Maurine Proctor wrote this article on the ground in Israel last week. She shares what it is like to be in a nation threatened by Hamas, a terrorist organization.
My husband, Scot, and I have taken several months to set up a photographic shoot of scenes from the life of Jesus in Nazareth for an illustrated centennial edition of James Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. Though Israel has been showered by rockets from Gaza, we felt we still needed to come here or lose our window for shooting. Thus, we find ourselves on the ground in a war zone and share here our eyewitness report.
The edginess is palpable here in Israel just now. We feel it everywhere. This place that we call second home is tense, and most of our conversations here, both with Israeli’s and Palestinians, have been about the war. The Jerusalem Post is giving a minute-by-minute report of where sirens are sounding that ominously types across its front page. The first morning here we checked out the security reports to understand how long we would have to get into a bomb shelter should sirens sound.
The Palestinian hotel we are staying in by the Damascus Gate of the Old City is empty. They serve the breakfast buffet as a single plate to us alone. We were also alone in the hotel in Nazareth, our feet echoing across an empty lobby.
We went straight to the passport control window at the airport without a line and had an empty road leading from the airport. The vendors in the Old City have few customers. This is Israel with a different face than we have known, as if your mother suddenly wasn’t your mother anymore.
Because we have come to Israel often, we have many people we count as friends here, both Israeli and Palestinian. We understand and can empathize well with the viewpoints of both, but this war is not about that. It is about terrorism. It is about genocide. The people in Gaza elected Hamas to represent them, and Hamas is their enemy as much as it is an enemy to Israel.
We have all heard in the news about the evil atrocities ISIS (now called the Islamic State) is committing in Iraq. Christians who have lived in Iraq for two millennia are being systematically killed or driven from their homes barefoot with only the clothes on their back. In their bloody annihilations ISIS intends to set up an Islamic state under Sharia law and, so driven, they commit the unthinkable and call it virtue. The Christians in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, for instance, have been slaughtered or driven out. Christian homes were identified with an “N” on the door for Narare, the Muslim word for Christian, deriving from the word “Nazareth” and then told to convert or die.
One Jerusalem friend showed us a video in Arabic of 1,500 captives, bound and lying in fetal positions on the ground, who were being systemically shot by ISIS thugs. The closest thing I have seen to this in the past are the haunting black and white photos from the Holocaust of piles of Jewish bodies before they were thrown into a mass grave. This extremism and evil are the every day tactics of ISIS who now control a section of Iraq bigger than Belgium, and it is on the move.
Genocide is the systematic destruction of a people for their beliefs or ethnicity. As the Jerusalem Post noted, “when the act occurs, it is unmistakable in its scale and its hallmarks: the world knows what has happened, because historically, its perpetrators hold a worldview that their murderous actions were justified.” It is raw evil, naked and undisguised.
The caliphate ISIS seeks to set up would be as the Jerusalem Post described, “full of zealot Sunnis, where women are enslaved and mutilated, and nonbelievers are tortured and beheaded.”
So it is against this backdrop that our Israeli friends tremble with the murderous Hamas hurling rockets their way and building tunnels into Israel so that their terrorists can seep into the population. Hamas has written into its very charter as a kind of covenant their intentions to completely eliminate Israel, leaving Israel in the hairs of a continual existential threat. They have made no secret of their intention to kill Israelis systematically and in a wide-ranging way. Just this month Hamas called for the killing of all Jews worldwide. Before that they said that the objectives of their group, as listed in their charter, are more important than the lives of the people in Gaza they claim to represent.
Hamas charter reads, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” It reads, “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”
ISIS has taught us that threats of genocide are not merely idle. As the Jerusalem Post noted about Hamas, “Quite transparently, the group seeks the targeted, regime-sponsored systematic extermination of a people based on their identity.”
Unfortunately Gazans chose Hamas to represent them and their brutality extends to their own. An Hamas manual, “captured” during this war, discusses the benefits to Hamas when its own civilians’ homes are destroyed, and it acknowledges that Israel’s army, the IDF, is committed to minimizing harms to humans and explains how civilians can be used against it.
Hamas uses human shields, whether women or children, before their munitions and then basks in the news that Israel has killed civilians, attempting to take out the very rockets that are firing upon them.
We saw another video smuggled out of Gaza of people praying in front of a mosque. They were terrified to enter the mosque because they knew munitions were stored there and they didn’t want to be targets. Hooded men of Hamas, dressed in black were brutally clubbing and beating the worshippers amidst their screams because they didn’t want to go into the mosque.
We have many friends in Israel who are Palestinian Muslims. They are a wonderful, peaceful good people who have some legitimate complaints against Israel. We asked many that we knew and some that we didn’t about the Hamas tunnels and rockets and their war on Israel. We hardly got a direct answer.
Our friend, Jamal, said that children were being killed in the streets in Gaza. “They want to go out to get ice cream and the next thing you know they are dead,” he said.
Some evenings we walked down the block from our hotel to an open restaurant on the corner across from the Damascus Gate. There fragrant smoke was rising in the light from vendors selling various kebabs, but the atmosphere was much less sweet.
