Less than a week ago, BBC journalist Jihad Misharawi’s 11-month old son Omar was killed by an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip. A picture of Jihad and his son was featured last week on the cover of the Washington Post, bringing new attention to an old struggle that seems to be getting worse.
Rockets have been screaming back and forth from Gaza into Israel and from Israel into Gaza for years. This is not a new situation but it is escalating to a level we’ve not seen since the last intifada.
In September a group of journalists and I visited Israel and stood on a hill overlooking the wall separating Israel from Gaza. From our viewpoint we could see the controversial territory where 1.6 million Palestinians have been walled in and secluded from the outside world. They are, essentially, imprisoned. Security around the territory is so tight Palestinians can hardly import or export goods because shipments may contain weapons. The inability to export goods has created an unemployment rate of 45.2 percent, amongst the highest in the world. The extreme poverty in the region has made an unquestioned contribution to the hostility.
Sadly, the strict border is for good reason. Even the place we stood was considered dangerous. We were not allowed to stand on the hill long for risk of sniper fire. In the southern Israeli towns there were bunkers at bus stops and schools. Israeli’s who live along the border live bravely but have plenty to fear.
But no conflict like this has a single side. We spent much of our time in the West Bank, interviewing Palestinian leaders. The stories we heard were heartbreaking. We had dinner with a woman whose mother was killed by Israeli guards after placing a rose on a tank. She was gunned down while sitting with her husband on their front porch later that week. We met with the assistant to the mayor of Bethlehem, a Christian man whose twelve-year-old daughter was killed sitting in the backseat of the family car while driving through an Israeli checkpoint.
A common misunderstanding is that this is a religious war. But that’s hardly the case. The tension has as much to do with race, language, culture and land as it does with religion. I would not say religious differences are the problem as much as many from each side seeing the other as beneath them in human value. The situation feels more like the United States before the civil rights era, only more bloody.
The walls erected around the West Bank and Gaza separate families from families. Many mothers will not see their children again. Millions will never return to the homes their families had occupied for hundreds of years. If a Palestinian leaves the territory through Egypt or Jordan, Israel makes it difficult for them to return. Thousands of Palestinian students at American universities will never see their families again.
Israel gives most Palestinians fresh water once each week, water they store in tanks on top of their homes. On the other side of the wall, within a hundred yards, Israeli children swim in personal swimming pools. In Gaza, Israel also rations their food, allowing only so many calories per human being. The Palestinians have no port, no trade and no way to get out except through illegal tunnels into Egypt, tunnels Israel allows in order to stay off a humanitarian crisis.
To be sure, on both sides of this issue there are crimes against humanity. Hamas is widely known for the atrocities they commit against the innocent and more than half the people killed by Israeli bombs are civilians. Most Hamas rockets are unguided and fall into empty fields (few hit inhabited targets). This was true both before and after Israel erected its Iron Dome program in which they shoot down rockets that are heading toward civilized areas. Hamas is guilty of inciting this violence, to be sure. That said, Israeli rockets into Gaza fall on one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Combined with the poverty, unemployment and imprisonment, these rockets leave a population helpless and incite anger and a desire for revenge.
The sad reality is this conflict is largely between leaders who are safe in bunkers. The innocent are the ones who pay.
And the innocent want peace.
Earlier in the trip we met with leaders from the PLO and Israeli Knesset (Parliament) and I asked both sides (in separate meetings) whether tactics of nonviolent resistance had been applied and whether they had been effective the way they had in South Africa, India and even the civil rights struggle in the United States. PLO officials insisted non-violent resistance hadn’t proven effective and one Israeli leader suggested my questions about forgiveness between nation states might be naive. It surprised me that non-violent methods were given so little consideration.
What concerned me further was the concept of tit for tat, of an eye for an eye was the only philosophy of justice in play. Each side was seemingly trying to enact vengeance on the other.
Israel has the right to defend itself, without question. What Hamas is doing in Gaza is troubling and unhelpful, mostly for their own people. The rockets coming over the wall from Gaza to Israel must stop if there is to be any hope of negotiations. It is more than concerning that leaders in Hamas know this and continue to fire rockets, costing their own innocent people their lives.
But Hamas is not the only party representing Palestinians in the region. Fatah controls much of the West Bank while Hamas controls Gaza. Fatah is against violence as a way of brokering a settlement and is often frustrated with the actions taken by Hamas. In the United States, unfortunately, the two parties are often confused and seen as one, which plays into some Israeli leaders hopes of branding the Palestinians as terrorists. It’s often heard, even in Press interviews conducted with Israeli leadership that these people are less than human and don’t even love their own children. This is nothing short of demonization. There is no culture in the world that does not love its own children. Such talk reduces an entire people group into a perceived nest of vampires.
While visiting Nablus I sat on the ground and played with Palestinian children living in a refugee camp across the street from the well where Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman. I assure you, these are people who love their children. Each of us felt as safe or more safe walking the streets of Nablus as we did in the streets of Jerusalem.
