Rabbi M. Lerner: End the Suffering in the Middle East

The people of the Middle East are suffering again as militarists on all sides, and cheerleading journalists, send forth missiles, bombs and endless words of self-justification for yet another pointless round of violence between Israel and her neighbors.  For those of us who care deeply about human suffering, this most recent episode in irrationality evokes tears of sadness, incredulity at the lack of empathy on all sides, anger at how little anyone seems to have learned from the past, and moments of despair as we once again see the religious and democratic ideals subordinated to the cynical realism of militarism.

Meanwhile, the partisans on each side, content to ignore the humanity of “the Other,” rush to assure their constituencies that the enemy is always to blame. Each such effort is pointless. We have a struggle that has been going on for over a hundred years. Who tosses the latest match into the tinder box matters little. What matters is how to repair the situation. The blame game only succeeds in diverting attention from that central issue.

Within the context of blame, there’s enough to go around.  It all depends on where you start the story. Counting on lack of historical memory, the partisans on all sides choose the place that best fits them into a narrative in which they are the “righteous victims” and the others are the evil aggressors. Palestinians like to start the story in 1948 with the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes during the war on Israel proclaimed by neighboring Arab states, and the refusal of the Israeli government to allow these people to return to once the hostilities ceased. Israelis prefer to start the story when Jews were desperately seeking to escape from the genocide they faced in Europe, and a cynical Arab leadership convinced the British military to side with local Palestinians who sought to prevent those Jewish refugees from joining their fellow Jews living in Palestine at the time. I tell the story, and how to understand both sides, in my book Healing Israel/Palestine.

Or one can start more recently, with this summer’s escalation of violence. But where exactly did that start? Please go to the website of Israeli human rights organization B’tselem  to see that each side can point to outrageous acts on the part of the other.

Since the death of Yasir Arafat and the assumption of power by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine’s major political factions – Fatah and Hamas – observed a hudna, or ceasfire. Yet Israel, pointing to the fact that Abbas’ police force (decimated by Israeli bombings during the 2nd Intifada of 2001-2003) was unable to fully restrain the violence of Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and Islamic Jihad—and used that weakness as its reason to claim that there was “nobody to talk to” when the peace forces in Israel pleaded with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and later with current PM Ehud Olmert that the Palestinian request for negotiations should be accepted. Instead, Israel announced a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank (implemented in 2005) and from forthcoming sections of the West Bank (to have begun with the removal of illegal outposts this summer) that would de facto create new borders which would incorporate into Israel large parts of the West Bank that Israel had agreed to leave during the 1990s. Tikkun magazine and Israeli peace forces warned that the unilateral withdrawal, opposed by the Palestinian Authority, would add credibility to Hamas’ claim that all the Palestinian Authority’s efforts at non-violence had produced nothing more than Israel refusing to talk, whereas acts of violence by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza had led to the IDF withdrawing to protect its soldiers. 

It wouldn’t be hard to see why Sharon went ahead with the unilateral withdrawal. If his intention was, as stated, to hold on to as much of the West Bank as possible, it would be far easier to convince the world that “there is nobody to talk to” if Hamas would win the coming election, since Hamas was universally recognized to be a terrorist group. When the Palestinian people complied by falling for this trick and establishing a government run by people who refused to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, it was easy for Olmert to affirm the Sharon unilateralism and announce plans to withdraw from the West Bank that would be the political cover for Israel annexing significant parts of the Occupied Territory. Hamas played its expected role by lobbing Qassam rockets at Israeli population centers, thereby “proving” for the Israeli right that any withdrawal would only intensify Israeli vulnerability and give Israeli hard-liners reason to oppose Olmert’s partial withdrawal as appeasement that had already failed to bring peace in Gaza.

Of course, from the standpoint of Hamas, this was only part of an ongoing struggle to free thousands of Palestinians who continue to be “arrested” (or, from the Palestinian perspective, “kidnapped”) by the IDF, incarcerated without charges or trial for six months in huge prison camps, often subject to torture. Yet Hamas, faced with an economic boycott (including the withholding to Hamas of taxes Israel collected from Palestinians that Israel had previously promised it would give back to the Palestinian Authority) that was preventing it from being able to function as a government, made statements that indicated that it was exploring the idea of  de facto recognition in response to the  Prisoners document, which threatened to undercut everyone because it was signed by members of every major faction of Palestinians sitting in Israeli jails).

For Israeli militarists and the settlers, Hamas recognition of Israel, however partial, would have been a dramatic propaganda defeat. Within days Israelis began shelling inside Gaza (allegedly to stop Hamas’ firing of Qassam rockets against Israeli population centers). One such shell landed on a Gaza beach, killing a family of eight who were simply enjoying the sun and water. A few days later, a Hamas group captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and Israel used this as its excuse to implement a plan it had developed months before to re-enter Gaza and destroy the Hamas infrastructure.

