Inconvenient Truths About Gaza
Today, in 2018, more than 7000 languages are spoken on this planet. Among them are Arabic and Hebrew -- two distinct, mutually unintelligible tongues, though both belong to the larger family of Semitic languages and have structural similarities. Several words – especially those related to essential elements of human life – are virtually identical in the two languages. Such words are primitive remnants of a time before the two split apart, perhaps 6,000 years ago. Words like “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “brother,” “daughter,” and “son”; words like “head” and “hand,” “blood” and “bone.” Words like “day,” “night,” “water,” “earth,” and “sky.” The basic pronouns “I,” “you,” “he,” “she” and “we”; and basic verbs, as well: “to see,” “to hear,” “to eat,” “to read,” “to write,” “to ask,” “to stand up.” Long ago, Hebrew and Arabic were, perhaps, merely different variants of a single language, before they diverged beyond the point of mutual comprehension.
You know something about the problem of mutual incomprehension if you’ve tried to have a conversation about Israel lately – in the last few weeks or months or years. Such experiences often rapidly mutate in ways that no longer meet the definition of “conversation” – which the dictionary calls “an informal exchange of ideas by spoken words.” Conversation presumes both talking and listening; it presumes that ideas are being shared in intelligible ways; reflected upon, responded to.
Too often, when we try to talk about Israel, emotions blaze up quickly. Convinced the other person is wrong – perhaps ignorant, perhaps brainwashed by some variety of propaganda, well-intentioned or not – our ability to listen quickly evaporates; we’re flooded by feelings of anger, hurt, rejection, confusion. Too often, we sense that we lack both the facts and the vocabulary to express what we’re feeling in an effective way. Or it seems clear that we’re not being heard or understood by the other party; we’re simply talking – or shouting – past each other. After a few such experiences, we may give up entirely on discussing Israel with strangers, acquaintances, relatives or friends.
And even if the conversation is just between ourself and the news media, it often becomes a deeply frustrating experience. We read something that upsets us. Is it true, or is it packed with half-truths and lies? Does it employ ugly innuendo or incendiary language rather than objectively stating the facts? Is it the full story, or is there a larger context? Is there another perspective, a different way of understanding this story? How should we feel about it? What, if anything, should we do?
It’s safe to say that these questions and feelings arise all the time when Israel is in the news – and Israel is almost always in the news. Things have been particularly tough this month, with protests at the Gaza border accompanied by violence, death and widespread condemnation of Israel for the use of excessive force by – among others – UN officials, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which accused Israel of carrying out a “murderous assault” on Palestinians. Exact figures are hard to ascertain, but more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the border clashes and hundreds have been injured. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Israel had committed “massacres” of unarmed civilians in its use of tear gas, rubber bullets and, in some cases, live ammunition. Turkey’s Prime Minister, speaking in London, called Israel “a terrorist state” and said, “what Israel is doing is a genocide.” The Israeli human-rights groups B’tzelem (“In the image,” as in “image of God”) and “Shovrim Sh’tika (Breaking the Silence) have called on soldiers to refuse to fire.
Israel has argued that its troops were acting to protect the people of southern Israel, pointing out that the protests were organized by Hamas, which exercises military and political control over Gaza, and were far from peaceful, including rioting; throwing rocks, explosives and firebombs; dispatching blazing “attack kites” and balloons that have set hundreds of fires in Israeli forests and kibbutz fields; burning the border fence and planting explosive devices near it; massive burning of tires, which sent up clouds of toxic black smoke designed to blind IDF soldiers; and mobs rushing the border to cut the fence and enter Israel to kidnap or kill its citizens. Israelis well know that such infiltrators have murdered civilians in the past.
And did IDF soldiers employ excessive force? The Israeli army says its troops only open fire at demonstrators who engage in violence, or who attempt to breach the barrier. Lawyers for the Israeli government argued before the Supreme Court that the military’s rules of engagement along the Gaza border are “in keeping with Israeli and international law.” The riots along the border, they said, are not merely civilian demonstrations but are "part of the armed conflict between the Hamas terrorist organization and Israel” – and thus the military's open fire orders are subject to the law of armed conflict, rather than international human rights law [See https://www.timesofisrael.com/state-says-use-of-live-fire-in-gaza-protests-within-israeli-international-law/].
