaving the earth and my apartment shaking, the windows rattling. I think of watching in horror, online and on TV, the destruction that Israel wrought on Gaza. I remember planting a Palestinian flag in the garden of my landlady, herself a Palestinian refugee who’d been forced to flee Jaffa in 1948, when she was a 7-year-old girl.

Not much older than my daughter is now.

I’m bathing our daughter and our 3-year-old son when my husband comes home from work in the evening. The harrowed look on his face — his eyes rounder than usual, his cheeks sunken, the corners of his mouth pulling down — tells me he, too, has spent the day checking the news and worrying about loved ones. But we don’t talk about it. And I don’t tell him that I tried to help my Israeli friend — whom I’ve known longer than my husband.

When another barrage comes at 3:30 a.m. Tel Aviv time, I message my Israeli friend again. He’s fine, he says, but scared and tired. He hasn’t gone to the shelter. He’s in the stairwell again. From that dark space, he curses Netanyahu in Arabic — the language Hebrew-speaking Israelis use as slang — using a particularly strong phrase that also references the prime minister’s mother.

“It’s not just Bibi,” I push back, using Netanyahu’s nickname, reminding him of what I witnessed when I lived in Jewish West Jerusalem and traveled to Palestinian East Jerusalem every day, of what I understood from spending many of my waking hours surrounded by Palestinian youth at Al Quds University, and of what I learned as a journalist who reported extensively on Israel and the Palestinian territories. The spark that ignited this flare-up is a long, slow-burning one: it’s decades of Israeli occupation and creeping annexation and disastrous policy that strips the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza and everywhere in between of their most basic dignities and human rights, grinding on them every day.

The only way of taking Israelis and Palestinians alike out of the line of fire is to end a system in which two people are under the rule of a government that only recognizes the rights of one.

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