Israel, Palestine, and racism at the beach


An Israeli soldier's uniform and boots sit in the sand on Ashkelon Beach during a 12-hour ceasefire in late July.


Andrew Burton

ASHKELON, Israel — Travelers to the Mediterranean dream of a day like this: salty breezes coming off the sea, gentle waves, wide, sandy beaches, no crowds and 102 degrees.

On Monday, some kids jumped around in the surf, protected by a rocky breakwater, while the lifeguards, taking a lunch break, raised a red flag over their tower.

Three men in dishdashas and one, Taleb Salima, in trousers and a button-down shirt, stood gazing at the sea.

Salima, in his late 60s, is a Jerusalem welder. The other three, a few years older, were guests at his son's wedding on Saturday. On Monday, Salima had some work to do in Kiryat Malachi, a town not far from the sea, and his visitors, all members of the Salima clan who came from landlocked Jordan for the ceremony, decided it was a perfect day to enjoy the sea.

For a long time, they stood watching the waves. Abdel Waham Salima said the war in nearby Gaza was "bad, bad," and hoped the ceasefire would be extended. "Inshallah," answered Mohammed Salima, to his left. "God willing, it will last longer," he said — longer than the 72 hours that had been agreed upon by Israel and Hamas in Cairo.

Eventually they sat down on the sand and took off their sandals, their eyes fixed on the sea.

A few feet away, three young men were setting up beach chairs. Yehuda Fadlon, Avidan Hanuri and Gilad Hatav, all 24, were not pleased.

"Who needs to see them here? If one of these children in the water turns around he'll just stare at them, and see Arabs here on the beach," Fadlon said.

None of the kids playing in the water appeared interested in anyone on the beach.

"I feel threatened having them here,” said Hatav. “It's just a feeling, but that's what I feel. Look at how they can walk around freely here and — I don't even know where they're from. Maybe they're from Gaza?"

He pointed just beyond the beach, at Gaza. Asked if they had ever seen a Gazan in Ashkelon, none of the young men could say he had.

None has known life without the constant threat of rockets.

Avidan lit a cigarette, sat on one of the chairs, and said that while he served in the military police during his obligatory three years of service, he'd been attacked with Molotov cocktails in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, where, as it happens, Salima, who sat oblivious to the conversation taking place nearby, is from.

"I know this sounds like racism," Fadlon said. "But my feeling is, if they send even one qassam or a grad, that can hit us here on the beach, or fall on a kindergarten. From my point of view we should just respond with a four-ton bomb. I don't care. It can hit anyone. And I could care less what the rest of the world has to say about us. They don't want Jews to defend themselves, so screw them."

In a few angry words, the three young men encapsulated several phenomena now washing over Israel: a generation familiar with the names of specific rockets and missiles; fear of the ongoing threat from Gaza; disgust at a world that dismisses Israel's claims of self-defense; and increasingly brazen, indiscriminate racism directed at Arabs. 

According to Israeli army figures, 3,488 rockets and missiles have been launched at Israel since July 8. Monday's ceasefire is scheduled expire Thursday at midnight, an event most Ashkelonis assume will be marked by renewed rocket launches from Gaza.

Also on Monday, the UN appointed a commission to examine possible war crimes in Gaza headed by Canadian law prefessor William Schabas, who has been widely quoted saying last year that his "favorite" candidate to see "on the dock" at the International Criminal Court in The Hague would be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The United States, the European Union and Canada decried the appointment, with Canada's foreign minister John Baird tweeting:

And finally on an action-packed Monday, Shai Piron, Israel's minister of education, announced that the first week back to school would be devoted to the in-depth study of "tolerance, acceptance of others and opposition to all forms of racism." 

"During Operation Protective Edge," Piron said, using Israel's name for the conflict, "we have been exposed to expressions of racism and incitement that cannot be tolerated."

"I cannot accept that Israeli-Arabs, or leftists, or religious people, should feel like second-class citizens."

Gershon Baskin, a prominent peace activist and co-founder of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, pointed out that expressions of racism are part of “a process that didn’t just explode now.” The worst examples he heard from both Israelis and Palestinians were in mid-June, right after three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, and in early July, when a Palestinian teen from Jerusalem was kidnapped and murdered in a revenge crime. But there are also broader trends, he said. On the Israeli side, "It is part of an enormous amount of fear and frustration and anger."

"You have three million people living under the threat of terror, and even with Iron Dome and with everyone having a place to run and shelter, every time a siren goes off, it is just fear. And that fear is being channeled into hatred."

On the Palestinian side, Baskin said, "it’s the occupation, stupid."

Back at the beach, hearing what the younger Israeli men were saying, Sergei Agrest, a 40-year-old aspiring businessman, squinted and frowned in repulsion. "What?" he said. "Come on! Idiots."

"That's our entire problem here," Agrest said, his hand also indicating Gaza a short distance away. "Every time I hear a boom, here or there, my heart stops. Every single time. Ours or theirs. They are just normal people. And they have almost 2,000 dead? Who can even comprehend such a thing? This way of thinking is exactly what created our problem in the first place."