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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

Desperate times in Israel and Gaza

The situation between Israel and the occupied territories goes from bad to worse. Consider recent events there: An Israeli assault in Gaza in early March killed an estimated 120 people, about half of them civilians. An Arab gunman attacked the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and killed eight seminary students. Shortly after, on March 9, Israel announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Meanwhile, rockets continue to be fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, where living conditions for the Palestinian population are worsening under the impact of the Israeli embargo. And in Washington, the Bush administration is asking Congress for a 9 percent increase in military aid to Israel that will be used to help Israel sustain its occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Desperate times, and there seems no end in sight.

It’s hard to know which of these developments is worse. Israel’s insistence on expanding settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev is in clear violation of the Road Map to Peace as well as U.N. accords dating back decades and sends a chilling signal to those seeking peace between  Israelis and Palestinians. Many Palestinians as well as outsiders will interpret this as proof that Israel does not want peace, is not serious about negotiating on any terms other than its own.

The raids and murders mentioned above are not unrelated but are part of the cycle of violence that continues to spin. After the murders of the seminary students at Mercz Harav on March 6, Eli Yishai, chairman of the Shas political party in Israel, pushed for the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem, announcing a plan to build 800 new units there. “We want to build 100 apartments for each of the righteous yeshiva students who were killed.”

Founded in 1924 by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and seen as the first Zionist yeshiva, the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva is itself embedded in the settlement enterprise. The school is the ideological cradle of the settler movement Gush Enumim, with many of the school’s graduates among the most militant religious settlers in the West Bank.

In the meantime, despite the Israeli assaults in Gaza and the massive loss of life there, the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel continues. Few of the rockets kill, but they effectively terrorize the Israeli population living within reach of them. The dialogue of the deaf between Hamas and Israel continues. Israel tries to starve the Hamas-led government into submission by blocking essential goods to the Gaza Strip, depriving Gazans of food and fuel and turning Gaza into a gigantic cesspool; Hamas defiantly responds with more rocket fire. Contempt and defiance are the only ways the Israeli government and Palestinians seem able to deal with each other.

What’s needed is real dialogue in place of lethal theatrics. Israel and the United States should drop their pretense that the Hamas government in Gaza can be ignored. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you deal with the enemy you have, not the enemy you’d like to have. Offers of a truce in which Hamas stops the rocket fire into Israel in exchange for an end to Israeli assassinations and raids into Gaza and an end to the Israeli embargo of the Gaza Strip should be accepted. There is no good purpose served by trying to starve the Palestinian population into submission. What is likely to ensue is not peace but simply more suffering, a human catastrophe for which Israel would ultimately be held responsible. If time has proved anything, it is that Israel possesses a massive arsenal with which it can bomb and kill Palestinians at will. The numbers tell a tale. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 2,677 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and 11 Israelis from Sderot have been killed since 2000. The Palestinians have demonstrated that while bombed and attacked, they can continue their resistance, however futile and ineffective.

The Bush administration’s attempt to establish a Palestinian state by the time George Bush leaves office is a hopeful step, but one observers believe comes seven years too late. The effort will require more than hope. Perhaps engagement with Israelis and Palestinians based on respect for the dignity of both sides could be a start to a new kind of peace process, one in which the United States tries to equalize the power imbalance between the two sides in an effort to arrive at peace now rather than a peace process forever.

It will take determination and a willingness to challenge the dysfunctional patterns of communication between Israel and the Palestinians. It will also take a willingness to change the way the United States approaches not only Israelis and Palestinians, but countries throughout the region. Bombing and occupation haven’t worked well anywhere.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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