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Israel in Gaza

Israel is still using a strategy of domination in its struggle with Hamas, trying to use force to gain security. But this is a recipe for endless war.

Gaza, December 31, 2008

Israel's attempt to wipe out Hamas is understandable, but it cannot work.

No country in the world is going to ignore the provocation of rockets being launched from neighboring territory day after day. If Mexico had a group of anti-imperialist South Americans bombing Texas, imagine how long it would take for the US to mobilize a counter-attack. Israel has every right to respond.

But the kind of response matters.

Massive bombings of the sort that have thus far killed over 500 Palestinians and wounded 1,000 other civilians is a classic example of a disproportionate response.

Before Israel's massive bombing, the Hamas bombings that began when the previous ceasefire ran out had not (thank God) killed any one. The reason is obvious: Hamas has no airplanes, no tanks, nothing more than the weapons of the powerless--limited range mortars with limited accuracy. Hamas can harass, but it cannot pose any threat to the existence of Israel. And just as Hamas' indiscriminate bombing of population centers is a crime against humanity, so is Israel's massive attack against civilians (in addition to those killed thus far in Gaza, there are the thousands killed by Israel in the years of the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza). Israel's human rights violations during the cease fire included a massive cut off of food and other vital necessities--a crime against international law.

On the other hand, any understanding of the situation must also include acknowledgment of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder faced by Israelis living under the constant threat of terrorism, to which the katyushka bombings, however ineffective militarily, contribute massively. Living under constant threat of attack, plus hearing the leader of Iran talk about wiping Israel off the map, is a background condition that shapes Israelis ability to be so insensitive to the human damage they have caused by the Occupation. Conversely, the ongoing trauma of expulsion and the Occupation that has contributed to the ongoing ethical insensitivity of many Palestinians to the suffering that they cause Israelis by engaging in terror attacks against civilians. In short, compassion for both sides is a desperate necessity.

Hamas had respected the previously negotiated ceasefire except when Israel used the ceasefire as cover to make assassination raids against Hamas and other Palestinian leaders. Arguing that these raids were hardly a manifestation of ceasefire, Hamas would, as symbolic protest, allow the release of rocket fire (usually hitting no targets). But when the issue of continuing the ceasefire came up, Hamas wanted a guarantee that these assassination raids would stop. And it asked for more. With hundreds of thousands of Palestinians facing acute malnutrition bordering on starvation, Hamas insisted that the borders be opened to counter Israeli attempts to starve the Gazans into submission. And in return for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, it asks for the release of a thousand Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

Hamas has made it clear that it would accept the terms of the Saudi Arabian peace agreement, though it would never formally recognize Israel. It would live peacefully in a two state arrangement, but it would never acknowledge Israel's "right to exist." This position is unnecessarily provocative, and represents deep self-destructiveness on the part of Palestinians who believe that this failure to acknowledge Israel's rights is the only symbolic weapon they have left. To many Israelis, trapped in their own history as survivors of genocide and oppression, Hamas' refusal to give official recognition is a way of saying, "We'll wait till we have adequate military power, and then we'll break any de facto truce and ceasefire and use that power to wipe out Israel, so just give us time." Some Hamas people have actually said that publicly. Similarly, there are members of the Knesset who say that they will never accept anything less than the total expulsion ("transfer") of all Palestinians to neighboring Arab states.

Israel seeks to wipe out Hamas. But even if it killed every one of Hamas' twenty-thousand members in Gaza, it would not extinguish the impulse toward Islamic fundamentalism that Hamas represents. Surely Israelis by now know that killing only creates new generations of angry people who will be the next wave of terrorists. So what does Israel really seek? Probably it hopes to make Hamas so powerless that it loses the election against Fatah, and then the Palestinian Authority, itself deeply weakened by Israel's ongoing occupation, will negotiate a peace treaty that creates a "Palestinian state" that is actually a series of cantons or little separated city-states that are themselves cut off from each other by Israeli roads and military--in short a Palestinian state that will be neither economically nor politically viable. Then Israel can claim to have "given" the Palestinians "what they want," and meanwhile Israel will retain its settlements throughout the West Bank and continue de facto control. Yet this will not generate long-term peace, but only a temporary rest in the fighting. Only a fully just settlement that allows Palestinians a real state that incorporates all of the West Bank and Gaza (with minor border modifications as detailed in the Geneva Accord of 2003) and that provides real compensation for Palestinian refugees, and a state created in a spirit of generosity and genuine caring on the part of Israel, will end the violence and provide Israel with lasting safety.

Let me be clear. I hate Hamas and everything it stands for. I want to see it defeated. But that defeat can only happen politically through isolation, not militarily through slaughter. The way to defeat Hamas is through meeting the legitimate needs of the Palestinian people and doing so in a spirit of genuine caring, in which the Jews of the world and the Israeli people show that they recognize Palestinians as our brothers and sisters, made in God's image and equally precious to God as the Jewish people. In short, by Jews taking seriously our reliance on God and God's message that the world should be based on love, generosity, caring, kindness, and compassion. In short, a reversal of the reliance on power that has not brought Israel safety or security, and a trust in the fundamental decency of the majority of Palestinians. This is what it would mean for Jews to take seriously our own Judaism and manifest it in a Jewish state.

