When the air raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem on the evening of Friday, November 16, Andrew Roseman ’14 was standing in front of the Western Wall, one of Israel’s holiest sites, along with dozens of worshippers there to observe the Sabbath.
“At first we didn’t know what was going on—people were saying there was a rocket directed at Jerusalem, but it landed 30 miles away. There was 15 to 20 minutes of straight panic,” said Roseman, who is studying abroad this semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “People were crying, it was really kind of nuts.”
The missiles, which Hamas launched from the nearby Gaza strip, were directed at the Israeli Knesset—the seat of the national government—but fell short of the capital. It was the first time the air raid sirens had gone off since the Gulf War more than 20 years ago—and even then, The New York Times reports, Jerusalem was largely spared, due in part to its large Palestinian population and sacred sites.
The latest round of hostilities began on November 14, when Israeli forces assassinated the leader of Hamas’ armed wing, Ahmed Jabari. Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire last Wednesday after eight days of attacks killed 162 Palestinians and five Israelis, according to Al Jazeera.
Between November 14 and 22, the day the cease-fire was announced, Hamas launched 1,400 rockets into Israel, while Israel carried out over 1,500 strikes on Gaza, Al Jazeera reports.
Yesterday evening, the U.N. General Assembly voted to grant Palestine the status of nonmember observer state in a 138-9 vote, with 41 countries abstaining, according to the Times. The U.S. and Israel voted against the measure, while France, Spain, and Switzerland supported it; Germany and the United Kingdom were among those abstained, according to the Times.
The recent sirens incited fear and “a controlled panic” at the Western Wall and all around the city, Roseman said; but some worshippers—mainly Orthodox and Chasidic Jews in the middle of their prayers—refused to leave their posts in front of the holy site even as soldiers patrolling the area tried to usher them into sheltered areas.
“It was one of the most surreal experiences ever,” said Roseman. “They were just like ‘No, we are not going anywhere’…My friend and I stayed out and talked to people there.”
Even as the conflict escalated and the outbreak of war seemed like a real possibility, Roseman said he was determined to stay in the country as long as he could.
“Before anything happened in Jerusalem I was aware that things were heating up between Hamas and Israel,” Roseman wrote in an email to the Orient. “At all times I had three windows up, one with the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] Twitter and one with the Alqassam Brigade Twitter [the armed wing of Hamas]...and the Jerusalem Post’s headlines.”
“There were only one or two people who left and went home. I really didn’t want to go home under any circumstances,” he said. “There was a lot of stress.”
While air raid sirens are frequent occurrences in the south of Israel, the fact that residents of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are becoming inured to their sound marks a shift in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The second time the sirens went off I was on a field trip and it was like nothing was happening—my professor was talking over the sirens,” said Roseman. “It’s like a movie all the time.”
Roseman is a musician—he’s the guitarist and lead singer of prolific campus band The NARPs—and was scheduled to play a show in Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, last Thursday. But after more missiles targeting Jerusalem were launched last week, again failing to reach the city but falling between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Roseman cancelled the show.
In a post on his blog, “Spatial Deconstruction” from November 20—the same day a new round of missiles were launched at Jerusalem—Roseman wrote, “I was supposed to go to Bethlehem this past Saturday, but opted not to when my friend who resides in Bethlehem called and informed me of a protest with some 5,000 Palestinians throwing rocks and makeshift Molotov’s at the Israeli guard tower. This is real life.”
Asked about how being in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed his view of the situation, Roseman said, “One thing is reading about it in the paper. I’m not used to hearing it—it personified the conflict because now I see faces behind it...The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is so misunderstood. Israel’s problem is not with Palestine, it’s with Hamas.”
Marta Misiulaityte ’14, who is studying in Amman, Jordan this semester—a city where a large part of the population identifies as Palestinian—said that living in such close proximity to the conflict has also changed her outlook on the situation.
“You see both parts of the equation here—there’s a lot of miscommunication going on,” she said. “I’ve realized how much I don’t know…It’s made me a much better thinker and person.”
“Anywhere from 30 to some people say 70 percent of the Jordanian population is actually Palestinian,” said Misiulaityte. “So whenever something goes down in the West Bank or Gaza people just go out in the streets and do massive demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy.”
The renewed violence in Israel and the West Bank coincided with mass protests in Jordan over a significant hike in gas prices, so Misiulaityte said it was hard to differentiate the impact of the two events. The day the gas hike was announced, massive protests overtook Amman, causing her CIEE program to cancel classes and ask that students remain in the capital.
There were “a lot of transportation disruptions, there were blockades everywhere…[and] police setting up random check points all over the city,” she said. “The protests were actually a lot worse outside of the capital, so it was really dangerous to travel outside the capital, so CIEE basically just gave us house arrest for four days in the capital…It was pretty scary. Of course, later that exact same night the Gaza crisis erupted.”
Though news of the hike in fuel prices did bring renewed violence throughout Jordan, Misiulaityte said that the greatest effect of the deteriorating economic situation, combined with political instability in Jordan, Israel and in the Palestinian Authority, is that it has brought about a sense of helplessness among Jordanians.
“People are very unhappy these days…Jordan has had at least five prime ministers in the last year. So it’s been getting kind of destabilized even though it’s traditionally a very stable country,” said Misiulaityte. “People are more and more worried about just surviving.”
Misiulaityte is staying with a Palestinian host family in Amman, but most of her family members have never stepped foot in the West Bank or Gaza, where many of their relatives live, because of restrictive travel measures that prevent Jordanians from visiting.
“My host sister says she is from Palestine, and she’s never been—she’s never been to Jerusalem, she’s never been to the West Bank, she’s never been to Tel Aviv,” said Misiulaityte. “It’s very difficult for them to go, you need special visas, you need to apply for them, it takes a very long time, and it’s expensive…Watching the news every night and just seeing the images of dead bodies in Gaza, [and] seeing how my family reacted to those images…it was just this overall sad tone in the country.”
The cease-fire between Israel and Hamas did little to abate that sentiment. “It was just kind of, nothing really to rejoice about,” said Misiulaityte. “It’s kind of just a temporary solution, and so many people died. Overall it’s just kind of sad, it’s just really sad. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
For both Misiulaityte and Roseman, being on the ground in the region is the only way to understand the intractability of the conflict.
“You have to be there,” said Roseman. “I feel like I have grown up ten-fold. It’s changed everything…It’s a real experience.”
Misiulaityte recalled one encounter with a Jordanian villager earlier this fall that she has kept in mind throughout her stay in the country.
“I went to this village in Jordan called Dana…This was a few days after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi—and this guy walks up to us, a group of Americans, and the first thing he says is ‘Welcome, I’m really really sorry about what happened yesterday…Those people were outraged because there is a lot of miscommunication. The U.S. has stereotypes about Arabs, the Arabs have stereotypes about America.’”
“In his view, the problem was the media—because we are always communicating through the media, we are never engaging in any direct contact on the human level,” said Misiulaityte. “That was a really inspiring thing that he said, and it’s a message that I’ve kept with me all throughout my stay here.”
Roseman has a similar message for those whose opinions on the conflict are based on secondhand accounts alone: “Write down your most passionate opinion and throw it the f**k away…If you want a real understanding of what’s happening, you’re not going to get it in the papers.”