With the successful Palestinian bid for “nonmember statehood” in the UN and the ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister, Avigdor Leiberman’s resignation in the face of corruption charges, Gaza is once again out of the news and the consciousness of much of the Western press. The ascendency of Hamas has been successfully challenged by Mahmoud Abbas defying the wishes of the US. The unpleasant memories fade quickly. Just a few weeks ago, I stood with a group of protesters calling for an end to the bombing of Gaza as hundreds of Boston area Jews and their supporters waving Israeli flags streamed into Temple Mishkan Tefila for a solidarity rally featuring rabbis and prominent Massachusetts politicians. While some people stopped to curse us, calling us “Hamas Nazis,” (a particularly bizarre invocation of the Holocaust), or honked horns in support, several engaged in heated interactions. I am haunted by the man who repeatedly shouted, “Who started it? Tell me, who started it?” This is indeed a complicated question, as is the underlying assumption that the Gazans deserved the wrath of the Israeli Defense Forces who were presumably acting out of self-defense in the face of Palestinian terror.
The people of the Gaza Strip have now been under occupation for 46 years, under closure for 22 and an intensified blockade for six, resulting in high levels of poverty, unemployment, economic decline, poor nutrition, inadequate health, polluted water, and the development of a massive black market tunnel economy at the Gaza/Egypt border. This is not only a passage for Iranian-made weapons, but also food, cattle, cars, and people. Since April 2001 when the first Qassam rocket fell on Israel, 59 Israelis have been killed and 4,717 Palestinians. Critics blame Hamas for concealing themselves amongst the civilian population, but in a land mass 26 by 6 miles, where will nearly 2 million people hide?
Between February 2009 and August 2012 the Gaza Strip averaged six Israeli incursions or attacks per week. There have been hundreds of homemade rockets fired by militants into southern Israel, although in the fall there was an unofficial truce mediated by Egypt. On November 14th the IDF conducted a targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, commander of Hamas’s military wing, who according to Israeli activist Gershon Baskin, had just been presented with the draft of a long-term cease-fire proposal which he was prepared to sign. Baskin, who negotiated the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, also claimed that Hamas leadership had been moving towards a more “pragmatic approach,” something that should be welcomed by Israeli leaders. Indeed, despite all the fiery rhetoric, the fact that Hamas was willing to engage in a democratic election in 2006 implied a tacit acceptance of the State of Israel. They were met with a crushing blockade. So who started it?
In 2008 after a six month truce broken by an Israeli incursion and militant factions shelling Sderot and Ashkelon, Israel launched a massive three week attack on Gaza creating a devastating humanitarian catastrophe. This was reportedly a response to the 2006 Hamas electoral victory, (which was largely seen as a response to the corruption and inadequacy of Fatah and not a desire to drive Israeli into the sea), and the 2007 Hamas takeover (the Fatah opposition in this civil war was partly funded by US dollars). Numerous investigations condemned human rights violations by both Israeli and Hamas forces, but noted the extreme disproportionality and severity of the Israeli violations. So who started it?
Perhaps we should go back to 2005 when Jewish settlements were removed from Gaza, but the Israeli military retained tight control over the borders, the air, the sea, and much of the economy; many say creating a different kind of occupation, the world’s largest open air prison.
As we march backwards in history, looking for whom to blame, I fear we will end up in the early 1900s when the British promised historic Palestine to both the indigenous Arab population and to the Jewish Zionists in Europe.
It is always easier to assign blame, to hold on to a sense of righteous victimhood, than to bear any responsibility. This is no longer a question of who started it, but how to stop. Hamas has agreed to halt rocket fire from the various militant factions, but has also learned that Gaza is largely forgotten unless there is militant resistance. There is nothing like a missile heading towards Tel Aviv to get the world’s attention. Israel has agreed to stop targeted assassinations and loosen the blockade, but has no timetable and the Israelis are angry, announcing new settlement growth in the controversial West Bank area of E1. The future depends on a viable agreement where one people’s security and prosperity does not come at the expense of its neighbors. The future also depends on the ability to recognize the common humanity, suffering, and yearning of every grief stricken mother in Sderot and Gaza City. But this is not a fight between equals. Israel’s new defensive shield against Hezbollah is ironically named “David’s Sling,” again equating Israel as the underdog victim in this fight. Their testing system, set for Israel’s Negev Desert, is called “The Stunner.” Has anything been learned?