Article by Sean McGuire

May 9th, 2012

Editor’s Note: Sean McGuire was a member of the California Student Leaders delegation that visited Israel in January 2012. Shared below is an article he wrote on his experiences.

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12:16p.m. Monday, January 2, 2012
Sderot, Israel-near the Gaza border

It’s the air conditioning unit that does it.

We’re about two kilometers from Gaza. I am standing in the asphalt parking lot behind the police station, a dozen or so other American college students around me, listening with rapt attention to the measured Hebrew of a hardened Israeli. Kobi Harush is the Coordinator of Security for the city of Sderot, as well as the Israeli Defense Forces liaison to the Palestinian National Authority. He is, as our info booklet puts it, “involved in all rescue and identification activities following Kassam rocket attacks on Sderot.” With our guide translating, Mr. Harush tells us that such attacks are a daily occurrence here-and have been for the past eleven years.

Under an overcast sky and scattered drizzle, he describes with professional efficiency the various types of rockets thatland here and the terrorist groups that fire them. Some belong to Hamas, some to lesser-known groups. The terrorist organizations actually go to great lengths to differentiate their rockets, he says, to ensure the Israeli media attributes the attack to the right organization-they compete for recognition, and get jealous of one another if someone else gets the credit for one’s attack. To our right, the burnt-out tubes of dozens of rockets lie on steel racks as chilling testament to this macabre reality.

I am in Sdreot with a group of students from all across America to see firsthand how life can continue under such immense psychological strain.  All children ten years of age and up and have grown up with the attacks as a part of daily life, and a vast majority of children under thirteen simply do not remember life before the rockets. Fear of a possible attack renders it impossible to play outside, and many children are afraid of leaving their houses to go to school. The Jewish National Fund recently raised enough money to build a reinforced recreation center for Sderot, giving the children a place to play and socialize in relative safety, but these are hardly ideal conditions in which to raise a family.

Despite the harrowing circumstances, the city is not completely defenseless. A network of detection systems can give authorities precious time to alert the public. “From the moment the match is lit,” Mr. Harush says, “we have sixty seconds before the rocket detonates.” Sixty seconds in which the network of radar stations and military computers must detect the missile, compile its type, trajectory, and probable flight time, determine where it will land, and then activate the appropriate city’s air-raid sirens. Sderot, being the closest population center to the Gaza Strip, is a regular target.

Sderot’s sirens go off nightly, and from the moment they sound, the people here generally have fifteen seconds left to get into an air-raid shelter, twenty seconds on a good day. Last night a lone Kassam rocket, fired from under two kilometers away, detonated in Sderot. The sirens only gave seven seconds of warning.

The rockets can come at any time, land in any location, singly or in groups, multiple times per day or none for several days in a row. They can land in open fields, or on apartment complexes, or police stations, or in the playgrounds of kindergartens. The people who fire them do not aim. They kill indiscriminately; perhaps your rocket will come while you’re cooking dinner, or driving to the post office, or in line at a store, or waiting for Mother to pick you up from school, or standing in the asphalt parking lot behind the police station at noon on a drizzly January day.

There is a sudden, muffled roar, and we students all jump. The air conditioning unit on the building behind us has sputtered to life; but in this moment, I catch a glimpse of what it must be like to live in constant trepidation of every noise, wondering if the next sound you hear might be your last.

I study international relations at the University of Southern California, and after traveling to Israel, I want to make the peace process the focus of my academics and of my career.  I want to facilitate discussion, not just between the governments, but among those who vote for them. I am pro-Israel; I am also pro-Palestine. Both populations need their own state. Compromise is the only realistic solution; extremism in any form, or anything that prevents rational discussion, obstructs peace.

In the Western world, everything we hear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is usually filtered through the media into digestible fifteen-second sound bites; the difficulties, complexities, layers of meaning and degrees of truth are boiled away, leaving behind the “hard facts” of a story without much context. Whichever side of the story we hear, it’s a simple one, with clear protagonists and antagonists. But traveling to Israel personally allowed me to see just how complex the issues really are.