At this point a huge escalation took place. Instead of narrowly focusing on Hamas’ capacity to make war, the Israelis chose the path of collective punishment, a frequently ineffective counterinsurgency policy used to eliminate public support for resistance movements. In the height of the oppressive summer heat, Israel bombed the electricity grid, effectively cutting off Gaza’s water and the electricity needed to keep refrigeration working, thereby guaranteeing a dramatic decrease in food for the area’s already destitute, million plus population. This act was yet another violation of international law that include the arrests of thousands by Israelis and the shooting of Qassams at population centers by Hamas.

In response, Hezbollah fighters who had occupied the land abandoned by Israel when Israel terminated its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, launched an attack on Israeli troops inside Israel in clear violation of the understandings that peace would be maintained on that border—understandings that made it politically possible for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon without fear that its northern citizens would once again be subject to rocket fire that had put many Israelis into bomb shelters off-and-on for years since Israel had invaded Lebanon in 1982.

From the standpoint of some in the Arab world, the attack on Israeli troops in northern Israel was an act of Islamic solidarity in face of the huge escalation taken by Israel against the entire population of Gaza. They argue that what really needs to be explained is not why they acted, but why the rest of the world did not act to demand that Israel end its outrageous punishment of a million people for the acts of a few (when the U.N. tried to act, the right-wing government of the U.S. vetoed a resolution supported by the Security Council majority).

Yet from the standpoint of Israel, the attacks by Hezbollah were a blatant violation of the understanding that had kept Israel out of Lebanon for the past seven years. And in fact, it was also a violation of international law and human rights, subjecting a civilian population to random bombings aimed at terrorizing the population. Hezbollah had shown itself to be the vicious terrorist force that Israel always claimed it to be. People living in Haifa or Tsfat or dozens of other locations in Israel are at this very moment living in the same kind of fear that rekindles the fears of earlier experiences in their lives (some, remember, are Holocaust survivors, others the children of survivors, and many have lived through wars that were explicitly aimed at the annihilation of Israel). Those fears are unfortunately likely to be played on by right wing politicians in the coming years.

Nor should we underestimate the malevolence of Iran and Syria in attempting to stimulate unrest and destabilization. While there are some in both of these countries who genuinely feel outrage at Israeli behavior toward Muslim co-religionists, the record of indifference to the plight of the Palestinians in their own countries and failure to provide material support for Palestine to build up its own economic infrastructure when it was needed suggests that their assistance to Hezbollah comes more from seeking political advantage and domination in the Middle East than from genuine moral solidarity with the Palestinian people. And the fear of Iran, a country whose president out and out denies that there ever was a Holocaust and who explicitly affirms the goal of destroying the State of Israel gives Israelis real reason to worry when his proxies in Hezbollah or Hamas develop the capacity to shoot rockets into Israeli population centers.

What was Israel to do?

Well, had Ariel Sharon been in power, having learned his lesson in Lebanon, he likely would have done the exact same thing he did two years ago when an Israeli businessman was captured by “the enemy”—namely, a prisoner exchange in which hundreds of prisoners are released for a single Israeli. That exchange had been asked for by Hamas and pleaded for by the family of POW Gilad Shalit, but was been rejected by the Israeli government. Please read the analysis of this error, and other articles analyzing the current situation at the daily updates of “Current Thinking” at www.tikkun.org .

The consensus among Israeli peaceniks is that both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Labor Party Defense Minister Amir Peretz feel the political need to show that they are “strong” and hence the invasion and attack on Lebanon is their only politically possible strategy. For the sake of their egos and their future political viability, they “must” proceed with the wild escalation of the struggle against the Lebanese people, most of whom had exercised their democratic rights by rejecting Hezbollah’s electoral appeals, voting in a government that had only a small minority of Hezbollah within it.

What could Israel still do? It could redefine these issues as minor border irritants, exchange POWS, and unilaterally announce that it will no longer hold arrestees for more than 3 days without filing formal criminal charges against those who had acted with violence and releasing everyone else, giving speedy and public trials, and punishing any soldier, Shin Bet or Aman officer who engages in torture (or, as they call it, “moderate pressure”) on detainees. It could then immediately announce its intentions to strengthen the position of Palestinian Authority President Abbas by giving to him the tax monies withheld from Hamas, and opening “final status” negotiations within two months. Meanwhile, Israel could begin dismantling the Separation Wall, and promise to rebuild it only on the lines of an international border agreed to by both sides. And Israel could unilaterally censor anti-Palestinian incitement within government-controlled media and instead begin to build a culture of non-violence and educate Israelis about the need for reparations to Palestinian refugees.

