Your kids’ questions on Israeli-Palestinian violence, answered


The scene outside an Ashkelon apartment building hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021. Photo by Flash90


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“You’ve got to do something for kids my age,” my 13-year-old daughter, Shayna, said when I picked her up from art class the other day.

Since the explosion in violence between Israel and militant Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip, Shayna had been asking all sorts of questions about the conflict, but, she noted, “most people don’t have you to explain stuff.” Her friends were confused by the lopsided posts they saw on Instagram and TikTok about stolen land and terrorism and war crimes and everyone’s right to defend themselves.

So I asked Shayna to collect some questions from her friends, and I also posted on Facebook inviting parents to share what their kids had been asking. Here’s a few: 

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Why did the Jews pick that area to be their state? Jews trace their history in the holy land back more than 5,000 years, to Biblical times. Arab Muslims and Christians have also lived there for millennia. When the modern Zionist movement to establish a national homeland for Jews began in the late 19th century, there was some talk of building it in Uganda or Argentina.

But the emotional connection to Jerusalem and other places in what was then known as Palestine made it the more natural and powerful choice.  

If Palestine isn’t a country, what is it? This is a tricky one! Early in my tenure as Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, some friends from Brooklyn came for a visit, and we did a day-trip to Jericho, a Palestinian-controlled city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. We were having lunch in a second-floor cafe while a cultural ceremony took place in a courtyard below, and the friends’ son asked, “Are we in another country?” Sort of, was my best response.

International efforts to establish an independent state of Palestine date back more than 70 years. In 1947, the United Nations proposed a partition plan to create two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs, side by side, with a special arrangement for Jerusalem. But Arabs rejected the idea.

The next year, the Zionists established the modern state of Israel. What had been a simmering civil war turned into a war-war, with Egypt, Syria and Jordan joining the fight. Palestinians call this the Nakba, or “catastrophe” — thousands were killed, fled or were expelled from their homes. After another war, in 1967, Israel began what was supposed to be a temporary military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But many rounds of negotiations to end the conflict and establish two separate states, or countries, have failed.

Palestinians first declared their state in 1988, and in 2012, after an eight-day war between Israel and Gaza, the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine “non-member observer-state status.” By 2019, 138 of the U.N.’s 193 members recognized Palestine as a state (154 recognize Israel), but the United States does not.

One of the problems is that there is deep division among Palestinian political factions. Hamas, which the U.S. and the European Union consider a terrorist organization, basically controls Gaza, while the more moderate Fatah party runs a quasi-government called the Palestinian National Authority headquartered in the West Bank. Also, Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, and to impose restrictions on travel and trade in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority was created out of the Oslo Peace Accords in the mid-1990s, and it was supposed to grow into a fully independent state after a few years. That didn’t happen.

So there is a very unusual and frankly very strange situation in the West Bank, where Palestinians control things in the major cities like Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem, known as “Area A;” Israelis and Palestinians split control of some villages (Area B), and Israelis fully control the majority of the land (Area C). In Area C,  some 400,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements that are not recognized under international law.   

Are all Palestinians Muslims? Nope. But most are. Recent estimates suggest that about 1-2% of residents of the West Bank and Gaza are Christian. (Bethlehem, the city just outside Jerusalem where Jesus was born, was about 85% Christian in the mid-20th century, but now it is only 16%.) There are also about 1.9 million Arab citizens of Israel, and 8-9% of those are Christian.

(Thanks for giving me an easy one!) 

What are some good sources to trust when trying to educate myself? Ah, this is a much tougher one — and getting harder and harder with the political polarization of all media, and especially social media, and especially about this conflict. I think the most important thing is to keep a broad and varied media diet, which means purposely following different kinds of people, especially those you probably disagree with.

Also, spend some energy examining the source’s background so you can consider that as context for whatever information they’re putting out.

Of course I’d recommend the Forward, where we are committed to showcasing a broad range of perspectives. One of our columnists, Muhammad Shehada, is from Gaza, and wrote powerfully about what it’s been like to watch the latest violence unfold from Sweden, where he is studying. Mira Fox has written several great articles about the social-media war accompanying the actual war, and Arno Rosenfeld has been tracking the shifting debate among Democrats and American Jewish organizations.

