by Daniel Bar-Tal
This is probably one of the most difficult periods in my political life as a Jew living in the state of Israel. The events of the war in Gaza hit hard at the foundations of my hope that a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can be achieved in the near future. The feeling of despair is reinforced by the results of the recent elections, in which the majority within Israeli Jewish society voted for the right-wing parties that object to the idea of dividing the land between the two nations.
Moreover, my trust in humanity has been weakened, seeing the ease with which human beings rally for a war, exercise blind patriotism, express desire for vengeance, delegitimize the opponent, and develop an insensitivity to human life, denial of responsibility, self-righteousness and moral entitlement. This is in contrast to the great difficulty that human beings have in mobilizing for peace. We see over and over again that it takes many years and many efforts to persuade people of the importance of peace, but it takes an extremely short time to convince people of the need for war. It is even more difficult to establish moral considerations.
I have been agonizing for weeks over whether to write an open letter. I could not bring myself to pen and paper or to the keyboard, feeling helplessness. But only a responsibility to voice an alternative opinion to the officially presented views that are supported by the great majority of Israeli Jews brought me to write this letter. It is important that you know that there is a small minority of us, Jews in Israel, who care about moral considerations and have opposed this war, and more of us have voted for parties that wish to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully.
What can I say when I know that about 1,300 Palestinians were killed, at least half of them innocent civilians, including children, women and old people; over 4,000 were injured; thousands of homes were destroyed; and dozens of thousands became homeless? And on the Israeli side, 13 Israelis were killed, including three civilians, hundreds were wounded, and thousands had to escape from the hundreds of rockets that were fired on Israel. I could repeat the arguments of the Israeli government that, through the years, many hundreds of rockets were fired on Israeli land west of Gaza, including populated settlements; that no government would allow its citizens to be hurt; that “after eight years of restraint, Israel has decided to act against the terror attacks coming from the Gaza Strip” and “Israeli restraint was misinterpreted as weakness by Hamas and members of the vertical axis of extremism led by Iran…”; that “Israel had reached a mutual agreement to give peace its final chance when it agreed to the Egyptian-brokered period of calm (tahdi’a) agreement in June 2008, whose terms were repeatedly violated by Hamas.” It is only natural that those who sent the soldiers to the war have to defend it and rationalize it. This is a human principle.
But these arguments do not tell the whole story. Even if we take the Israeli arguments without the background and complexity, they cannot account for the scale of civilian losses and the destruction on the Palestinian side. The brutality and scope of the Israeli actions testify to deeper roots that are found on the darker side of human beings. They express the wish to erase the feeling of failure in the Second Lebanon War during the summer of 2006; they reflect a deep sense of collective victimhood because of the continuous firing of rockets on civilian populated areas in the south by the Hamas military organ — this sense of victimhood led to the urge for revenge in order to retaliate for the harm done and to prevent further firing. In addition, they are derived from the continuous dehumanization of the Hamas organization and its supporters as one homogenous terrorist entity. Finally, they are based on the conviction that Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, allowing Palestinians to live their lives, who instead engaged in terrorizing Israeli civilians by firing rockets.
But the reality is much more complex than the narrative perpetuated by the Israeli political and military establishments, which successfully constructed the beliefs of the Jewish public in Israel. This is ironic because one of the objectives of the war was to “carve the consciousness” of the Palestinians so that they would recognize the harm that Hamas was doing to the Palestinian cause and Palestinian life. This objective was not achieved and, instead, the war intensified the mutual hatred and mistrust between the two peoples and reinforced the support of hawkish opinions on both sides and, as a result, the peace process has been damaged even more. Moreover, it is hard to detect any meaningful political gains by Israel in the balance of this war. We are back to the same lines that existed before the war — with terrible losses and destruction.
The psychological analysis of the situation illustrates the selective, biased and distorted transmission and dissemination of information by the Israeli channels of communication, which probably takes place on the Palestinian side as well. It does not mean that alternative information does not exist in Israel, but very few are interested in knowing what is really happening. Thus, most Israeli Jews do not know what Israel has perpetrated throughout the decades of its occupation of Gaza; most Israeli Jews do not know that Hamas was originally founded by the Israeli authorities to provide an alternative to the national Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) movement; most Israeli Jews do not know that Hamas is a religious-fundamentalist movement that also provides welfare, health and educational services to the Palestinian people; most Israeli Jews have forgotten that Hamas was elected democratically (with the insistence of the U.S. government) to lead the government of the Palestinian Authority (PA) because of Fateh’s corruption, and mostly because the fruitless negotiations with Israel did not provide any political solution to the conflict; most Israeli Jews do not remember that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of “no Palestinian partner” led to unilateral disengagement from Gaza without negotiation with the PA. This last action was taken in order to delegitimize the PA and in an attempt to maintain control over the West Bank. What is of importance for understanding the present situation is that the disengagement did not free Gaza, but instead Israel put a siege on Gaza, turning it into one big prison. Israel controls the entrances to Gaza and controls every aspect of human life in Gaza. It decided to alter the support of Gazans for Hamas by carrying out a siege that allowed minimal living and brought Gaza to economic disaster. Almost every Israeli Jew knows that even after the disengagement, Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israeli civilian communities, but few know that, during 2005–2008, hundreds of Palestinians were killed by the Israeli forces. Few know that the tunnels were built mainly to smuggle civilian goods that could not be brought into Gaza, and not only weapons, as the great majority believes. Very few know that there is a relationship between Israeli violence and Palestinian violence, preferring to see the latter as irrational, fanatic and immoral, while seeing the former as defensive, moral and justified.
