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opinion | Moria Paz

Bomb shelters expose rifts in Israeli society

Chairs stood next to a painted wall inside a public bomb shelter in the southern city of Ashkelon Aug. 4.REUTERS

For Israelis, a defining feature of the ongoing war with Hamas has been the bomb shelters. At the launch of a rocket or mortar in Gaza, a siren would be heard in Israel. The flat long sound offered an early warning: an estimated 15 to 90 seconds until the rocket would fall. When the siren blares, civilians are expected to run to the nearest shelter and to remain there until 10 minutes have passed since the last explosion. In the face of the Hamas rocket barrage on Israel during the monthlong conflict, people all across the country have incorporated the shelter drill into their daily routine. Visiting my family in Tel Aviv, I too was one of the people running.

A look at what goes on in and around these shelters reveals important insight into contemporary Israel, insight that has been lost in the media focus on the hour-by-hour fighting between Israel and Hamas and is now ignored in the heated debates over the terms of the truce. Israel, in short, is approaching a fault line. But the country is reaching this rift not due to Hamas but as a result of its own internal divisions, divisions that are revealed even in how Israelis use bomb shelters.

And while the state devotes its resources to occupying Gaza and the West Bank, four different subsections of the Israeli population, described below, are suffering in distinct ways. They include:

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Children. Hamas this summer has launched rockets across Israel, and there is no question it is deliberately targeting civilians. Those living in the southern portion of the country, however, have endured attacks for at least 13 years.

One mother from the center of Israel, a region relatively new to the reality of daily bombardments, told a local newspaper that, for her 5-year-old daughter, the rain of rockets and the running to the shelters at the sound of the siren has become “like a game.” Although her child incorporated this routine into her daytime play, at night, the mother said, her child is frightened.

Parents in the south of Israel, more experienced with constant rocket attacks, have come up with a way to mitigate at least some of the added anxiety at night: They simply put their children to sleep in the shelter. A bedtime routine for children that involves pajamas, a story, and then being put to sleep in a bomb shelter marks a society that has completely normalized a state of war.

Women. In the Rabbinical Court Administration in Ashdod, a city in the southern part of Israel under frequent rocket attack, a sign was posted outside the shelter indicating that it was reserved only for men. Women were thus left exposed to incoming rocket fire. Such gender separation is not new — for example, for quite some time, women in Orthodox areas of Israel have been mandated to sit in the back of buses. The novelty here is that, for the first time, the value of gender separation trumped the value of life — the devalued women’s lives, that is.

After the government intervened, the sign was swiftly removed, and women were finally allowed to enter the shelter. Nonetheless, the initial prohibition from the only protected space in this public building during rocket attacks is staggering, even if it was a private initiative (as the court maintained once objections were raised.) The episode suggests that the shift within parts of Israeli society to exclude women from the public sphere is almost complete.

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Minorities. Women are not the only segment of society who are subject to exclusion. Israel did not offer public bomb shelters for the Bedouin, a semi-nomadic Arabic people mostly living in the Negev desert of Israel. Why? Because they live in an area classified as “open space,” according to the official government response to an urgent petition demanding protection for Bedouin villages.

Without shelter coverage, the state recommended that members of this Arab minority, almost a quarter of million people, shield themselves under drainage tunnels during bombing episodes. If they live far away from such tunnels, the state advised that they spread out from one another as far as they can, in order to minimize the chance of a large loss of life. A polity has indelibly splintered when it opts not to protect a subsection against rocket attacks.

The majority. The war has drastically deepened the already intense fissions in Israel over the Palestinian occupation. This is evident by a typical conversation that occurred while huddling in the shelter we used, in an ordinary six-story apartment building in Tel Aviv:

“Really, this time, we need to show them! Arabs only understand force.”

“Israel can never win, the situation in Gaza is not tenable. We have to end occupation!”

“Traitor — Go live in Gaza!”

“Do not push me!”

Heated public discussion of state policy is a good thing, suggesting that Israel is still a vibrant democracy. But this summer, the public discourse has taken a dramatically violent turn. And so, from verbal clashes between long-time neighbors in shelters to fistfights in the street and death threats online, it is becoming increasingly clear that important pillars of democracy — such as demonstrations and public debates — have become clouded by violence and hatred. Where this will lead is still unknown. But history suggests that a democracy enters a danger zone when expressing dissent can put one’s life in jeopardy.

These four snapshots from the shelters suggest that Israel is a polity that is losing its way — a state of affairs that will persist long after the end of the war. That, however, is not to say it is too late for Israel to reverse course. This, in fact, is the time for change. The children who have internalized the war are still young, the Israeli government and court system are still willing to step in and remedy the exclusion of the vulnerable, and people are not giving up on their right to be heard, even amid war and the violence associated with speaking out against it.

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Israel can mend these divisions, but to do that, the country must first acknowledge the society it has become.

Moria Paz is a fellow in international law at Stanford Law School and a visiting scholar at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford.