What I learnt about the future of Europe on a night of exploding rockets in Tel Aviv.
I landed in Tel Aviv from Brussels to see family and friends for the first time in a long time, a change of scene from the locked-down capital of Europe. “Get some sunshine and hummus”, they said. “Can you get a vaccine?” they said.
On Tuesday evening last week, I found myself on a terrace in south Tel Aviv, having a drink with a friend as the sun went down. The bar and the young crowd sitting around would not have been out of place in Berlin, Amsterdam or London in post-lockdown times.
“They’ll start shooting at 9, that’s what they’re saying,” we hear via-via. I look at my phone, and it’s 20:47. “When it starts, we’ll go over there,” we look at the stairs to the basement of the old dilapidated shopping centre in front of us. I’m not sure, but it seems like this piece of news gets around the terrace, or maybe it was just us. I take a sip of my beer and look for any perceptible change in mood.
Then a siren starts in the distance, and more join in and get louder. It’s not an ambulance, though it sounds like it. Without batting an eyelid, and with no commotion, everyone on the terrace stand up, and take their beers and their wine. “What’s that? A siren?” one woman turns around “I thought it was an ambulance”, and she joins her friends. We all walk down the wide stairs and stand on the floor below. Neighbours join in with their dogs, wearing flip flops and tank tops. “I am telling you, this whole thing is so stupid” one guy says and adds several expletives about the Israeli prime minister. The sirens keep on rising and falling, and now crowded together, we all stand around talking and waiting for something to happen. It’s like a strange dream about a misplaced office party.
A loud explosion above us, the crowd goes quiet, and then more explosions one after the other, and the windows on the ground floor shake. In the skies above us, rockets are being shot down by the missile defence system, Iron Dome, and the explosions go on. “Hey, get away from the windows there, and come down the stairs” one man signals to a few women near the exit, and they push their way further down. Then there is a loud metallic crash somewhere outside, chunks of missiles coming down from the sky. “Wow, that’s right here”, someone next to me says.
The sirens stop, and the skies go quiet. “Let’s wait a moment”, collective group-think is reassuring in these moments, we sense when it will be right to come out again. As the quiet remains for a few seconds more, we go up the stairs, and look at the chairs and the tables we left. “So, another round?” I sit back down hoping for a drink. The sirens start again, and off we go.
My day job includes among other things, a lot of thinking about democracy in Europe. In Brussels, where I live, that is a significant preoccupation. Across the Mediterranean, while things in the Middle East were intensifying, the European Parliament, Commission and Council argued about how to run the new Conference on the Future of Europe, and where it might lead. The Conference could turn out to be a talking shop, or it could boldly define a vision for the EU in the 21st century. Somehow, my mind wanders to that supposedly significant Conference on this rocketed evening in Tel-Aviv. Why?
The European Union has been an engine for peace and prosperity. In the 1950s, European leaders shaped a bold and ambitious plan for the future after the War. Members of the European club did not fight each other, and neighbours wanted to join. The Cold War was contained, in part, through European cooperation, and resolution of conflicts in Ireland and the Balkans was achieved with EU support. Peace was won in Europe not by chance, but through vision, values, wisdom, investment and hard work.
What is happening in Israel and Palestine is what happens when you cannot shape a peaceful future, when there are leaders ready to fight the war, but there is no leadership that can win the peace. It’s not a matter of whose fault it is, or who started it. The overwhelming fact is that so many suffer so much, facing such horror for so many years. Everyone here, Palestinians and Israelis, deserve so much better.
In the meantime, the Israeli far-right has incubated many strategies and tactics to disintegrate democracy and the rule of law. For over a decade there have been attempts to undermine the judicial system, disinform the public, and put up barriers to the work of NGOs, all the while the Netanyahu government has fanned racism and nationalism. Far right movements in Europe and around the world have developed this playbook together. The Palestinian cause in itself has been a focal point for radicalisation, and groups like Hamas have used this not to leverage dialogue, but to build up arms that they use against Israelis and their own civilians. Now, extremist Jewish and Arab gangs have been ravaging Israeli cities, burning property and lynching people from all sides in an unprecedented explosion of anger and hatred.
Europeans often let themselves believe that they are beyond historical phenomena like wars and conflict. What they see on their screens is tragic but far away, and they take for granted that democratic prosperity is just a fact of life. Unfortunately, that is an illusion.
Nationalism, xenophobia, authoritarianism are powerful and deadly forces once they are unleashed. If Europeans want to keep their democracy, their prosperity, and the peace they’ve been able to enjoy, people need to stand up to shape the future they want to live in. Looking to the Middle East is to look at an attainable and avoidable future, depending on actions we take today.
Omri Preiss is the Managing Director of the nonprofit Alliance4Europe.