Tag Archives: Hamas

It won’t stop until we talk

Parents' Circle slogan

Parents’ Circle slogan

Yesterday came the awful news of the breakdown of the 72 hour humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza war known as Operation Protective Edge, and that an Israeli soldier (Hadar Goldin) was missing, perhaps abducted by Hamas, perhaps already dead. It seemed that there would be no end to the Israeli ground operation and continued attack on built-up areas in Gaza, with the terrible toll in Palestinian civilian casualties as well as the losses of Israel and Palestinian fighters. Today (August 2, 2014) it seems that there is some relief. As I write, the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Security Minister Ya’alon are completing a press conference in which they confirm earlier reports during the day that Israeli forces are withdrawing from built up areas in northern Gaza and that all the known tunnels crossing from Gaza into Israel will be destroyed within hours. The Israeli government is scaling back the war in Gaza unilaterally, rather than trying to arrange another ceasefire with Hamas and beginning negotiations for a longer term agreement through Egyptian (and other) mediation. They will rely on deterrence, the cost of the war for Hamas and Gaza, instead of coming to an arrangement to end the military violence. At the same time, they said that the Israeli government would continue to do whatever it takes to achieve “quiet” and security for Israeli citizens.

But it isn’t over. It’s not over not only for the reasons that the Israeli government gave, namely that the air bombardment or fighting on the ground would resume if it turns out that Hamas are not already deterred. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri had already declared that Hamas won’t be bound by any Israeli unilateral measure: “They either stay in Gaza and pay the price, unilaterally retreat and pay, or negotiate and pay.” Probably, the Israeli government’s latest move has left the cards in the hands of Hamas, who can choose to drag Israeli forces back into full-scale war as they wish.

It’s not over not because nothing has changed. More than 1600 Palestinians have been killed, along with 66 Israelis, and thousands of homes and other buildings in Gaza have been destroyed. The death and destruction has been colossal and dreadful.

It’s not over because we didn’t talk. It’s not over because the underlying issues that led to the violence have not been addressed. It’s not over because there is still an occupation; there is still a siege on Gaza; there are still Israeli settlements throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories; there is still one law for Israelis and another for Palestinians in Area C; there is still a separation barrier running through Palestinian land; there are still checkpoints restricting Palestinian movement; there are still Palestinian refugees. It’s not over because Hamas and Islamic Jihad use murderous military violence rather than nonviolent means to bring the Palestinians an independent state. It’s not over for all the reasons that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has not been reached yet.

At the root of all those reasons is the refusal to talk. To really talk. To speak and to listen. To hear what is painful and to say what you fear to say. To talk not only to those with whom one feels comfortable, but with those whom you don’t trust and don’t like. To talk to your enemies. There are many reasons why Israel’s government and its citizens distrust Hamas and also the Palestinian Authority, and why talking with them will be difficult, painful, infuriating. And vice versa.

It’s not over in part because the Israeli government has decided that as a matter of policy it will not talk. It will not talk, except by the most indirect means to Hamas at all, and it will not talk in good faith – really talk – to the Palestinian Authority. It will not talk about peace agreements other than as a way to keep talking but not talk at all. And it won’t talk to a Palestinian reconciliation government that includes Hamas. It won’t talk to Hamas other than through the coercive, violent language of Operation Brother’s Keeper and Operation Protective Edge. Hamas talks back with rockets and tunnel attacks. Helluva way to talk.

PCFC.logoIn the midst of the horrific, terrible violence there has been a quiet voice, a voice that talks, that really talks, because it also listens, because it talks for the sake of talking. Not empty talking, but talking for the sake of reconciliation, for the sake of practicing peace long before the politicians get around to talking earnestly about peace. The voice, and the ear, is the Parents Circle Families Forum whose slogan is “It won’t stop until we talk.” During this war, the group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families has made efforts, such as this video on social media, to keep talking, to turn people away from the violence that breeds bereavement, and to turn them towards the talk that also listens in their “Peace Tent.”  The tent has operated daily throughout the war, in Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque square, offering a space in their words, “to provide an alternative to the propaganda and hatred running rampant in Israel …. [and]  share their stories, their choice for reconciliation.” It’s not over yet, because not enough people are listening.

