Note: Last week I said I was not ready to deal with the situation in Israel/Palestine and Gaza and wrote instead about running. We were – and continue to be –overwhelmed with news from the region, and I’ve wrestled with whether I had anything to say that hasn’t been said already. I’ve chosen to add my own voice because silence can be misconstrued as complicity.
For American Jews like me who have whole-heartedly supported Black Lives Matter, it follows that, as Bernie Sanders said in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter, Palestinian lives matter.”
I’ve written before about how agonizing it is for me to see Israel descending deeper into racism and unchecked aggression in dealing with its own Palestinian citizens and with Palestinians in Gaza and the Occupied Territories. A non-Jewish friend asked me recently to explain the current eruption of violence in East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank and the ethnically mixed cities within Israel. I told her that it was easy to get lost in the tangle of narratives about who started what and when. Was it the rampage of fanatical nationalist Orthodox youths through the streets of Jerusalem shouting “Death to the Arabs”? Was it the invasion of the Al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli police where they cut the cable to the mosque’s speakers used for the call to prayer and injured hundreds of worshippers? Was it the imminent expulsion of long-time Palestinian residents from their homes in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood? The stones thrown by Palestinian protesters? The rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory? The “lynching” of Jews and Arabs in the streets of formerly peaceful Israeli cities? The Israeli bombing of Gaza?
We have to look past these grave incidents of the moment to find a deeper cause that unites them – the 1967 War which ended with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Recent analysts have reached back even further in the country’s history, to the very creation of the state in 1948, a time when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes and from the country itself. I agree with their analysis, but I still believe that the occupation beginning with the Six Day War marked a qualitative shift in the way Israelis perceived themselves and their relation to the “others” in their midst. Overnight Israel became an occupier, as they were branded by the UN and other international organizations, with complete dominion over the lives of those others, a position that inevitably leads to the use of violence to insure that that power remains in your hands. To justify this resort to violence it is expedient to dehumanize the subjugated population, easing the discomfort of, for example, dropping bombs on innocent civilians. Israel has acted as if its extraordinary military advantage will make possible the indefinite continuation of that control, both within its boundaries and in the occupied territories. We’re witnessing a fierce challenge to that assumption, even as Israel tries to maintain the status quo ante with ever more outsized uses of force.
Yes, every American politician has declared Israel’s right to defend itself, and yes, Hamas rockets aimed at Israeli citizens need to stop. And yes, Hamas is using the situation to enhance its position among the Palestinian population, just as Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing the same with his constituents. And yes, Prime Minister Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, but none of that justifies the massive loss of life and property in Gaza, most especially the loss of all those children.
Fifty years of occupation and all that preceded it have generated an unimaginable amount of frustration and hopelessness among Palestinians. When President Trump’s move of the American embassy to Jerusalem did not cause an eruption of anger in the Palestinian streets, Israel and its allies assumed incorrectly that protest had been crushed forever and that Palestinians were now too dispirited to present any further threat. From a distance and to the uninformed eye, Israeli Palestinians in particular had little cause to protest. After all, they were Israeli citizens with the right to vote, who had representatives in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. In truth, they have been second-class citizens from the beginning. Witness the fact that their voting privileges have never actually given them a seat at the table of parliamentary power.
The cease-fire that President Biden is demanding, and which will undoubtedly be in place by the time you read this, accomplishes nothing lasting. It returns the situation that was in place before all the death and the post cease fire challenge of enormous homelessness. All the conditions that caused the eruption in the first place remain in place, a sure guarantee that the next explosion will be even bloodier and more violent. So long as the Gazans are penned up in their tiny strip of coastal land, a space that one journalist called the world’s largest outdoor prison, so long as Palestinians are forced out of their long-time homes to make way for settlers, so long as the occupation remains in place, we will remain trapped in the loop of unending wars.
I want to close by introducing you to a voice other than my own, one much more intimately involved in the struggles of the last half-century than I. David Shulman, from his unlikely perch as an Indologist at the Hebrew University, has been deeply involved in Ta’ayush, an Arab/Jewish partnership which among other things, has worked to protect Palestinians in the West Bank from Jewish settlers aimed at forcing them from their ancestral lands by any means necessary. These are his despairing words as they appeared in an Indian publication called The Wire:
“During these dark days and nights, one can hear a host of Israeli generals speaking ad nauseum, about ‘deterrence,’ the alleged goal of this war, a goal they think can be achieved by inflicting vast destruction on Hamas in Gaza. It is fair to say that this fantasy of deterrence has never worked. Only a nation haunted by a fundamental sense of impotence could cultivate such a delusion, even turning it into a cornerstone of its worldview and the guiding compass of its policies toward others, including the intimate Palestinian other who shares this land with the Jews.
“In the midst of so much mindless destruction, one searches desperately for some tattered scrap of hope. I used to think I would live to see the change that must happen here – to see the elementary principle of equality for all, enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, begin to take root in Israeli minds; to see Israelis and Palestinians embrace the many ties that bind them. I’m no longer sure I’ll get to see that day.”