After 11 disastrous days of violence, an uneasy cease-fire took hold between Hamas and Israel on May 21. The rockets have stopped flying, but in the war’s immediate aftermath the only thing that’s clear is that there are no winners in this latest outbreak of mayhem. There is an urgent need to make sense of this moment, because the momentum of same old same old is moving Israelis and Palestinians alike in a deadly direction.
The violence emerged from massive street protests in early May, over Israeli incursions into the Al-Aksa Mosque (third holiest site in Islam), and the Netanyahu administration’s encroachments into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarra — part of an ongoing maneuver to replace Palestinians with right wing Jewish inhabitants. The context is far broader, however — the tortuous history of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. It’s the world’s longest running story, one of overwhelming complexity. Unless one makes a deep dive into the history, the impulse is to seek clarity in a simplified narrative of victims and oppressors, good guys and bad guys. Us and them.
In the latest outbreak of violence, the disparity in casualties between the two sides is staggering. The numbers tell a very partial story, however. The American press barely touched on the pain and trauma civilian Israelis suffered during those eleven days, but it was brutal. Israelis old enough to remember the Six Day War say they never experienced anything as terrifying.
The impact of the May war on the civilian populations of Gaza and Israel — the loss of life, the injuries both physical and psychological, the loss of homes, the fear, the trauma — is abhorrent, on both sides. That much is fundamental, as is a corollary truth: terrorism is never justified.
Hamas, the Islamist organization that rules Gaza with an iron fist, disagrees. The maelstrom of pain that rained down on the citizens of Gaza and Israel for eleven days in mid-May began when Hamas started shooting its rockets at Israel, 400 per day, all aimed at cities and other civilian targets. They fired their missiles from apartment buildings and other civilian sights, understanding that Israel was bound to defend itself. Hamas deliberately acted in ways that guaranteed horrific damage to its own people, and it used the high casualty rate to bolster its case against Israel as a violator of human rights. Hamas is, beyond question, a terrorist organization.
The numbers do tell an important story, actually, if one pays close enough attention. Civilian casualties in Israel from Hamas’s 4400 rockets would have been far, far greater if it weren’t for Iron Dome, Israel’s missile interception system, and if Israel hadn’t built so many bomb shelters. Hamas has invested in a vast stockpile of missiles and other weaponry, and spent millions of dollars building tunnels in which to store them. There are few, if any, bomb shelters or safe houses in Gaza. Regarding Gaza’s casualties, no one disputes that Israel’s arsenal is far more sophisticated and vastly more powerful than Hamas’s. The IDF articulates a strict ethical commitment to both proportionality and restrictions against harming civilians. If the IDF had not adhered to those principles in Gaza these past few weeks, the results would have been brutally, catastrophically different. In all that has been written about the recent air war, the scant attention paid to the IDF’s restraint plays into a narrative of villainization that honest critics of Israel should find troubling.
Indeed, now is the time for all sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict to involve themselves in honest criticism. Note that I didn’t write “both” sides, which would leave out so many of the other actors and stakeholders — diaspora Jews, Arab countries with diplomatic relations with Israel, other Arab states, including those still committed to Israel’s destruction, Evangelical Christians, Iran, America…
I am a Jewish American, married to an Israeli woman, so I certainly consider myself a stakeholder. I have Israeli friends and family. I have a dear friend who comes from the Palestinian city of Ramallah, too. For all of our sakes, I do not believe the situation is hopeless, but I am familiar with many arguments that “prove” otherwise. One such trope is that Israel has no partner for peace. Certainly, after twelve straight years of Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinians have every right to say the same thing.
My personal view is that Israel cannot stop trying. It needs to make peace with the Palestinians. Israel’s own survival depends on that. The way forward is murky, for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Certainly, any version of a stable peace requires Israel to end its occupation. And that in turn can only happen when Israel finds the political will to disempower the ultra-Orthodox, whose views dominate Israeli politics, leaving no room for compromising or making peace with the Palestinians, their neighbors.
Maybe there is reason to hope. The aftermath of the latest Hamas-Israel war only looks like same old same old. The constellation of facts has shifted, and all the players are aware of it. The Palestinian Authority is feeling a chill in the air in the wake of Israel’s normalization of relations with Sudan, Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain. Gaza is in a shambles, after yet another betrayal at the hands of Hamas, perhaps one too many.
Israel senses the change, as well. Hamas’s rockets drew blood. Everyone in Israel felt it, and they know that to the north, Hezbollah is sitting on a far more dangerous cache of weapons. The conventional wisdom about Israel-Palestine is that there’s always a next time. But “next time” has become a scary idea, and no one really wants to see what that might look like. Maybe, just maybe, that’s going to be enough to make the difference.
We can only hope.
Peter Melnick is an author and composer, and president of the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara.