On Saturday December 27, 2008 the Israel Defense Forces began Operation Cast Lead with two waves of aerial bombardments on the Hamas military and operational buildings in Gaza. Within a few hours 200 tons of armaments were dropped on Gaza and over two hundred and twenty members of Hamas, local police and civilians living in building that shared or were adjacent to Hamas offices were killed. Hundreds more were wounded by the explosions. The virtual siege of Gaza and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank by Israel lead many to blame Israel not only for the lack of peace, but for the provocation of all violence that occurs in the Palestinian territories. I believe there is little doubt that Israel is responsible along with Hamas, the Palestinian National Authority, Iran, Hezbollah, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and all the members of the international community from the Quartet and the Arab League to the United Nations with the United State, the primary interlocutor, regularly doing good or bad as a result of its irregular and uneven involvement. It is a multi-headed hydra of problems caught in the quicksand of history and the tragic past of both the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of a land that is holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
Making it larger than life depersonalizes the horror of death and destruction that has come to the people of Gaza and visits the Israeli inhabitants of the Negev desert and the towns that rest along the Gaza border such as S’derot each time another Qassam rocket is fired by Hamas or one of its subsidiaries. Over the past few months there was a relative truce between Hamas and Israel negotiated by the Egyptians who control the southern border of Gaza, its Rafah crossing and are aware of the system of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. The tunnels allow the population of Gaza to have limited access to goods and services during the regular Israeli closures of all Gaza border crossings and Hamas to replenish its stock of rockets, mortars and other weapons. On a highly personal level people who are not part of the battle have been targeted almost on a daily basis by Hamas and will now increasingly be the victims of the large scale warfare unleashed on Gaza by the State of Israel. There are subsequent questions about the role of the upcoming Israeli elections, the impact of the recent American elections and the fact that the Presidency of the Palestinian National Authority is scheduled to formally come to an end in January of 2009.
But this is all tangential to the fact that Hamas informed Israel and the international community that it did not intend to renew the truce and began firing dozens of its short range Qassam rockets as well as some longer range Grad missiles which can travel more than twenty miles and in recent days have hit Ashkelon, (population 108,000), Ashdod, (population 200,000) and even Beersheva, some 27 miles from Gaza (population 186,000). Even as Hamas fired rockets it threatened the State of Israel while underlining the potential price of a ground invasion on Christmas Eve by stating that; "Any decision to attack the Gaza Strip will open the gates of hell, and we will make you regret your stupidity with tears of blood."
Was Israel justified in responding after years of rocket attacks? I believe the answer is yes! Does Israel carry some responsibility for the situation it finds itself in today? I believe again the answer is yes! It must be stated that since the democratic election of a Hamas majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council on January 25, 2006, (which was brought about at the bequest of the United States), the State of Israel and its western allies have done everything possible to undermine the authority of the Hamas led legislature from initially withholding millions of dollars in tax moneys to opening and closing the border crossings into Gaza based on the firing of rockets or other actions taken by Hamas or its subsidiary militias. 1.5 million people are held captive inside this cage in response to an Israeli policy focused on turning the population against the militants. The policy hasn’t worked!
The numbers above depict the disturbing counter reality that the people of Southern Israel who have suffered nearly daily rocket fire for years, maybe 100,000 who were very close to Gaza and in range of the Qassam’s has now been multiplied by a factor of ten with the range of the Grad missiles imported through tunnels into Gaza. It is no surprise that Hamas who has never revoked its Charter which calls for the destruction of Israel and the foundation of an Islamic Waqf in all of Israel/Palestine and has sent dozens of suicide bombers against the Israeli public is considered anathema to Israel and any real two-state solution between the Palestinian National Authority and Israel.
It is a basic reality that the majority of the Palestinian people in 2006 were fed up with the continuing and often outrageous corruption of Fatah and at the same time had almost no faith that peace was possible in the foreseeable future. So the majority voted for Hamas. It is a basic reality that while the majority of the Israeli people are fed up with their current, “Centrist” government in December 2008, they want Hamas to finally get what it has coming in Gaza, and are likely to vote for a conservative, Likud Prime Minister in February 2009, because they no longer believe that peace is achievable in the short term.
This dual hopelessness will not only kill the peace process, but it is killing Palestinians and Israelis today. Hundreds dead, thousands wounded and a ground offensive possibly only days away and even worse, who’s to say that the war between Israel and Hamas couldn’t widen. I’m not someone who believes he has all the answers. But one is to start talking to people you haven’t talked with before. I believe it’s true for governments and citizens alike. How many American Christians or Jews know a Muslim? How many have visited a mosque in their area. How many Muslims are friendly with Jews and Christians and have visited a church and temple? We all suffer from the fear of the unknown and it poisons our ability to understand our neighbors.
I coordinated an interfaith journey to Israel/Palestine in March 2008 that included Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy as well as people of other faiths and local lay leaders. We met Jews, Muslims and Christians who were suffering; we met peace activists and political figures all the way up to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But on this special Compassionate Listening pilgrimage some of the most trying circumstances were also the most telling: Meeting the spokesperson for the Jewish Community in Hebron, David Wilder, Bethlehem City Councilman and member of Hamas Salah Shouky, the leaders of Al Aroub Refugee Camp and Rabbi Menachem Froman of the settlement of Tekoa who developed a proposal for a peace treaty last year with Hamas.
I believe we Americans have a role to play but we must look beyond our history to help achieve a future that offers more to all the people of this Holy Land. It is a great challenge to venture out in the wilderness beyond all that you know and then to reach out your hand in peace. We need the help and support of many nations and many people to open the doors to the possibility of dialogue, learning, understanding and lasting peace.
May we have the courage to reach for it together in 2009 and to find it.