The protests and the violence reached a crescendo on May 14, the day the US embassy was relocated to Jerusalem. Both events were timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel – an event that Palestinians refer to as the Nakba – the “catastrophe.”
Many understand that what we’ve been witnessing on the border is not merely a series of Palestinian protests; it’s a proxy war, waged by Iran against Israel, like similar efforts by terror groups in Lebanon and Syria. Over the course of two days this week Hamas and Islamic Jihad, backed and armed by Iran, launched almost 200 mortar shells and rockets at towns in Southern Israel, causing several injuries and some damage, though the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted many. One shell hit the yard of a kindergarten shortly before the children were due to arrive. Israel responded by striking several military targets in Gaza, including a Hamas training facility, a rocket manufacturing plant, a weapons depot and a dual-purpose tunnel that extended both into Egypt and into Israel, dug to carry out attacks against Israel and to smuggle in weapons.
How can we think constructively about the situation in Gaza, and all the suffering we’ve witnessed in this latest round of violence? First, it’s essential to be aware of some background and some facts. Israeli journalist David Horowitz wrote this in the Times of Israel earlier this month: “In recent weeks, we’ve seen this latest tactic of mass protests and violence led by Hamas members at the border widely and falsely described internationally as constituting opposition to the Israeli occupation of Gaza. There is immense suffering within the Hamas-run [Gaza] Strip and highly restrictive security without, but there is no Israeli occupation; Ariel Sharon forced the thousands of Jewish settlers there to leave in 2005, and brought the army out with them.
“….We’ve seen the protests described as aimed at seeking an end to the ‘blockade’ on access to and from the [Gaza] Strip. In fact, the security blockade is a function of Hamas rule, and would end if Gaza’s leaders were ever to stop trying to terrorize Israel. Hamas has exploited every crack in that security envelope to try to import weaponry in its relentless, avowed struggle to destroy Israel. It wants to build up the kind of force in the [Gaza] Strip that Hezbollah has accumulated in Lebanon — 140,000 missiles, all aimed at Israel. Israel is not about to freely open access to Gaza, when the inevitable immediate consequence will be the import of rockets, missiles and other weaponry to be used for our intended elimination” [May 17, 2018 “World Must Tell Gaza’s Hamas-Abused Masses the Truth: There Will Be No ‘Return’].
Second: we should be willing to face uncomfortable truths and understand that both sides share some responsibility for this conflict. They do not share equally, but both have contributed to the tragedy that is Gaza today. I’ve found it helpful to consider what the writer Yair Rosenberg calls “13 Inconvenient Truths About What Has Been Happening in Gaza.” His piece, written earlier this month for Tablet, challenges several common assumptions and reminds us of difficult realities on both sides of this conflict. It’s worth sharing in some detail. He writes: “The cacophony that accompanies every upsurge in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can make it seem impossible for outsiders to sort out the facts. Recent events in Gaza are no exception. The shrillest voices on each side are already offering their own mutually exclusive narratives that acknowledge some realities while scrupulously avoiding others. But while certain facts about Gaza may be inconvenient for the loudest partisans on either side, they should not be inconvenient to the rest of us.
“To that end, here are 13 complicated, messy, true things about what has been happening in Gaza. They do not conform to one political narrative or another, and they do not attempt to conclusively apportion all blame. Try, as best you can, to hold them all in your mind at the same time.
1. The protests [leading up to May 14] were not about President Donald Trump moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and have in fact been occurring weekly on the Gaza border since March. They are part of what the demonstrators have dubbed “The Great March of Return”—return, that is, to what is now Israel….The fact that these long-standing Palestinian protests were mischaracterized by many in the media as simply a response to Trump obscured two disquieting realities: First, that the world has largely dismissed the genuine plight of Palestinians in Gaza, only bothering to pay attention to it when it could be tenuously connected to Trump. Second, that many Palestinians do not simply desire their own state and an end to the occupation and settlements that began in 1967, but an end to the Jewish state that began in 1948.
