Israel’s only way out of perpetual war

Israeli soldiers patrol a Palestinian protest in Hebron earlier this month. (Photo by Thomas James)
Israeli soldiers patrol a Palestinian protest in Hebron earlier this month. (Photo by Thomas James)

I never know what to say when I’m asked, “how is your family back in Tel Aviv?”

I am an Israeli citizen living in Seattle, and, naturally, I am very concerned with my family’s safety.

But the devastating war in Gaza over the last month, with more than 1,800 Palestinians dead, at least half of them civilians, raises other concerns as well about the proportionality and effectiveness of Israel’s military tactics.

To be sure, Israel, like any country, has the right to self-defense, and Hamas’ rockets and tunnels pose a serious security concern. But we cannot extend this argument to absolve Israel of the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians without even questioning whether such military tactics actually contribute to Israel’s long-term security goals.

These questions, however, are almost impossible to ask at a time of war. You are immediately being accused of losing perspective, underestimating the severity of the threat, misunderstanding the unique and tenuous situation Israel is in.

A few days after a particularly heated discussion with my parents, who live in Tel Aviv, I received an email from my mother.

The unusually intimate and revealing letter describes her life in the shadows of war: as a little girl in 1956, as a young woman experiencing the wars of 67 and 73, as a mother during the Iraqi missile attacks of the Gulf War and Hamas’ terror attacks of the 90s, and now, again, as a grandmother.

Through my mother’s perspective, the letter reflects a quintessential Israeli experience of collective trauma, ingrained in a perceived history of persecution and existential war. To Israelis, David’s battle against Goliath never ended: Israel is always the meek fighting against the mighty trying to destroy her.

When fear runs so high there is little room for debate. Say what you will about Hamas’ misconduct, we cannot ignore the fact that they derive the moral justification for their actions from Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, and that Israel’s heavy-handed policies in Gaza exacerbate the already harsh conditions of the Palestinians living there, providing more fodder to the Hamas’ militant resistance.

But even such a basic argument is invalidated in the fog of war.

A young Palestinian from Hebron at a protest against Israeli military action in Gaza in early August. (Photo by Thomas James)
A young Palestinian from Hebron at a protest against Israeli military action in Gaza in early August. (Photo by Thomas James)

Instead, vilification runs rampant and all we see is a terror organization exploiting its own people. We Israelis are so invested in our victim-perpetrator narrative that we leave no room between the binaries to entertain the fact that on the other side there are not only evil terrorists, but also people whose political and economic aspirations are valid.

To Israelis, Hamas, with its history of violence and terror, poses an existential threat that rubs against old scars of fear and collective trauma. This deeply seated fear lends itself to an unquestioning endorsement of Israel’s hawkish, knee-jerk response.

It is estimated that at least 90 percent of the Israeli public supports Operation Protective Edge. The dissenting voices criticizing the appropriateness and effectiveness of the IDF’s use of incredible force are few and far between.

It is alarming so see how this virtually uncontested war has compromised Israel’s democracy, eroding open discourse and pluralism from its political and social landscape. But the use of brute force — and its severe consequences — has to be subject to public debate.

This operation comes at a very high cost for Israel, in addition to the devastation in Gaza and the loss of thousands of lives. Israel further antagonized the international community, giving more power to anti-Israel and BDS campaigns.

Even worse, it has failed to achieve security for its citizens: this is, after all, the third war Israel has had with Hamas since they took power in 2006. Israel’s use of brute force in these three wars has not deterred, nor has it disabled Hamas. On the contrary: militarily, they have become increasingly resolute, more sophisticated and better equipped; and politically, they have regained some of the legitimacy they had lost among Palestinians in Gaza, and have gotten closer to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

If our goal was to weaken Hamas, we have failed.

When this war comes to an end — hopefully with a sustained ceasefire that includes security arrangements acceptable to Israel and an easing of the Israeli blockade on Gaza — we will have to sober up. Short-sided, heavy-handed military tactics are not a substitute for a long-term diplomatic strategy.

Hamas’ fighting, as deplorable as it may be, cannot be isolated or fully addressed without a comprehensive political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: if we want security we must first acknowledge the needs of the Palestinian people that are the root causes of this war, and all other wars that came before it.

And if Israel really wants to diminish the power of Hamas, what better way than to fully engage with Abbas and his moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and gradually rebuild the mutual trust that had been lost between the two sides? Instead of criticizing the PA and Hamas’ reconciliation, we should support the technocratic unity government led by the PA, make a credible commitment to a two-state solution and show that moderation yields much better results than violence.

In the aftermath of this war, as we reassess the new reality in Gaza and the West Bank, and the political options that now stand before us, Israel might have a rare opportunity to do exactly that.

Israel’s military and political advantage over its Palestinian counterpart is indisputable. And, as the old saying goes, with more power comes more responsibility. We must acknowledge our power and learn when and how to use it wisely. We have to let go of the victim-perpetrator binaries we are so accustomed to that are hindering any possibility of a meaningful, sustainable solution. We have to be willing to fully commit to another way.

Otherwise, how can we expect anything to change?

10 Comments

  1. I am appreciating Gil Bar-Sela’s courageous point of view at a time that discourse is difficult. I was, three days ago with a group of Palestinian and Israeli and American youth (ages 11-17) through the organization Kids4Peace. They were perfectly capable of peaceful conversation and action, proving the lie to the inevitability of war between Israel and Palestine. Shalom.

  2. To be sure, Israel, like any country, has the right to self-defense.

    An interesting point. Israel is not like any other country. Even if we leave aside the aspects of its existence that are hard to distinguish from colonialism, when else has a state been founded to redress so called past oppression and discrimination. Looking at just the past 500 years of human history, there are numberless people that should also qualify for a homeland by the criteria applied to the Jews following the holocaust. What would you say if a Duwamish told you that because of the genocide of his people, that he would appeal to the UN for his own country in the territory that is now Washington State, where you now live?

  3. Gil, I’d like to note that during the conflicts mentioned, media coverage in the US was often subject to Israeli censor, whether the news source was Israeli media or US independent media I do not know. This has influenced our education, stressing nationalism and obscuring commitments to human rights. I join others in thanking you for your unique perspective, and wish you well in your studies.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful and sensitive article. May our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine find their way to peaceful co-existence and soon.

  5. I just want to put Noam Chomsky’s quote on this comment: “When Israelis in the occupied territories now claim that they have to defend themselves, they are defending themselves in the sense that any military occupier has to defend itself against the population they are crushing… You can’t defend yourself when you’re militarily occupying someone else’s land. That’s not defense. Call it what you like, it’s not defense.”

  6. “Hamas’ fighting, as deplorable as it may be, cannot be isolated or fully addressed without a comprehensive political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: if we want security we must first acknowledge the needs of the Palestinian people that are the root causes of this war, and all other wars that came before it.”

    That’s the point, in a nutshell. It’s a shame that the Israeli Government won’t go down this road.

  7. He brought up the question of Israel’s long term goals. Let us judge a nation not by their words but by their actions. The continuous land grabbing of the west bank gives us insight into their goals and this place will never know a sustainable peace under such theft and disregard for the people of Palestine. It is sad.

    1. It is Jewish Land. Even if you don’t accept the Torah as your scripture (ch”v), you should still accept the rulings of the Balfour declaration and the League of Nations.

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