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Sunday, December 3, 2023

Is there a way to claw a path back to peace in Gaza?

As he walked away, Micheál Martin’s black shoes were covered in a dusty residue from the debris of an atrocity.

In Be’eri kibbutz nothing has changed since October 7 when more than 100 residents were brutally murdered and where eight-year-old Emily Hand was last seen.

In the kibbutz, Martin stepped across the charred lighting fixture now lying on the floor at the front door; past a child’s hairbrush abandoned on the grass; a knocked-over dining chair; and mangled aluminium windows.

The brittle shattering sound of terracotta roof tiles and glass everywhere underfoot cut through the air.

Micheál Martin at the Be'eri kibbutz this week. Picture: Miri Shimonovich
Micheál Martin at the Be’eri kibbutz this week. Picture: Miri Shimonovich

“There was a football in the ditch, kids playing, people having their daily meals, and suddenly this savage attack. That’s all how one can describe it,” Martin said afterwards.

I was shown photographs of mutilated bodies, people killed, and it is horrific what happened.

“For us life is precious and how people could take life in such a savage way is beyond my comprehension.”

As the Tánaiste was shown around destroyed family homes, the sound of breaking rubble competed only with the thunderous reverberations of airstrikes raining down on Gaza, just 4km away.

One of the homes in the Be’eri kibbutz visited by Micheál Martin this week. Picture: Elaine Loughlin
One of the homes in the Be’eri kibbutz visited by Micheál Martin this week. Picture: Elaine Loughlin

On the route down, as the convoy straddled the border parallel to the Jabalia refugee camp, huge plumes of smoke rose up into the sky.

In the kibbutz as grieving survivors gave first-hand accounts of hiding for hours in fear, the ominous and repeated rumbles across the border were impossible to ignore.

But the background din did not register with those relaying and reliving their pain to the Irish minister for foreign affairs outside one of the burnt-out homes.

Of course, over the last five weeks, the sound of artillery fire and air strikes aimed at their faceless, nameless neighbours has become the norm, just as air raid sirens and the threat of rocket fire are an expected part of daily life in Israel.

Everything has changed

Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.

An already entrenched distrust of those existing across the barbed wire and concrete wall has tipped over into boiling hatred that blinds.

For mothers, witnessing the loss of a child — any child — cuts through, slicing deep into our core.

We grieve for children we never knew.

It’s a shared pain, the motionless tiny bodies haunt us and bring us to tears.

How can you possibly claw a way back to peace when you lose that instinctive compassion? When you no longer have the capacity to see another life as human?

Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen speak with Haim Peretz in Sderot, which suffered a rocket attack. Picture: Miri Shimonovich/DFA
Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen speak with Haim Peretz in Sderot, which suffered a rocket attack. Picture: Miri Shimonovich/DFA

After meeting Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen on Thursday, Martin told reporters: “It seems to me from what I’m hearing, unfortunately, that there is a determination to keep going with the military campaign.

They see it through the lens of eliminating Hamas. They are saying we don’t want to kill civilians, but if you bomb Gaza to the extent that has been done, you kill civilians and you kill children.

Around 400 bombs have been dropping each day on an area half the size of Louth. Packed into the enclave are 2.3m people, almost half of whom are children, who have no means of escape.

Half the population, many of whom are already considered refugees, have been ordered to go south of the Wadi Gaza line, where the threat of bombardment is still very real.

“I know that when you see the picture from the outside, it seems that Israel is now the bad guy and Hamas are the people that want to free Gaza,” the mayor of Sderot, Alon Davidi told the Tánaiste this week in outlining the trauma of his own community.

They destroyed Gaza, they destroyed the future of the people of Gaza. I am begging you and I ask you: Support Israel.

“This is the chance not for us, but for the people of Gaza. If Israel can finish the job and destroy Hamas, then after I think that we can change the future,” he said.

A constant conflict that dates back to 1948 reignited in a ferociously inhumane and bloody war, when Hamas launched its unconscionable attack on Israel early last month.

Comparisons with the Holocaust

Many Israelis see this as their 9/11 and make comparisons with the Holocaust.

“Israelis are terrified,” said one Irish source who attended the Tánaiste’s many meetings with Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian politicians this week.

Tel Aviv has now become a ghost town after dark, with restaurants and businesses closing early.

But on Thursday morning, locals were out running along the promenade and a group was in the water getting a surfing lesson.

That evening, parents were taking their children to a playground behind the area where relatives of those taken hostage by Hamas have set up a permanent shrine.

Palestinian civilians in Gaza are also terrified. But they are trapped in the tiny coastal enclave, unable to get out, politicians and international media unable to get in.

Palestinians rescue survivors after an Israeli strike on Rafah, Gaza, on Friday. Picture: Hatem Ali/AP
Palestinians rescue survivors after an Israeli strike on Rafah, Gaza, on Friday. Picture: Hatem Ali/AP

Seventy kilometres south of Tel Aviv, Palestinians share the same Mediterranean coast. They use the water not for recreation but survival as supplies of fresh water run out.

The Gaza Strip had been described as an open-air prison long before the latest attack, but now it has become an open-air mass grave.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that people are “facing the immediate possibility of starvation” with water and food “practically non-existent”.

Through its actions, Israel is now shaping what is to come next. It is dealing with issues, as Martin outlined, through a “military lens alone”, which he warned will radicalise people and will “create future extreme perspectives and that’s the real danger that will come up with this war in Gaza”.

“The Palestinian Authority will say something similar, that what you’re essentially doing is you’re creating fertile ground for more extreme views to grow,” he added.

Extremism will be handed down

That extremism will be handed down to another generation.

Children and babies will grow up shouldering the guilt of escaping death and will be constantly reminded of their friends, siblings, and cousins who should have lived.

A ceasefire and political pathway out of this war is the only way forward.

In Israel, older Palestinian women often point to areas where cactus grows in lines as the only remnants of villages destroyed in the Nakba.

While the homes were razed to the ground, it is said that the hardy desert plant, which was traditionally planted as livestock fencing, always comes back.

Like the cactus, we must put our hope in the resilience of people and our ability to see past hate. But it will be a slow and difficult task to reach a point where both sides can see one another as human again.

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