Rockets or refugees, war or peace

One of the most frequent targets of rockets fired from Gaza during the current military violence, aka Protective Edge, is the Israeli town of Ashkelon. Ashkelon is on the Mediterranean coast, about 13 km or 8 miles north of Gaza, so its 117,000 inhabitants have only 20 – 30 seconds to reach cover once a Code Red alert sounds. Not surprisingly, they are fed up with living that way, and before the Israeli ground offensive began some of them wanted it to happen, while others disagreed. On the street, according to this Jerusalem Post report, there was a feeling that the government needed to get tough – we need a Putin, they said. Be careful what you wish for.

A Hamas rocket hit a house in Ashkelon, Israel, about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip. A woman in the home was taken to the hospital for a panic attack. Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

A Hamas rocket hit a house in Ashkelon, Israel, about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip. A woman in the home was taken to the hospital for a panic attack. Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

When the situation is presented this way: “we just want to live here peacefully, but the Hamas terrorists keep attacking us,” it make sense to limit the discussion to the extent of the measures that self-defence should take. Of course, air shelters and the Iron Dome rocket defence system, but to really stop the rockets, just air strikes or also a ground invasion? Just to weaken Hamas, or wipe them out?

The context calls for some other questions, both about what self-defence means, and what the situation really is. Here I won’t try to provide a whole context or history, merely to point out that Ashkelon was not always Ashkelon. It has been inhabited since long before Jews and Arabs arrived in the land, but from the 16th century until 1948, it was the Palestinian Arab village of al-Majdal, with about 11,000 residents.

A view of al-Majdal, Palestine, in the 1930s, from the American Colony photographic collection. (Library of Congress)

A view of al-Majdal, Palestine, in the 1930s, from the American Colony photographic collection. (Library of Congress)

According to the 1947 partition plan, it was to become part of the Palestinian Arab state. During the 1948 war, most of the inhabitants fled as it became the forward position of the Egyptian army, and so a target for Israeli attacks, and as a result most of the inhabitants fled further south to Gaza. When Israeli forces took the town in November 1948, there were only 1,000 people left. At first, they seemed to be luckier than the 700,000 or so Palestinians who became refugees, as local Israeli officers ignored an order by their commander Yigal Allon to expel them. In fact, their numbers increased to 2,500 as other Palestinians who had been uprooted from the surrounding area either sought a relative haven with them or were sent from other places from which they had been expelled. But they were kept in a barbed wire ringed camp known as the ghetto (yes, really) and dispossessed of their homes and livelihoods.

Generally it’s claimed that the exodus of Palestinian refugees was an immediate result of the war and the fighting, or a military necessity for the fledgling Israeli army fighting the armies of the surrounding Arab states. But the refugee crisis was really created after the war had ended, both by preventing the return of the civilians who had fled their homes and by expelling more of them. Not only were the 10,000 residents of al-Majdal who left the arena of battle in 1948 not allowed to return, but the 2,500 Palestinians who remained there after the war had ended were expelled. There was actually some discussion in the Israeli government about what to do with them, so there was no rushed response to an emergency situation, but a policy decision was made that they had to go either by choice or by force. The “voluntary evacuation” was a sham, the main point of which was to get those who left to sign papers relinquishing all future claims to return. On 17th August 1950 the expulsion began, with almost all of them going to Gaza. The expulsion is documented in Israeli records, including photographs of Palestinians loaded onto trucks.

Al Majdal, October 12th 1950. Photo by Beno Rothenberg.

Al Majdal, October 12th 1950. Photo by Beno Rothenberg.