Now a very large makeshift screen had been put up and blaring from it incessantly night and day was war news and violent protests on Al Jazeera. Mostly people were screaming in Arabic. We asked one man what it meant. He said it was an angry protest in Jordan about Israel, and then asked if we knew that women and children were dying in the streets in Gaza.
Yes, we sadly acknowledged, but what did he think of Hamas? Refusing to answer the question, he said obviously our view was extremely biased because we got all of our news in America, which was just an extension of the Israeli press. By the way, he said, somewhat ruffled, did we know that it was all the fault of Americans that Israel could defend itself?
In every hotel and many shops Al Jazeera blared its war news. We could only guess what they were saying, but we did come upon a translation of one broadcast as a man shook his fist with angry passion at a seething crowd. He was shouting, “It is either victory or martyrdom. Your son Gaza will not be distressed. Your precious blood will irrigate the soil of this land.” Then came scenes of corpses in Gaza being carried under a Palestinian flag. War songs played over the footage of bloodied bodies. It was theatrical, orchestrated.
It was chilling, but not as much as the next night when the television featured a man wearing a head scarf, his face also hidden and bound by a tight scarf with only his eyes showing. Again, he shouted something for over 30 minutes, screaming with anger designed to whip up a crowd. Whatever he said seemed to penetrate all around us, until everyone was tight with tension, muscles clenched. We left quickly.
We are quite used to our Palestinian friends having maps that show no Israel, as if it never existed. We know that they refer to east Jerusalem as “occupied.” What we were truly surprised about is that our moderate Muslim friends with whom we talk and laugh, did not seem critical of Hamas. They refused to pass judgment on what is officially designated a terrorist organization that has lobbed more than 3,000 rockets into Israel heedless of where they land. They do not seem critical of the aims of Hamas, and though some Arab nations are beginning to step back from Hamas, the Palestinian man on the street in Israel refused to take that step back.
All they could see and what was reinforced for them was the true suffering in Gaza, along with threats toward Israel, whipped up even further by the media they absorbed on every side. You’d think for the sake of the suffering Gazans, more would revile Hamas, but that was not our experience. They seemed unable to suggest that anything Hamas did was barbarous.
How complex it is. What can Israel do but defend itself against those whose stated aims are genocide, who have built a complex tunnel system into their land with desire to commit terrorist acts. Yet, the Palestinians in Israel become more angry every day for the suffering ones who live in Gaza because Israel defends itself. Fissures grow deeper.
What’s even more ironic, the very thing that Hamas says it wants in peace negotiations is: open borders, a seaport and an airport; these are the very things they insure Israel can’t stand for. How can you open a border to one who intends your murder?
Meanwhile, our Israeli friends, both Jewish and Christian are worried. What can be more disconcerting than to have a death warrant on your head, a militant group set on your destruction?
In the Los Angeles airport on our way to Israel, we talked with a man named Yardin, the father of three sons, two of whom had served in the Israeli army. Two of his children now live in a kibbutz on the very border of Gaza where the sirens scream regularly about incoming rocket fire. He was headed to Israel to visit his children. We asked, “Aren’t you afraid for them?” He answered, “Hey, we’re Israeli. We are used to having guns leveled at us.” He explained that when a young son was visiting him in America the first day he came running home, afraid that he saw no soldiers with guns anywhere. Who would protect him?” That is not the sensitivity with which our children grow up.
Our dear Jewish friend Rachel has found the whole war very personal. Her brother is a soldier in Gaza with a wedding planned on Monday. Will he live to get married her family has asked? His friend was married two weeks and was killed in Gaza. Another was just engaged and then killed. She lives in a town where the sirens, indicating a rocket, have constantly sounded. They heard sirens until minutes before one of the 72-hour ceasefires, and then again minutes after it expired.
Ana Rina sees something equally ominous, if less personal. She notes the anti-Israel protests in Europe, reads the news and sees a trend. Some people used to be anti-Israel, she acknowledges, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were anti-Semitic. She sees the gap between those two prejudices closing until it is almost fashionable in some places to be anti-Semitic. She is also a reader of the Bible and places great faith in calendars and signs. It is three-and-a-half years until Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary. Until then, she thinks anti–Semitism will only grow.
What a peaceful moment it was to attend sacrament meeting at BYU’s beautiful Jerusalem Center looking through its arched, floor-to-ceiling windows at the golden city. Here the students hardly feel the conflict, we’ve described and they are quite safe as they follow the security provisions outlined for them. Last semester they had to go to the bomb shelters in the first time in the Center’s history, but on the whole Jerusalem is free of rocket fire and they are protected enough, we would send our own daughter there to study without hesitation. Another group of students will be studying there this fall, and I’m sure with no danger.
Usually, when we come to Israel or lead tours here, we are teaching about Christ, and I feel His peace everywhere. What was different this time, is we were also reminded that evil is real. There are groups like ISIS and Hamas that devour life and claim it is for a good cause. They seek to commit genocide with self-justification.
There are those in today’s world who have abandoned the idea that there is any moral truth and with that loss goes another. They do not believe in evil and therefore cannot muster the strength to fight it.
Israel knows firsthand there is evil and have had to step up yet one more time to fight it.
Update: Happily Rachel’s brother did return safely and got married since I wrote this piece.