For the moment, the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas have stopped and the American-made F-16 fighter jets zeroing in on the neighborhoods of Gaza are still. Survivors ask: Was it worth it? Some Hamas leaders rejoice that to withstand an Israeli bombardment means to have “won.” Israel takes satisfaction in having punished “terrorists” and closed tunnels. But count the casualties: 2,131 Palestinians killed in Gaza, including 1,473 civilians, of whom 501 were children and 257 women, plus 66 soldiers and five civilians dead on the Israeli side. Move through the blocks of flattened villages and inhale the smell of death and sewage in the gutters. Count the factories and hospitals destroyed, the 34 crumbled schools. Imagine the faces of 1,400 orphans, of the 110,000 Gazans who lost their homes, huddled in shelters or lined up for drinking water.
This could all happen again in two years if the region returns to the status quo. Or, with determination and stronger, wiser leadership, Israel and Palestine may move toward a two-state solution, each secure enough to live, if not in friendship, at least as neighbors.
Obstacles remain. Both sides are divided internally: the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel, but Hamas does not; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces criticism from the left and right. Both sides see themselves as victims and neither trusts the other.
But the basic formula for peace and security is clear. Israel must end the occupation of Arab territory seized following the conflict in 1967. But as recently as this September it seized over 1,000 acres of West Bank land near Bethlehem. There Israel controls the water supply and highways on which only their cars may drive, and has pushed Arabs out of East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians wish to have their future capital.
Time and demography increase the urgency for reaching a deal. There are more than 6.1 million Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; in the same space there are 5.5 million Arab Palestinians now living in Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza, and their higher birthrate will soon make Palestinians the majority. If by that time the Palestinians do not have their own state, Israel will have to give up its identity as both a Jewish state and a democracy, slip deeper into apartheid or drive the Arabs out once more. Meanwhile Palestinian anger will surely boil up again, next time with more international opinion in its corner.
Though numerous U.S. attempts to broker an agreement have failed, there are steps the United States can take to create the conditions for peace. First, the United States should, for a change, use its influence in the United Nations to support, not veto, the Palestinian people’s demands for justice. This could mean allowing an investigation by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations into possible war crimes committed by both sides: Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel and Israel bombing near U.N. schools and family homes. Both sides, including some people in the United States, may resist this investigation. But the only way to curtail war crimes is to hold responsible those who commit them.
Second, though rebuilding may take 20 years, initial steps can improve living conditions now. The United States should drastically cut, by as much as two-thirds, the $3 billion in mostly military aid it gives to Israel each year and direct those resources to the reconstruction of Gaza. With international oversight, the money should help build schools, hospitals and factories to jumpstart its economy. (Gaza has an unemployment rate of 40 percent, and 80 percent of its population depends on international aid.) A functioning economy also requires that citizens have freedom of movement. With no seaport, airfield or highways that offer a way out, Gaza has become a prison. Israel should lift the blockade on goods and people flowing in and out of Gaza. But lest Hamas and other militant groups exploit looser borders to bring in weapons and sneak out terrorists, Israel should accept the European Union’s offer to provide security at border crossings.
In the end, however, there is only so much outsiders can do. To achieve a lasting peace, Israelis and Palestinians need to talk to each other—not just at negotiation tables but in shops, restaurants and on beaches. In a recent symposium with Israelis and Palestinians in Harper’s (September), contributors stressed, “We don’t know each other. This is the heart of the issue.” They recalled the times when a Palestinian would wake up on a sunny day and say to his children, “Let’s go to the beach in Tel Aviv.”
Recently, in testimony before the U.N. Human Rights Council, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told his audience, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, “The way to the future lies in recognizing our common humanity.” Ten years from now, if Palestine is not yet a state, Gaza might at least be a prospering enclave at peace.