Mankind, even at its most charged and belligerent, eventually craves rest. What a relief then for Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Hamas observe a twelve hour ceasefire while US Secretary of State John Kerry continues his work in Egypt to achieve a seven-day humanitarian truce during which both sides will be able to hash out their respective demands.
So here we are. The Shabbat Queen — who Jews welcome every Friday at sundown — has arrived and the people of Israel and Gaza are taking stock, counting their blessings where possible. At long last, a time for rest. A “humanitarian window” and a “downpayment” on peace, as Kerry put it today in Cairo.
Many Israeli families, from the centre of Tel Aviv to the far-flung Kibbutzim of the north and south, were able to spend this Shabbat evening together. Parents could bless their children, as is our custom. And some children may have blushed with embarrassment, as is their nature, when their parents enveloped them in hugs just a notch tighter than usual. Moreover, there has been, and will be, a groundswell of tefillot (prayer) and one hopes it will help, as we sing on Friday night, “untie the bundled sins” that form a barrier preventing our praises and pleas from reaching heavenly heights.
For the families of Israel’s 35 fallen soldiers, however, this is also their first or second Shabbat without their beloved sons. I cannot begin to comprehend the pain they are enduring. The world mourned their losses, and tens of thousands attended their funerals, but no amount of support can alleviate the emptiness of losing a son.
Similarly, the families of Gaza are using this time to come to terms with their catastrophic losses. Roughly 850 Gazans have been killed thus far, between 130 and 300 of them militants. Civilian or combatant, all left behind families who are now overwhelmed with grief. In accepting the UN Secretary General’s modest proposal, Hamas told the media there was “national consensus” for a twelve hour humanitarian pause. The people of Gaza did not convey this message through a vote; the grief and devastation spoke for itself and, atypically, Hamas responded to this collective cry.
Yet in spite of such trauma on both sides, Kerry says “gaps have been significantly narrowed.” He says that the negotiating parties have settled on a framework for an extended ceasefire, “in honour of Eid,” referring to the Muslim holy day that marks the end of Ramadan. As the violence extends beyond Gaza to massive clashes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and as Israel’s Cabinet voted unanimously against the terms of the current ceasefire proposal, it is indeed a stretch to imagine any such narrowing of gaps, let alone a convergence around a way forward, Kerry and Ban’s valiant efforts notwithstanding.
For these twelve hours are far from tranquil. Those families living in Kfar Aza, just 1.8 kilometres from the border with Gaza, continue to toss and turn at night, the real or imagined sounds of shovels scraping at their remaining vestiges of strength. Shovels carried by Hamas operatives, digging underneath their homes, violating the sovereignty of Israel — within pre-1967 lines, I should add — and furthering a cruel form of psychological warfare, intended to scare the families of southern Israel into submission. The IDF has already thwarted attempts to attack these kibbutzim and moshavim, attacks that would have had “catastrophic” consequences, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israelis and their allies throughout the world — including the Foreign Ministers of the European Union — are appalled and horrified by these tunnels and the Israeli cabinet responded to this rare instance of unity by voting against ceasefire terms that would require Israel to stop the incredibly dangerous and difficult work of destroying more than 30 such cement tunnels, some of which are even equipped with telephone lines. There is no Iron Dome to combat the tunnel threat with elegance nor reliability.
In the old days, wars were fought among combatants and attacks were limited to designated military targets. Of course, there was always a critical role for non-combatants in keeping families intact while a parent was in combat, in maintaining the economy, and in providing moral support (and not just through nude selfies) to those on the front lines. These ‘old wars’ were the basis upon which international humanitarian law evolved. War was awful then, too. But it had parameters, primarily geared at protecting the lives of innocent civilians.
The current reality in Israel and Gaza is something else entirely. Everyone is a target, not only West Bank settlers but even dovish kibbutzniks living within Israel ‘proper’. Everyone is a combatant, even Gaza’s children trying to get an education — in what they believed to be neutral UN schools — while in reality being used as human shields for Hamas militancy. Today in 2014, a liberal democratic state operates on the front lines of a global struggle against Islamist extremism, which finds expression in the Gaza Strip through Hamas, a terrorist organization wearing the (frayed) costume of a governance provider.
Amidst such asymmetric volatility — which renders useless our existing instruments for demanding respect for the laws of just war — it is critical that we begin to focus on Gaza’s future. What kind of tomorrow will its residents choose? In 2006, they elected Hamas in an apparently sweeping vote against the “corruption and incompetence of the Fatah government.” Were Hamas to be driven from power, would the people of Gaza give Fatah another chance to improve stability and quality of life?
In June, prior to Operation Protective Edge, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy commissioned credible Palestinian researchers to interview 450 Gazans. And the results? Nearly nine out of ten people agreed that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) should “send officials and security officers to Gaza to take over the administration there.” More than a third said they would vote for current PA president Mahmoud Abbas as president of Gaza.
Were this study to be completed today or next month, would the results remain the same? Will we soon witness Gaza and the West Bank overcome their lack of physical contiguity with contiguity of governance, leadership, and, hopefully, opportunity for economic and social development? One can certainly hope so, but ultimately the people of Gaza will shape their own destiny. Still, these are important questions for all who care about the region.
So here we are — a bit further into that twelve hour pause, and long finished devouring the Shabbat challah. Despite the religiously-mandated day of rest, taking stock is a necessary and demanding exercise. Counting one’s blessings can be even more of a challenge. For me, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that two years ago, I had my first (and thus far only) experience in the Palestinian territories. I visited Bethlehem — after having paid a visit to Rachel’s Tomb on the other side of the security barrier several years prior — with a delegation of highly engaged North American young Jewish adults.
We were participants in Encounter, a group dedicated to conflict transformation and fostering inclusive intra-communal dialogue on diaspora Jews’ relationships with Israel. During that short excursion I made my first Palestinian friends, whose hospitality was warm and their stories compelling. I also met business and civil society leaders working to improve quality of life in the West Bank. I look back on the experience with great fondness, as does my sister who participated just a few months ago, and I hope the current conflict has not brought about any harm to the kind and community-oriented people I met in Bethlehem.
Make no mistake — the current conflict is not a war between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather between Israel and a terrorist organization mandated to destroy the Jewish state and its people, an entity that carries the torch between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb all the way to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
In a few hours, the battle in Gaza is expected to resume as Eid approaches. And then what will have been accomplished during this quiet pause? At the very least, Israeli and Palestinians families will have had a few moments, albeit fleeting, to come to terms with the tragedy of their losses. Eventually, and with great courage, they will see beyond the rubble and past the present despair in order to recognize their opportunity to build a just and lasting peace.