An Israeli peace conference held in Tel Aviv by the left-leaning newspaper Ha'aretz, established to put "peace [with Palestinians] at the top of the national agenda" and "to end the occupation and the settlement project," was abruptly halted on Tuesday when the audience had to evacuate due to incoming rockets launched by Palestinian groups.
It was a coincidence, yes; the rockets are barely accurate enough to be aimed at a single city, let along a single building holding an Israel-Palestine peace conference, and no one was hurt. But it is a moment of profoundly tragic symbolism, exceptional even in a conflict that produces many such moments, that a Palestinian militant group with the desire of ending the Israeli occupation would fire rockets at Israeli civilians who had themselves gathered with the express purpose of ending the occupation.
Observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict often say that the violence committed by both sides is self-defeating, but rarely is this so demonstrably and immediately true as with today's evacuation of the Ha'aretz peace conference.
The conference itself is part of a larger effort by the Israeli political left to overcome Israeli apathy toward the conflict and build political momentum for peace; that movement is squeezed between Israel's political right and militant Palestinian groups, both of which in action and rhetoric tend to polarize Israelis and Palestinians against one another and against even the idea of compromise. It's often said that there is not enough "political space" for the Israeli pro-peace left, and while typically that is meant metaphorically today it was true physically as well.
While Hamas and other Palestinian groups have launched a number of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel over the past week, they almost never reach all the way to Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city and a cosmopolitan haven rarely touched by the conflict. The rocket siren sounded over the city for the first time since 2012, when Gaza groups fired hundreds of rockets into Israel as Israeli forces bombarded the Palestinian territory. The rockets appear to have landed harmlessly and the conference attendees eventually returned to the hall. The incident ended bloodlessly, but it was a perfect symbol of the conflict's tragic absurdity and endless cycle of self-perpetuation.
As I have written repeatedly, Israel's continued military occupation of the Palestinian territories remains by far the most significant driver of the conflict and the greatest single cause of the conflict's many daily torments. However, today's rocket attacks, and their symbolic and literal damage to grassroots Israeli efforts to end the occupation and find peace, are a reminder that militant Palestinian groups absolutely contribute to the conflict and its perpetuation as well.
It was not the first moment of political symbolism at the Ha'aretz Peace Conference. Naftali Bennett, an increasingly popular far-right Israeli politician who became economic minister last year, was shouted off the stage by conference attendees who called him "fascist" and "murderer;" he says someone punched him in the back as he left the hall. At another panel, Arab-Israeli journalist Sayed Keshua walked off stage after settler leader Yisrael Harel made racist comments against Arabs. And so on.
Meanwhile, in Gaza, the effects of Israeli violence were less symbolically resonant but far costlier: 15 Palestinians were killed and 92 injured in air strikes today. This latest round of violence is continuing to escalate with no clear end in sight.