Few Israeli Jews recognize that, for two years, Israel had at least two alternative strategies to prevent further escalation: either to talk to Hamas, which is possible, and to negotiate a long-term ceasefire; or to take decisive action for peace — for example, by easing the conditions of life for the Palestinians by removing many of the checkpoints and by vacating illegal settlements, as required by the promises Israel made to the United States — vis-à-vis President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA to show the Palestinians that the process does yield tangible fruits that lead to prosperity and security.
Even when we shift to the period before the war, most Israeli Jews do not know that it was possible to negotiate a continuation of the ceasefire with Hamas and do not remember that it was Israel that broke the ceasefire on November 4, 2008, killing six Palestinians. Hamas is not my cup of tea, as it is a religious-fundamentalist organization that also practices terrorism, but it is a social movement with wide support in Palestinian society because it provides an alternative to the humiliated Palestinian national identity. This movement is not homogenous, and it is possible to hear within it different voices, including ones that support negotiation with Israel and acceptance of the two-state solution.
All these omissions are not surprising in view of the fact that the sides involved in the conflict have been deeply immersed in the culture of conflict. They try to shape the views of the members of their respective societies systematically by presenting their own society as being moral, just, peace-loving or moderate, and the rival society as immoral, intransigent, violent, irrational or extreme. In addition, each side views itself as the victim of this conflict. This process has been going on for decades. Only during the few years of Yitzhak Rabin’s time did it look as if the peace process was gaining momentum. But since the year 2000, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided on the “no Palestinian partner” policy, the peace process has been dying. It is true that the Palestinians have their share in the failure of the Oslo process, but the tremendous asymmetry of power puts the major part of the responsibility for the continuation of the conflict on the Israeli side. It is Israel that holds almost all the cards for resolving the conflict: It occupies the land, holds East Jerusalem, controls the lives of the Palestinians, controls the resources of the West Bank, constantly expands the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, exercises preventive and punishing violent acts at will and has had — at least up to this point — the almost unconditional backing of the superpower.
The contours of the potential settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more or less clear: If it happens, it will be in accordance with the Clinton Parameters, the Taba Understanding, the Geneva Accord, and the Arab Peace Initiative. Israel will have to return to the 1967 borders, with some land swaps, in order to hold the most populated clusters of Jewish settlements just beyond the Green Line; Jerusalem will be divided; most of the Jewish settlements inside the territories will be dismantled; and the problem of the refugees will have to be solved by common agreement, by compensation and resettlement, mostly within the future Palestinian state. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert openly outlined these principles to the Israeli public, but did not take any concrete steps to implement them. While recognizing the need for a two-state solution — because of the demographic fear — the Israeli public objects to the outlined principles: The majority of Israeli Jews object to the division of Jerusalem, to withdrawal to the 1967 borders and to the dismantling of most of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In fact, I must admit that I do not see any Israeli government evacuating the approximately 60,000 Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Following the devastation of the peace camp in 2000, the Israeli Jewish public is moving steadily towards hawkish-nationalistic views. The recent war provided an additional blow to the peace camp, as was demonstrated by the results of the elections.
These results provide additional evidence of the standing of the Israeli peace camp. The great majority of Israeli Jews believes that the conflict is irresolvable and, therefore, we will have to live by the sword. Obviously, the blame for this perceived situation is put on the Palestinians.
My hopelessness is fed by the fact that there is an enormous gap between the collective convictions of the Israeli Jews and reality. The great majority believes that Israeli Jews are very humane, that the Israeli army is the most moral army in the world and that Israeli democracy is one of the strongest in the world. In this situation, it is hard to believe that mainstream Israeli Jews will engage in attempts to change the situation. Instead they engage in the art of denial, projection, rationalization and so on. How many Jews in Israel want to know that, just around the corner, Israel is practicing collective maltreatment of a nation within the context of a longstanding occupation? How many want to know about the institutionalized discrimination that is practiced in the state of Israel against Arab citizens of the state? In this framework, it is not surprising that we prefer to talk about our victimhood in the conflict and, especially, about the Holocaust and about the two thousands years of maltreatment by the Goyim (Gentiles) during the Diaspora, and accuse every criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied territories of being expressions of anti-Semitism. Israeli Jews, like members of other nations, are sensitive to violations of human rights in and by other societies and adore those who expose them, but have great difficulty looking in their own mirrors and facing their own misdeeds. The latter feature characterizes many nations, but it is very hard to find a nation at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st that labels itself enlightened and still carries on with occupation for over 40 years.
The rest will be written in the history books…. Still, it is important to remember that this war did not erupt spontaneously, but was planned well in advance, including its scope, the type of weapons used and so on. The results of the war are tragic for both nations. It provided unequivocal evidence to each side that the other side is evil and immoral and that a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unachievable. Moreover, in view of this perspective, Israeli Jews, as well as Palestinians, support intransigent political forces. Now a few of us here and there can only evaluate the tragedy, explain the events and either pray for a miracle that outside forces will appear and save us from the worst human instincts, or assemble all of those who care about the two societies and continue the very difficult drive for a peaceful and prosperous future. I prefer the second way.