Before visiting the region I might have argued for the United States to stay out of the conflict, I came back realizing we are their only hope. And they are nearly begging us to intervene.
And there are plenty of reasons we should. We give Israel billions of dollars each September (we also provide a small percentage of that dollar amount in aid to the Palestinians) and that money partly funds the Israeli military. What this means is we are already involved. If we argue we shouldn’t be involved, then we must also stop giving Israel money and they will certainly perish as a country. Negotiating peace, then, could save America a great deal in the coming years. And negotiating peace isn’t expensive.
But starting negotiations will be complicated. It’s no secret Netanyahu doesn’t like President Obama and practically campaigned against him in the recent American election, frustrating even the most conservative Israelis who felt he should stay out of another country’s sovereign elections. Netanyahu was thought to involve himself for his long-time friendship with Mitt Romney, a friendship that began when the two were in their twenties. (Earlier I mistakenly said Netanyahu was American born. He wasn’t. Like many Israeli’s, though, he was educated in the United States.)
Even if Romney had been elected, though, it’s doubtful he would have been able to work with his friend in Israel for long. Netanyahu walks such a hard line there’d be little doubt that even Romney would have to cut ties eventually. How many pictures of dead Palestinian babies will Americans tolerate?
This is no longer your grandmother’s Israel.
A small but powerful group of evangelicals still believe when the new testament refers to Israel it’s referring to the newfound country rather than a spiritual nation formed in the collective hearts of all believers. This belief, true or not, is encouraging many to side with Israel and buy into the spin (there is spin on both sides, to be sure.) Any Christian has the right to this belief, of course, but should not be naive about the fact this movement is supporting and passively aiding the deaths of many innocent Palestinians. For many Christians the nation-state of Israel has been reduced to a good luck charm, a rabbits foot they rub in order to be blessed. Blind support for either side will only lead to more bloodshed.
But we must try. As Americans, peace in the region is important and we must try once again to broker it. A solution in Israel will lead to solutions in many other Arab countries and stay off nagging foreign-relations problems that are not going to go away. The United States must reposition itself as an authoritarian broker of peace rather than a blind political ally to any country that is unwilling to yield, listen, talk and compromise for the sake of the innocent.
When there’s a clear good guy and a clear bad guy, the news has been reduced to the stuff of comic books. Such is the age we live in. And such is the news we read. But there is hope.
I agree with Senator John McCain’s concern about the issue and echo his encouragement for President Obama to get involved. The idea of sending President Bill Clinton as an American representative is an idea we heard from consultants in Israel and seems to offer the most hope. You can watch John McCain discuss the issue here:
If you have Netflix, consider watching a movie called Palestine Blues, a documentary filmed during the building of the wall separating southern Israel from Gaza. It’s widely considered an objective film, showing both the growing hatred and that hatred’s provocation.
What can we do?
There are many things we can do. The first is to question the media as we consume stories about the middle east. The second is to visit Palestine. Let’s not stop at Israel, let’s visit our friends in Ramala and Nablus and Bethlehem. Third, let’s restart the conversation about sending a delegation to support a two-state solution. Fourth, we can call into question our blind support of Israel. Israel is our friend and ally and will remain as such, but in any instance when the innocent are being killed, we need to let it be known this can’t continue with our support. Fifth, we must continue to hold Hamas accountable for their crimes and justice must be brought against those who seek change through violence. But we should not confuse Hamas with Fatah or either party with innocent civilians who simply want to take care of their families. The demonization of Arabs from a casual, American perspective is sad and unhelpful. These are warm, hospitable cultures. Sixth, we can support efforts from Fatah to negotiate peace (Hamas is a party that supports violence while Fatah largely rejects those tactics. Hamas controls Gaza while Fatah controls the West Bank.) We cannot treat all Palestinians the same, as though they are of a common mind. Seventh, when we hear anybody say Palestinians do not love their children, this comment must be questioned. It’s a demonization and a sentiment that comes from a place of removal. This line of thinking is at the heart of the bloodshed. It is much easier to kill vampires than mothers who love their children. Sadly, it’s a common line and it belongs to the same spirit of darkness that is behind racism around the world. The same restraint must be shown regarding hostility toward Israeli’s and Jews. If Israeli’s are seen as oppressors who do not want peace, the pendulum has swung too far. We must continue to support Israel’s true right to defend itself while we mustn’t allow retaliation to be called defense. Very few Israeli’s we spoke to, both in leadership and in cafes were against peace. Not only did the Israeli’s want a two-state solution, they wanted to know their Palestinian neighbors. Eighth, we can pray. I place this last because I want it to be remembered first. While the United States needs to step in, the church needs to step in all the more. The situation deserves our prayer. We must love people we do not know. We must pray for truth and justice and peace. The Palestinians we met were humble people God loves. They were rich in culture, warm in hospitality, forgiving in nature and kind to us as Americans. If you could meet them, they would be very hard not to love and the situation in Israel would further break your heart.
