The recent trend in Middle East wars is that they are short, brutish, and nasty—and they accomplish little of the ostensible goals for either side.
Israel’s shock-and-awe campaign this winter—aimed at Hamas militants who have been firing missiles into southern Israeli towns, but inflicted mostly on civilian bystanders—is the latest example. Over 22 days, the U.S.-backed Israel Defense Forces, one of the most powerful, state-of-the-art militaries in the world, pummeled the heavily urban Gaza Strip. More than 1,200 Palestinians died and more than 4,000 were injured, many of them noncombatants. Four Israeli civilians were killed by the Hamas rockets.
Almost 300 children in Gaza were killed by the Israeli attacks, and more than 1,000 were injured. Many of rest, according to reports, are severely traumatized—and convinced that violent resistance is the only option for their future.
“If your parents can’t give you safety, kids will look to others who can,” a Gazan psychologist told The Washington Post. “They’re going to want to play the role of the fighter. So the Israeli government is really creating its own enemy.”
If Israel sought to undermine support for Hamas, it failed. Instead, the carnage has helped to beget the next generation of extremists in the battle that seems to have no end.
THE ISRAEL-PALESTINE CONFLICT is complex and difficult not only for the people directly involved. It’s also a challenge for those committed to peacemaking and nonviolent conflict resolution, in the region and elsewhere. Israel-based groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions have long worked, in the face of much heated opposition, for a just, secure peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Despite difficult political conditions, Israeli peacemakers—and the Israeli press—have often engaged in more honest truth-telling and vigorous debate than many in the U.S. or international community. In contrast, the British public network BBC refused in late January to run an appeal for Gaza reconstruction aid by the British Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, and other charities, claiming that to run it would be “unbalanced.”
That fear of violating some mythical perfect evenhandedness, regarding a struggle that has never been between two equals, has left many U.S. peace groups similarly hamstrung. Some groups have been equivocal in the face of Israeli atrocities for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism, while others avoid condemning terrorist acts by Hamas for fear of seeming unsupportive of the just cause of Palestinian freedom.
The greatest obstacle to peace, however, may be the central myth of violence itself: that the path to a secure and just future, for either side, is through force. The myth isn’t merely the idea that violence can be “redemptive”; it’s also the false belief—despite 60 years of evidence to the contrary—that the cycle of violence retaliating against violence, which goes back (at least) to 1948, actually works.
The very notion of a “war on terror,” the rationale for the Bush administration’s two wars and Israel’s approach to Palestine, is an erroneous rubric with lethal consequences. Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria recently wrote that Bush “must bear the blame for distorting the challenge. ... His conception of the war on terrorism implies that the struggle is largely military.”
It is a given of the human condition that we will have conflict and that people will engage in evil actions, rationalized by their own sense of historical grievance or righteously rooted anger. The question is how such actions are best met. The delusion that war will solve the very real problems of injustice and violence has only resulted in more violence and continued injustice.
Gaza isn’t the end of anything, despite (or because of) the massive military force brought to bear. Israel is not more secure because of the assault, and arguably less so. To change this six-decade struggle’s outcome, we’ll have to change the paradigm.
One by one, the Obama administration has been turning away from the worst abuses of the Bush doctrine. In the Middle East, that will mean genuinely taking on the mantle of “honest broker”—the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy is a good start—and putting U.S. weight behind peace efforts that honor all parties’ aspirations. It will also mean the recognition that violence is the problem, not the solution, in efforts to achieve a genuine, lasting peace in this holy and troubled land.
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.