The latest ceasefire in Gaza unraveled less than two hours after it began on Aug. 1 when a Hamas operation led to the killing of two I.D.F. soldiers and the capture of a third (updated: IDF now reports soldier believed captured had been killed and circumstances around the incident are disputed). In the immediate aftermath, I.D.F. forces began a ferocious bombardment of the border community of Rafah that, according to reports, killed more than 70, bringing the overall death toll in the conflict to more than 1,660 Palestinian deaths, including more than 300 children. On the Israeli side, 63 Israeli soldiers have died from friendly fire or in combat with Hamas militants and three civilians had been killed by rockets or mortar fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, laying the blame for another ceasefire collapse squarely on Hamas (which in turn denies culpability), and, ruling out further negotiations, advised the Obama administration "not to ever second guess me again." In a speech on Israeli television on Aug. 2, he said the incursion would continue indefinitely. “From the beginning, we promised to return the quiet to Israel’s citizens, and we will continue to act until that aim is achieved. We will take as much time as necessary and will exert as much force as needed.”
With nothing but more suffering apparently on the way, looking beyond the current violence with any degree of hope seems at best naïve. The images of the wounded and dying emerging from the conflict, especially of the children—more than 50 percent of Gaza’s citizens are under 15—“are horrific,” says Atalia Omer, Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and the apparent violations of human rights and international law have been devastating to witness. Still, “we can’t give in to despair,” Omer says. “We can never reach that point.”
In the short-term, Omer says, the current conflict will likely not end until the Netanyahu government begins to accept the ceasefire proposals pitched by America’s sleep-deprived Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. officials, she says. But for long-term peace to be achieved, “the solution is not military,” she says simply. “The solution is diplomatic and political.”
Israel and Gaza “have to be neighbors,” Omer says, “This is why it is so important to talk.” She fears the current conflict has only weakened Palestinian moderates who could have remained negotiation partners with Israel. “Bibi has rendered Abbas irrelevant,” she says.
Despite political and media fixation on “terror tunnels,” Israel’s right to self-defense and even the immediate flashpoint of the most recent violence, the murder of three Israeli teens on the West Bank, the ultimate source of tension, Omer says, “remains the occupation.”
She explains, “If you crush Hamas something else will only emerge because Palestinian people are still living under occupation.”
As an Israeli watching the carnage from the United States, Omer says, “I am very connected and I feel love and pain. I cannot just say, ‘Not in my name’ [a popular slogan of resistance to Israeli policy]. I have to work [within the Israeli culture] to change the narrative, to change what it means to be an Israeli.”
Taking a critical stance of the current political and social dynamic in Israel is not easy when polls indicate that more than 80 percent of the Israeli public is solidly behind this latest and increasingly bloody incursion into Gaza. But Omer says it is important to take note of emerging voices for peace and social justice in Israeli, especially among its young people and among young Jews around the world. This movement, she emphasizes, is “newsworthy” and relevant, with the potential to one day secure a significant influence on the course of Israeli culture and politics.
The resilience of Israeli civil society’s actors for peace has been all the more impressive, she suggests, as tolerance for dissent and cultural critique within Israel has diminished in recent years and fallen especially rapidly since the beginning of I.D.F. operations in Gaza on July 8. Demonstrations for peace in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem in recent days have brought Israeli Arabs and Jews together, but they have also been met with sometimes violent reaction from supporters of an overwhelming military response to Palestinian resistance.
Because of the make-up of the current Israeli government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has actually come to be perceived as a moderate—some members of his cabinet are openly calling for a scorched earth policy in Gaza. Some Israelis are increasingly willing to physically lash out at critics of the occupation or Israeli military policy, and what passes for debate on the Palestinian question within Israel society skews closer to outright racism, Omer says.
She admits that pessimists are probably justified in thinking there is little reason to expect a change in the political “narrative” in Israel any time soon. That narrative compels an inverted reality, she suggests, where the dominant, occupying force pronounces its own victimhood while simultaneously defining Palestinians as terrorists who “have a culture of death,” who “use their babies’ ” deaths for public relations points. Such intense and widely held beliefs dehumanize Palestinians and enable a disconnect from the carnage among Israelis. Omer calls it “binary” thinking, a “narrative of inevitability” regarding the conflict such that average Israelis have trouble imagining anything other than a military response to the conflict.
“Most of Israeli society accepts this inevitability,” Omer says. “They’ll say, ‘It’s sad; we don’t want to kill babies, but we have no choice.’”
