Tonight we hosted the Crisis in Gaza event I’ve been promoting here over the past week. It went extremely well. There were 125 guests and we raised $800 from attendees and readers of this blog who contributed, which will go toward Gaza charities (after expenses are covered). Two videographers filmed the event and their work will be uploaded here when it’s edited.
Only a week ago, after consulting local leaders of the Mideast peace activist community, I decided to organize this event. Through their mailing lists, word of mouth, and social media we whipped the event into shape in an amazingly short period of time. All I can say is that the magic of e-mail, Facebook, and internet activism made this happen.
I want to thank Rich Lang of University Temple, who graciously offered his church. Some of those community activists who took the lead in making the event successful were Gerri Haynes of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, who will be on her way to Gaza in a few hours; J. Glenn Evans of Poets West; Dick Blakney, Jeff Siddiqui, Randy Urmstrom of St. Mark’s Cathedral, and Judith Kolokoff.
One fascinating aspect of the discussion during Q&A was a debate between Assaf Oron and Naseem Tuffaha about the obstacles that prevent Israelis from accepting a just solution to the conflict. Oron, who was an IDF refuser and is an anti-Occupation activist, brought up the fear that so many Israelis feel about losing so many of the things they hold dear including a Jewish state in which they hold sovereignty. He asked Palestinian activists to try to understand and address these fears. Tuffaha bristled (in a very polite way) at being put into the uncomfortable position of being asked to empathize with the psychological trauma that allows Israelis to continue the Occupation and oppression of his people.
While the debate between two supporters of a progressive approach to the conflict who disagreed on this one issue was difficult, even awkward, I relished seeing ideas playing out in a public setting which I often address here. While I understood the motivation behind Assaf’s plea, I completely understood how awkward and perhaps unfair was the position into which it put Naseem.
When the video of the meeting is edited, I will post it here so you can see colloquy I’ve summarized.
Assaf also credited Pres. Obama with almost single-handedly preventing an Israeli invasion by pressuring Israel to accept a ceasefire. That thought hadn’t occurred to me. It is possible that behind the scenes the president was working to avert this bloodbath. Given my skepticism of almost everything he does related to the Middle East, it’s hard to credit him with this level of foresight and principle. But it’s distinctly possible that Assaf is right.
The following is the talk I prepared for the meeting in which I focused on the failure of U.S. policy in Gaza and how Gaza might relate to the nuclear impasse with Iran:
Crisis in Gaza: the Failure of U.S. Policy
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex story with many elements, many actors, many roles. But essentially it is a three-legged stool consisting of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans. In my own person, I reflect two of those three legs. Unlike Assaf, my friend who’s speaking here tonight, I am not Israeli. I am an American Jew. But by virtue of my upbringing and identity as a Jew, Israel plays a critical role in my life. Hence, its policies, its security, its well-being are important to me. It’s why I’ve written my blog, Tikun Olam, daily for the past nine years.
Since I was teenager during the 1967 War, I’ve devoted a major part of my life to envisioning an Israel that was peaceful, democratic and tolerant. At one time, most American Jews and Israelis shared such a vision. But gradually what one might call the liberal Zionist dream has been trashed and discarded by far more radical elements within the Zionist camp like the ultra-nationalists who control the Israeli state.
Unlike Israel’s current leaders, I believe the fates of Israeli Jews and Palestinians are inextricably intertwined. What harms one harms both. There is no way one can succeed or triumph unless the other does. If one fails, so will the other. In short, they will live together or die together.
There are many reasons why I do what I do and write what I write. Among them, I want the American people and their leaders to know that there are American Jews who are not apologists for the worst excesses of the current Israeli government. I also want American Jews to know that if their leadership or organizations want to become reflexive defenders of the Netanyahu government, there are those in the community who will not allow them to have a political monopoly. Finally, I want Israelis to know that there are American Jews who care about Israel deeply, but who will not stand idly by while this country sells its birthright for a mess of porridge; while it tramples on democratic values and massacres Palestinians and their supporters, whether Arab or American.
I’m here to tell you something you already know: American and Israeli policy in Gaza is an utter failure. Every argument offered by Pres. Obama or Prime Minister Netanyahu to justify the siege and recurring series of wars and assaults is wrong on its face. Some of you may’ve seen Yousef Munayyer’s op-ed in the N.Y. Times yesterday, in which he offered the same argument. I was thankful to read such a view in the pages of that august establishment paper which generally follows a liberal Zionist line in its reporting on the conflict.
The Gaza siege is not only a violation of international law, which prohibits collective punishment of a civilian population, it doesn’t even serve a purely pragmatic purpose in Israeli terms. There are two arguments offered in its favor: that it stops terror attacks against Israel; and that its counters the popularity of Hamas, which is a terrorist organization.
The recent assault, called by the euphemistic Biblical term Pillar of Cloud or Pillar of Defense, proved that Hamas has been able to arm itself despite the siege. It also proved that the siege, if anything, has strengthened Hamas’ hand in Gaza politically, not weakened it. By almost every account, the latest crisis has rendered Fatah and the PA irrelevant to the Palestinians. Which suits Israel just fine, since it wants no viable representative of the Palestinian people with whom it might have to compromise or negotiate.
