This is what “normal” looks like.
It took fifteen days for the cease-fire to collapse. It’ll take a few more to know how bad the fallout is this time. In the next few days, we’ll learn whether the latest round of rocket fire will send Gaza careening toward another month of bloodshed, or whether the diplomats will manage to swerve back from the cliff and work out a more medium-term peace.
They will eventually, of course. They always do. Whether it takes another two days or another two weeks or months, a deal will be struck and things in Gaza will eventually return to normal—keeping in mind, always, that “normal,” as an alternative to war, is not peace. Not in the Gaza Strip.
Save some diplomatic miracle seventy years in the making, the current round will end but the blockade will continue. The rockets will continue. New land will be commandeered for settlement, and new tunnels will be dug beneath them. Fire will fall on Tel-Aviv. Israeli tanks and Israeli helicopters and Israeli teenagers with grown-up guns will stand tense and ready and sometimes pull their triggers. Acts of violence, some deliberate, some desperate, some scattershot and some aided by GPS systems and satellites, will continue. Eventually, things will go back to normal. Not to peace, but to some less dramatic kind of war.
But not everything is so immediate this week. The shouting has largely subsided. Despite the return of hostilities, I’ve yet to see media—traditional, Internet, or social—snap back toward the Middle East. The recent calm has allowed the flashpoints of our anger to move on to other crime scenes. The newsmen are in Ferguson this week, and the op-eds are on ISIS. There’s a limit to the focal points we can keep in focus all at once, and Gaza doesn’t make the cut like it did at the beginning of this month. Twitter has other hashtags to worry about.
Let’s talk about those fifteen days the Internet ignored.
The trouble with how we engage with this conflict—and by “we,” I mean those of us in the West—is that we tend to tune in and out mid-season. When things are relatively calm, we aren’t looking.
This has always been true of newspapers and magazines, but social media exacerbates the tendency: in a shouting free-for-all, it’s hard to hear anything but what’s loudest right now. A lull in combat means we forget about Palestine for a while.
The weeks that grab our attention aren’t entirely arbitrary—they correspond with the most sensational acts of violence—but they do lend themselves to the impression (at least for the average non-news junkie) that when the New York Times doesn’t have Tel-Aviv or Gaza City on the front page, things are relatively quiet over there. Perhaps not equal, perhaps not safe, but at least essentially at ease. The combatants with their fingers off each other’s throats, living side-by-side, always wary, sure, but not for the moment lunging for a strangle hold.
The practical consequence is that we get a distorted sense of the conflict. We lack context. Some people are always paying attention—experts, commentators, news junkies—but the average American isn’t.
Of course, this is true of almost any complex geopolitical story, but with Israel–Palestine, this capriciousness mixes with the hyperbolic engagement of ordinary people during periods of attention and produces something like what we saw the last few weeks: Ordinary people in deep conflict over even the basic facts, scrambling to piece together a backstory they didn’t pay attention to while threatening to end multi-decade friendships if their interlocutors don’t share their particular slapdash sense of what’s happening. You were on Facebook earlier this month: you know the kind of toxic mix I’m talking about.
However, looking at those fifteen days might give us a sense of “normal” over there—a reference point for understanding this latest rash of violence. What did things look like in those two weeks? Did things change?
They looked like this:
The cease-fire meant the first time in weeks it was safe for residents of Gaza City to dig through the rubble for their dead.
In the West Bank, checkpoints remained. They’re there in peacetime and in war. The damage to movement, to trade, and to psychological well being have traumatized a generation.
Israelis, too, don’t feel normal during “normal” times. Not the way you and I would mean that. Hamas’ rockets haven’t killed too many people, but the climate they create eradicates the possibility of a truly ordinary day. The announcement of a cease-fire, whether for fifteen days or fifteen years, doesn’t really help.
Terry Moran at ABC reported on the first day of this cease-fire, August 5th:
The stores are restocking their shelves. Israel re-opened the main border crossing for goods at Kerem Shalom, and 300 trucks came through Tuesday, the first day of the cease-fire. Gazans get almost everything through Israel. When the borders are closed, the deprivation is instant and intense.
That is normal: stores re-opened, trade restored, but always with the Sword of Damocles hanging overhead. The deprivation is instant and intense. It could happen any day.
That’s what it’s like when we’re tuned out. I’d urge you to go read more than I can offer in this space. Tune in when there’s no shouting—when bombs aren’t going off on live TV. Will a U.S. citizenry with a sense of that region’s daily context change the world? No, but it might illuminate something about it.
We’ll know within the next few days whether we’ll be forced to start looking again. But eventually, the violence will cease again, just long enough for the next outbreak to be taken as a war unto itself instead of a prolongment of the present one.
Go look: that doesn’t mean it will be peaceful in the meantime.
Emmett Rensin is an essayist in Chicago, IL. His previous work has appeared in The Atlantic, New Republic, The Los Angeles Review of Books (where he is a contributing editor), and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @revemmettrensin.
Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)
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