With a ceasefire now in place since early this morning between Israel and Gaza, we can pause to consider what just happened and what may lie ahead. Any decision regarding which side won depends on which parameters are selected. What is clear is that each side underestimated the strength of the other and that there is no clear-cut victor. Hamas failed to compel Israel to capitulate. There were few Israeli casualties and no successful surprise attacks from the sea or by a smart Iranian drone. It is true that Israel could not stop them from incessantly firing missiles on our cities. But at what price? For years Hamas diverted resources from the West and Katar earmarked for the betterment of their people leaving them poor and miserable. The Israeli response to the missile attacks has further added to their misery, all of which could have been avoided.
Israel, for its part, underestimated and was unprepared to stop the massive number of rockets in the Hamas arsenal, including long-range missiles which hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel was also surprised by the extent of their underground infrastructure (the so-called “metro”).
Fortunately for us, the situation, as bad as it was, was not apocalyptical. The Hezbollah and Iranians did not get drawn into the fracas, nor, for the most part, did Palestinians on the West Bank. While applauding from the sidelines, Hamas failed at getting any pan-Arab support.
The fact that that there were so many rockets and yet relatively few casualties on our side attests that our defense systems — shelters, emergency protocols along with the iron dome anti-missile system — were extremely successful, has ironically worked against us internationally, because despite being bombarded by hundreds of missiles, we had few casualties the consequence being that some foreign correspondents assert that Israel overreacted in their response. What was Israel’s alternative?
Despite their use of civilians as human shields, and placing launch sites within civilian enclaves, the ratio of a high number of Hamas and Jihad fatalities with relatively few civilian casualties shows that our intelligence, war ethics and air force are up to scratch. Criticism by Western correspondents of the number of Gaza fatalities is balderdash. All wars produce civilian casualties, yet few armies try and succeed as much as the IDF in minimizing them.
Even with the firing over for now, problems and conundrums await us regarding the future with Hamas. Will Israel allow, for example, the entry of cement into the Strip? Ostensibly it would be intended to help the people of Gaza rebuild their homes. After all, you cannot leave them homeless. And yet, what will stop Hamas from again diverting civilian marked supplies to rebuild their military tunnels? Who will stop them?
What concerns me more than the attack of Gaza on Israel is the rift between Arab and Jewish Israelis which appeared. The violent protests exposed a complex, poorly treated problem. If it is not dealt with effectively as a top priority, it will return to haunt us in one form or another.
Given that the protests were violent, unexpected, occurred in multiple sites and often included outside provocateurs from both sides, it is not surprising that it was difficult to bring them under control. It is sadly apparent that our police were initially not up to the task, which made matters even worse. There is also an irony here. On one hand, Arab Israelis are freer than anywhere else in the Middle East, a point the foreign press tends to ignore. In contrast to Israel allowing demonstrations as long as they are not violent, in any Arab or Moslem Middle Eastern country, protests are simply dealt with by massive arrests and shootings, banning of news coverage and the denial of protesters’ recourse to legal action. One should also note that the vast majority of Israeli Arabs were not involved in violent protest.
However, and without justifying the violence of the protests, Arab Israelis, despite tremendous advances during the past 20 years in their standard of living and health care, nevertheless often find themselves treated as second-class citizens and denied acknowledgment of their presence or legitimate claims. It makes them feel like strangers in a strange land. Here are some examples:
- The Israeli government invariably takes a one-sided pro-Jewish stance on any issue related to land control, sometimes when the legal justification is questionable. The case of Sheikh Jarrah illustrates this point. While the eviction of the Palestinian families was legal, it was not symmetrical. The law allows Jews to assert land claims from before 1948 while denying this right to Arab property-owners. Acts like these are perceived by the other side as unjust and provocative. An Arab colleague of mine depicted it as if they were poked in the eyes.
- Many problems within the Arab communities remain ignored. Long before the present outbreak of Arab violence against Jews, Arab Israelis had to deal with increasing violence within their communities. They even made the shift from long-standing non-cooperation with the Israeli police to demands that the police help deal with it. It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise when some of those same people turned their violence against Jews.
- The most important indication of lack of attention to Israeli Arab issues is evident in the Knesset. The Jewish members of the Knesset refuse to invite MKs from Arab parties to help form the government. Even today, when many MK’s claim to be willing to do almost anything to remove Netanyahu from power, they are openly unwilling to invite any of the Arab MK’s to join an alternative government. It is true that the rhetoric of some of the Arabs grates on Jewish ears, but there are MK’s such as the Haredim, who have joined numerous governments while openly opposed to a political Jewish state and have anti-Zionist rhetoric. In my view there is a clear double standard at play here – one strict set of values applied to Arabs with another indulgent set applied to Jews.
Some components of Israeli right agenda are an affront to many moderate Israeli Arabs. In my view, the problem is less the Jewish claim to the land of Israel and more the denial of Arab claims, and a legitimate place for them within the Jewish state. Israel purports to be a democracy, which by definition should be pluralistic and respectful of minority rights. Can we not be a Jewish State in which the moderate Arabs who believe in coexistence also have their rights respected? Should we really be pursuing policies such as the eviction of Arab families from Sheik Jarrah? Look at the price we are having to pay for that questionable policy.
Now our MK’s need to deal with issue of forming a new government. We are at a juncture where it can go either way. Given the existing constellation of parties, there is a fair likelihood that a future government may insist on promoting the same failed right-wing agenda while retaining Netanyahu in power. Even many politicians who ran on platforms such as “not Netanyahu” or, “end corruption” still may prefer to backtrack on their call for leadership change as long as they can promote this agenda, rather than form a government with the support of Arab MKs. Should the next government continue to be right-wing to the extreme, they should not be surprised when that day of reckoning with the damaging consequences of those decisions will eventually again come to haunt them. The present Gaza conflict, with the associated Arab Israeli demonstrations should be viewed as a wake-up call.
The other alternative is to strive for an honest, pluralistic, more center-focused government, in which integrity, accountability and the good of the citizenry would be its guiding principles which is what governments should normally strive for. Such a government could invite cooperative Arab politicians to be part of the process. They could even be mobilized to help deal with Gaza. While this may sound farfetched to some, is it not possible that our Arab political representatives, who understand both the Israeli-Jewish and the Palestinian mentalities, can play a bridging role between Israel and Gaza? People in Israel are calling for a change in the approach to Gaza, to trying something which has not yet been tried. Rather than more of the same which is unacceptable to most Israelis, application of force which will likely fail again or capitulation which is untenable – why not try a really different approach, that strives for a combination of being assertive and conciliatory as what characterizes many negotiations?
While not denying that many Israeli Arabs would prefer an Arab-run government, many of those same people appreciate that our country and government do it better and fairer than anywhere else in the Middle East. We observe, for example, the enormous contribution of Arab physicians, nurses, caregivers and administrators in the medical field. There is no reason why this cannot apply in other fields as well, including in government. Encouraging people to work within the system rather than ostracizing them can have a moderating effect. Times have changed. For many Israeli Arabs, as much as their emotional sentiments may lean to identification with the Palestinian cause, on a day-to-day basis they aspire to a higher standard of living and note that if they cooperate and play by the rules they can lead a fulfilling life.
I am reminded by the biblical passage in which Moses names his son Gershon out of respect for the care he received when he was growing up in Egypt “I have been a stranger in a strange land” Exodus 2:22. I believe that it is both within our self-interest and we have an obligation to strive for a government which does not make the Arab populace feel as if they are strangers in a strange land.