Laura Wharton
Jerusalem City Councilor, adjunct lecturer in political science

How Not to Free Palestine

Women Wage Peace Rally in Jerusalem, Oct. 4th, 2023. Vivian Silver, an activist in the movement, is now being held hostage in Gaza. (Image courtesy of author)

When I was a student at Harvard in the 1980s, a friend of mine found an amazing flier in the archives of the Phillips Brooks Social Services Association. It read, “Support the Khmer Rouge!”. We were astounded: how could anyone, no less a student at Harvard, be so ignorant as to have supported such a savage movement? Apparently, someone didn’t do their homework. The perception that the group was opposing colonialist American forces was sufficient to justify backing them. No further information was necessary.

One might think that more than forty years later, with greatly improved technology and access to endless information, the public would be wiser, or at least more cautious. One would be wrong. It’s hard to stop a jerking knee.

More than three weeks ago, several hundred Iranian funded members of Hamas, a terrorist organization, crossed the border from Gaza into Israel and raped, brutally murdered, decapitated, tortured and dismembered 1400 Israelis (and some foreign nationals), almost all of them civilians. These included men, women and children, infants and elderly, many of whom have yet to be identified. Many were burned beyond recognition, some apparently while still alive. In addition, the Hamas militants took approximately 230 captives, among them dozens of small children. The exact number is not known and the captors have refused to provide any information about who survived.

Shockingly, since the slaughter, demonstrations have been held around the world in support of Hamas. Unlike the ignorant supporters of the Khmer rouge, the problem lies not in an inability to understand a deadly plan of action, or to foresee carnage, or even a lack of information about what has taken place. Evidence is on every form of media. The expression of support for Hamas and its barbaric attack is October 7th is simply an inexcusable and revolting wrong. Self-hating westerners who apparently believe the third world can do no wrong are cheering on this march of brutality.

This is in itself a tragedy. Rather than strengthening the moderate streams among the Palestinian community, many in the west are guaranteeing the victory of the most brutal and extremists elements of Palestinian society, encouraging Shiite-backed fanatics to lead the way. The Palestinians themselves will suffer for this misguided support. No Palestinian I know wants a Palestine run by rapists and murderers, and no true Muslim can condone the atrocities committed. This horrible massacre and the ensuing war that has begun in Gaza is not about freeing Palestine and is certainly not about creating the kind of state to which most Palestinians aspire. A poll conducted by the Washington Institute just this July showed that 62% of Gazans supported Hamas maintaining a ceasefire with Israel and 50% agreed that “Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction, and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.” 70% of Gazans supported the Palestinian Authority running their administration. Not surprisingly, Iran has not been attentive to Gazan wishes.

Moreover, longtime Israeli supporters of the dismantling of the settlements and a two-state solution, like myself, are horrified by the gruesome acts. Those of us who have advocated direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, sought international support for a peace agreement, and see the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as the basis for the future of the Middle East, now find ourselves grappling with a country in mourning and in shock from the sheer barbarism. Many of those murdered were peace activists, and people like Vivian Silver, with whom I participated in a Women Wage Peace march less than a month ago, are hostages. The unspeakable atrocities of the Hamas in the south have done terrible damage to the Palestinian cause and may set peace back by decades.

Israeli policy towards Gaza, including the blockades by Egypt and Israel (since the latter’s complete withdrawal in 2006) is misguided, but the ongoing firing of rockets into Israel, often thousands a year even not in wartime, has made progress problematic. Had Israel not developed the Iron Dome defense and built shelters, Israeli casualties would have been far greater. While Israel invests in protecting its citizens underground and sends its soldiers to fight, Hamas policy is the opposite. Hamas leaves civilians defenseless while its leaders either hide underground or live abroad. The more Gazans killed, the more sympathy they garner. With Hamas in power, Gazans are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and their future is in question. But Hamas is not the answer.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s government is a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have spent every Saturday night in protest for almost a year. According to a survey conducted last week, only 18% of the Israeli public trusts the current government, with a majority demanding Netanyahu’s resignation. Yet as many readers here may have learned under the Trump Administration, it is possible to love one’s country but hate its government, and so we feel. Until October 7th, we saw the collapse of the Likud government as an opportunity to rebuild our country – and the peace process. We don’t want to let the massacre by the Hamas destroy our hopes as it did the south of Israel, but the challenge is now far greater.

President Biden was wise to come to Israel in its hour of need and mourning. Every Israeli wanted to know we were not alone facing the vicious murderers on the southern border. He was also right to remind Israel of its commitment to a two-state solution, which is the only way to bring peace to the region. Now Israel needs help in bringing home the hostages, in seeing justice meted out to the Hamas war criminals, and bringing an end to hostilities in order to minimize as much as possible any harm to innocent civilians, on either side of the border.

These are all complicated and daunting tasks. Iran, Russia, and other countries are involved in what is largely a war by proxy. Israel must keep to high moral standards while fulfilling its duty in defending its citizens. The violence of the settlers must be stopped, together with the settlements themselves. A long-term solution for decent governance of Gaza must be found. In all of these, international help and involvement are needed. Israel must know that the world is at its side in fighting barbarism, in order to give it the confidence to take the risks and steps it must take. Above all, anyone who cares about the future of the Middle East must avoid deceptive sloganeering and never forget that there are means that no end can justify.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the government department of Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. For research that later served as the basis for her book "Is the Party Over? How Israel Lost Its Social Agenda" (Yad Levi Eshkol, 2019) she was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize in Memory of Levi Eshkol. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than two decades.
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