How the other half live. Apparently.
Picture the scene.
Nice suburban home, nice couple, nice kids playing in the lounge as the family are interviewed by a radio reporter. Birds in the sunny garden keep up a calming chirrup of atmosphere among the citrus trees, through the open patio doors. Fresh juice clinks on a tray as the nice young mum sets it down.
It’s a home you want.
“Tell me what it’s like to live here” says the radio reporter.
“Well,” begins the young lass beside her husband, with a tip of her head and a slightly forced smile, “after eight years, you begin to plan around it.” She then laughs a little what-can-you-do laugh. A serious gesture.
“We tell the kids that if they ever go anywhere, they must always run if they’re outside. No hanging around. And if they’re at home, they must stay downstairs and not stray too far down the garden from the house. We only get about ten seconds warning.”
She shrugs. Her husband picks up: ” Of course we have some sympathy – they’re being brutalised by their leaders. But, y’know, they voted for them. And these same leaders want to see our children dead.”
His wife interjects: “Yes, we have sympathy – of course we do. But they had warning of our strikes. We texted them. Our planes ticker-tape dropped thousands of leaflets telling them we only wanted to target military installations and that they should leave those areas. They had warning.”
“Then we hear of the family of five children sleeping across the road from a munitions stash… and so, what can you do? When this is over, it will be quiet again for us. At last. My kids will be able to play in their own garden safely.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone sitting by quietly if rockets dropped on Southbourne for eight years. I look out of the studio window at all the homes of decent, moderate people I see around my streets every day, and understand this decent family’s honest defiance. It sounds like something anyone around me here would say. What I would say, in their shoes.
This young couple from somewhere like Sderot in the western Negev, heard interviewed this morning on the Today programme, sounded more together and resolved and, well, ‘normal’ than many of the region’s similar residents. They’re taking sleeping pills and arguing and seeing their house prices plummet and their marriages fragment. They’re worn down by the endless threat of rocket attacks by Hamas, from the Gaza strip just a short drive away. These are people like you and me who want to get on with their lives and not be traumatised.
Who can blame them for wanting something done?
The other report, run back-to-back with this one this morning, was from Gaza. On the dawning of Day Eight of the Israeli attacks on the Palestinian enclave, a local radio producer interviewed people there.
It was hard to hear some of the recorded responses over the thumps, roars and sometimes blasts of the fighter planes and missile strikes. Plus, of course, some of them responded in Arabic and so needed the voices of translators fed over the top of their own.
“I am standing here talking to you now,” said one doctor, in English, “but I honestly don’t know what could happen in the next five minutes.”
“We have some supplies, but no electricity. Water has been cut off too. But we have God. He will protect us, and he’s all we have. We will be okay.”
Another aid worker, English sounding, said: “We brought in a family this morning that had been hit by a missile attack. Little (name) who is four died in front of us from her injuries. Her sister, (name) was brought in dead on arrival. Their brother, (name) we thought would be okay. He was brought in breathing. He died this morning, however.”
“Some are calling in the streets for revenge on Isreal. Some are calling for God’s mercy.” said the Gaza-based reporter calmly, in English. “Hospitals are over-run and infrastructure demolished. The death toll is reported as in the many hundreds now. Humanitarian efforts are being badly hampered by the situation.” In the background was the sound of more thumping explosions, and of people wailing and shouting.
Ed Stourton was reporting from a cafe on the border. Those same birds from the family’s back garden seemed to be with him there, calming the morning sunshine as troops sat around near him, playing cards and laughing.
“It’s all very pleasant here” he said. “There’s even a promising looking garden centre just over the road.” He then added: “Gaza is half a mile away. I can see the planes and I can hear the constant crump of missile strikes.”
And I could exactly picture it.
Israel can seem so pleasant, so relaxed. So darned congenial. Everyone, on each side of the cultural divide, can make you so glad you visited. And you can find youself sitting there, in a citrus grove, with a cup of mint tea, birds lulling you, mediterranean breeze caressing you, and not feel the reality of the war zone walking distance away.
This is probably true of many war zones – especially domesticated ones like this.
Gaza is, as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg put it impromtu on the radio this morning, half the size of the Isle of Mann, with one and a half million people squashed into it. How easy are ‘surgical strikes’ on such a theatre of operations? However seriously, humanly, the F16 pilots take their role.
It’s not just any strip of land though. It’s not like someone just declared war on Boscombe. (No jokes, locals. I shop there willingly.) This is a strip of land that’s been cut off from the outside world for the last umpteen months. If not years, practically. It’s had at best intermittent electricity and water and food. It has been a humanitarian crisis, according to the UN, for a long while. It is a people living in enforced poverty. In enforced misery. In an enforced fucking war zone.
The issue here isn’t the politics of Olmert vs the Likud in looming Isreali elections. It isn’t the politics of Bush’s last days of US presidency and his proudly pro-active support for Israel’s government. It isn’t about Fatah’s decades of corrupt incompetence undermining the Palestinian cause, or the PLO’s cultural complacency over the same time. And it isn’t about Hamas’ violent rhetoric against Israel’s right to exist.
The issue is about what we are told. And not told. About how we hear stuff. All of us. How it’s edited.
So, in Israel, the issue is that decent people can live in pretty houses with their children shelling distance from a war zone and have never seen it. That ordinary tax-paying families can hope for military action against neighbours they’ve never properly met. Who’s anhialated streets they’ve never walked down. Who’s stories they’ve never listened to.
I can’t imagine the fear of living under bombardment in the nice little streets around my house. I mean, somebody text me WTF. I can’t imagine what it would do to my thinking, can you?
I can’t help feeling though that, once the present flames are out, a practical tonic for some beleaguered Israeli residents might be to walk around Gaza for a day, and share a glass of tea or two with some of its residents.
Now. I’m off to a nice cafe.