I spent hours yesterday communicating with Arab friends in East Jerusalem. I was told that the flashpoint neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is quiet. I spoke with three other friends – I will call them A, B, and C – who gave me a more nuanced view of the situation. Why not use their names? Because I don’t want to be the one responsible for revealing that they have been speaking with a Jew, something that could be life threatening for them.
A is a professional working in the Old City. His wife, like many Palestinians in Israel, is a pharmacist. They live in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina with their two young children. A is at home these days. With the threat of incoming rockets, his office is closed. His wife goes to work each day, dispensing medicines to her largely Jewish clientele. “So now I am a housewife!” A chuckled. The silver lining of this disaster is that A can be with his children who are at home while schools are closed. He wants to be as close as possible with his children. If they go outside to play in the plaza, he wants to be there with them. If they go inside to eat a snack, he sits with them. He and his wife discussed what to do when they hear the sirens signaling a rocket attack. In the end they decided that the four of them will go into the same room. That way if they are killed, they will all die together.
This is a calculation that families in Gaza are used to making: which family members do we send to which part of the house when we are under attack? Izzeldin Abuelaish, from Gaza became the first Palestinian medical doctor to work in an Israeli hospital. He remains a staunch advocate of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, though he has lived in Canada since 2011. In his book I Shall Not Hate he describes the family debate in the heat of the 2009 war between Israel and Gaza. As Israeli troops and tanks advanced, they split up their eight daughters and the niece who was in the apartment with them, sending some of the girls to one room, the others to a room on the other side of the building. Three of his daughters and his niece were killed when a tank scored a direct hit on the room they were in – the Israeli military said there were Hamas snipers on the roof. There is footage of Abuelaish on the phone with an Israeli reporter giving a real-time account of the fighting, then realizing that his children were dead. Abuelaish’s daughters had attended a peace camp in the US where they spent summers together with Israeli kids their own age. Even after Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Abuelaish was one of the few Gazans to continue to enter Israel to work at a number of Israel’s top medical institutions. This family that worked so devotedly in the cause of peace was devastated in war;
I asked A why they had to make that decision. “Isn’t there a bomb shelter where you live, or a safe room in your apartment?” A answered that, to his knowledge, none of the buildings in his neighborhood has a bomb shelter, nor were they constructed with safe rooms, heavily reinforced concrete with heavy iron shutters for the windows and a steel door that locks from inside. Shelters and safe rooms are required by Jerusalem’s municipal codes, so I wonder whether the contractor cheated on the project, which also leads me to wonder who let the contract, who approved the plan, who inspected the buildings. (Another Palestinian Jerusalemite friend lives in the neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, built between Beit Hanina and the Shuafat refugee camp. He lives in a high-rise building, in a large apartment with a beautiful view. Like A’s Beit Hanina development, this building was built by an Arab contractor. Unlike A’s neighborhood, this building has a bomb shelter. Even though all the building’s residents are Arabs, Pisgat Ze’ev was built to be a largely Jewish neighborhood. One assumes that the inspection was more rigorous.)
Among the many tragedies of the past few days were the deaths of a number of Israeli Bedouin living in and around the southern city of Rahat. Bedouin communities are largely unprotected. Many of them are not covered by the Iron Dome, many do not have sirens and many have no bomb shelters. Israeli newspaper Haaretz quotes the mayor of Rahat as saying that, despite repeated requests to the defense ministry, this city of 75,000 residents has no public bomb shelters. Israeli Bedouin routinely serve in the IDF and other security forces, none of which helps when the state comes to take their land.
My friend B is a senior administrator in a Christian organization. Despite the danger of going outside, he is at work this week as he and his team try to connect with their overseas funding network. The immediate problem is not merely raising funds, but how to get humanitarian support into Gaza. The European Union has announced a freeze on all funding to all Palestinian groups, and individual countries are following suit. B says this will create a disaster and achieve exactly the opposite of what the donor nations intend.
It’s true that money funneled to Palestinian organizations by outside donors does not reach the people for whom it is intended. In Gaza, it is grabbed up by Hamas and used to purchase weapons, and to build tunnels to infiltrate into Israel. Many of the tunnels are also used to run an extensive commercial network. This is a financial lifeline for many Gazans, and Hamas both promotes and protects it, and taxes it heavily. But as for building a functioning society, that is not part of Hamas’ plans.