Since 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian Authority elections, Israel and the U.S. have boycotted it, refusing to speak to it or recognize it. This meant that despite weighty matters in which both sides have an interest–like the Shalit prisoner exchange, or negotiating ceasefires during Operation Cast Lead and last week, neither Israel nor the U.S. would speak to one of the key interlocutors. Instead, Egypt, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, became the go-to party negotiating such deals. This had the effect of amplifying the prestige of a government neither the U.S. nor Israel feel terribly fond of. All because we won’t talk to Hamas.
The announced terms of the ceasefire this week showed possible cracks in the facade Israel and the U.S. erected regarding Hamas. Not only did Israel agree to unrestrained movement in the border zone, it agreed to relaxing restrictions on Gaza fishermen and to end the siege. In truth, it offered to change these procedures through a process of negotiation led by Egypt which, just now, is a bit distracted with a domestic drama of its own.
Hamas has announced that meetings have already occurred to expedite these changes, though Israel refuses to concede any changes are imminent. Yesterday’s N.Y. Times notes that fisherman today violated the three-mile zone imposed upon them by the Israeli navy and no one stopped them.
2,000 Gazans celebrated their newly won freedom to move within the Israeli imposed no-go zone on the border. The IDF promptly rewarded them with rounds of bullets which killed a 20-year-old farmer and wounded ten others. Israel has paid a heavy price in the court of public opinion for murdering unarmed civilians.
We don’t know exactly what was agreed to by the parties negotiating this ceasefire, which included Israel, Hamas, Egypt and the U.S. There may’ve been secret side deals which guarantee changes in, or the lifting of the siege.
If so, it can’t happen a moment too soon. As Israeli Gen. Giora Eiland said in the pages of Haaretz at the height of the mayhem, the only productive policy for Israel is to recognize Hamas as rulers of Gaza; to end the siege; and to demand accountability from Hamas for policing its territory and stopping rockets.
This is precisely the sort of pragmatism scorned in policymaking circles both in Israel and the U.S., which is dominated instead by fantasists and ideologues. Among them, I’m sorry to say is Pres. Obama. Ever since he failed to compel Israel to freeze West Bank settlements, he’s withdrawn from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In truth, he wouldn’t have even made the effort he did to secure a ceasefire if he hadn’t been forced to do so by the prospect of an Israeli invasion that might drag the entire region further into chaos.
A possible invasion threatened even more important U.S. foreign policy initiatives like resolving the nuclear impasse with Iran. I’ve made the argument in my blog, first offered to me by my friend, Dick Blakney, who is here tonight, that Obama was as supportive as he was toward Israel, defending its right to attack Gaza, because he wanted to build up credits with Israelis and the Israel lobby in this country, when he took a more conciliatory approach toward Iran.It’s probably a losing proposition to bet on Barack Obama, who I call the Democratic Kissinger, putting forward a principled, far-sighted proposal to resolve outstanding differences between the two nations. But we might expect him to adopt some less-sweeping ideas that might lessen tension and the chance that western nations might go to war over Iran’s nuclear program.
Even a scaled down U.S. agenda anything less than draconian will anger the Likud government and its Congressional allies. That may be one good reason Obama kept his powder dry throughout the Gaza hostilities, appearing to back the IDF to the hilt, to the consternation of us all.
There are those who argue both in Israel and elsewhere that the Gaza assault was a test run for an Israeli attack on Iran. An article in the N.Y. Times somewhat ominously compared the massacre in Gaza to Nazi Germany’s military support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War, which became a dress rehearsal for World War II.
The Iranian graphic artist, Mana Neyestani drew a cartoon featuring a phantom image of Bibi during his General Assembly speech, holding up that ridiculous drawing of an exploding cannon ball that was supposed to be Iran’s nuclear weapon. The image of Bibi dissolves into warheads dropping onto Gaza as if the two conflicts merge into each other visually.
I’m afraid, my friends, we have to wage this war for peace on two fronts: one in Gaza and the other Iran. It makes it very hard for us because no sooner do we stop one bit of mayhem than we have to face the prospect of another.
But I am confident that in the long run, history bends an arc toward the just and not the powerful. We have only faced the Gaza siege for six years, the Israeli Occupation for 45 years, and the Nakba for 64. No one thought the Berlin Wall would fall, nor that the Soviet Union would implode. No one thought peace could come to Northern Ireland, nor that Kosovo would become independent or that the siege of Sarajevo would ever end. In 1954, would any African-American have dreamed they could vote, run for office, or become President by 2008? Could any white Southern segregationist of that era have imagined the changes that have transpired since in that region? Who would’ve thought a year ago that Aung San Suu Kyi would be free and Pres. Obama would be visiting Burma, the first U.S. president to do so?
We have to be optimists despite the immense suffering Gaza has endured. Such injustice cannot continue forever. There is a scientific principle that given a choice between a simple and complicated proof of a problem, the simpler answer is always right. This is also true in politics. A status quo that is contorted into moral knots cannot long survive. Eventually it will collapse under the weight of its own lies and inconsistencies. Simple basic truths and realities will triumph.
Eventually there will be justice. There will be Palestine. Hamas will be recognized. The siege will end. Not because Israel will want it, but because common sense and pragmatism will force the world to understand that it must be this way. The alternative is endless war, bodies stacked like cord wood, and a barren, desolate Middle East that drags the rest of the world into the maelström. That’s something no one wants.