Monday, August 4, 2014

Truth and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” wrote the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. The facts about the situation in Israel/Palestine have been so badly distorted I feel led to do my part to tell the truth, as I see it. I am not an expert on this region, but I have traveled to Israel/Palestine as part of a Compassionate Listening project and feel great sympathy for  Israeli Jews as well as for Palestinians. I have listened to Palestinians and Israelis, some of whom have lost children and family members to this ongoing conflict, and have come to appreciate the complexities of their stories. There is deep hurt and trauma on both sides that has touched my heart. It is important that we try to recognize that neither side is completely right or completely wrong. Blaming doesn’t help. We need truth and reconciliation. Here is my effort to dispel some of the lies and provide some balance in the way we address this terrible conflict.

Israel is justified in wreaking havoc on Gaza because Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of Israel. It is true, and deplorable, that the Hamas Charter makes such statements. However, Hamas lacks the means to do what it says, and not all members of Hamas support this part of the Charter. Certainly not all Gazans agree that Israelis need to be driven to the sea. Some would simply like to see a referendum in which all residents—Palestinian and Jews—could vote on the future of this region. Most would simply like to see the blockade lifted and be able to live a normal life.

Israel, on the other hands, has the means to destroy Gaza (through high tech weapons, including atomic bombs) and seems to be mustering the political will to do so. For example, in 2008 an Israeli defense minister warned Palestinians they may face a “shoah” (holocaust) if they continue using rockets. A right-wing rabbi recently justified killing of civilians in Gaza and called for the extermination of Palestinians. These are not mainstream views, but 95% of Israelis polled apparently support the massacres taking place. Hatred of Arabs among Israelis has become so virulent that many Palestinians fear  a “shoah” may be imminent. Given this reality, it is not surprising that Hamas and the Gazans are doing what they can to defend themselves against ongoing attacks and threats by Israel. Under international law, Gazans have the right to defend themselves, just like the Israelis.
Violent self-defense is not the only or best option. There are many peace-loving Israelis and Palestinians who are seeking nonviolent solutions. I strongly believe that both sides would be better off if they refrained from violence and seek a political settlement.

Hamas took over Gaza by violence.  This oft repeated lie overlooks the fact that elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) were held on 25 January 2006. The result was a victory for Hamas, who won with 74 seats of the 132 seats, while the ruling Fatah won just 45. After this election, Israelis invaded Gaza and arrested duly elected officials, throwing them into prison, where many still remain. A dispute arose between Hamas and Fatah, fueled by Israel and the US, which led to violent clashes and the death of around 600 Palestinians. Fatah and Hamas have tried to resolve their conflict ever since, and finally came to an agreement in 2014, much to the chagrin of Israel. An April 2014 agreement between the two political groups to hold elections and form a compromise unity government finds the Palestinian Territories' future in flux, with elections to be held in late 2014. This agreement so infuriated the Israelis that they have been seeking ways to punish and divide the Palestinians. The kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers provided Israeli with an excuse to harass Hamas’ supporters, provoke a Gazan rocket attack, and invade Gaza.
Extremists on both sides know how to push each other's buttons and provoke violence. That's why there needs to be an embargo on arms to both sides until they agree to refrain from violence and commit to  a serious peace process.

Israel is justified in attacking Gaza because its rockets are a threat to Israel. There is no question that Gazan rockets are frightening and cause psychological harm, but they are not a serious “existential” threat. Since 2000, 40 Israelis have been killed by Hamas rocket and mortar fire. That’s 2.8 Israelis per year. To put that into perspective, 4 Americans are killed each year from fireworks. In contrast, nearly 4,000 Gazans have been killed since 2008 by Israel’s high techs weapons. Over 70 % of these deaths have been civilians—many women and children. In 14 years, Gazan rockets have killed 23 civilians and 17 soldiers. See Given the nature of the threat, Israel could and should  have taken a more measured response, like negotiating with Hamas to end the siege in exchange for international inspectors who insure that its rockets are destroyed.

It has been reported that Hamas’ tunnels were intended to be used to kill thousands of Israelis during the High Holy Days. This is mere speculation, not a fact. During wartime, such allegations are common, like the widely circulated lie that Iraqi soldiers were throwing babies out of incubators in Kuwait. The allegation about an impending attack by Gazans on innocent Israelis seems intended to distract from the reality that real Palestinian children are being killed by real bombs, many of them manufactured in the USA.

Apologists for Israel also point out that Hamas could have used the money it spent on tunnels to build schools, hospitals, and other much needed facilities. This argument overlooks the fact that Hamas and the Gazans have been under almost continuous attack by superior Israeli forces since 2008. This argument could also be turned around and used to apply to Israel, which has made life as miserable as possible for Gazans in the vain hope it would reject Hamas. See  This strategy failed in Iraq, where the US imposed sanctions caused the death of half a million Iraqis, many of them children, but did nothing to oust Saddam Hussein. Sanctions have also not worked in Iran. What would the situation in Gaza look like if instead of making life miserable for Gazans, Israel took half of the money it spends on "defense" and used it to build hospitals, schools, etc., so that their quality of life in Gaza was comparable to that of Israeli Jews? Would Palestinians hate and fear Jews if the Jews made a serious effort to insure that Palestinians had the means to support themselves and live with dignity? What would the situation in Israel/Palestine be like if Jews took to heart what God commands repeatedly in the Torah?

"You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." (Lev. 19:34)

This assumes of course that Palestinians are "strangers." In fact, many of them have lived in this land for many centuries and have just as valid a claim to the land as the Jews who migrated here in the 20th century. I believe that for peace to prevail, both sides need to treat the other as God commands in the Torah. (And we Americans need to take this passage to heart in our treatment of immigrants!)
Why are we criticizing Israel when worse atrocities are occurring in other parts of the world? For a very simple and compelling reason: as Americans, we have a moral obligation to speak out when we believe our tax dollars are being used to fund massacres and war crimes. We aren’t funding the atrocities in Syria or Africa, so we don’t have the same moral obligation we have in the case of Israel. The same is true about the UN.  Israel’s bombs are falling on UN facilities, killing UN staff as well as innocent women and children This isn’t happening in other parts of the world. So it is understandable that the UN is condemning Israel for its behavior.

Israelis are being forced to kill innocent Gazans. One of the most morally perverse and infuriating lies told by Israelis and their apologists is that Palestinians don’t love their children, and Israelis are somehow forced to kill them. This lie dehumanizes Palestinians. Anyone who knows Palestinians knows they love their children. If you doubt this, I recommend talking to a Palestinian or watching the documentary like “Tears of Gaza,” that shows the effects of Operation Cast Lead on Gazan kids. No one is forcing Israelis to drop bombs on UN facilities, hospitals, schools, etc. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and the Gazans have nowhere to hide. Under these circumstances, Israel does not have the right to use overwhelming force. In fact, under the terms of what is called “just war” theory, violence must be a last resort, and any act of war must be proportionate to the threat it is trying to counter. Under these circumstances, Israeli has the obligation to have face-to-face talks with Hamas to see if their conflicts can be resolved nonviolently before resorting to violence.

In order for there to be peace in Israel/Palestine, there must be truth and reconciliation. The blockade of Gaza must end. There must be face-to-face negotiations between the Israelis and Hamas. There must be an end to arms shipments to both sides. And there needs to be an impartial UN investigation into war crimes on both sides, with penalties for perpetrators.

There cannot be peace in this region until Palestinians and Israelis have the same rights, and everyone can live in dignity and security.


  1. Thanks Anthony for such a comprehensive and readable blog on this situation.

  2. So clear and well said. Thank you. Jane Affonso