I’m addicted to The Times, where I worked for 21 years, and which has a deep commitment to full and fair coverage of this region — literally dozens of people have been contributing to its comprehensive report the past two weeks.

If you, like Shayna, are partial to podcasts, I cannot recommended highly enough three episodes of “The Daily”: In this one, my friend and former colleague Isabel Kershner gives the clearest walk-through I’ve seen or heard about the origins of this outbreak; here, a 21-year-old woman in Gaza talks about what it’s  like on the ground, including heartbreaking stories about the destruction of her favorite bookstore and of a friend who lost 22 members of her family; and if you’re into politics, there’s this historical analysis of President Biden’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Why are they killing each other’s kids, though? Isn’t there a law against doing that? It is an international war crime to deliberately kill civilians, and particularly outrageous when those civilians are children. The tricky part is defining “deliberately.”

Palestinian advocates and international human-rights groups condemn Israel for airstrikes that destroy high-rise residential buildings, sometimes killing whole families. Israel says this is because Hamas, unlike a regular military, operates from such towers, as well as from sites like schools and hospitals that have been hit in previous battles. Israel also accuses Hamas of committing war crimes by firing its rockets into Israeli cities and towns.

All but one of the 12 people killed by such rockets in the past two weeks were civilians, including a 5-year old boy and a 16-year-old girl (who was Palestinian, by the way). In Gaza, officials put the death toll at 243 on Friday, including 66 children. The Israel Defense Forces said that 100 of those killed were commanders of Hamas or another extremist group, Islamic Jihad, but it’s hard to know for sure because they don’t always wear uniforms or otherwise identify themselves.  

Why is this blowing up on social media now if this isn’t the first time it’s happened? Why does anything happen on social media? Because it’s there! And it’s getting bigger, broader, more influential — and more divisive and dangerous, filled with disinformation — every day.

There are a couple other factors that I think have made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a particularly popular — and really, really polarizing — topic on social for a while now. The first is that the peace process has been stuck for so long, so people who care passionately about this have few outlets for direct action.

Another is that Israelis, Palestinians and their supporters around the world tend to be highly educated and therefore more tech-savvy that people engaged in other international battlegrounds. A third is that it seems like millennials and members of Gen Z have become very connected to this conflict as part of their broader outrage at racism and discrimination, and of course those young people are most active on social.  

How can I support Palestine without contradicting my beliefs that Israel should exist? I really don’t think we have to choose.

We can support Israel’s right to exist and criticize its government’s treatment of Palestinians — just like we believe in the United States but might think the way it treats immigrants or poor people is unfair.

We can protest Israeli policies, including the harshness of the airstrikes, without giving up the idea that there should be a Jewish state. Just like we can protest against state laws restricting voting or transgender rights without giving up on the American dream.

There is a workable outline for a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine side by side, independent and safe, free and democratic — that many smart people who know a lot more about this than I do still think can work.  

What would happen if all the other countries told them to stop fighting or both will be punished — just like when we fight and you punish us both? Well, the other countries have been telling them to stop fighting for a very long time. The United States has brokered so many rounds of peace talks. The United Nations has passed so many resolutions. Arab countries like Egypt and European Countries like Britain and France have also tried a lot of different approaches.

Including punishment: I mentioned before that a bunch of countries classify Hamas as a terror group, and the Trump administration went much further, to punish all Palestinians by taking away American government aid. The European Union has required labeling of products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, to make clear its opposition to the occupation.

But Israeli and Palestinian officials are grown-ups. So nobody else can really make them do anything they don’t want to do.

On Friday morning, a ceasefire urged by President Biden and arranged by Egypt took hold. Hamas stopped firing rockets, and Israel stopped dropping bombs. Thankfully, Shabbat should be much quieter than last Shabbat in Jerusalem — and in Gaza. The last 11 days of death and destruction is more than punishment enough.

Reprinted with permission of The Forward, where this piece originally appeared.