5 Bizarre Realities of Life at the Edge of Gaza
'Peace in the Middle East' is such an impossible concept that it's basically a punchline. That's because it happens far away, to people who don't look like us. But what the hell is it like to actually live in that perpetual violence machine, day after day? We spoke to an anonymous source we'll call Plucky, because it's an adorable name, and this article is going to need all the levity it can get. Plucky lives in a heavily armed settlement that the United Nations considers illegal. Here's what we learned about life on the knife's-edge of one of the longest-running conflicts in modern history:
Settlers Consider Living There a Sacred Duty
The violence in Gaza this summer was just one more chapter in the Big Book of Holy Murder. Since the creation of Israel in 1948, they've fought six wars and dealt with countless uprisings in occupied Palestine. By the time the average Palestinian kid in Gaza turns 18, he's probably seen as much violence in real life as the average American 18-year-old has perpetrated on virtual zombies.
Pictured: Gaza. Or possibly GaZa, the zombie apocalypse game.
One big factor in the ongoing violence is the existence of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine. These settlements, built on land the U.N. considers Palestinian, are a major cause of tension between Israel and like, every other country on Earth. Settlers in these places face international condemnation and -- slightly more relevant to their daily lives -- the risk of being shot or exploded.
Despite international tutting and death raining from the sky, the number of settlers in occupied Palestine has increased from 4,000 to 200,000 in the last 40 years.
Hence the housing market.
Here's why Plucky thinks so many people are willing to risk unthinkable dangers to live in these places:
"The point isn't to build a separate country, nation-state or whatever you want to call it. The point is, this is the land of our ancestors, this is our land, and there's no way we'll ever leave. For every "illegal" house or settlement they tear down, another three will spring up. For every Jew they kill, more will come to take his place. We will never give up," he says. "We'll dig in with our teeth; root ourselves into the ground, and stay."
Now, we're not much for metaphor, but we're pretty sure Plucky just implied that the settlers have access to an army of Ents. The international community should watch out: The Ents are slow to anger, but even slower to forgive.
The Towns Are Some of the Most Bizarre Places You'll Ever See
It's tempting to compare the settlers in Israel to militiamen in the United States: extremists who've dropped out of regular society for a world of hot guns and cold, instant mashed potatoes. Plucky says otherwise:
"Most settlers and settlements are not independent of pre-1967 Israel. Many commute to nearby cities on the other side of the Green Line for work every day, and most settlements are protected by the IDF."
That stands for the Israel Defense Force, or the "I DON'T give a FUCK," depending on the day of the week.
It's an incredibly complicated situation. You've got some cases of IDF soldiers being assaulted by the most extreme settlers, arresting them in others, and also supporting them on some occasions. Keeping track of who's pissed off at who at any given moment requires more flowcharts than a Chris Nolan movie. But no matter how many people want you dead, day-to-day life has to go on:
"There are some settlements that have an air of permanence or sustainability about them -- some have fairly large-scale agriculture, a constant source of conflict. Some have industry, mainly light. Ariel, one of the larger settlements, even has a public university recognized by the government."
The first, and for now, only university in Judea and Samaria.
The various groups of settlers are loosely governed by the Yesha Council, which handles matters of broad infrastructure and communication with the actual official Israeli government.
"It's unlike anywhere I've ever been. It's a cross between a village and a town, populated almost exclusively by Jewish fundamentalists. Jews from America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, Arab countries, India, and Ethiopia all live side by side quite nicely, united by their religion and heritage. It's a place where nobody even thinks to lock their door, where a stolen bike becomes headline news in the local paper for at least a week. The single operating hair salon is some guy's closet, where you sit down in his old swiveling computer chair and he shaves your head. It's a place where people bring tea to soldiers manning a machine gun in their backyard, where a 5-year-old kid can tell you enough about army radio codes to get him arrested for treason."
Which is all right, because prisons double as bomb shelters.
If all the machine guns and body armor bring to mind images of Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic towns devoid of modern comforts, you're more right than you know. But it all depends on the day:
"On Shabbat, according to Jewish law, there's a list of 39 types of work that you're not allowed to do. Over the years, these types of work have been interpreted by different rabbis as technology and lifestyle changed. The end result is that you're not allowed to drive, use the phone, turn on the lights, cook food, or even tear off a piece of toilet paper to wipe your ass -- you have to tear up your toilet paper into little squares beforehand and stack it up neatly next to the shitter." (There have been times when we ran out, it wasn't pretty.)
And you thought people get testy with clean buttholes.