I’ll close by recounting something Dr. Mitri Raheb told us when we visited his church and school in Bethlehem. Dr. Raheb is a Palestinian Christian running a large program changing Palestinian culture by creating Christian art programs, college courses, soccer clubs and so much more. After days in the region, meeting with people three and four times per day for multi-hour interviews, one of us commented that the conflict seemed too complicated for us to have any positive affect.
Dr. Raheb nodded his head in agreement that the situation was complicated, then set his glass of water on the table and said that when he saw things as too complicated he was often making an excuse for inaction. The truth is there were simple things we could do. He laughed a bit to himself and said can you imagine hearing Jesus answer questions about God by simply waving His hand, shrugging his shoulders and saying, well, that’s just too complicated? No, Jesus took action. He explained what He could explain and more than anything taught us our God was a God of love.
Yes, it’s complicated, but there’s plenty we can do. And we should.
(You can watch a wonderful interview with Dr. Raheb here.)
WANT A PERSPECTIVE?
While in Jerusalem, we met with an organization called Just Vision that seeks to tell the stories so many Americans would care about but never get to hear. If you’d like to learn a little more, consider watching a film called My Neighborhood. It painfully illustrates the land claims that are causing the tension and how even Israeli Jews are working beneath the government to create peace.
ANTICIPATED QUESTIONS REGARDING THIS BLOG POST
Why don’t we just butt out? It’s none of our business.
Because it is our business. We send Israel billions every year. We are already invested in the region. In addition, the anti-American sentiment coming from Arab countries around the world has a great deal to do with our blind support of Israel and the fact we ignore crimes against humanity. Most Americans are, in fact, unaware any of this is happening in Israel. They have demonized Palestinians and bought into the spin.
Isn’t the reason our economy is suffering because we keep intervening in foreign wars?
Our economy is suffering because banks gave out sub-prime loans. Wars are expensive, but they also stimulate our economy. And besides, this isn’t a financial issue. Negotiating peace in Israel wouldn’t cost us anything.
Doesn’t the Bible say we should support Israel?
Yes, it does. But in Romans, Israel is explained as having expanded to include the Gentiles and all those who know Jesus so it’s debatable as to whether the very recent creation of an Israeli state should be interpreted as that which the Bible is speaking of. Besides, looking the other way when military vengeance is enacted while being spun as “defense” isn’t acceptable by any nation state and should be called into question. Supporting Israel is not the same as enabling Israel.
Isn’t Islam a violent religious system and just plain evil?
This question will rightly be offensive to most, but because some people believe this, it needs to be addressed. The overwhelming majority of Muslims do not support violence. Looking at the developing Arab world and calling all Muslims therein evil would be like looking at America during the Civil War and claiming both sides quoting the Bible as evidence Christianity causes violence. There are arrogant people who resort to force and violence regardless of their religious disposition. It should also be noted there’s always a back story. There haven’t been any suicide bombings in Israel in more than five years (correction, four years.) The wave of bombings that did take place happened when the mosque in the old city was violated by an Israeli politician who marched on it with soldiers simply to stand where only Muslin’s are allowed. This launched the second intifada (uprising) that was indeed bloody. It should also be noted that the majority of suicide bombers had lost a loved one within only a few weeks to Israeli soldiers. A report from John Mueller of Ohio State University claims that since 9/11, outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, between 200 to 400 deaths have been attributed to Islamic extremism. More people die each year alone in their bathtubs.
Who caused this situation?
This is a difficult question and there is no realistic claim to an answer. Who the region belongs to is a question that would have to go back thousands of years. The recent tension was caused when Israel was granted the region along with being recognized as a nation state when there were already people living in the land of Palestine. Palestinians weren’t an “official” state and so were driven from their homes and the villages they and their families had lived in for hundreds of years. Without “proper” titles they had few arguments in newly created courts. Many Palestinians still wear keys around their necks to the homes they were driven from. Some violent Palestinian factions reacted wanting vengeance and to defend their homes, the only homes they’d known. The tension that exists now is a product of that tit for tat argument. It’s a bit like walking into a bar fight when both fighters are bloody and one is holding his boot on the neck of the other. The question of who caused it, at this point, is not helpful. Again, these two cultures need a divorce and decades of peace before they can share the region. We do not know who caused it, but a two-state solution, and soon, is the only answer.
So grateful you were interested enough to read this article. My new friends in Palestine and Israel asked me to tell you what was going on there. Since one of the first targets for Israel were journalists and media outlets in Gaza, they have few ways to communicate with the outside world. Let’s keep them, along with our friends in Israel, in our prayers.
President Obama commented on the situation in Israel yesterday (after this blog was written) from Bangkok.