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Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Forget a Ceasefire — Go for Peace

The just-ended truce between Israel and Hamas is a bit like a Rorschach inkblot: what you see in it depends on who you are or more precisely from where you are coming.  For Israelis it demonstrated the mendacity of Hamas, who even as they released Israeli hostages, continually dragged out the process and kept the waiting families in tension and anxiety, sometimes threatening to scotch the deal or releasing people at the eleventh hour, or in contravention of the agreements separating mothers from children, trying to switch living abductees for dead ones, providing disinformation about who was alive or dead, and in the end failing to release all the women and children they held.

As Israelis saw it – literally through their observers on the ground – Hamas used the days of the truce to rebuild tunnels and rearm, hiding the evidence of their placement of arms and hideouts in hospitals, schools and mosques and continuing to shuffle around Israeli hostages while harassing (especially the women – as several released hostages have testified) and holding them in dark underground spaces and limiting them from getting badly needed medicines, from taking care of such basic human needs as going to the toilet, or seeing the light of day. Hamas continued, in contravention of its signed commitment, to prevent the International Red Cross from visiting the Israelis held or providing badly needed medicines or inspecting the conditions of their captivity – a situation the Red Cross let pass without protest, even refusing to accept medicines from hostage family members for their loved ones.  Perhaps they were too busy visiting Gazan hospitals.

For Palestinians and their champions, the truce was a chance to show the world that while they were unbent, they could also display the extent of civilian suffering, while blaming the entirety of this misery on Israel and disattending the role that Hamas has played in the situation as well as reframing the narrative of the attacks of October 7 as legitimate resistance to occupation (in spite of the fact that the places they attacked have been part of Israel since its founding).  In the process, they were able to effectively resurrect the claim that all of Israel is illegitimate and that the Palestine they seek to establish is not just in the territories conquered in 1967 but in the entire land “from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea.”  In the context of the people exchanged during the truce, they were able to foster the idea of an equivalence: just as the Israeli women and children were innocents so too were their Palestinian counterparts.

The period of the truce also demonstrated how the rest of the world could not or refused to comprehend the complexities of this conflict choosing to simply focus on the easily understood mandate that violence must stop.  Disregarded was the fact that Israelis felt an existential anxiety and danger while acutely hurt by the so-called liberal world’s silence on the brutalization and rape of their women on October 7 or the failure to admit that Hamas oppose all the values for which progressive society stands.  Ignored was the nature of Hamas rule with its fundamentalist rules that have been imposed on Palestinians, who largely have no voice in their day to day lives.  Overlooked in the pro-Palestinian protests were that, “67 percent of Palestinians in Gaza had little or no trust in Hamas in that period right before the attacks,” and that believed the Hamas-led government was rife with corruption as reported by Amaney Jamal, dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.  The same people who called for a ceasefire that would allow Hamas to reassert its control in Gaza discounted the fact that it limited the free expression of opinion, forced its citizens to live in poverty while it siphoned funds for a war on Israel that effectively left 75 percent unable “to afford to feed their household.”

The period of the truce, during which attacks on Jews continued throughout the world and particularly at some of  the great universities of America, also showed that that when it comes to Jews, calling for their genocide and expressing animosity toward them was not viewed as prohibited.  A smiling President of my alma mater the University of Pennsylvania asserted at a congressional hearing, that calling for the genocide of Jews would only be judged as harassment based on “context.”  In what context such a call would be acceptable, she did not say.  But to qualify, it would have to become “conduct.”  Presumably if people start to attempt genocide of the Jews that would constitute “harassment” at Penn.  Harvard’s president echoed these same sentiments.  This left many Jews like me stunned, and supporters of Israel feeling abandoned by the champions of rationality and liberalism, a sensation they had already experienced from the silence of the world’s women’s movements as well as the United Nations who had failed to condemn the rape, femicide, and brutalization of Israeli women during the October 7 Palestinian attacks and during the many days of their imprisonment in Gaza.

What is clear is that on all sides, as Steve Coll noted, the “respite last week offered meagre solace after seven weeks of immeasurable suffering.” When a few of the survivors from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides went back to their homes they had to evacuate, they were overwhelmed by the destruction.  The sight and the extent of the suffering and loss has led to a compound trauma on both sides. Evidence suggests that one in three Israelis have symptoms of PTSD after the events of October 7 that will continue to infect citizens on both sides of the conflict for a long time, turning them into “carriers,” who will spread their anxieties to others in their society. Undoubtedly, this is true for Gazans no less.

The empty calls for an extended ceasefire that continue now, after the brief truce that was broken both by a shooting and murder of Israelis by Palestinians at a bus stop in Jerusalem and a subsequent rocket attack on the morning after the last release of hostages for prisoners, for both of which Hamas claimed responsibility, are hollow gestures. Ceasefires seldom end wars, especially when they do not deal with the issues that underlie them.  We have seen this with the many ceasefires between Israel and Hamas, cessations of violence that have only led to more conflict, suffering, and even greater violence.  Israelis are no longer under the illusion that another ceasefire will not lead to anything different. This is especially likely because in this stubborn conflict both Hamas and its allies like the Netanyahu led governments have thrived politically from a state of constant war allowing them to remain in power.

The cost for this embrace of the idea of a war to the death, with extended ceasefires, however has now reached its limits.  Both sides have reached the point where they cannot continue to exist under the conditions.  Israel cannot live with its southern and northern communities are evacuated nor can Palestinians live under a violent dictatorial regime that uses them as shields and tools for their hatred of Jews.

That both sides have depended on the status quo to hold on to control makes it critical that both the Hamas-led and Netanyahu-led governments which have paved a road to endless war must be removed from power.  Since only Israel has (at least at the moment) a democratic system that can be marshalled to remove its government, the pressure for new leadership must come first from its citizens with help from Israel’s friends.  In the meantime, the Arab and Islamic states as well as the international community must pressure Hamas and the Islamists to relinquish power before their fundamentalist obsessions with holy war and power undermines the entire region.  Together the states interested in a stable and promising future in the region must help shape a new leadership that can break the repeated destructive patterns of the past and formulate a recipe for true coexistence.  In Israel this must come first from the ranks of the Likud party which has the power to remove the failed prime minister from his party’s leadership and open a path to a genuine national unity government.  In Palestine, this must come from those in the region who understand that the Palestinians must be given a state and hope led by people not trapped by the prejudices of the past.  It must provide a path towards what Hamas cannot: a just and stable peace, not simply a ceasefire.

This must begin with an immediate release of those unjustly held in captivity on both sides and followed swiftly by the removal of those who have benefited politically from conflict.  The US and the powers in the Middle East who understand the benefits of peace must join in pressuring the parties to this conflict to step aside.  Forget the calls for ceasefires.  We need a peace conference, but not with the current leaders on both sides.

Israelis know what they could accomplish in the absence of war.  Palestinians could do as well.  Those who are corrupted by their power must get out of the way.  Only then can the region truly be a beacon of hope for the world.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.