I recently went to my local synagogue for the first time in a few years to hear the former mayor of Sderot speak. He spoke remarkably well, especially given English is not his native language and without notes. A lot of what he said was nothing I haven't heard before, though it made me emotional hearing it said with such passion and feeling. It was also, perhaps crucially, nothing that even the most casual of Facebook commentators on Israel-Palestine won't have heard so I won't repeat it here, but two things really stuck with me:
1. He asked us to imagine children born in Sderot in 2001.
They would have just had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and all they will have known is rocket fire. 8000 rockets worth. 13 years of constant running for shelters and living in fear with the first thing they learnt being "Tzeva Adom" or red alert, the Israeli rocket siren alert. They've grown up such that they are unlikely to lead normal lives, every detail in their lives geared towards missile defence from ballistic windows in schools, playground toy structures that double up as bomb shelters and concerted efforts to ensure that wherever they are, they are never 15 seconds from a bomb shelter.
It made me think of the Guardian article I was reading earlier. (Bear with me!) It made the point that there have been 3 wars in Gaza in the last 6 years. That means a 7 year old Gazan child, lucky enough to survive so far, has grown up, much like his/her fellow child a few miles away, with war. Imagine it for a minute. If your little brother or sister had seen 3 wars. Heck, if you had seen 3 wars. Lived through them.
When you consider the lives of children in Sderot (and other cities near Gaza and, unfortunately, increasingly more distant cities) and Gaza are so tragically similar, you realise there is a humanity missing from vehement supporters on both sides. Of course there arguments there to be had and ignorance to be dispelled - I would find it impossible not to defend Israel against cries of disproportionately and anti-Semitic libels (all too common amongst even the most learnéd of my friends) - she remains my country and a Jewish homeland that the protests across Europe are ironically yet unfortunately continually confirming the need for, but you realise what is truly important.
No child should have to grow up like this. This is no way for a child to live.
2. "I hope one day to test peace with my neighbours"
There was a shake in his voice that made this the most genuine thing he said all night. Of course I felt moved by his entire story, everything he had to say but this was one of the last things he said to us and the way he said it was so heartfelt and moving. He, just like most on both sides of the border, wants to live in peace. He wants his children to never have to see the inside of a bomb shelter. He wants the children in Gaza to live long lives, in prosperity that could have been theirs prior to Hamas. It's a genuine desire, one that most Israelis and most Palestinians genuinely harbour. It is one that is all to easy to forget about, to ignore when bashing Israel or defending her actions. It is one that is almost easier to dismiss as if it is not important, when it is the most important thing to remember during this conflict. He spoke movingly about peace, a Palestinian state and a Jewish homeland, about there being enough land for everyone to enjoy and prosper in.
It's easy to forget about the regular people on the ground when we discuss Hamas or Israel and the big players in the region. There are just two people, wanting to get on with their lives. Why don't we let them?