Israel’s attempt to wipe out Hamas is understandable, but dumb. No country in the world is going to ignore the provocation of rockets being launched from a 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 United States to mobilize a counterattack. Israel has every right to respond.
But the kind of response matters.
Massive bombings of the sort that have thus far killed over 400 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 cease-fire ran out had not (thank God) killed anyone. 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).
Hamas had respected the previously negotiated cease-fire except when Israel used it as cover to make assassination raids against Hamas and other Palestinian leaders. Arguing that these raids were hardly a manifestation of cease-fire, Hamas would, as symbolic protest, allow the release of rocket fire (usually hitting no targets). But when the issue of continuing the cease-fire 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 refusal 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.”
How do we get out of these dynamics that have led to the current situation that has killed or maimed a small number of Israelis and a huge number of Palestinians?
The first step is for the world to demand an immediate cease-fire. That cease-fire should be imposed by the United Nations and backed unequivocally by the United States. 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 cease-fire 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 transports 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 Palesitnians 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 from within and outside mosques, educational institutions, the press, the media, etc.;
G. This cease-fire is agreed to for the next 20 years. NATO, the UN, and the United States 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 years, 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;
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 United States 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 United States 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 on. 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 American Jews 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.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, a prominent progressive Jewish and interfaith magazine and chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives.