Friday, 25 July 2014

Child of War - Growing Up In Israel

Tomer Mazie has a MA in International Relations from Hebrew University, Jerusalem. An ex-Israel Defence Force soldier, he is an alum of the New Story Leadership, Class of 2011.  

This is his story. 



"I grew up in a quiet place called Zichron Ya’aqov, 30 minutes south from Haifa" Tomer tells me. Haifa is the third largest city in Israel, home to the country's largest port.

From a very young age, Tomer's life was marked by war. At first, it was The Gulf War. "We had to wear a special mask against chemicals and practiced running to the shelter in case we would hear the siren."

As a child, the conflict in Gaza was a "main part of life" for Tomer. 
The suicide bombings started when he was six-years-old. In three short years, they became a regular occurrence. "It was a time when people were scared to take the bus. I remember [seeing] pictures of bombed buses and plenty of blood... . After a few more years the Second Intifada erupted and it seemed that the violence was getting out of control."

Tomer says nowhere was safe, listing "restaurants, hotels, open spaces, shopping malls, train stations" as targets. In particular, he remembers one incident where 21 teenagers were killed in a nightclub. Another time, during the celebration of Passover, he remembers 29 Israeli's dying and dozens more being injured in a bombing. Such violence became the norm. "When I was happy, I saw the news at the end of the day and there were almost always some bad news, the kind that prevents you from being really happy."

Faced with this reality, Tomer notes two distinct impressions such a world made on him. 

The first is that he became cynical about life."After a while I started to build a wall, otherwise I think I would have lost my mind" he explains.  "Now when people talk with me about [Gaza] I answer without any emotions, like talking about a football game."

The second is hyper-vigilance. "
Every time I walked in public places, sat in a restaurant, waited on a bus... I was looking to see if there was anyone suspicious." In a bid to stay safe, Tomer imagined what he would do if the bus he was on was kidnapped "or if someone entered the restaurant wanting to blow everyone up."

Despite the fact Tomer now lives in Berlin, such behaviours have not left him. "
It is like an instinct, something that I am doing naturally without even thinking."

As a school-child, Tomer was taught to view the conflict in Gaza from a purely Israeli perspective. 
"In both sides, the conflict is deeply embedded as a major part of their identities." As a result, the respective countries use Gaza to shape their narrative. 

"One way that is done is by school books" he explains, "where the 'other side' is presented as pure evil and 'our side' as pure victims that only want to survive and in order to survive we [Israeli's] should stick together." 

It's a tool used by politicians at election time to either "warm relations with the other side" or "make them colder", and for encouraging fresh confrontation. 

As a result, definition or yourself and your identity comes down to either "pro or anti, for or against." 

Tomer believes this is a large part of why conciliatory efforts have failed. "It is hard to tell the common person, who's used to hearing negative things about the other side, that for now, the other side is now a friend - that now there is a peace between you and him."

"How is it possible to explain to someone that now, the side who just bombed his house... is actually not so bad, is okay, and you're going to have peace with him? How is is possible to explain [this] to someone who's mother was killed?" 

Tomer talks little about his mandatory time in the IDF (Israel Defence Force) from 2005-2008. But what he does tell me reveals some of the mentality of the Israeli military. "As a soldier I was witness to several provocative actions taken by the Palestinians in order to cause the soldiers to attack them aggressively so they could show the world how cruel the IDF is." 

He tells me of ambulances being attacked and women pretending to be pregnant in order to detonate bombs at check-points. He says that anti-Israeli organisations "train and explain" to Palestinians how to provoke soldiers the most. He admits that there are occasions when the IDF are "cruel without any reason", but maintains that these instances are less frequent than portrayed.

It wasn't until he went to college that Tomer was exposed to a different version of events. "In university the classes were not biased as in high school and were without any goal except giving us the facts and having a fruitful discussion about them." 

"It was then I realized that many things I knew as a child were not true or were twisted in order to unify the citizens and create an ideal picture in our minds."

Participation in New Story Leadership (NSL), a youth development program promoting peace, also developed Tomer's perspective. One of the most important aspects of the program was getting to know the "other side". 

Tomer became friends with a Palestinian called Mariam and when she told him she was going to visit her family in Gaza, he was worried that she "would not be able to come back". During Mariam's visit, violence erupted. "Instead of only worrying about the Israeli side, I was mainly worried that Mariam would not be able to come back. Suddenly, I did not care about the conflict, only Mariam."

During NSL, Tomer lived with a Palestinian guy called Samer. "He told me that when he was a child, he grew up to hate Israel and would fight against Israel with all his power." In his early teens, Samer participated in a program with Israeli teenagers. "Samer is not a big fan of Israel and definitely has a lot of criticisms against it, but he is absolutely not the anti-Israeli extreme that he might have been."

"During discussions with him we never agree on political issues" Tomer says, but they both learned to respect the opinions and backgrounds of the other. 

Such experiences weren't easy. During NSL, Tomer says he mostly listened to the Palestinian students without responding. "Not responding was hard because what they said was not only like a knife in my heart, but also so twisted it was almost like a lie. However my goal was to learn about their life experiences, points of view, and to know how they see the conflict."

In doing so, he learned things that he believes, if the average Israeli had been taught, would've made "an improvement regarding the relations with the Palestinians."
He doesn't believe the situation in Gaza is as clear-cut as it's made out. 

"It's important to mention that each country had it's own selfish reasons for joining the war" he says, and the welfare of the those who live in Gaza "was not on the top of their priority." In Tomer's view, "the Palestinians and Israel are playing a fatal game in which the Palestinian's attack and Israel reacts." 

He also believes that Palestinian's need to look at the faults in their own leadership. He believes that Hamas presents itself as "the hope of the Palestinians but as a matter of fact, are profiting more than anyone else" from the situation.

"I'm not saying that Israel is pure, definitely not, but I am saying there is a huge hypocrisy when covering the situation" he tells me, adding "This criticism is dangerous since it assumes what ever happens, it will be Israel's fault... I have nothing against being pro-Palestinian or opposing Israel's actions. I do not expect everyone to have the same opinions I have", but he does wish that people weren't so "narrow-minded".

"It's would be interesting to know how they [critics of Israel] would've acted if their country was being attacked." Tomer says he would like people to try "understand also Israel's side and the lives in Israel."

As our interview draws to a close, I ask Tomer what his hopes are for the future. He would like to see a change in the Palestinian leadership, "especially that Hamas - but not only - will start treating the Palestinians as human beings and not as lifeless objects being used in order to... harm Israel as much as possible" He hopes the terror attacks and rocket launches on Israel will stop. And finally, he wants to see all those involved in the conflict "co-operate, or at least live side-by-side peacefully."

He admits "there is no magic solution" but that "if the Palestinians and the Israelis had the knowledge and experience that I have, but not necessarily the same opinions and perspective, it would be possible to make steps in the direction of positive collaborations."

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