2. The Israeli blockade of Gaza goes well beyond what is necessary for Israel’s security, and in many cases can be capricious and self-defeating. Import and export restrictions on food and produce have seesawed over the years, with what is permitted one year forbidden the next, making it difficult for Gazan farmers to plan for the future. Restrictions on movement between Gaza, the West Bank, and beyond can be similarly overbroad, preventing not simply potential terrorist operatives from traveling, but families and students…. It is past time that these issues be addressed, as outlined in part in a new letter from several prominent senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
3. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is an authoritarian, theocratic regime that has called for Jewish genocide in its charter, murdered scores of Israeli civilians, repressed Palestinian women, and harshly persecuted religious and sexual minorities. It is a designated terrorist group by the United States, Canada, and the European Union.
4. The overbearing Israeli blockade has helped impoverish Gaza. So has Hamas’s utter failure to govern and provide for the basic needs of the enclave’s people. Whether it has been spending its manpower and millions of dollars on subterranean attack tunnels into Israel—including under United Nations schools for Gaza’s children—or launching repeated messianic military operations against Israel, the terrorist group has consistently prioritized the deaths of Israelis over the lives of its Palestinian brethren.
5. Many of the thousands of protesters on the Gaza border…were peaceful and unarmed, as anyone looking at the photos and videos of the gatherings can see.
6. Hamas manipulated many of these demonstrators into unwittingly rushing the Israeli border fence under false pretenses in order to produce injuries and fatalities. As the New York Times reported, ‘After midday prayers, clerics and leaders of militant factions in Gaza, led by Hamas, urged thousands of worshipers to join the protests. The fence had already been breached, they said falsely, claiming Palestinians were flooding into Israel.’ Similarly, the Washington Post recounted how ‘organizers urged protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them.’ Hamas has also publicly acknowledged deliberately using peaceful civilians at the protests as cover and cannon fodder for their military operations. ‘When we talk about “peaceful resistance,” we are deceiving the public,’ Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar told an interviewer. ‘This is peaceful resistance bolstered by a military force and by security agencies.’
7. A significant number of the protesters were armed…Widely circulated Arabic instructions on Facebook directed protesters to ‘bring a knife, dagger, or gun if available’ and to breach the Israeli border and kidnap civilians. (The posts have now been removed by Facebook for inciting violence but a cached copy can be viewed here.) Hamas further incentivized violence by providing payments to those injured and the families of those killed. Both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terror group have since claimed many of those killed as their own operatives and posted photos of them in uniform.
….Contrary to certain Israeli talking points, however, these facts do not automatically justify any particular Israeli response or every Palestinian casualty or injury. They simply establish the reality of the threat.
8. It is facile to argue that Gazans should be protesting Hamas and its misrule instead of Israel. One, it is not a binary choice, as both actors have contributed to Gaza’s misery. Two, as the BBC’s Julia MacFarlane recalled from her time covering Gaza, any public dissent against Hamas is perilous: ‘A boy I met in Gaza during the 2014 war was dragged from his bed at midnight, had his kneecaps shot off in a square and was told next time it would be axes—for an anti-Hamas Facebook post.’ The group has publicly executed those it deems ‘collaborators’ and broken up rare protests with gunfire. Likewise, Gazans cannot ‘vote Hamas out’ because Hamas has not permitted elections since it won them and took power in 2006. The group fares poorly in the polls today, but Gazans have no recourse for expressing their dissatisfaction. Protesting Israel, however, is an outlet for frustration encouraged by Hamas.
9. In that regard, Hamas has worked to increase chaos and casualties stemming from the protests by allowing rioters to repeatedly set fire to the Kerem Shalom crossing, Gaza’s main avenue for international and humanitarian aid, and by turning back trucks of needed food and supplies from Israel.
