What is it like for a Jewish Israeli to live right next door to Gaza these days? To have your known enemy within eyesight, to be in a constant state of uncertainty about the next attack and which side it might come from? As we gathered in the cozy, art & book-filled home of Nomika Zion, we knew we were about to learn just that. Having co-founded a kibbutz in Sderot, right at Gaza’s edge, 27 years ago, she had quite a story. In those early days, despite the Israeli occupation of Gaza, Sderot and Gaza had an “intense relationship”. People went back and forth, things were open, Gazan merchants came to the Sderot market; there was occupation, but it was “friendly”.
But how long can unequal relationships continue without resistance on the part of the underdog?
Fast forward to the next rounds of war, with damage to buildings in Sderot from Gazan rockets, and a community in shock and anxiety, wounded emotionally more than physically, but wounded nonetheless. Many of the 25,000 in Sderot got stress therapy, and many of the wealthier left. Sirens, security rooms and shelters became part of life. The demographics changed, and Nomika describes Sderot today as a multi-cultural, multi-tribal community, with many voices and no single agenda. One commonality though – the people of Sderot became more extreme in their antipathy toward Gaza.
This is a woman who loves her community and wants to stay in her home; in her words though, “the harsh voices that used to singe your ears have now become legitimate”. She poignantly told us of the hardening of hearts toward Palestinians, lamenting that 47 years of occupation has left a profound mark on the Israeli spirit. The majority of Israelis “lost our ability to see the other side…to see Palestinians as human beings. [They] have become invisible to Israelis – no voices, no faces, no personal stories or identities, only one collective identity – terrorists”. To combat her sense of hopelessness, and the sense that they were conducting their lives “from one war to another”, in 2008 she joined a group called “Other Voices” and they began to talk, including to Gazans to whom they reached out by phone. When finally a ceasefire was negotiated and lasted 5 months, she felt a bit of normalcy reentering their lives. She told of opening the metal window of her shelter room and saying, “I can see the light”.
Then, a happening little known to those following only mainstream media: the Israeli army invaded Gaza and killed 6 men the day after Obama was elected President. The next day the army mined the border. Despite begging the Israeli leadership to honour the ceasefire, their group knew “they were going to start a war in Gaza”. Thus began the devastating 3 week “Operation Cast Lead” (cynically named as a reference to a Hannukah song), with 30-odd Israeli casualties, 1500 Gazans killed and thousands more wounded. The instigation of this assault was deeply troubling to Nomika – she felt loyalties to her community, half of whom were gone by now; to the Israeli soldiers and the damage to their spirits/souls/hearts by what they were doing; and to the people of Gaza – “our friends, the Palestinians”. To then see her community, Sderot, celebrating, handing out flowers to their friends and calling the incessant bombing “the most beautiful music” shocked her to the core. She described people arriving with their chairs to watch the spectacle of war like an entertainment, applauding and shouting when a bomb exploded, displaying a lust for violence that made her decide to speak out publicly.
Her widely-read article, Not in My Name, published internationally, was the beginning of her public activism. She realized she had a responsibility to speak; she was “ready to pay the price of social isolation, but not the price of fear”. This first step was followed by more writing, speaking and informing groups such as ours.
The devastating and cruel siege of Gaza continues, with its inhabitants virtually imprisoned under Israel’s air, water and land blockade, its effects now intensified with Egypt’s closing of the tunnels. Nomika Zion continues her work for peace. Though it is not easy to oppose the mainstream, she sees Israel as becoming more racist, extreme and fascist, like an “underground stream”. In her view, there is a desperate need for the international community to be involved. She feels there is no hope for the country otherwise. Her belief is that violence affects every part of a country eventually; it has “scorched our souls deeply”. To close with her searing warning, “When you stop seeing the other as a human being, you stop being human yourself.”