Breaking the Silence on Operation Protective Edge

06/01/2015 06:20 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2016

"We're going to have to go into Gaza every two years to 'mow the lawn,'" Avner Gvaryahu said, referring to what senior IDF commanders call the recent operations against militants in an area the size of Detroit. On Thursday, May 28, New America NYC held a discussion between Gvaryahu, the head of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and Eman Mohammed, a Palestinian photojournalist, on the war last summer between Israel and Hamas -- what many have seen as a massacre of Gazans in the name of Israeli security. Operation "Protective Edge" was only the latest in a series of military assaults on what the British prime minister has described as the largest open-air prison on the planet, in which militants fired rockets against the fourth-largest army, supplied and backed by the United States, which retaliated by decimating Gaza.

The event, titled "This is How We Fought in Gaza," began with a video by Breaking the Silence (you can read their eponymous report), showing a soldier with his faced blurred and voice digitally distorted. The anonymous soldier related how his commander had his unit "deter" a village called Al Bureij. "Where in the house do I aim?" the soldier asked. "We all shot shells sporadically, of course." Mohammed introduced herself as a documentarian of "the third war on the Gaza Strip." What was new, she said, was the intensity of the bombings, which she described as a "catastrophe." There are thousands of mentally scarred children, Mohammed added, and calmly explained that she nearly lost her own child. "She was lucky, and privileged, because she's an American Palestinian."

The moderator, Peter Beinart, asked both Mohammed and Gvaryahu about what happened last year, and if another round of violence is coming. Both completely agreed that another operation -- or slaughter -- was inevitable, even across their unique perspectives, a meeting that Gvaryahu noted would not have been possible back in Israel. "Because this is an asymmetric war," he said, "we'll never have a clear victory." With a somber tone, he added, "There will be another war." Given the "current government," Gvaryahu said, "there will be no other way of relating to the Palestinians" than through the use of force. Mohammed, who is from Gaza, nearly lost her own child, saying that Palestinians were "in denial" about how serious the attack would be. "The stories between the lines are the ones that count the most," Mohammed said, adding that the war was not over when the bombing stopped. "I see myself as an Israeli patriot," Gvaryahu said, impassioned about the extent of what his government and military did, and stated that the claim of Hamas tunnels that were going into kindergartens on the other side turned out to be false. "We chose to use artillery," Gvaryahu said, launching "twenty thousand shells into one of the most [densely] populated areas of the world." He rejected "this idea that my existence means that Eman's future has to be at constant risk."

"It's not like we shelled them for 50 days," Mohammed said. "When airstrikes are happening in Gaza, you see some other headlines. You wonder, is this the same planet?" During the offensive, she said, the Israeli military "would say 'you have five minutes,'" before sending in airstrikes. Meanwhile, "Israelis didn't really see what was going on in Gaza," Gvaryahu pointed out, emphasizing the depth of denial and self-censorship that was rampant. "Israelis have a lot of issues when we start talking about Gaza," he added. "I was born as a refugee," Mohammed said. "I'm still a refugee." When asked about the militants who fired rockets into Israel, she replied that "if you slap someone so hard, they will slap back."

She went on to explain that "we've always been taught that we hate each other," but "not as Muslims and Jews, but as nations." Gaza "is occupied by the Israeli military," Gvaryahu said after someone in the audience disputed this, and hopes for "a day when the Israeli military does not control Palestinian civilians." The only thing that gives him hope is the fact that "things are clearing up." As for Mohammed, what makes her feel hopeful is the potential for "spontaneous conversation between people, not leaders," which "would lead to finding common ground."