Memo to Israel -- Why Not Try Carrots in Place of Sticks

02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Do you think I'm against them [Hamas] firing rockets now? No. I was against it before. Not anymore."
--Olfat Jaawanah, mother of nine, who moved her children out of their house in the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza on Monday morning after Israeli shrapnel flew through a window and injured her son Ali on Sunday night. (New York Times, 13 January)

So much for the Israeli notion that massive retaliation against Hamas would turn the people of Gaza against its rocket attacks.

Even in the West Bank, home of the rival Fatah party that Israel now treats as a potential partner in peace, Israel's invasion of Gaza has only knee-capped the political standing of Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, who is now seen more than ever as a pawn of Israel and its patron, the USA. Meanwhile, neither we nor the Israelis will even consider talking to Ismael Haniya, the leader of Hamas, even though his party won the 2006 election that we strongly promoted (democracy for Gaza!) and that we have never even tried to prove was illegitimate. And for all of Barack Obama's determination to put diplomacy ahead of confrontation, his nominee for Secretary of State--Senator Hillary Clinton--re-confirmed this very day our refusal to talk to Hamas unless it rolls over like a whipped puppy first. To us and the Israelis, Hamas is a terrorist organization because it denies Israel's right to exist and because its rockets kill Israeli civilians.

But let's see how many they've killed.

During the seventeen days of the present war, Hamas' rockets have killed precisely three Israeli civilians, plus ten military personnel.

In the same period, according to medical authorities in Gaza, Israeli airstrikes and ground weapons have killed 908 Gazans, including at least 380 civilians, 277 of them children. Even if actual fatalities are only half what the Gazans claim, Israeli forces have killed forty-six children in Gaza for every single Israeli citizen killed by the rockets of Hamas.

The war thus punctuates eight years of grossly disproportionate retaliation for Palestinian attacks. According to B'tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the eight-year period from September 2000 to November 2008 did far more damage to Palestinian civilians--in Gaza and the West Bank--than to Israeli civilians. While Palestinians killed 237 civilians, including 39 minors, Israeli forces killed 2,222 non-combatants, including 952 Palestinian minors. That's a ratio of nearly ten to one among all civilians killed and nearly 25 to 1 among minors. And these are Israeli figures.

Nevertheless, according to Ethan Bronner of the New York Times, the overwhelming majority of Israelis believe their present war in Gaza is just. As civilian casualties mount, the Israelis blame Hamas because its fighters hide among civilians, even among members of their own families, as Nizar Rayyan did during the first week of the war, when this leading propagandist for Hamas was killed along with his four wives and nine of his children. Furthermore, the Israelis say, they are merely defending themselves against the rockets that Hamas has been sending into their country. Determined to stop those rockets once and for all, they seek to assert what Hamas resolutely denies: Israel's right to exist.

But let's have a reality check here. Whatever Hamas says, it can no more annihilate Israel than a mouse can crush a tiger. Compared to Israeli firepower, Hamas' rockets might as well be pea shooters. And even as Israel insists that it has no intention of re-occupying Gaza, its forces have--since long before the present war began--kept the region in a straight jacket, severely restricting its people's freedom to move, blocking its exits and trade routes, pinching its access to imported goods of all kinds--not just weapons, but food and medicine. Whatever Israel says of its intentions, it has been steadfastly denying Gazans the right to exist as a people in charge of themselves.

And that is why people like Olfat Jaawanah, Gazan mother of nine, will go on supporting Hamas and its rockets. And also why Israeli forces cannot stop those rockets by killing alone.

So here's a radical proposal for Israel: shelve your sticks and bring out carrots.

What do I mean by carrots? I mean, for a start, gradually lifting the blockades that provoked the rockets in the first place and then launching a systematic exchange of small concessions for each day--and I mean each DAY--of peace.

If Israel wants to stop those rockets, it must start to do the unthinkable. It must start treating Hamas as a partner for peace, as a party that not only shoots rockets but also furnishes vital services--such as hospitals and schools--to the people of Gaza. It must start talking to Ismael Haniya. It must start REWARDING Hamas for every single day of rocket-free skies over Israel. In return for each day of peace, it must start making life progressively easier for the people of Gaza and thus giving them ever more powerful reasons to keep the peace. Above all, it must stop all new building in the occupied territories and start serious negotiations--directly with Hamas as well as Fatah--on plans for withdrawal.

But how can Israel negotiate with a party that denies its right to exist?

Easy: just do it. Nobody was ever killed by words alone, and aside from its pea-shooters and exploding vests, words are the only weapons Hamas has.

Let's face a political fact. Given the straight jacket that Israel has imposed on Gaza, no Palestinian leader who publicly accepts Israel's right to exist can prevail. The more Mahmoud Abbas befriends Israel, the more he sinks in the eyes of his own people. That is why Israel must embrace a paradox: it must negotiate with a party that officially denies its right to exist. Practically speaking, it cannot demand renunciation of that denial as a pre-condition of negotiations.

But which is more important: what Hamas says, or what it does? If Hamas stops the rockets and ends suicide bombings in Israel, what do their words matter? Why should anyone fear these paper bullets of the brain? So long as they are willing to negotiate, to trade days of rocket-free skies for days of blockade-free roads, why not let them say anything they want? The name of the game here is changing what they DO. So long as they can be led to behave AS IF they accepted Israel's right to exist, what they say will not matter.
So long as our hands are tied to policies and assumptions that have repeatedly failed to do anything but prolong the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, we will never end it. To forge peace between them, we need nothing less than the audacity of hope.