So if we know and understand that most of the Palestinians in Gaza are refugees and their descendants, mostly from the areas where Israeli civilians are under rocket attack, how else might we think about “what must be done” now? If we perceive the horrendous situation not simply as something that began when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, but as a violent reality that has existed since 1948, what would it take to address the issues feeding into the current violence?

Zochrot, an organization to promote Israeli Jewish society’s acknowledgement of and accountability for the Nakba, looks at today’s crisis in these terms. The organization understands that for most Israeli Jews, the very thought of the Palestinian refugees returning to Israel conjures up existential danger and the fear of annihilation. But as they put it: “Return does not mean expelling Jews from their homes, but the very opposite: The mutual existence of Palestinians and Jews in the country.” They pose quite practical questions, which they work through in imaginative and creative projects: “What might return actually look like on the ground? What needs will have to be met for the refugees to be reabsorbed? How would major social institutions be reorganized to prepare for return?”

Zochrot visit to Ashkelon/al-Majdal, 2003. Al-Ustaj and Al-Shuk Streets, posted at the corner of Herzl and Eli Cohen. Photo by Adi Kemmelgren

Zochrot visit to Ashkelon/al-Majdal, 2003. Al-Ustaj and Al-Shuk Streets, posted at the corner of Herzl and Eli Cohen. Photo by Adi Kemmelgren

So, what would self-defence look like if Palestinian refugees living in Gaza returned to Ashkelon, a growing city? Would we need an Iron Dome or air shelters? Who would be firing rockets, and at whom? Would “we” need a huge military budget to defend ourselves from “them” if all of us lived not in zones defined by barbed wire and concrete walls, but by the myriad connections of Jewish-Arab, Palestinian-Israeli civil society – neighbourhoods, schools, transport, trade, culture, language, government? What do we prefer, to protect ourselves from the rockets at the cost of many more lives, or to live with the refugees?

The Qana Moment: When the Israeli government falls off its Protective Edge

When the Israeli government and military began Operation Protective Edge, they must have known that the moment would come. I’ll call it the Qana moment after the incident on April 18, 1996, during Operation Grapes of Wrath, a round of the war between Israel (with its proxy, the South Lebanon Army) and Lebanon (in the form of Hezbollah). Then, as now with the hostilities between Israel and Gaza, an undercurrent of violence flared up into open warfare, with each side blaming the other for starting it. Then, as now, Israeli authorities accused their opponents of using civilians as human shields.

UNIFIL Peacekeepers (Qana 1996) Remove Artillery Attack Victim Remains

UNIFIL Peacekeepers (Qana 1996) Remove Artillery Attack Victim Remains

Then, as now, Israeli authorities called on civilians to leave the area in which they were going to attack, and hundreds of thousands did flee. Some 800 of them took refuge in a UN compound, nearby from which Hezbollah fighters fired rockets and mortar rounds towards Israeli military positions. In the response, Israeli artillery shells struck the compound, killing 106 and injuring many more. International outrage did not immediately halt the military campaign, although on the same day the UN Security Council passed resolution 1052 calling for an immediate ceasefire, which was not reached until ten days later. A subsequent UN investigation concluded that it was extremely unlikely that the Israeli shells had hit the compound by accident, and in its rejection of the report the Israeli government continued to claim that it had not intended to hit the compound.

The Qana moment is not an isolated incident in Israel’s asymmetrical wars against non-state foes, when “by accident” a horrific number of civilians are killed by Israeli munitions. In the last round of the Israel-Gaza war in 2012, the moment was the Al-Dalu family killing on 18 November, in which twelve people died in an attack on a home.