This is the “inevitability” she and other Israelis wish to challenge. Important global pressure for change comes from civil society agents like, in the United States, the Jewish Voice for Peace. Within the political establishment in Israel, the Meretz Party is committed to breaking the binary thinking Omer worries over in pursuit of preferential options for peace. What an event it would be, she muses, what a political earthquake, were the tireless Secretary Kerry to consult with Meretz leaders the next time he lands in Israel instead of dutifully and futilely visiting with Likud leaders. “That would be a very bold, creative move, but I don’t know if [the Obama administration has] the courage or the political capital to do that.”
Omer insists all the same that the existence of Meretz and other persistent actors for peace in Israeli civil society—Breaking the Silence, an organization of I.D.F. veterans testifying to the reality of the occupation; Combatants for Peace, a joint campaign by Palestinians and Israelis; and the Coalition of Women for Peace, a feminist organization against the occupation of Palestine and for a just peace—should be a source of hope that a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians remains possible.
According to Omer, an honest dialogue will begin with a shift away from the media focus on what has been the purported cause of the current crisis, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens on the West Bank—a crime Hamas leaders deny any connection to—to the true source of the conflict, the outrage in the Netanyahu government over the success of a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas in June and, most important, the persistence of the 47-year-old occupation.
That position is shared by Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem. Just before the 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire fall apart, he said that temporary halts in fighting are obviously welcome, but futile unless Israel changes its policies toward Gaza. "If conditions in Gaza remain that of a desperate land under siege, where the only things that grow are fear and frustration that spur hatred," then a temporary cease-fire will have no lasting impact, he said.
"It almost seems as if the point is to make Gaza a factory for desperate people who are easy to transform into extremists ready for anything," the patriarch said.
The next step, he said, must be lifting the Israeli blockade of Gaza. "Even the tunnels" dug by Hamas and a primary target of Israel's military action, "are a product of the embargo. If the siege ends, if roads are opened and the free movement of persons and products is permitted, if people are allowed to fish in the sea" along the Gaza coast, then "no one will need to dig tunnels."
The patriarch’s position was echoed in a letter to Congress on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, from Des Moines Bishop Richard E. Pates, Chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo, President of Catholic Relief Services.
They wrote on July 23: “The status quo leads to deep desperation in Gaza and the West Bank, and to poverty where there should be economic opportunity. Furthermore, are excessive actions of hostility and indiscriminate punishment not breeding a whole new generation of terrorists?
“Catholic Relief Services has had to suspend operations in Gaza due to the violence, but with U.S. support, is prepared to resume humanitarian and development assistance to Gaza’s vulnerable population when a ceasefire is achieved. Such assistance reduces desperation and is good for both Palestinians and Israelis alike.
“We urge Congress to support an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian relief for Gaza. In addition, Congress should support the difficult, but essential, work of building a just and lasting peace. Only the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state in the near term living alongside a recognized and secure Israel will bring the peace for which majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians yearn.”
It’s not clear if that message is getting through. The U.S. Congress has enthusiastically endorsed the Israeli campaign in Gaza despite the death toll among noncombatants, and on Aug. 1 voted with near unanimity an additional $225 million in military aid to Israel to shore up its Iron Dome anti-missile defenses.
Notre Dame’s Omer argues that the lion’s share of the responsibility for peacemaking falls on Israel, as the dominant and occupying force. But Hamas leaders have a role to play as well, she adds. They need to take responsibility for ceasing a strategy of indiscriminate rocket attacks and should cease the tunnel construction that is providing the justification for the current incursion.
“For the past seven years Gaza has been a prison, cut off from Palestinian Authority [on the West Bank],” Omer says. With the regime change in Egypt, the isolation of Hamas and as a consequence the people of Gaza has been complete.
“It is often said that Israel has a right to defend itself,” she says, “but Gaza is not a sovereign state; it is occupied.” She adds, “Israel controls everything, so most of the responsibility for changing the course of events will have to reside with Israel. But Hamas will have to demonstrate political will [for a ceasefire]; it will have to stop firing rockets; it will have to demonstrate it is in control of its people.” At some point, she adds, Hamas and Israel must accept international monitors that can offer both sides security assurances.
On Aug. 1 Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, president of Caritas Internationalis, said peace is impossible without reconciliation, and reconciliation requires recognizing each other as human beings. He suggested Israeli and Hamas leaders pick up a pair of binoculars so they could see that "most of your victims are innocent people."
Photo: A Palestinian man reacts upon seeing destruction in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, on Aug.1. The city was hit by Israeli shelling and airstrikes. (CNS photo/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa , Reuters)