THR Web Features   /   November 2, 2023

Whose Terror?

A picture is worth a thousand words. But what exactly are the words?

David Stromberg

( Scenes from Israel (left, Yehuda Bergstein) and Gaza (right, Anas-Mohammed); Shutterstock.)

When my first daughter was born, as I held her in the dark rocking her to sleep, my mind would involuntarily conjure up the image of a photograph I’d seen five years earlier, that of a father from Gaza holding his lifeless infant after an Israeli aerial bombardment. For months, holding my child, I imagined the horror of being that father in Gaza.

Much of my adult life has been framed, however indirectly, by Gaza. Born in Israel to parents who had left the Soviet Union, I immigrated to Los Angeles in 1989 and visited Israel once in 1991. The next time I returned was in 2004, the same year that I enrolled at the CalArts School of Critical Studies for an MFA in writing. In 2005, having studied how to turn historical events into literary prose, I returned to Jerusalem to witness the effects of the Gaza Disengagement, when eight thousand Israelis were unilaterally—and in some cases forcibly—relocated from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip. I returned in 2006, just weeks before Hamas fighters captured the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and again in December 2007, only six months after Hamas had taken Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup. I relocated to Jerusalem in 2008, where I lived during the first all-out war between Israel and Hamas. I was in Israel for every war with Hamas except for the one in 2014, having left for Brussels on the very day that Hamas abducted three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. I remember hearing the news in the taxi on the way to the airport and thinking that this was going to end badly for everyone. I had no idea just how bad things would get.

At CalArts, in addition to writing, I studied photography, and one thing I learned from my teachers—who all had leftist and radical bona fides—was that truly powerful images never tell a single story. They are like inkblots on which people project hopes, dreams, and fears, usually deriving from deeply personal experiences. When I became a father, my gut reaction to the image that my mind kept returning to—less ethical than existential—was that I was thankful not to be living in a territory governed by Hamas. Holding my daughter in my arms and knowing the kind of terror that Hamas had unleashed on millions of citizens in Israel, I prayed that the institutions entrusted with preventing tragedies like these would protect us from such threats.

Yet I was also aware that, for many others, the image of the man holding his lifeless infant symbolized what they see as Israel’s terrorizing of Palestinians. It was an Israeli bomb that killed the child. It was the Israeli occupation that led Hamas fighters to launch so many rockets. It was Israeli forces that brought about the Nakba—“catastrophe” in Arabic—which forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee their lands in 1948. I understand that this is what people in Gaza, the West Bank, the wider Middle East, and even many around the world think when they see such an image. Their narrative has its own validity. I, too, understand that Israel’s occupation of Palestine, alongside decades of neglect and disenfranchisement of Israeli Palestinians, has led to anger, rage, and a powerful desire for revenge. Yet these circumstances, too, fail to tell the full story. And they certainly do not justify or validate the systematic slaughter and massacre of people in their homes. It is also not what I feel when I hold my baby. When I hold her, all I hope is that she is never under the same kind of mortal threat that Hamas has for so many years put us as well as its own civilian population.

On October 7, 2023, we discovered that the Israeli establishment had failed to ensure our safety as civilians: failed not only militarily but also and especially politically. It had pursued policies that failed to take into account the realities of our region. It created facts on the ground that put us in ever greater danger. It empowered forces—especially Hamas but not only it—that oppress both Gazans and Israelis. Our state let us down. It not only failed to protect its people from terror, but it also criminally failed to provide the resources those people needed to defend themselves.

A picture is worth a thousand words. But what exactly are the words? Whose terror do these words describe? Over the last thirty years, Hamas and its accomplices have blown up restaurants, malls, markets, bars, clubs, gas stations, bakeries, train stations, schools, and buses. Anyone who has difficulty understanding how Israel can wreak the kind of destruction now being inflicted on Gaza should consider the precarious reality of a people who have lived under the shadow of terror for thirty straight years—culminating with nothing less than a meticulously planned genocide, a slaughter of innocents reminiscent in its deliberation of that greater, carefully orchestrated Holocaust. Armed conflicts have certain rules, but Hamas threw all those rules away decades ago. Israelis are still trying to figure out how to contend with a force as coldly and calculatedly murderous as Hamas.

While still a student at CalArts, I decided that I would not speak on behalf of people who have not asked me to speak for them, and so I have generally avoided saying anything about Palestinians as a people. Activists around the world like to speak up for those they see as victims. Maybe it helps them feel a little better about a world they cannot control. I grew up surrounded by violence—armed conflict in Israel and gang warfare in Los Angeles—and, on the street, I learned that people who are fighting for their lives prefer to speak for themselves.

We are fighting for our lives. People around the world chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” only force us to face the immediacy of what we already sensed was an existential struggle. Hamas is one part of a terrorist and totalitarian axis leading from Lebanon to Syria to Iran and Russia, with hundreds of thousands of rockets pointed in our direction. And if Hamas is any indication, it seems to be intent on using those weapons to wipe us off the earth. We, too, are people. We, too, are fighting for our lives and for our children’s lives.

Part of the tragedy of human life is that, when others seek your destruction, the only way to survive is to destroy them first. Yet perhaps we can hope that removing Hamas from power will free both Gaza and Israel from the terror and oppression it has wielded as its weapons since its inception. And that, surviving such terror, Israelis and Palestinians can still build enough mutual trust that parents on both sides of the conflict will be able to live unhaunted by the fear of cradling the lifeless bodies of their infants in their arms.