If a rocket siren goes off, Zack Fox says he has approximately one minute to get to the nearest bomb shelter.
So on the third floor of his apartment in Ramat Gan, Tel-Aviv, the 21-year-old political science student sleeps with a pair of running shoes by the door and a bag that contains a phone charger, extra clothes, food and water, just in case he is woken up in the middle of the night by the siren, known in Israel as a Tzevah Adom. That is, when he sleeps. Since the recent escalations in the Middle East began, he says living in fear at night makes it hard to sleep at all.
“Nothing can really prepare someone for hearing the first sirens,” he says. “It almost becomes second nature, though, that when you hear the siren, right away (it’s) fight or flight.”
His new normal has quickly evolved into playing cards with his neighbours inside a bomb shelter in the basement of their apartment building. But of that, he says: “not everyone is as lucky.”
One minute may not seem like a lot of time to rush to safety. But if a person lives in southern Israel bordering Gaza, that time is reduced to 15 seconds. Someone living in Gaza often has less.
Yara Abushab, a 19-year-old medical student living in the Gaza Strip, has no time at all.
“There are no words that describe how difficult things are,” she says.
“We sleep for about two hours, three hours maximum, and then we wake up traumatized by the sound of bombs, by the sound of attacks.”
Monday night, a bomb fell less than 200 metres away from her home.
“My first reaction was a laugh. I laughed, but because I was scared. You reach the individual level in which you can’t control your emotions. Your fear is going out, but in different types of reactions.”
Over the last nine days of fighting, the Gaza Health Ministry says at least 227 Palestinians have been killed, including 64 children, with 1,620 people wounded and over 58,000 displaced. Meanwhile, Israel has reported 12 deaths, including a five-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.
Western leaders have been calling for ceasefires as the violence enters its second week. On Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined Britain and the United States in urging for de-escalation.
“We’ve all seen the tragic images, families, innocent kids affected,” he said. “It needs to stop.”
World leaders have been pressed to lay blame, but the situation in the Middle East is complex. Israel says it is defending itself from Hamas, Gaza’s de facto government, and has accused Hamas of using Palestinian civilians as human shields. On the other side, Israel has also taken international criticism from those who claim the Israel Defense Forces are using disproportionate force, pointing to the unbalanced number of Palestinian deaths as evidence of crimes against humanity.
Since the fighting began, Hamas and other militant groups embedded in residential areas have fired more than 3,700 rockets at Israeli cities and residential areas, with hundreds falling short and most of the rest intercepted or landing in open areas. Hamas has been classified by Canada, the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization that has been accused in the past of violating international law.
According to international law, it is illegal to target civilians or use indiscriminate force in civilian areas. Israel has asserted its right to eliminate any rocket threats, and claims the targets of its lethal airstrikes are connected to such threats.
That proves difficult in Gaza, where two million people are crammed into an 11-kilometre-wide strip along the Mediterranean Sea. The overcrowded space, combined with poor infrastructure, provides few to no safe places for Gazans to hide when rockets rain down, and residents are forced to remain in the strip due to a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized power in 2007.
The latest escalation in violence began after days of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. On May 10, Hamas militants fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem.
Israel retaliated with airstrikes that have levelled Gaza, including a building that housed The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera.
According to the AP, “Palestinian fighters are clearly operating in built-up residential areas and have positioned tunnels, rocket launchers and command and control infrastructure in close proximity to schools, mosques and homes,” while members of Hamas’s armed wing “rarely if ever wear uniforms or identify themselves in public, and they go underground as soon as hostilities begin, along with the political leadership.”
The stage was set for confrontation last month, when Israel blocked several Palestinian gatherings at the beginning of Ramadan and threatened evictions of dozens of residents from Sheikh-Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood that can trace its roots back at least 70 years.
Protesters have argued that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are encroaching on Palestinian neighbourhoods, leading to overcrowding and the unauthorized construction of thousands of homes that are at risk of demolition.
Jews who are born in East Jerusalem are Israeli citizens and are afforded all the rights of Israeli citizens, while Palestinians from the same place are granted a form of permanent residency that can be revoked if they live outside the city for certain periods of time. Palestinians can apply for citizenship, but it’s a long and arduous process that would require them to recognize Israeli control.
Depending on which citizenship a person living outside of Israel’s larger cities has, it can severely restrict their access to goods and services, and limit their ability to move.
This is all too familiar for Wadah Issa, 25, a Palestinian living in an enclave town in the West Bank called Bir Nabala.
“Even Arabs with Israeli citizenship, they don’t have the same equal rights as Israeli Jewish people,” he says. “They won’t treat you the same. You will always be like a second-degree human living in their state.”
Issa claims protesters in the West Bank are met with violence from the Israel Defense Forces, which he says makes him “furious.”
“The oppression of my people … I feel really, really bad about it and feel helpless,” he said. “Like, we can’t do anything with a court or the Israeli defence soldiers or anything.”
Meanwhile, in Canada, the conflict has ignited a wave of protests across the country.
Toronto police have laid charges against at least two people accused of assault and bringing a weapon to a public meeting in connection with a pro-Palestinian protest that took place at Nathan Philips Square on Saturday night. In Vancouver, duelling demonstrations brought hundreds of protesters to city hall on Sunday. The opinions were diverse, but most who spoke with Global News agreed the conflict was a tragedy for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian supporters took to Montreal’s streets to denounce the military violence on Saturday.
CIJA spokesperson Adir Krafman urged against trying to paint the conflict as a black and white issue.
“I see posts that say this is not a complex issue — ‘This is very simple, there are good guys and bad guys, there are oppressors and the oppressed,'” he said in a previous interview with Global News.
According to Krafman, that is far from the truth.
“This is one of the most complex geopolitical problems that we have in the world.”
— with files from Global News’ Redmond Shannon and The Associated Press