"This means that the whole village falls completely silent. Everybody walks in the middle of the street -- there are no cars driving. You can literally hear the music from Arab parties and nightclubs a mile away -- there's absolutely no background noise."
So there's an unexpected downside of an extremely religious community: Fart on Shabbat, and dudes halfway across town will laugh.
The Kids Are a Big Part of the Violence
These settlements regularly erupt in violence, from rock-throwing to full-on armed combat. And the instigators aren't always who you'd expect:
"The Jews believe that the Arabs are planning to kill them and take their land. The Arabs believe that the Jews are planning to kill them and take their land. So they do the natural thing -- they compensate with huge amounts of hate and start planning their counterattacks. They teach their kids that 'those guys over there, on the other side of this fence' are the enemy, and need to die, because if we don't kill them, they'll kill us.
Good fences make dead neighbors.
"This sort of thing really registers when you're walking down the street and see some kids, looking to be about 3 or 4, playing. Then you hear one reporting to the other, 'General, your orders have been carried out; we killed a million Arabs.'"
Children are like sponge cake: If you soak it in something good, like whiskey, you get a delicious, mind-numbing treat to bring to the office potluck. Soak it in poison, and you get something deadly.
Soak it in blood, bake for 18 years, and bam. You get a soldier.
"Once, on Lag BaOmer, I was responsible for a bonfire. The fire was burning, music was playing, everyone was having fun. A little girl sitting to my left turned to me and said, 'You know, when I look at the fire, I see our world. If we listen to God and do everything he tells us, then we'll be like the fire and the goyim will be like the sticks. We need to burn all of them, and then we can live in peace.'
"This girl was 9 years old. Of course, she didn't mean that every non-Jew needs to die; she was only referring to the Arabs. This is the saddest part of the whole conflict -- people just don't realize that there's enough land for everybody to live side by side. Well, both sides also believe that they should be the only ones living there, and that's what they teach their children. 'This land was given to us by God (or Allah) himself; it belongs to us and only us, and if everyone else won't leave, we'll just have to kill them.' People have lived, fought and died by that principle for thousands of years in this land, and it will probably never change."
Gaza kids skip "This Land Is Your Land" and go straight to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Adults know enough to pay lip service to an idea they may believe but recognize as impractical, like Cracked does with paying taxes. Kids are a bit more literal. Couple that with the boredom -- you put aside the religious intolerance, the racial tensions, the complex political situation, and the ultra-violence (which is a lot to put aside, we know; you'll probably need to get one of those PODS things for abstract concepts), and what you're left with is a bunch of people living in small towns in the hills -- and you've got a recipe for trouble.
"Religious Jews believe that televisions have no place in a Jewish home, so nobody has one. Now that kids have nothing to do in the house, they'll either read and study or go play outside. Sounds good so far, right? Now remember, this is a village. There are playgrounds and the like, but after a certain age, kids are just more interested in cigarettes and vodka than being the fastest one down the slide."
That's weird, because after we've had some vodka, playgrounds suddenly seem awesome.
So what else is a kid to do, aside from participate in some light Armageddon?
"Every Friday afternoon, there's a scheduled protest (read: rock-throwing). The Arabs meet up at the U.N. school around 4:30 (next to the security fence) and start showing off their knowledge of obscene Hebrew. The Jews come to the fence and respond in kind (the time is set and usually doesn't change, so by 5:00 you have a good amount of people on both sides). The Arabs set a few tires on fire and roll them towards the fence (if there are no Jews at the fence, they'll do this to attract some attention).
"Since there's barbed wire in the way, the two sides can't actually fight it out. Instead, they pick up rocks and start chucking them at each other. A lot of people carry homemade slings with them for that exact reason, and let me tell you, those things pack a punch -- you can throw a rock bigger than your fist 100 yards, and it hits hard enough to turn a perfectly good skull into scrambled eggs.
Rocks are even good weapons against tanks, apparently.
"After a good while of this, the army shows up, shoots some tear gas and rubber bullets, tosses a few flashbangs, and chases everybody away. 'Going to the fence' has actually become a colloquial term in these parts.
"The thing is, it's fun. It's fun as shit. The adrenaline rush you get when a rock twice as big as your fist slams into a wall a foot from your face is just incredible. When you sling one right back at the guy, it feels even better, especially when you hear the sounds of 10 other guys firing off their slings a few feet away. You think that 2,000 years ago, there were people standing right here, doing the same exact thing. The same weapons, the same ideas."