Palestinian men gather around a crater caused by an Israeli air strike on the al-Dalu family's home in Gaza City on November 18, 2012. (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)

Palestinian men gather around a crater caused by an Israeli air strike on the al-Dalu family’s home in Gaza City on November 18, 2012. (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)

In Cast Lead, in 2009, it was the shelling on January 6 of the al-Fakhura school in which hundreds of people were sheltering, killing more than 40 of them. The story is always the same. The Israeli authorities say that they were targeting a source of fire or some armed people or installation, and that the civilians were too close to the target, or there was some technical error. As Moriel Rothman-Zecher put it on his Leftern Wall blog, the Israeli authorities’ intention matters less than the consequences of their action. The killing of civilians is not an incidental by-product of this sort of asymmetrical warfare: it is an inevitable element of it, just as the deaths of Israeli soldiers, some by “friendly-fire,” are inevitable when the air war becomes a ground war. When Israeli authorities wage war in this way, it simply means that they intend to hit their targets. That is a military, not a moral, stance.

The Qana moment may already have happened in this bout of hostilities, Protective Edge. It might have been the bombing of the Abu Jameh family home on July 20th, killing 25, apparently without warning. As I write, details are emerging of another deadly strike that is eerily similar to the al-Fakhura incident: an UNWRA school in Beit Hanoun in which people had sought shelter but were apparently trying to evacuate, was hit by shells, killing about 10-15 and injuring many more.

The Qana moments don’t stop the violence (or bring the Western governments that support Israel’s “right to self-defense to withdraw their public support), nor does media attention to them address the whole range of death and destruction. At this point, unlike in the actual Qana moment, the UN Security Council has not resolved that there be an immediate ceasefire, although the UN human rights council has formed a commission to look into possible Israeli war crimes. The Israeli response has been dismissive, with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni saying “get lost” and Prime Minister Netanyahu calling it a travesty, given Hamas’ war crimes. In all probability, when the UN completes its report, the Israeli government will reject it, just as they after Grapes of Wrath, and for the same reasons. And when civilians are killed again in the next operation, and the one after that, and so on, they will repeat the same talking points as civilians die.

The deadly repetition of inevitable civilian casualties might perhaps be slowed if not halted by an Israeli public opinion that is as appalled by them as much as public opinion is elsewhere. But unless Israelis are seeking out alternative news to that provided by their mainstream media, they will see and hear little about the Palestinian casualties. Surely if Israeli authorities were as confident in the “righteousness of our way” as they claim to be, as in the new President Reuven Rivlin’s swearing in speech, then there would be no problem for the Israeli public to be fully aware of each “justified” death, each “justified” injury, each “justified” destruction of homes, and hospitals, and mosques. As a way of bringing the public’s attention to that for which they bear responsibility but do not hear, Israeli human rights groups B’tselem tried to pay for a spot on Israeli public radio in which the names of some of the dead Palestinian are read out. But the Israeli Broadcasting Authority rejected the group’s appeal to place the spot, so instead it can be found on social media, out of sight and mind of most of the Israeli public and its sphere of ethical responsibility.

“Every person has a name” goes the Hebrew song that is used on memorial days for soldiers and the Holocaust. And indeed, everyone does have a name, and the taking of that name cannot be excused by talking points. The cost of the Qana moments is horrendous, but they have the power to remind all of us of our ethical responsibility.

This is what “conflict management” looks like

Once again the ongoing tension between the Israeli government and Hamas has deteriorated into a massive, asymmetrical exchange of airborne explosives inflicted mostly on civilians. Last time, in November 2012, the Israeli military code for the “operation” was Pillar of Cloud/Pillar of Defense. Then as now the terminology varied between Hebrew and English, so now we have tzuk eitan (steadfast cliff) in Hebrew and Protective Edge in English. Who knows why. The current outburst of violence punctuates the persistent variation of armed conflict between the Israeli state and the Palestinian enclave of Gaza since the first mortar shell was fired from Gaza into Israel in 2001. We’re now up to the seventh Israeli operation to contain the launch of more than 8,500 Palestinian rockets, resulting in 4845 Palestinian dead and 174 Israelis, according to Ha’aretz. Probably somebody could estimate the mass of Israeli ordinance that has landed in Gaza, but the number would obscure the extension of destruction to Gazan property and prosperity brought about the Israeli-Egyptian siege. The siege hasn’t fulfilled its stated purpose of preventing the build-up of rockets in Gaza, only the rebuilding of homes and infrastructure after each explosion of destruction.

