After the siren went wailing, my mother and her neighbors, living in southern Tel Aviv, couldn't make it in time to the shelter in the basement of their building — five days into the IDF Gaza offensive, they hadn't yet settled into the routine of the Tel Aviv area being fired upon and having to find shelter within 40 seconds. The head of the residents' committee hadn't changed his habit of locking the door to the shelter, so the neighbors heard the boom of the rocket while gathered at the staircase.
Like many Israelis, after the attack my mother returned to the computer and wrote in her blog: "What has to happen here? [...] What more do they need to understand the horror of this situation — for this country to disappear? [...] It will get worse, if this jihad isn't stopped."
The daughter in me hastened to call her to make sure everything is all right. But I also couldn't stop myself from writing a comment in the blog, reminding her that people in Gaza are scared, too, and dozens were killed, including children.
She asked me to remove it. I reminded her that she'd never visited Gaza or Ramallah and had never spoke to a Palestinian family that lives in the territories. One of the worst implications of escalation is that it seems like a good reason to forget there are people on the other side. It also always seemed to me she does not feel comfortable even discussing the possibility that Israel might be wrong in something since our first year in the country, 1991, when we were sitting in gas masks in rooms hermetically sealed with plastic and masking tape, waiting for a scud missile to bring a chemical surprise from Iraq.
But she chose the common Israeli argument that "this isn't the right time to talk about it."
"I sympathize with Palestinians in Gaza, as I did with my parents' generation that had to suffer Stalin's regime," she said (meaning Hamas). "But it's not the time to sound righteous, when people here are trembling, standing at the staircase with their back to the wall, fully aware it wouldn't save them if the rocket hits this house. People are too emotional — the last rocket fell very close. You know how it feels. Besides, Israel does change. During the disengagement, the state ignored the intransigent settlers and evacuated them by force, while on the other side it just gets worse with the jihad's rule."
Another part of her argument was that despite covering the Second Intifada, the disengagement and the Second Lebanese War, now I work in Washington, and people might say one should keep silent if he is not in the same boat with everybody in Israel.
"Besides," she said, "are you sure the other side really wants peace? You might be welcomed with tea and hummus in Hebron or in Gaza, but you have shown me pictures you took in Gaza two weeks after the disengagement — on the ruins of the Kfar Darom settlements, demolished by the Israeli bulldozers, where Hamas arranged an exhibition of several generations of Kassam rockets. And more recently, pictures from Ramallah showing posters of refugees promising their return to Haifa."
A lengthy discussion ensued about how smart disengagement from Gaza without an agreement would be, and who would start first. The bottom line of this familiar catch-22 was clear: When the flames of the conflict are high, it's not a good time to talk about the other side's suffering, and the mainstream media covering their country's conflict is not expected to dedicate the same proportion of paper to it. When all is well, the lack of immediate threats and the wall allow many Israelis to simply ignore the conflict, focusing on their economic and social challenges, or immersing themselves in escapism in crowded Tel Aviv cafes. It seems it's never really a good time to seriously talk about the other side and the common future.
Two traumatized societies will always find plenty of excuses to assign all the blame on the other side. Israelis will accuse Palestinians of refusing to come to the negotiating table, and the Palestinians would see no reason to start the process from scratch with the new Israeli government after coming so close to a deal with the previous one. Palestinians would point out the larger number of deaths on their side, Israelis would say that no country would tolerate years of rocket fire into its territory. Both sides doubt the seriousness of the other's intentions. Can Palestinians even strike a deal among themselves? Can Israelis be serious about future territorial concessions while continuing to rapidly expand settlements at the West Bank?
With the ever-delicate political situation in Israel, it always seems to be difficult to discuss what Israel actually wants, and for how long it intends to hold to its provisional borders instead of cutting a deal. Israel's right to defend itself has an overwhelming majority's support, but the means to maintain the Jewish state for future generations is a much more controversial issue. Strategic planning might not been the biggest strength of Israeli leadership — the immediate threats, frequent elections and the tendency to improvise have become a lauded part of the national mentality and often pushed it to the margins.
After five days of offensive against Gazan targets, the question arises: Now what? After the bombing of targets in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the Israeli Defense Forces faced the same dilemma: the rival did not succumb, the list of relatively (how cynical it always sounds) clean targets is exhausted and the next logical step is the ground operation, expanding attacks from the air to targets which involve risking many more civilian deaths. Or a ceasefire.
Despite the Republicans warning for months of Obama renewing pressure on Israel after re-election, the American president was not in a hurry to do so: US officials and Obama himself repeatedly stressed that the responsibility for the escalation lies with Hamas — and expressed support for Israel's right to defend itself while mentioning their preference for avoiding a ground invasion. Both houses of congress unanimously passed resolutions to support Israel, although there were some voices of dissent — Congressman Keith Ellison, who visited Gaza twice, told me he was deeply concerned about the attack against this "already devastated place."
While Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren praised the support and admitted Israel "couldn't expect more from its ally," the PLO mission to the US was frustrated by the unequivocal US support for Israel. It called the American response "at best biased and weak because it completely ignored the fact that Israel started the escalation," stressing that "the US has a moral obligation to ask Israel not to deploy its US-made weapons to kill and injure civilians."
Despite some cynical political reasoning, there could also be some hope for Israel (and the US) to weaken Iran's position by toppling the Hamas regime. This, along with the possible fall of Assad's regime, could be a powerful blow to Teheran's ambitions, although the situation in Syria the day after might be no less complicated from the Israeli perspective. But the possibility of a ground invasion of Gaza has also raised alarms that it might repeat the devastation of the previous operation, "Cast Lead," and earn international condemnation for Israel. It has also stirred other voices from the US Jewish community — leftist pro-Israel lobby J Street's president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, wonders whether the ground invasion will "bring us closer to ending this conflict in two states for two peoples, or [...] leave us farther away."
The Second Lebanese war gave birth to a joke that had some truth to it: that Israel improved its security on the northern border simply by letting Hezbollah exhaust its arsenal of rockets (a store that was quickly restored and enhanced). The same sad joke might work for Gaza, if one choses to ignore another spur of hatred against Israel that might prove to be more powerful in the conflict than the gradually growing sophistication of weapons.
It might be a good time to talk about it after all.
Natasha Mozgovaya is the chief US correspondent for Haaretz, based in Washington DC and on Twitter at @mozgovaya.