Jonathan Dekel-Chen
Jonathan Dekel-Chen

For my children and the children of Gaza: A view from the Israeli border

Farmers of Kibbutz Nir Oz working along the Gaza border. In the distance, the Palestinian town of Abasan. Credit: Shahar Vahab

For the umpteenth time, the last three days Israelis living on or near our border with Gaza – adults and children – have experienced a steady diet of ear-ringing noises: explosions in and around our communities from short-range rockets and mortars fired from Gaza; the screech of their longer-range missiles flying overhead toward distant Israeli towns; the distinct thuds above us from Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor missile system; and, ground-shaking sounds of Israel’s retaliatory air and artillery barrages into Gaza. Yet again, renewed shooting in a deadlocked conflict reduces life on both sides of the border to a self-fulfilling, primal struggle fed by myopic, zero-sum conceptions of right and wrong.

Most of us in Israel’s border communities understand that this is just another round of violence in an evolving clash with our Arab neighbors, initiated in the 1880s by Zionist settlers from Europe and Muslim lands to Palestine. Since Hamas forcibly took over the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, hardly a month has passed in my home – a kibbutz along the Gaza border – without at least a threat of attacks. Consequently, my neighbors are incredulous when our government seems to feel an urgency to respond only when the Tel Aviv or Jerusalem areas come under rocket fire.

It may surprise many that the majority of Israelis living on the Gaza border have never voted for Benjamin Netanyahu or his political allies. Sadly, I believe that the actions of Israel’s government over the past weeks in great part triggered this current round of violence although the next chapter in this ongoing conflict is always just around the corner. Given his political and legal troubles, it seems reasonable to suggest that Netanyahu manufactured this latest round as a means of preserving his position. But the violence has spiraled out of control, spilling into civil unrest on the streets of Israel. One day our country will again have leadership worthy of its history and people.

All that being said, Israel – under any Prime Minister – must defend itself against indiscriminate attacks against its civilians. Whatever we choose to call it, Hamas rules Gaza and therefore is responsible for what transpires there, including its export of hate-filled Islamist fundamentalism, the inexcusable poverty of Gaza’s people, every mortar shell and rocket launched at our towns and cities, every anti-tank missile fired at our civilians and every incendiary kite aimed at crops and homes in our border communities. Hamas pours Gaza’s scarce resources into armaments meant to protect its power and attack Israelis, not to build a viable state. By doing so, Hamas has deepened hopelessness among the people of Gaza, all the while deflecting accountability. Gaza’s long-suffering people also deserve better leadership.

Whatever Israel’s faults – including occupation of the West Bank and unequal treatment of Israeli Arabs – it is both disingenuous and counterproductive for critics to ignore that we have always been threatened from states or terrorist organizations intent on murdering our citizens. It is similarly unhelpful when Israel is singled out for alleged human rights abuses; these accusations are at once tenuous given Israel’s hyperactive democracy and robust judiciary but also alienate most Israelis who cannot fathom why these organizations discount horrific crimes elsewhere, particularly those perpetrated in neighboring Arab states.

What can we learn from this new, senseless round of escalation? First, it exposes the thinness of the Abraham Accords. Yes, the Gulf States have been mostly silent. But these same kingdoms stayed mostly silent during the many rounds of escalation preceding the Abraham Accords. More importantly, this current round demonstrates that Israel’s moral and practical predicament surrounding the future of millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank cannot be indefinitely circumvented by low-risk, flashy agreements with distant, authoritarian states.

Second, the riots in Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities like Lod and Akko in recent days horrify almost all Israelis. To be clear, no one is righteous in these events. Rather, one is drawn to chilling comparisons with the Balkans in the 1990s, when incitement by populist, jingoistic leaders quickly ignited deadly ethnoreligious violence between neighbors who beforehand had coexisted relatively peacefully. In part, Jewish rioters descended on Arab neighborhoods today as a result of irresponsible, repeated use yesterday in the media of terms like “pogrom” and “Kristallnacht” to describe isolated attacks by young Arabs against individual Jews and property. As of this evening (Wednesday), Israel’s President, Chief Rabbis and the head of the largest Arab bloc in the Knesset have called upon Israeli Jews and Muslims to reject violence. I hope that more religious and secular leaders will soon show this kind of courage.

Viewed from the border, it is difficult to not reach a troubling conclusion: Hamas and Netanyahu (together with the Israeli Right) unconsciously cooperate in orchestrating a heartbreaking political symphony in which both cling to primacy in their states by exacerbating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both expend precious time and energy convincing their people of the intractable hatred of the opposing side and that they (Netanyahu and Hamas) are the only leaders able to defend their populations from imminent destruction.

Amid this current round of violence, I hope that this or the next Israeli government envisions a future beyond the weapons now being fired on both sides. Peace is the only solution for our century-old dilemma in the Middle East. Peace demands much. Israeli and Palestinian leaders must mobilize at least as much courage, creativity and national wealth for peace as they muster for enflaming old hatreds, sabre rattling and carnage.  Those leaders unable, or unwilling, to work meaningfully toward that peace for their peoples must be replaced by forward-thinking women and men, not those intent on fanning past hatreds for their own political benefit.

For the sake of my children and the children of Gaza, I hope for peace in their lifetimes even if the past two decades of bloodshed makes optimism difficult.  Although often maligned by politicians on Israel’s right, many of us on the Gaza border warmly remember the hopeful days of the Oslo Peace Process during mid-1990s; for a few short years Israelis and Palestinians began to see one another as benign neighbors, if not friends. Those are now only fading memories that, one hopes, can someday be renewed on the ground.

About the Author
Professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen is Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His current research and publications deal with transnational philanthropy and advocacy, non-state diplomacy, agrarian history and migration. During Spring 2021, he is the Bildner Visiting Scholar at the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University. In 2014 Dekel-Chen co-founded the Bikurim Youth Village for the Performing Arts in Eshkol, which provides world-class artistic training for under-served high school students from throughout Israel. Dekel-Chen is a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz.
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