I grew up in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising that was sparked after Israeli riot police violently squashed a protest to a visit made to the Al-Aqsa compound by the Israeli opposition leader in late 2000. His stunt was intended to provoke; he brought with him hundreds of Israeli police officers in riot gear to strut along one of the holiest Muslim sites and one of the most symbolic for Palestinians — a place that the state of Israel has long wanted to claim because it is also the holiest site in Judaism. The intifada lasted until 2005, and in that period, violent outbreaks were commonplace.
There’s a memory I have from that time, when I was 8. It’s of a bomb that was detonated outside my school around homeroom time. I remember hearing that the suicide bomber’s head had rolled onto the playground at the school down the street. I remember feeling both disgusted and confused, though I know now that as a kid I couldn’t fully understand what had happened.
Still, despite that innocence of youth, I also remember feeling anxious about dealing with Israeli soldiers in the bombing’s aftermath. The Israeli military viewed me like it viewed any Palestinian: a suicide bomber in the making, not an 8-year-old boy. I may not have feared for my life as a kid — death, fortunately, was still too abstract — but I remember feeling my heart rate go up whenever I saw an Israeli soldier. After all, crossing checkpoints on a daily basis, often facing harassment from soldiers, was so dehumanizing that even a child could recognize it for what it was: violating, disempowering, and enraging all at once.
Life for Palestinians has only gotten worse since those days: Israel completed its construction of the wall that separated East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, decimating our neighborhoods and further restricting our movements; thousands upon thousands of Palestinians, many of them children, were killed by the Israeli military; and Gaza was put under a blockade, becoming — as it is to this day — an open-air prison for over 2 million residents who have no way out, as well as the site of some of the most harrowing war crimes Israel has reportedly committed.
I was thinking about that period of my life because it encapsulates what I’ve now seen play out repeatedly: Whenever there’s an eruption of violence, Israel will use it as an excuse to make Palestinian life considerably more miserable. And that’s exactly what’s happening now, after Hamas launched a massive attack that took Israel by surprise on Saturday.
Breaching the border that has besieged Gaza for over a decade, the Palestinian militant group carried out a brutal operation that killed over 1,000 people, including both military personnel and civilians, and resulted in as many as 150 people being taken hostage. The attack was unprecedented in scale — the deadliest day for Israelis since their country’s founding.
Israel swiftly responded by, again, pummeling Gaza, launching airstrikes that have brought down residential buildings, mosques, and markets. As of Wednesday, over 1,000 Palestinians, including civilians, have been killed; some 200,000 have been displaced. Israel announced a full-scale siege on Gaza, effectively shutting off access to basic human needs like food, water, and electricity. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a spokesperson for the Israeli army said its military campaign in Gaza — one of the most densely populated places on earth — is focused “on [creating] damage and not on accuracy.”
As in years past, Israel and its allies have justified this display of brute force by invoking Israel’s right to defend itself after what many officials deemed an “unprovoked” attack by Hamas. But there are two major flaws in that rationalization for such harsh collective punishment.
First, while Hamas’s tactic of killing and capturing innocent civilians, including children, constitutes a war crime — a fate, to be clear, that no innocent civilians deserve — the notion that it was “unprovoked” is devoid of any reality. We Palestinians have also lost our mothers, our brothers, our sisters, and our fathers in gruesome fashion. We, too, have innocent men, women, and children illegally detained — thousands of them. Ignoring those facts suggests that the kind of violence Palestinians routinely face under the status quo — a kind of terror that is often not unlike the horrors Israelis experienced on Saturday — somehow doesn’t count as violence at all.
Second, the oft-repeated talking point that Israel has a right to defend itself does not rest on solid legal ground when it comes to Israel’s war on Palestinians. Remember: This isn’t a war among equals — Israel is the occupying power. By denying Palestinians their right to self-determination and sovereignty, Israel can’t claim that its military actions in Gaza, past or present, are an act of self defense, especially given the scale of civilian harm that inevitably comes with them. To the contrary, indiscriminately shelling Palestinian territory and maintaining the occupation actually violates international law on multiple fronts.
The reason I raise those two points is because as people continue to call for an end to this so-called “cycle of violence,” they must acknowledge the root cause of it: not attacks by Palestinians but the seemingly perpetual Israeli occupation. The status quo is not peaceful, and every day that Palestinians live under occupation is an unjustifiably inhumane one.
Ironically, some of my fondest memories of life in Palestine are from Gaza, the only seashore we could call our own. I would spend weekends collecting seashells with my siblings, playing foosball, and eating what I still think is some of the best seafood I’ve ever had. I haven’t been back since the blockade began, but the Gaza I remember is now just that — a memory that kids today wouldn’t recognize.
I feared Israeli soldiers back then. I still do. But the occupation that made me fear them is nothing compared to the tragedies that Palestinian kids today have lived through in Gaza. It’s they and their families who will face the brunt of Israel’s military campaign. And that, in the end, is where this cycle of violence begins — not with a single attack but by slowly and methodically, over the course of generations, vanquishing all hope among innocent people who have never known freedom.