The current outbreak of violence in Gaza is just classic, an eruption of the same old stuff in the same old way. Yet amidst the propaganda there’s one fact everyone studiously misses. The sides are not equal. One side, Israel, has military, diplomatic and financial power and sovereignty, plus a powerful ally, USA, supporting its case. Israel is militarily occupying Palestine.
The other side, the Palestinians, do not have these strengths. Every time an Israeli dies, ten Palestinians die – this has been the case for sixty years. So one side gets its way and the other side is faced with a painful choice of lying down and accepting it or of somehow fighting back.
One of Palestine’s elder politicians, Mustafa Barghouti, said recently: Palestinians "are tired of Oslo, we are tired of occupation... and we are sick and tired of apartheid". Meanwhile, Israelis living within rocket-range of Gaza are tired of constant peppering with missiles. So we are here again, in the same old place.
People say, why don’t the Palestinians just stop firing rockets? Well, I’m a peacemaker and I don’t advocate offensive action. But I do regretfully understand it when it is understandable. The Palestinians had democracy stolen from them by foreign intervention (2006), they did all they could to fight in two uprisings (intifadas), they did all they could to pursue diplomatic options (the last being their application for UN recognition in September 2011) and they now have no options except non-violent resistance (the value of which happens to suffer when violence breaks out). So a militant subgroup of Palestinians fire rockets. However strategically sensible, it’s the only option left to them because yielding to occupation and Israeli might means giving up, accepting an illegal military occupation and living as second-class citizens in a state that gives them no rights and has a stranglehold over their lives. This is tragic.
Israel has more options, and recent events demonstrate the failure of one of those options, the military hammer. The other option is gradual de-escalation and a friendlier, more benign attitude toward anyone who is not Jewish, with a longterm peacebuilding agenda, backed actively by the international community.
To illustrate this failure, look at the life-history of the Hamas military commander, Ahmad al-Jaabari, who has just been assassinated. In 1982, at the age of 22 and the son of refugees, he was involved in a PLO military operation against Israel for which he was imprisoned for 13 years. Then, at age 44, at the end of the second intifada, the Israelis tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him, killing instead his eldest son, his brother and three other relatives. Jabaari was a hurt man, acting it out militarily and, if he were on the winning side, he’d be regarded as a hero, just as two former Israeli prime ministers, Begin and Schamir, both former terrorists, became.
As Hussein Issa, the founder of Hope Flowers, the trauma-healing school in Bethlehem where I work, once said, every act of violence begins with an unhealed wound. And to quote a former British SAS soldier who had seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no such thing as an unwounded soldier – referring to the psychological wounds that anyone involved in violence incurs.
I should add that peace-workers like me are similar, though we don’t usually express such residual pain in violence – we exercise a depth of choice which sometimes is painful and disadvantageous, and we get no medals for it.
Jabaari was a man who was deeply damaged and fought back. This is what happens.
What’s the solution? Step down the violence, so that the procession of damaged people is reduced and subsequent acts of violence subside. This is a crucial issue for Israel now.
Many of its own people are damaged, historically from the pogroms and Holocaust in Europe, and more recently from the violence of the last 60-100 years in Israel itself – and the majority of adults, both men and women, are former Israeli soldiers. They’re damaged. So Israelis tend to feel justified when their forces squash yet another outbreak, real or apparent, of resistance to their occupying armies, government and settlers.
Except everyone has choice to respond differently. And one side, the Israelis, have more choice than Palestinians – they have wealth, power, diplomacy and support. So, in the end, while both sides are responsible for stepping down the rhetoric and reactivity, Israelis carry more responsibility because they are in a stronger position to do so.
Israel always presents its case defensively, as a protective response to Palestinian, Arab and even global opposition. But this is a trick – as much on themselves as on everyone else. It’s true but not ultimately true. It’s also a tactic for furthering their cause, the complete and final occupation of all of the land between the sea and the Jordan River.
Back in 1967 in the Six Day War the Israelis presented their occupation of what was left of former Palestine by saying they were defending themselves against Arab aggressors, when in fact the Arabs didn’t have a hope in hell and the first moves were taken by Israel. This is often the case: the violence is frequently started by Israel, justified as a pre-emptive measure, then the Palestinians react, and the Israelis then come in with the hammer. This is the pattern.
But it is self-defeating. Hamas was founded in the early 1980s because the former Palestinian resistance, Arafat’s PLO, was not working. Hamas’ founding was actually secretly funded by the Israelis to create a counterforce to the PLO in Palestine, to weaken the PLO. When Hamas grew strong in the two intifadas in the late 1980s and early 2000s, Israel’s divisive strategy bounced back on it. This is again the case with Jaabari, personally: heavy-handed punishment and assault on him merely strengthened his resolve and he became Hamas’s military commander – arguably Palestine’s version of Britain’s Montgomery in WW2. Except Monty is regarded in history as a good guy.
Every time Israel bombs Gaza or destroys something in the West Bank, it creates new enemies – especially amongst the children and teenagers who are affected. The same is the case amongst Israelis when Palestinians fire back at them, though there is a difference: the Israelis are occupying the Palestinians and not vice versa, and control of all of the former land of Palestine is quietly a consistent official policy of Israel, while the notion of driving the Israelis out of that land is, for Palestinians, a minority, ‘extremist’ view. This minority view is strengthened whenever the Israelis assault the Palestinians. It could even be said that this polarising effect is deliberate on the part of the Israelis since it helps them justify further application of force – encourage extremism, then fight against it.
This cycle needs to end. Israel is capable of stepping down and calming the conflict, and some Israelis advocate this, often very bravely. But psychologically it has proven incapable of doing so. As the American Rabbi Lerner once said, Israel is a nation suffering PTSD, and people suffering PTSD (post-traumatic stress) are not known for objectivity and calm.
So it rests now with the international community to shift the balances. But it does not do so. The failure of the 2011 Palestinian UN application for recognition is a sign of that, and the refusal of the world, particularly Europe, to overrule the American support for and sheltering of Israel is a cause of it.
This cycle needs to end. I don’t know how it will happen because sanity and objectivity are in short supply. But it will happen. This latest outbreak of violence, though it doesn’t look this way, is another step towards it. How? Because there comes a point where people get fed up, and this apparently local issue becomes an international issue. Because chickens come home to roost, and we’re in one of those times today. Because nothing ever is permanent, as the decline of the British empire, the USSR and nowadays USA, demonstrate.
Meanwhile, most Palestinians relentlessly hang in there. Their weapon is sumud – hanging in there and not budging an inch, outlasting short term pressures. Palestine has been disunited since the foreign-fomented civil war between Fatah and Hamas, dividing the West Bank from Gaza. Palestinians at home, about 5 million of them, are also sundered from the Palestinian exile population, another 5-6 million of them. But actions such as Israel’s current assault on Gaza have a way of uniting Palestinians.
In the longterm, Israel is yet again shooting itself in the foot. If it genuinely sought calming and peace, it would be well advised not to hammer the Palestinians. It would be better advised to step down polarisation and aggression by its own initiative. The international community would be better advised to support or even force this.
But longterm wisdom does not prevail in our day: the world is unconsciously seeking to provoke a time of truth, in so many departments of life, by continuing in its folly until it comes up against a very solid wall of truth. Brinkmanship is an unconscious strategy by which the testosterone of male-driven states and people meet their match and their eventual demise – but does it have to be this way?
Would that things were otherwise. Until a change happens in this action-reaction game, the fighting will go on, the world will wring its hands and then sit on them, and both sides will feel justified in their actions. It’s a disgrace, and we all share responsibility.