The code names of the Israeli military operation are much less significant than the conception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which they occur: conflict management. Sage “realists” who live in think tanks have concluded that the conflict is too intractable to be “resolved,” as the Oslo process has collapsed and subsequent efforts to revive it and the associated “two state solution” such as the Kerry initiative have failed too.  The best we can hope for, they tell us, is that temporary accommodations can be found that minimize the degree of armed conflict. No more wars between states, only “low intensity conflict” between Israel and its chief current enemies, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah and other “non-state actors.” So, you see, peace may be impossible, but war has been rebranded. The logic of conflict management shapes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s and the Israeli government’s relationship to Gaza and its Hamas leadership. Absent the option of a peace agreement with the Palestinians (which is blamed on the Palestinians), the best alternative is to deter the “non-state actor” Hamas from, well, acting other than as Israel wants, which is to disappear. So it’s within the rules of conflict management to punish Hamas as a whole, and any inhabitants of Gaza who are unfortunate enough to get in the way, with a dose of “low intensity conflict” for the murder of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the occupied Palestinian territories. And as Hamas responded with some “low intensity conflict” themselves, the conflict requires some more intense conflict management from the Israeli side, and so on, until things calm down for a while. Neither side really wanted the escalation, we’re told, so it’s just a question of time until they manage to find their way out. Sorry about the death and destruction until normal management is restored.

IAF strike on Gaza (Photo: EPA)

IAF strike on Gaza (Photo: EPA)

The “realists” who adhere to the doctrine of conflict management are not realists at all. The reality of conflict management is what is happening now. It is families in Gaza buried under rubble, and a lot more rubble. It is enormous and inevitable “collateral damage” (dead and injured people) of an Israeli operation that treats homes as legitimate military targets (“terrorist infrastructure). It is an Israeli pensioner who suffered a heart attack trying to get to shelter from indiscriminate rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is civilians in fear of what is falling from the skies. This is what conflict management looks like.

House destroyed by rocket in Beersheva. Photo by Herzl Yoseph

House destroyed by rocket in Beersheva. Photo by Herzl Yoseph

The asymmetry between the Palestinian and Israel casualties is immense, but it’s not a question of arithmetic. This low intensity conflict isn’t tolerable for Israeli civilians. It’s not so easy to manage shock and trauma, let alone physical injury, when you don’t live in a think tank. If you live in the confines of Gaza, there is nowhere to escape. This is what conflict management looks like.

Parents Circle Families Forum - Peace Square, July 2014

Parents Circle Families Forum – Peace Square, July 2014

There are some realists around, among the few voices in Israel that dissent from the mainstream discussion about how much military force should be deployed to manage the “non-state actors.” They might not look like realists at first sight. When everyone else is thinking about shelters that can withstand rockets, they put up a tent in a square. The Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, also known as The Parents Circle – Family Forum, have created a public space for peace in the midst of the war.

Poster for Parents Circle "Peace Square"

Poster for Parents Circle “Peace Square”

“We, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the ongoing conflict take it on ourselves to be a sign of reconciliation and dialogue.” They invite the public to join them, to listen, to discuss, for support. Based on their own experience of finding a way from their deepest pain to the pain of their enemy, they express their conception of conflict resolution in a slogan: “it won’t stop until we talk” (in Hebrew this rhymes as: ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber). The horrific episodes of death falling from the skies won’t stop until there is a negotiation peace, a peace that the “realists” have given up on. The Parents Circle enact the difficult, painful reconciliation on the ground that is peace itself and paves the way for negotiation peace. That sounds realistic to me, a reality in which people can live.