10. A lot of what you’re seeing on social media about what is transpiring in Gaza isn’t actually true. For instance, a video of a Palestinian ‘martyr’ allegedly moving under his shroud that is circulating in pro-Israel circles is actually a 4-year old clip from Egypt. Likewise, despite the claims of viral tweets and the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry that were initially parroted by some in the media, Israel did not actually kill an 8-month old baby with tear gas. The Gazan doctor who treated her told the Associated Press that she died from a preexisting heart condition, a fact belatedly picked up by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. In the era of fake news, readers should be especially vigilant about re-sharing unconfirmed content simply because it confirms their biases.
11. There are constructive solutions to Gaza’s problems that would alleviate the plight of its Palestinian population while assuaging the security concerns of Israelis. However, these useful proposals do not go viral like angry tweets ranting about how Palestinians are all de facto terrorists or Israelis are the new Nazis, which is one reason why you probably have never heard of them.
12. A truly independent, respected inquiry into Israel’s tactics and rules of engagement in Gaza is necessary to ensure any abuses are punished and create internationally recognized guidelines for how Israel and other state actors should deal with these situations on their borders. The United Nations, which annually condemns Israel in its General Assembly and Human Rights Council more than all other countries combined, and whose notorious bias against Israel was famously condemned by Obama ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, clearly lacks the credibility to administer such an inquiry. Between America, Canada, and Europe, however, it should be possible to create one.
13. But because the entire debate around Israel’s conduct has been framed by absolutists who insist either that Israel is utterly blameless or that Israel is wantonly massacring random Palestinians for sport, a reasonable inquiry into what it did correctly and what it did not is unlikely to happen.” [http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/262329/gaza-media-explainer]
Since Yair Rosenberg published his article a cease-fire has been declared and has now, unfortunately been broken – violent protests have resumed at the border. Today Palestinian militants attacked Israeli troops with gunfire and a grenade, and a Palestinian woman – a volunteer paramedic – was shot and killed. And all the while the suffering mounts in Gaza: shortages of electricity (in part orchestrated by Mahmoud Abbas, to create dissatisfaction with Hamas); water and sewage systems that are close to collapse; high unemployment and high levels of despair. Worst of all is the high level of hatred deliberately incited and cultivated by leaders in Gaza – hatred of Israel, hatred of Jews – and the cynical manipulation of a people, feeding them on fantasies that they will return “home” and the Jewish state will be destroyed, rather than helping them build a good and peaceful life in a state of their own.
We who live in the Diaspora cannot end the suffering and bring peace; neither can it be imposed by any outside party. Only clear-thinking, brave and pragmatic leaders on both sides of the conflict can do that. In the meantime, here’s what we can do: avoid falling into absolutism or deluding ourselves that solutions are simple or quick. We can refuse to be satisfied with slogans. Learn some history. Visit Israel and the West Bank for ourselves – perhaps on a Beth Am trip; meet and learn from a variety of people and explore their perspectives. Read reliable Israeli reporting on both the left and the right: the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Ha’Aretz, all available online. Speak up, calmly and firmly, when we hear lies. Remain staunch in our love and support for Israel, a beautiful, miraculous country, without closing our hearts to the suffering and legitimate rights of Palestinians. We should support organizations on the ground that reflect our values. And cultivate a strong and resilient spirit. Israelis haven’t given up hope – though they don’t expect peace anytime in the near future – and we shouldn’t give up hope either.
Two peoples share the same words for mother, father, daughter and son; for water and sun, for earth and sky. They share the same capacity to see and hear, to read and think, to ask questions and to stand up in dignity. They bleed the same red blood.
Let us remember and hold sacred the words that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke on the White House lawn in 1993. He said: “Let me say to you, the Palestinians: We are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians – we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough!
“We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you – in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance and again saying to you: Let us pray that a day will come when we will say, enough, farewell to arms.”
Someday, God willing, there will arise Palestinian leaders who are like Rabin in courage and vision, committed to mutual respect and modest, rather than grandiose aims – two states for two peoples. Someday there will be a Palestinian leadership determined to tell their people the truth and bring them the better life they deserve. And when that day comes, I know there will be Israeli leaders to partner with them in the hard but essential work of making peace. Until then, let us never cease to pray and do what we can to keep that hope alive. Od yavo shalom aleinu – peace will yet come for us; for us and all the world. And may our Palestinian brothers and sisters join with us in that prayer.