Both sides of this conflict, as in any conflict, have genuinely good people who want peace and compromise, and a minority of extremists who want to continue fighting for complete victory. Both sides of this conflict, as in any conflict, have a narrative that they believe to be genuine and incontrovertible. We hear of the roadblocks, the settlements, and the infamous “Wall” between Israel and the West Bank, but how many Americans know that, before Israel built a sectioned concrete barrier, Palestinian snipers would lie on rooftops in Bethlehem and shoot at Israeli cars traveling on the road between Jerusalem and Gush Etzion? We hear of “radical Islamic fundamentalists” who will stop at nothing to ensure the destruction of Israel, but how many Americans are aware that a majority of ethnic Arabs living in the region believe a two-state solution is the best answer?

Shortly after returning from Israel-it was January 12, according to my journal-I attended a panel discussion at USC on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The posters advertised the event as an evening of dialogue with Palestinian activists who campaign for human rights in Israel. The discussion would compare contemporary Israel and apartheid South Africa, examining the similarities and identifying the differences. In reality, though, the point of the discussion was to show Israel as the racist overlord and the Palestinians as the ruthlessly oppressed minority. At one point, a panelist-who shall remain anonymous-showed pictures of a wall, and it was a wall I recognized: it runs along the aforementioned road between Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, and was built to block sniper fire from Bethlehem’s rooftops. We had driven along that same road when we visited an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

The wall I had driven past, though, was not a proper wall: it had large gaps in it, as if independent concrete barriers had sprung up out of the ground at random. It was built in sections, not as one continuous piece, to prevent the various vantage points in Bethlehem from seeing the road. It is intended to stop bullets, not people. In fact, from what I saw, walking around the pieces would be simple.

This speaker, however, had carefully selected her photographs to make it appear as if the wall was continuous, as if various West Bank cities really were encircled with concrete and barbed wire in a style reminiscent of the Holocaust-era Warsaw ghetto. And with these images as backdrop, she angrily denounced the racist practices of the evil Zionist state for “keeping Palestinians locked in the largest prison in the world-the West Bank!” The audience, the vast majority of whom were not students, savagely shouted its agreement. Another speaker said those who supported the Israeli military occupation of Gaza were one hundred percent racist, because hatred of the Palestinians is the only reason to support the occupation. When it was time for questions, one student stood up to challenge this.

“Accusing all who supported the Gaza occupation as racist does not make sense,” he said, trying to be heard over the audience’s disapproving shouts. “It is the same as accusing all who supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to capture bin Laden after 9/11 as also racist.”

“Yes!” audience members shouted. “Exactly!” They apparently saw no problem with that logic. Supporting the war in Afghanistan, or the occupation of Gaza, made you a racist, regardless of your reasons.

This paralyzing dialogue is the real problem. It is very dangerous to simplify this entire conflict into two possible sides, two possible opinions. I traveled to Israel because I wanted to see for myself what the situation is really like. I was only there for eight days, but those eight days gave me an academic focus. As soon as I left, I wanted, more than anything, to go back.

The only way I would be able to return to Israel is through a study abroad program, and unfortunately, I do not meet USC’s two-semester Hebrew language requirement. I emailed our study abroad office anyway, and explained my academic reasons for wanting to go to Israel, my prior experience in the country, and my desire to work, in some capacity, on diplomacy and the peace process.

I received a response to that email four days ago. USC has changed its institutional mind; because of the reasons for my interest in the program, they are permitting me to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School with only one semester of Hebrew under my belt.

This would not have been possible without my Project Interchange seminar in Israel. I am very lucky to have had this opportunity, and it is not an exaggeration at all to say my academic and professional career has been profoundly shaped by it. I will be living in Israel for six months, beginning in January of 2013. In that time, I hope to greatly expand the depth of my understanding of the conflict and the range of opinions and issues that surround it.

I may not be Jewish, but I couldn’t be more genuine in my enthusiasm and anticipation when I quite literally say: to next year, in Jerusalem.