It’s been 17 days since Hamas launched its horrific attack against Israel, killing over 1,400 Israeli citizens, including defenseless women, children and the elderly. In the aftermath of such unspeakable brutality, the U.S. government and the American people have shared in the grief of families, prayed for the return of loved ones, and rightly declared solidarity with the Israeli people.
As I stated in an earlier post, Israel has a right to defend its citizens against such wanton violence, and I fully support President Biden’s call for the United States to support our long-time ally in going after Hamas, dismantling its military capabilities, and facilitating the safe return of hundreds of hostages to their families.
But even as we support Israel, we should also be clear that how Israel prosecutes this fight against Hamas matters. In particular, it matters — as President Biden has repeatedly emphasized — that Israel’s military strategy abides by international law, including those laws that seek to avoid, to every extent possible, the death or suffering of civilian populations. Upholding these values is important for its own sake — because it is morally just and reflects our belief in the inherent value of every human life. Upholding these values is also vital for building alliances and shaping international opinion — all of which are critical for Israel’s long-term security.
This is an enormously difficult task. War is always tragic, and even the most carefully planned military operations often put civilians at risk. As President Biden noted during his recent visit to Israel, America itself has at times fallen short of our higher values when engaged in war, and in the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government wasn’t interested in heeding the advice of even our allies when it came to the steps we took to protect ourselves against Al Qaeda. Now, after the systematic massacre of Israeli citizens, a massacre that evokes some of the darkest memories of persecution against the Jewish people, it’s understandable that many Israelis have demanded that their government do whatever it takes to root out Hamas and make sure such attacks never happen again. Moreover, Hamas’ military operations are deeply embedded within Gaza — and its leadership seems to intentionally hide among civilians, thereby endangering the very people they claim to represent.
Still, the world is watching closely as events in the region unfold, and any Israeli military strategy that ignores the human costs could ultimately backfire. Already, thousands of Palestinians have been killed in the bombing of Gaza, many of them children. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes. The Israeli government’s decision to cut off food, water and electricity to a captive civilian population threatens not only to worsen a growing humanitarian crisis; it could further harden Palestinian attitudes for generations, erode global support for Israel, play into the hands of Israel’s enemies, and undermine long term efforts to achieve peace and stability in the region.
It’s therefore important that those of us supporting Israel in its time of need encourage a strategy that can incapacitate Hamas while minimizing further civilian casualties. Israel’s recent shift to allow relief trucks into Gaza, prompted in part by the Biden administration’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy, is an encouraging step, but we need to continue to lead the international community in accelerating critical aid and supplies to an increasingly desperate Gaza population. And while the prospects of future peace may seem more distant than ever, we should call on all of the key actors in the region to engage with those Palestinian leaders and organizations that recognize Israel’s right to exist to begin articulating a viable pathway for Palestinians to achieve their legitimate aspirations for self-determination — because that is the best and perhaps only way to achieve the lasting peace and security most Israeli and Palestinian families yearn for.
Finally, in dealing with what is an extraordinarily complex situation where so many people are in pain and passions are understandably running high, all of us need to do our best to put our best values, rather than our worst fears, on display.
That means actively opposing anti-semitism in all its forms, everywhere. It means rejecting efforts to minimize the terrible tragedy that the Israeli people have just endured, as well as the morally-bankrupt suggestion that any cause can somehow justify the deliberate slaughter of innocent people.
It means rejecting anti-Muslim, anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian sentiment. It means refusing to lump all Palestinians with Hamas or other terrorist groups. It means guarding against dehumanizing language towards the people of Gaza, or downplaying Palestinian suffering — whether in Gaza or the West Bank — as irrelevant or illegitimate.
It means recognizing that Israel has every right to exist; that the Jewish people have claim to a secure homeland where they have ancient historical roots; and that there have been instances in which previous Israeli governments made meaningful efforts to resolve the dispute and provide a path for a two-state solution — efforts that were ultimately rebuffed by the other side.
It means acknowledging that Palestinians have also lived in disputed territories for generations; that many of them were not only displaced when Israel was formed but continue to be forcibly displaced by a settler movement that too often has received tacit or explicit support from the Israeli government; that Palestinian leaders who’ve been willing to make concessions for a two-state solution have too often had little to show for their efforts; and that it is possible for people of good will to champion Palestinian rights and oppose certain Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza without being anti-semitic.
Perhaps most of all, it means we should choose not to always assume the worst in those with whom we disagree. In an age of constant rancor, trolling and misinformation on social media, at a time when so many politicians and attention seekers see an advantage in shedding heat rather than light, it may be unrealistic to expect respectful dialogue on any issue — much less on an issue with such high stakes and after so much blood has been spilled. But if we care about keeping open the possibility of peace, security and dignity for future generations of Israeli and Palestinian children — as well as for our own children — then it falls upon all of us to at least make the effort to model, in our own words and actions, the kind of world we want them to inherit.
Here are links to some useful perspectives and background on the conflict:
●Israel Is About to Make a Terrible Mistake by Thomas L. Friedman
● ‘I Love You. I Am Sorry’: One Jew, One Muslim and a Friendship Tested by War by Kurt Streeter
● A Timeline of Israel and Palestine’s Complicated History by Nicole Narea
● Gaza: The Cost of Escalation by Ben Rhodes