We must not forget that Hamas is founded on the explicit notion that Jews – not Zionists, not Israelis – are responsible for every disaster to befall humanity, and that we continue to control the world. This is the explicit language in their original charter, and the hateful ideology that continues to drive them. Jews – not Israelis – must be killed until the people is completely destroyed. Not all Gazans belong to Hamas, but Hamas hide among the general population, guaranteeing extensive civilian deaths in any conflict. Their leaders have historically referred to the Palestinian body count as “victories,” showing that they are not afraid to attack Israel and claiming that new volunteers will flock to their cause, inspired by the deaths of these unwilling martyrs. This morning Israel’s military has told residents to leave Gaza City, in anticipation of an attack. In response, Hamas urges Gazans to stay put and not contribute to Israel’s “attempts to sow confusion.” This is a value system that is utterly foreign to us. Calling them “barbaric” and “animals” hasn’t worked. Clearly, we need to find some way to bridge the chasm of difference between our peoples and our cultures. Lives – indeed, whole civilizations depend on it.
Palestinian society in the West Bank is under the Palestinian Authority (PA.) My friend C, a prominent local business owner, was informative on the problems the PA causes. In retrospect it is hard not to believe that the Oslo Accords created the PA as a platform for corruption. Starting with Arafat himself, who is responsible for the disappearance of something like one billion dollars from the Palestinian government coffers. Arafat’s wife Suha famously lived in Paris on a meager stipend of $100,000 a month and she allegedly remains the address for additional millions gone missing over the years.
The cynical deal cut by the PA with Israel and the West allowed the PA leadership to continue to siphon off funds, in return for which they kept things relatively quiet. For a long time, the PA coordinated with Israeli security services preventing a large number of terror attacks. As irrational as it is to continue to support this corrupt regime (headed currently by Mahmoud Abbas, a man who received a PhD for a thesis which argued that European Zionist Jews collaborated actively with the Nazis, slaughtering their fellow Jews in order to motivate the survivors to emigrate to Palestine), the PA is the only thing standing between the world and Hamas. Cutting funding to the PA will reverberate across the region. The PA can easily go up in smoke, and Hamas is poised to step into the vacuum. The West’s threat to cut funding to all Palestinian programs is itself a form of collective punishment. Palestinians, like Israelis, want to live in peace and safety. They want to decide how to live their own lives. Dismantling the PA means a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, with all the misery that implies.
What should Israel do now? The repeated strategy of “mowing the grass’ – engaging in brief hostilities with Hamas every few years – has not worked. Israel has gone through successive rounds of quiet, followed by disaster, as it played the Great Power game of empowering competing warlords. Hamas was propped up to balance against the PLO, the PA was supposed to offset Hamas. And so it goes… until it doesn’t. The US’ adventure with the Taliban should serve as the cautionary tale to end all cautionary tales, yet Israel plods on as though we were immune to the forces of history.
From an ethical point of view, I also do not have a simple answer. Hamas’ action is pure evil. Israel is in the grip not of fear, but of profound sadness, mixed with rage. The disarray and naked self-dealing of the nation’s leadership are offset by the rapid mobilization and unity across the society. People are flocking to return from overseas, rushing to join their comrades at the front. And they are dying, and each Israeli death strengthens Israel’s resolve for victory, but also the appetite for revenge.
At what point will we find it difficult to live with the damage we are wreaking on the people of Gaza? This week in our rabbinic group we are studying texts that address dealing with our enemies – who are they, how far must we go in seeking their destruction, and how are we to apply today these laws set in a biblical context? The fact of people in Gaza – or in Ramallah, or even in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor – celebrating the massacre of Jews does not mean that they will kill us, suggesting that perhaps we should not kill them merely for their emotional outcry. There is an irredeemable gap between rage and violence; the one can be dissipated, the other is irreversible.
Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh is a careful thinker, not given to exaggeration, an honest observer of the situation in the West Bank and of the conflict with Israel. I just finished one of his earliest books, The Sealed Room, excerpts from his journal kept during the 1991 Gulf War. He describes watching Iraqi scud missiles targeting Israel – a non-combatant state – and the hope and enthusiasm they engendered. Not that they believed Iraq would liberate Palestine; not that they believed Iraq could win a war against Israel. But the mere fact of someone striking out on their behalf sparked exuberance in the hearts of a people who are neglected and abused, notably by their own leadership, and by governments that give mere lip service to their cause. The Abraham Accords and the rapprochement between the Saudis and Israel are clear statements that the Palestinian people count for nothing in the eyes of their Arab neighbors. The true utility of Palestine, the reason the Arab states keep them in refugee camps, is to distract the “Arab street” from the real villains – their own rulers.
As uncomfortable as I was reading Shehadeh’s diary, I cannot bring myself to think of him as evil. For all his anger at the occupation, he is not my enemy. Until Israel recognizes that the Palestinians are people, and a people – ironically, it is together with Israelis that they stand to create the greatest benefit for themselves, and for us – Israel will continue with its policies of dispossession and oppression, and the world will go happily along. It is up to us, then, to take the lead in changing the world’s attitudes. Right now, that is too big an ask.
None of this mitigates the evil of Hamas, nor does it relieve Israel of the obligation to respond. The fact that Hamas embeds itself within a helpless civilian population turns any response into a tragedy. I wonder at which point we Israelis might begin to view things differently. How much more violence do we need to live with, how many deaths on both sides, before we feel the need to seek a different path? Because truly, we are the playthings of our own corrupt leaders, and of the great powers, and it is only we ourselves who can break the cycle.
The Arabs never wanted us here and have said so repeatedly. T.E. Lawrence, speaking before the Balfour Declaration, predicted that any attempt to create a Jewish presence in Arabia would cause a war. Yet the British and French saw the geopolitical importance of planting a European presence here. King Saud told FDR in 1945 that the one thing the Arabs would never stand for was a Jewish presence in Arabia. After the Holocaust, rather than expel the Poles and Germans and turn their countries over to the Jews, the State of Israel was formed, planted by the victors of WWII – who then immediately turned their backs on the Jewish state. One common thread throughout the history of our embattled nation is that it is in the interest of other powers to keep Jews and Palestinians at one another’s throats.
But attitudes change, if slowly. Egypt made peace with Israel, as did Jordan. Do their people still hate us? Some do. This week an Egyptian policeman killed two Israelis in Alexandria. But at the sovereign and military level, the peace continues to hold. The PLO formally recognized the State of Israel in the Oslo Accords. Even Hamas redrafted its charter in 2017; the new text calls for a state of Palestine along 1967 borders – though not for the recognition of Israel – and calls for the destruction not of Jews, but of Zionists. I give as much credence to Hamas’ change of heart as to Ben Gvir’s removing the giant poster of Baruch Goldstein from his office. But words and gestures lead to actions; people and organizations, and even nations, must be held to their word. It is to the shame of the international community that they do not engage forcefully with all the actors in this part of the world. When Hamas kills Jews, and Israel kills Gazans, the world bears so much of the blame.
A growing percentage of Israeli Arabs feel more and more Israeli. They see the corruption of the PA, the horrors of Hamas, and their fellow Palestinians still held in refugee camps four generations later, and they realize that Israel is a better society. True, they are often the victims of racist behavior, still second-class citizens. But as A said to me, “I am grateful to Israel. I have a good professional job, my wife has a good career. My family has free health care, my children have free education, and when one of my children developed a health problem (which, thank God, now seems to be in remission) the State of Israel provided us money and resources.” This is the man who locks his family in their home as carloads of young Jewish thugs drive through his neighborhood looking for Arabs to beat up.
The talk now is of a ground invasion, with the objective of dismantling Hamas once and for all. The bombing in the last days killed fewer people than I anticipated – which does nothing to mitigate the suffering of the people of Gaza. A military invasion means room-by-room, basement-by-basement, rooftop-to-rooftop and alleyway-to-alleyway combat through one of the most densely populated places in the world. On top of the carnage in Gaza, this could entail a thousand more Israeli deaths. The people of Israel are in pain and are angry. It’s one thing to wish death on every member of Hamas – people who arguably deserve it. It’s another thing to contemplate the cost. Might that vision prompt us to ask ourselves, Is there another way?
Yours for a better world.