When Senator Bernie Sanders, during his New York debate with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, criticized Israel for its brutal waging of the war in Gaza in 2014, he called our attention to a moral issue politicians lately tend to avoid: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To punish Hamas for its rocket attacks, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, consisting of aerial bombings and a ground invasion. The Israeli Defense Forces were responsible for 2,131 deaths, among them 1,400 civilians, including many children. Seventy-two Israelis, including five civilians, died. The air strikes were so devastating—damaging schools and hospitals, private homes and public buildings—a U.N. report warned that by 2020 Gaza would be “uninhabitable.”
A young American Jew, Jacob Bacharach, wrote in the Israeli daily paper Haaretz (4/16) that Israel was becoming “not the mystical homeland we appeal to in prayer, but a real, compromised place, a country whose frankly disastrous politics and shameful treatment of the Palestinians has made it increasingly unsupportable.” The rising tide of self-examination in recent years has transformed arguments over a two-state solution into a debate over the “two Israels”—between those sensitive to Palestinian rights and those so terrified by the “intifada of the knives” that they deny those rights in the name of security.
Since October, Palestinians have killed about 30 Israelis, while Israelis have shot dead 120 Palestinians who were making, or were suspected of making, attacks. Human rights groups have complained that some of the assailants did not pose an imminent threat. In March two young Palestinian men stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint in Hebron; one was killed in the attack, the other lay wounded until another soldier came by, saw the wounded man was still alive and executed him.
Israel’s defense minister has declared that this soldier’s action “completely contradicts I.D.F. values and its battle ethics.” The soldier has been charged with manslaughter. While some in the I.D.F. seem committed to protecting the army’s integrity, a notable segment of the Israeli public has celebrated the indicted soldier as a hero. Meanwhile, the corpses of Palestinian attackers killed by Israeli forces are not returned to their families but put in a freezer for months while families plead with courts for their return.
The rockets of Hamas and the knives young Palestinians used in indiscriminate attacks are instruments of immoral madness; but it is a madness rooted in a loss of hope. Uri Ariel, the conservative minister of agriculture, must have sensed this when he described Palestinian laborers waiting in line at the checkpoints for hours as a disgrace and called for giving the Palestinians a seaport with access to gas and water.
A recent U.S. State Department report on human rights practices in Israel and the occupied territories presents an exhaustive analysis of degrading conditions in prisons, restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, and troubling treatment of refugees, children and laborers. The report counts 6,826 Palestinians in jail, including 264 minors. According to the State Department, they receive harsher treatment than the general population, including increased administrative detention, restricted family visits, no temporary furloughs and more solitary confinement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used intolerant rhetoric against Arab citizens to win re-election. When Arabs tried to build homes, regional planning committees with no Arab members frustrated their attempts. Military courts convict a much higher percentage of Palestinians than civilian courts.
Catholics should care about this issue, since the Holy See and Palestine have committed themselves to a two-state solution. How can American Catholics work for fair treatment of Arab citizens and for peace in Israel? We should encourage our political and religious leaders to raise their voices. President Obama recently sent Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry to attend a gala sponsored by J Street, the pro-peace American Jewish lobby. The president is considering a presentation to the United Nations to lay a foundation for his successor. It should re-emphasize the importance of minimum standards for the protection of the human rights of Palestinians and of freedom of expression for dissenters among the Israeli public. It should also call for a review of the Israeli military field manual, lest any ambiguity become a license to kill.
Meanwhile 16 of Israel’s current and former security chiefs posted a full-page ad in The New York Times (3/29) endorsing the two-state solution. The alternative is a future in which Jews will be a minority in Israel; it is estimated that in 15 years they will make up 44 percent of the population. We pray that before it is too late, the United States will demonstrate its friendship by speaking honestly and encouraging Israel to be true to its better self.