Israel, its government and civil society, devastated by the murderous aggression of Hamas, must now deal with dramatic emergencies: how to react militarily against Hamas and Islamic Jihad armed groups; how to act with effective deterrence against Hezbollah’s aggressive threat from Lebanon; evacuating Israelis living in the northern regions of the country along the borders with Lebanon and Syria; addressing the continuing pressure on the communities of southern and central Israel that are still subject to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip; finally, engaging in negotiations about the release of the hostages abducted by Hamas whose condition is tragically uncertain.
Hamas wanted on the one hand to exploit the occasion of provocations by Jewish extremists, who preach the expulsion of the Palestinians, and the alleged threats to the integrity of the Al Aqsa mosque, sacred place of Islam but at the same time a symbol of claimed sovereignty. On the other hand it aimed at sabotaging, under the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian regime, the normalization process underway between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which were perhaps close to signing an agreement. Hamas was founded in 1987 as an antagonist of Al Fatah, then after the Oslo agreements of 1993 of the Palestinian Authority; it has always opposed peace negotiations, claiming sovereignty over the whole historic “Palestine” and hailing the destruction of Israel.
Instigator of the terrorist wave of the second intifada in the early 2000s, following the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Strip in 2005, its victory in the Palestinian elections in 2006, the failure of the attempt to form a unity government and the outbreak of a quasi-civil war against Al Fatah, Hamas came to power with an almost dictatorial regime. In response Israel imposed an embargo on the territory of the Strip preventing the movement of people and goods, interrupted only by limited periods of respite in which work permits in Israel were granted as well as the exchange of goods at the points of transit between the Jewish state and Gaza itself.
Geography and history of the places of the massacre are both charged with symbolism. In addition to nearby cities such as Sderot and Ashkelon, hit repeatedly by rockets, small kibbutzim such as Kfar Azza and Be’eri, where the shame of the massacre of civilians was the sharpest and which I personally visited some years ago, have a tradition of coexistence activities with the “nearby” inhabitants of the Strip, organized by Israeli NGOs such as Road to Recovery and Physicians for Human Rights, which are members of the vast network of Alliance for Middle East Peace (www.allmep.org): activities aimed above all at assisting in Israeli hospitals Palestinians in need of care
But beyond the immediate contingencies, the ” day after” questions and worries.
The first question concerns the need for humanitarian intervention to assist the people of Gaza, including many innocent civilians, often hostile to Hamas and oppressed by its despotic regime, forced to abandon their homes and head towards the south of the Strip in the persistent uncertainty about the opening of the points of transit with Egypt at Rafah, the safe outflow of refugees and the entry into Gaza of medical, food and material aid.
In the medium term it is imperative for Israel to avoid, in actions of retaliation although justified by the inalienable right to self-defense, the deaths of more civilians, as required by the laws of war and international humanitarian law. But it is also essential for Israel to prevent the spread of fundamentalist fanaticism and terrorism, for a perverse mechanism of imitation, in younger generations. Alleviating the humanitarian crisis is also a way to isolate Hamas and Islamist extremism from Palestinian society.
The second problem concerns the governance of the Strip when the military operation is concluded. Military occupation of the kind that prevailed since the conquest in the 1967 war and the unilateral withdrawal in 2005 should be excluded from the options, not even for a limited period. Nor can one imagine the appearance of an Arab savior, composed of a coalition that includes Egypt, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, prepared to administer two million people thus freeing Israel from its dilemmas and obstacles.
The only realistically possible options are therefore the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership on the ground, antagonistic to Hamas and alien to its Islamist ideology, or the return of Gaza to the control of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah which was violently excluded from it in 2007. A process which is indeed difficult with an ANP delegitimized in the public opinion, accused of autocracy, corruption and connivance with the Israeli occupation. This can be envisaged as a reasonable arrangement in the long run as the Oslo agreements themselves called for with a physical and political linkage between Gaza and the West Bank for a future autonomous state of Palestine.
Below the surface, yet dramatically urgent there is the question of the huge cost that Israel bears to maintain such a large military apparatus in the West Bank to protect colonies and settlers and push for the de facto annexation of significant parts of that territory. To that end the army was forced to drastically reduce defenses along the northern borders with Hezbollah and southern with Hamas.
Finally, what should be a fair and balanced position of a political Left sensitive to humanitarian values?
Just as it is right to oppose the continuation of the occupation of the West Bank and the oppressive embargo on the Gaza Strip, as well as reiterating the urgency of a fair and long-term resolution of a conflict that has engulfed for over a century two peoples on that tiny disputed strip of land, the same ethical imperative calls for a firm condemnation of the murderous attack by Hamas against civilians and the seizure of hostages. This is stated in an open letter by Israeli, Jewish and Arab , public intellectuals and peace activists concerned about the virulence of anti-Israeli positions expressed and demonstrations held in universities and cities in the United States and several European countries. In some cases violence was not condemned, asserting that third parties have no right to judge the actions of the oppressed; others underestimated the severity of the trauma afflicting Israel, arguing that Israel itself has produced with its actions such a tragedy. For others such an infamous day was a perverse reason to celebrate.
Perhaps the principle that should inspire us in these horrific circumstances is that of “dual loyalty” – a specious charge often aimed at the Left, an insult, an accusation of betrayal. On the contrary, stating the illicit nature of violence against civilians, on both sides, the rejection of the dehumanization of the “enemy”, the recognition even with inherent difficulties of the reasons and rights of the other, must be the guiding principles of the Left if it is truly committed to peace.