Don’t let the plight of Palestinians fall out of the headlines (again)
In December of last year, Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah, the first native Palestinian in centuries to hold the office of archbishop and Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, asked the readers of America, the media and the global Catholic Church two simple questions: “Can you help both Israelis and Palestinians achieve a just, definitive peace? Or will you keep looking with indifference toward the Holy Land, a land in which one people continues to oppress another people, resulting in continued bloodshed and hatred?”
The questions were not answered. They need to be asked again. Despite being a major military supporter of Israel and a power broker in the region, the United States has dithered on establishing any policy to help bring an end to a conflict now in its eighth decade. Moreover, many Americans seem to take the news of increasing violence in the region with relative equanimity—or, to use the patriarch’s word, indifference.
No one would deny that the situation is complicated beyond all measure, but some facts are clear. Israeli settlements in the West Bank have encroached for decades on land granted to the Palestinians by U.N. mandate. Severe Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinians and a series of militarized walls and checkpoints have crippled their economy and carved their territory into a patchwork of occupied zones. Rocket attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian militants have been met with overwhelming force by the Israel Defense Forces, including attacks on civilians and nonmilitary installations.
This latest violence has produced again an uneven, disproportionate outcome in human suffering.
In a new round of violence in May, rockets from Gaza—fired to protest the militarized evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and provocations at the Al Aqsa Mosque (and, not coincidentally, to assert a leadership claim in Gaza by Hamas)—fell across Israel. Israel’s response included drone and fighter strikes that obliterated launch sites and demolished office towers and residential buildings across Gaza City. This pattern of provocation and response continued for almost two weeks until a cease-fire was reached on May 20.
This latest violence has produced again an uneven, disproportionate outcome in human suffering. While there are wounded and dead in Israel victimized by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it is unfailingly in Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on earth, where noncombatant fatalities reach a shocking degree.
When the clearly disproportionate nature of both the capacity for death-dealing and the predictable outcomes are pointed out, military and political leadership in Israel grit their teeth and intone, “Israel has the right to defend itself,” as if that reply were sufficient to overcome any ethical objection. U.S. politicians all the way to the top grimly corroborate that assessment as American-made missiles, mortars and tank shells fall on the streets and houses of the Palestinian people.
No one denies that Israel has a right to defend itself, but surely the manner and execution of that defense can be assessed and challenged
No one denies that Israel has a right to defend itself, but surely the manner and execution of that defense can be assessed and challenged. The common-sense demand of the Arab world is that the United States’ political ally and military client in the Middle East calculate its response—and its treatment of Palestinian residents and protestors in general—with a higher sensitivity to justice and mercy and the sacredness of human life than it has in recent years been demonstrating.
The goals of the vaunted Oslo Accords have long since been abandoned, and the settlement of almost 500,000 Israelis in the West Bank since the famous handshake in the Rose Garden in 1994 has made a farce of the proposed two-state solution. What is left among the ruins of Gaza, of the West Bank, of Jerusalem?
Because of a double blockade of transit and supplies by Israelis at one end and Egyptians at the other, the people of Gaza are unable to escape, forced to endure a diminishing civic and social infrastructure. This includes barely functioning sewer and water systems and an electrical grid that functions for only a few hours each day. The result has been some measure of hopelessness that hangs over every child born within Gaza’s precincts.
Is the two-state solution doomed? Has Israel already moved beyond it? The alternative is one state with two classes of citizenship, arguably three. Arabs inside of Israel’s official borders already know what it is like to live as second-class citizens. Absorbing other Palestinians from across today’s lines of demarcation in Gaza and the West Bank will no doubt create an even more diminished class of citizenship in a one-state “Isralestine.”
We cannot refer to Israel and Palestine as the Holy Land and simultaneously wash our hands of any interest or responsibility in establishing a just and lasting peace.
Further, for the international community to abandon the two-state solution in favor of a balkanized single state dominated by inequality is not just a human rights issue. It also tells the Palestinian people to abandon their hope for a homeland. When a similar message is heard from militant hardliners against Israel, that nation rightly sees it as an existential threat.
It will take a significant gesture from the United States and the international community to help restore a credible path to a two-state solution—but it remains the only viable solution. Does the Biden administration have the courage and vision to offer one? Do the American people?
It is a political instinct among Americans to side with Israel; but that does not allow us to set aside or ignore the historical experience and national aspirations of the Palestinian people in the construction of U.S. Middle East policy. As the patron of Israel (with somewhere in the vicinity of $4 billion in U.S. military aid flowing into Israel each year), the United States is implicated in every missile strike and every loss of noncombatant life.
Real progress toward peace between these Middle East antagonists has been achieved only when the United States has taken an activist role; often that has meant U.S. presidents taking a firm stand with Israeli leaders, who do understand the importance of all that U.S. aid. In this case, that firm stand should include pressure on Israel to recognize the Palestinian right to a homeland and to seek out its aims at the negotiating table—not through the construction of more walls or the use of overwhelming force.
For U.S. Catholics, too, there is a special poignancy to the situation that cries out for more efforts toward peace and justice. The ongoing violence in the region is not just a Jewish-Muslim conflict; it is one that affects (or will affect) all of us. We cannot refer to Israel and Palestine as the Holy Land and simultaneously wash our hands of any interest or responsibility in establishing a just and lasting peace. To do so is to be complicit in the “continued bloodshed and hatred.”