So maybe go easy on the TV ban, parents: SpongeBob SquarePants may be the only thing standing between us and perpetual war.
Serious Violence Is Commonplace
The vast majority of people in the contested chunks of the West Bank -- Israeli and Palestinian alike -- are just trying to live their lives. On a daily basis, the shit generally maintains a polite distance from the fan. This can lead to an environment that's almost deceptively casual.
Above: Nap time in the IDF.
"The soldiers go to their posts without proper equipment or even body armor. At most posts there's usually a few kids hanging out, chatting with the soldiers. One pillbox is actually in someone's backyard. The fence, with all its impressive sensors and barbed wire, runs for a while and just stops, leaving a hole a few kilometers wide where anybody can just walk right through. The reason for this is simple: There's no real point to put in the effort. Most of the people living in the area just don't care; they lead regular lives and don't feel the urge to go murder their neighbors.
"I've walked right into Arab villages, and feel perfectly comfortable walking around outside the fence."
Before kids graduate to rock-throwing, the fence is for playtime.
But according to Plucky, days of relative peace eventually give way to violence:
"A few years ago in our settlement, there was some guy who would walk to the nearest Arab village to buy some cheap eggs. Every Sunday he'd walk over, make his purchase (in Israeli shekels, of course), and head home, proud of himself for buying eggs far cheaper and fresher than he would get at the store. One Sunday, some guy stabbed him and he died. Nothing personal, everyone knew him and didn't mind, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was Jewish."
Repeal egg tariffs now.
Of course, neither side is innocent here:
"I overheard a conversation between a soldier and a local guy who'd recently finished school, it went something like this:
Soldier: So, are you getting drafted soon?
Soldier: Do you want to go to the army?
Local: Yes, of course.
Soldier: So why don't you go?
Local: I'm under police investigation.
Soldier: For what?
Local: Murder. Some Arab walked by our school, so we all came out and beat him to death."
"I thought that would instantly make me a general. Guess the army doesn't work that way."
Violence is an undeniable part of daily life: You'll have three Palestinians killed by soldiers during a series of protests here, an Israeli soldier wounded there, five Palestinians wounded by settler-thrown Molotovs one day, and some random Israeli civilian wounded by a Palestinian-thrown Molotov another day. Attacks happen so regularly that it's almost casual. Here's a screen shot from a fun little animated video illustrating how to ram Zionists at the bus stop:
The Zionist's name is Jack.
Luckily he doesn't seem to mind it so much, probably because of that old stereotype that Jews possess asses of steel, capable of knocking the wheels off any attacking cars.
Nobody Really Believes They Can "Win"
The Holy Land has plenty of space for everybody. The whole Middle East situation does not boil down to "not enough condos." It isn't a question of land scarcity.
"There's plenty of room for both Jews and Arabs to live in a hippie's wet dream, but both sides refuse to acknowledge this. If you believe that the land you stand on was given to you and your friends by God directly, you're likely to have a problem with sharing it. Thus, the radical ideology of both sides involves the systematic extermination of the other.
"Our people have already had a long relationship with the whole racial extermination thing by now."
"Combine that with their belief that the other guys are planning to do the same to them, and that's why they need to kill them, and the impossibility of stopping teenagers from terrorizing each other, and you have a recipe for eternal war. After all, neither side actually has the balls to go through with their plan -- it's not that easy to exterminate everybody around you when all the villages, towns, and cities are so decentralized and intertwined."
We'd love to end this article on a hopeful note -- Jews and Muslims suddenly realize that they both love sandwiches and sunshine, so everybody goes off together to have a nice picnic -- but nobody has any illusions that this is going to end sometime soon:
"Israel will also never unilaterally withdraw, as was done with Gaza, for several reasons. First, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 did not work. There is no peace between Gaza and Israel. ... Second, the pre-1967 borders are totally indefensible, as has been acknowledged by just about every military analyst.
"Third, assuming these problems were overcome, the logistical nightmare of relocating half a million people would be unsolvable -- Gaza was evacuated in 2005, and of the 9,000 people relocated, some still don't have homes yet. But the biggest reason is that even if the army is pulled out, the settlers will never leave."
Barring some sort of alien invasion that unites us all in hatred against a new set of enemies, don't expect change to come to the West Bank anytime soon. So uh ... who's our real world equivalent of Ozymandias? Elon Musk? Get to work on the giant squid already, Muskman.
Robert Evans tweets on his twitter and you can follow him here.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Insane Things You Learn Overthrowing Your Own Government and 5 Ways Growing Up in North Korea Is Crazier Than You Think.
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