How do we get out of these dynamics that lead to the current situation in which a small number of Israelis and a huge number of Palestinians are killed or maimed?

The first step is for the world to demand an immediate ceasefire. That ceasefire should be imposed by the United Nations and backed unequivocally by the US. Its terms must include the following:

A. Hamas stops all firing of missiles, bombs, or any other violent action originating from the West Bank or Gaza, and cooperates in actively jailing anyone from any faction that attempts to break this ceasefire from territory controlled by Hamas;

B. Israel stops all bombing, targeted assassinations, or any other violent actions aimed at activists, militants, or suspected terrorists in the West Bank or Gaza, and uses the full force of its army to prevent any further attacks on Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, including Hebron, from any Israeli citizen or anyone based in territory under the effective control of Israel;

C. Israel opens the border with Gaza and allows free access to and from Israel by Gazans and Palestinians, subject only to full search and seizure of any weapons. Israel allows free travel of food, gas, electricity, water, and consumer goods and materials including from land, air, and sea, subject only to full search and seizure of any weapons or materials typically used for weapons;

D. Israel agrees to release all Palestinians held in detention with or without trial or in prison and to return those Palestinians to the West Bank or Gaza according to the choice of the detainees or prisoners. Hamas agrees to release Gilad Shalit and anyone else being held involuntarily by Palestinian forces;

E. Both sides agree to invite an international force to implement these agreements;

F. Both sides agree to end teaching and/or advocacy of violence against the other side in and outside mosques, educational institutions, the press, the media, etc;

G. This cease-fire is agreed to for the next twenty years. NATO, the UN, and the US all agree to enforce this agreement and impose severe sanctions on either side should either be determined to be in violation of the conditions.

These steps would make a huge difference by isolating the most radical members of each side from the mainstream, making it possible to begin negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people on a much broader and deeper set of issues.

The basic condition for creating peace is to help each side feel "safe" enough to ignore those within their own community who claim that peace is impossible and that no one cares about the safety of "the Jews," or "the Palestinians." A first and critical step is to speak in a language that is empathic toward the suffering of each people. Rather than try to prove that the Palestinians are "nothing but" terrorists or that Zionism is nothing but an elaborate scheme for continuing and escalating Western colonialism and imperialism, we must create a climate of discourse in which both sides' stories are genuinely heard and understood. I've done this last part in my book Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003).

Yet Israel, as the militarily superior power, ought to take the first steps to end this conflict once and for all. It could do that at any time by making the following moves:

1. Implementing a massive Marshall Plan in Gaza and in the West Bank to end poverty and unemployment, rebuild all that has been destroyed of the Palestinian infrastructure, and encourage investment in a new Palestinian economy;

2. Dismantle the settlements or tell the settlers unequivocally that they must become citizens of a Palestinian state, live by its laws, face charges if their settlements were constructed on land stolen from Palestinians, and that they will not be able to count on Israel to protect them;

3. Accept 30,000 Palestinian refugees back into Israel each year for the next thirty, a number that would not seriously endanger the population balance, apologize for its role in the 1948 expulsions of Palestinians (known as al Naqba), and offer to coordinate a worldwide effort to raise funds to compensate Palestinians for all that they lost during the Occupation (at least to those living in poverty--and conversely, there should be reparations to Jews who fled Arab lands, at least to those who are today living in poverty).

4. Recognize a Palestinian state within borders already defined by the Geneva Accord of 2003.

This is the only way Israel will ever achieve security. It is the only way to permanently defeat Hamas and all extremists who wish to see endless war against Israel. But it won't happen until there is a massive shift in understanding about what promotes "security."

Israelis have bought into a worldview about security that predominates in much of the world and is the central principle of American foreign policy: "homeland security can only be achieved by domination, either military, economic or diplomatic, of all those who might be potential adversaries." It was this strategy of domination that led the US into the war in Iraq and that still leads some Obama advisers to believe that it would be wise to shift the focus of that war to Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. Yet the strategy of domination does not and cannot work in the 21st century.

The most significant contribution the new Obama administration could make to Middle East Peace would be to embrace an alternative strategy: that homeland security is best achieved through generosity and caring for others. If the US were to announce its embrace of a Global Marshall Plan, beginning with the Middle East and backed up with money and the conscious articulation of a Strategy of Generosity, it would do more to help Israel than all the armaments it can promise and all the shuttle diplomacy it might facilitate. If this new way of thinking could become a major part of US policy, it would have an immense impact on undermining the fearful consciousness of Israelis who still see the world more through the frame of the Holocaust than through the frame of their actual present power in the world.

Meanwhile, it breaks my heart to see the terrible suffering in Gaza and Israel, as it does when witnessing the suffering brought to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur--and the list goes one. For me as a religious Jew it is all the worse, because under the guise of serving God, both Jews and Arabs are actually acting out their accumulated pain in ways that will generate future suffering. At the same time Jews in the US who yearn to justify Israel's actions only confirm to many young Jews that there is no place for them in the Jewish world if they hold a normal ethical sensibility, and further confirms to me how easy it is to pervert the loving message of Judaism into a message of hatred and domination. So I remain in mourning for the Jewish people, for Israel, and for the world.

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