What could Palestinians do? President Abbas could announce that he is inviting Israel to form a joint Israeli/Palestinian border force to ensure that there are no more violent attacks on Israeli civilians, in exchange for the immediate opening of “final status” negotiations with Israel before any further West Bank withdrawals are created. There were joint patrols and security coordination until Sept. 2,000 and they contributed to the low level of violence on both sides until Ariel Sharon made his famous provocative trip to the Temple Mount.  Abbas could further announce that the Palestinian people who elected him are committed to a non-violent (not passive) struggle for ending the Occupation, but that anyone engaged in violence against Israel or against fellow Palestinians would be tried and, if convicted, would lose their Palestinian citizenship. Abbas could tour the West Bank and Gaza preaching non-violence, implement an immediate end to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric in the Palestinian press and in their schools, and could announce that he is determined to build a culture of non-violence inside Palestine.
What could the U.S. and other Western states do? They could immediately establish an international conference representing all the nations of the world who were willing to accept the right of Israel to exist within the 1967 boundaries and the right of Palestine to exist within Gaza and the West Bank, and let those countries impose on both sides a settlement that is fair to both sides and enforce such a settlement, guaranteeing peace and security to both sides. Each participant country in this international conference would be allowed in after it had given to a neutral international bank a deposit equal to .01% of its GDP for the purpose of creating the beginning of an inernational fund for reparations as described below.

As the Tikkun Community has outlined in the past, the terms of that settlement should include:

1.    Permanent boundaries for both states that roughly resemble the pre-67 borders, with some border adjustments mutually agreed to along lines developed in the Geneva Accord (Israel incorporating some of the border settlements into Israel, in exchange for Israel giving equal amounts and quality of land to the Palestinian State).

2.    Sharing of Jerusalem and its holy sites, with each side entitled to establish their national capital in Jerusalem, Israel to have control over the Jewish and Armenian quarters plus the Wall and adjacent territory, and Palestine to have control over the Temple Mount with its mosques.

3.    All states participating in the International Conference would dedicate at least .1% of their GDP toward an international fund for reparations for Palestinians who lost property, employment or homes in the period 1947-1967, and to Jews who fled from Arab states in the same period (however, reparations will not be paid to any Arab or Jewish family with current gross assets of more than $5 million dollars).

4.    A joint Israel/Palestine/International Community police force will be set up to enforce border security for both sides. The U.S. and Nato will enter into a mutual security pact for both parties guaranteeing that each side will be protected by the U.S. and Nato from any assault by the other or by any assault from any other country in the world.
5.    Creation of an Atonement and Reconciliation Commission which will unveil all records of both sides, bring to light all violations of human rights on both sides, bring formal charges against those who do not confess their involvement in those violations and testify to the details, and supervise a newly created peace curriculum for all schools and universities aimed at teaching reconciliation and non-violence in action and communication. The explicit goal of this Commission will be to foster the conditions for a reconciliation of the heart and a new understanding on the part of both peoples that each side has been cruel and insensitive, and need to repent, and that both sides have a legitimate natrrative that needs to be understood and accepted as a legitimate viewpoint by the other side.
Who are Israel’s friends and the friends of the Jewish people? Those who support this path toward peace and reconciliation. Who are its enemies? Those who encourage it to persist in the fantasy that it can “win” militarily or politically. Just as the objective enemies of America in the 1960s were those who egged it on to persist in the Vietnam war, and those who were its objective friends were those of its citizens who actively opposed that war, so similarly today the friends of the Jewish people are those who are doing everything possible to restrain it from cheerleadng for Israel’s militarist adventures and refusal to treat the Palestinians as equally entitled to freedom and self-determination as the Jewish people.
Who are Palestine’s friends? Those who encourage a path of non-violence and abandoning the fantasy that armed struggle combined with political isolation of Israel will lead to a good outcome for Palestinians. Who are its enemies? Those who preach ideas like “one state solution” or global economic boycott without offering the Jewish people a secure state in Palestine–paths that will never produce anything positive but continued resistance by Israel and world Jewry.
As for us in the Tikkun Community who are friends of both sides, our orientation is clear. Our goal is to speak truth to both the powerful in Israel and the powerless in Palestine, to tell them that their goals cannot be achieved without a radical reversal in the strategic directions they have been following. This truth will eventually be heard—the only question is whether it will be heard without another generation of Arabs and Israelis losing their lives. Because we care very much about the human suffering on both sides, we pray that this truth will be heard, and our strateges for a solution will be implemented. And we will do more than pray—we will also demonstrate against the governments of the U.S., Israel and Palestine till they all change their directions in the ways suggested here, we will organize and educate, and will take other non-violent stepts to get our message heard.