“For once, the Israelis are being crushed!” shouted a friend. We were gathered at an apartment in Beirut on Saturday when Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel.
We were following the news on an Arab TV channel which aired images of Israeli hostages, including children and women, and people who were killed in Sderot.
Amidst the alcohol and cigarettes, were people from different walks of life: communists from the older generation, young leftists, and even the apolitical. But no Islamists. No one present seemed to express sympathy for what was happening.
For the first time (possibly since 1973), the number of Israeli casualties exceeded that of the Palestinians.
I received a message from a friend, a “refusenik,” one might say.
Born to Iraqi parents, this friend learned Arabic on his own to reestablish a connection with his heritage and connect with the Palestinian people. He resides in the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
“I feel profoundly wounded, due to the atrocities occurring here and the anxiety about what’s going to happen next,” he wrote. “I am currently going through one of the most dreadful moments of my life.”
“The images are unbearable, as if we were back in Germany in 1940,” the message read.
I looked away from my screen and remained silent.
Another notification popped on my iPhone. It was my mother.
“I am Palestine,” she wrote. I wrote back, snapping at her.
My mother is neither anti-Semitic nor a radical Islamist, but her message “I am Palestine,” in light of the carnage that was taking place felt tactless to me.
“Sorry,” she wrote back and deleted her first message.
She asked me about my best friend Laura and her family. Laura is French-Israeli.
We were both born in Paris. When we turned 19, she decided to make her “aliya” (Hebrew for immigration to Israel), while I chose to relocated to Lebanon.
She lived in Tel Aviv and I settled in Beirut. For two years, we co-authored a column called “En attendant la guerre” (Waiting for war) on the website of the French daily Libération.
Thanks to Laura, I was able to engage with Israelis I would hardly have connected with otherwise.
Our column no longer exists, but the title we chose for it was not by chance. We knew the war was coming. And now, it’s here.
Laura lived in Israel from 2009 to 2023. She moved back to Paris two months ago with her Israeli husband and son for one simple reason: to avoid living through another war.
Dialogue stops when it comes to Palestine
With every flare-up, it’s the same story. Words of insult and accusation are hurled from all directions.
Some of the messages I come across on my social media include statements like, “we have to get rid of these vermin once and for all,” or “They’re all criminals.”
The “vermin” are the Palestinians, and the criminals are the “Jews.”
I always react in the same way. I look away from my screen and say nothing. Social media has become akin to a stadium where a distressing sad match is taking place.
Within my Arab circle, the Palestinian flag is prominently displayed, and at times, the Lebanese flag. On the other hand, my other connections wave the Israeli flag.
Every post, every story, a flag takes center stage. I find myself caught in the middle of two worlds, with nothing left to bridge the divide.
In response to the footage of the rave-party massacre, one of my many Palestinian friends asks me, “and when innocent people die in Gaza? When Israelis bomb innocent people, women and children, nobody says anything in Israel or in France, why not?”
“Is it because Gazans don’t look like them?”
In May 2021, 200 Palestinian civilians, a third of whom were children, were killed in the span of 11 days. I must admit,I don’t remember there being a strong public reaction then like the one we are seeing today.
The routine occupation of Palestinian territories similarly failed to stir widespread collective emotions. Those who are now criticizing the silence of others did not speak out when innocent Palestinians were killed. So, should we label them anti-Arab, racists, Jewish fundamentalists?
Silence as a right of response
The dialogue between East and West stops when it comes to Palestine. A divide is emerging between “us” and “them.”
But who are “them" and “us”?
“Us” refers to the Arabs, from Algeria to Lebanon. “Them” encompasses Jews, Israelis, and occasionally Westerners.
This global schism deeply saddens me. Yet, when this conflict erupts once again, everyone retreats to their positions, returning to their respective camp.
Lifelong friends no longer speak to each other, no longer understand each other, and can’t seem to listen to one another.
I’ve encountered this before, during the July 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon when I lost touch with my Jewish friends.
The “other” becomes dehumanized. Your friend turns into your foe and the enemy loses their face. It results in a dialogue of the deaf, which can only be avoided through silence and introspection within one’s own community.
For some, silence in these times of turmoil is interpreted as anti-Semitism. For others, it’s seen as collaboration with the Zionists.
In times of conflict, not displaying a Palestinian flag is seen as treachery.
However, silence often signifies the refusal to be confined to one camp. It reflects the anguish caused by distressing images of old women being taken hostage in pick-up trucks, point-blank executions, as well as the anguish of witnessing civilian-populated buildings in Gaza being bombarded and Palestinians enduring blockades, walls, and checkpoints every day.
I am one of those who remain silent, as is Laura, and many others.
When I discussed the idea of writing about people’s reactions with Laura, she jokingly suggested, “I hope your article will be titled, ‘Shut the hell up!’”
By Sabyl GHOUSSOUB
Writer. His latest book: “Beyrouth sur Seine.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.