Casualties continue to rise in Gaza as bombs rain down upon the enclave. How many have died and how many of them are civilians is a matter of dispute. According to the United Nations, as of August 23, the Palestinian death toll was 2,042, of whom 1,444 were civilians. The Israeli Defence Forces put the figure at several hundred less and insist that many of the civilians were actually Hamas militants. Whatever the figures are, there is no doubt that hundreds of innocent people have died – including a handful of Israeli civilians.
No one can be indifferent to the suffering of the people of Gaza, or of Israel. But merely raising the topic is a sure way to lose friends. Claims of injustice, hatred and atrocity are met with counterclaims of injustice, hatred and atrocity. The argument escalates and ends in bickering and slammed doors.
Perhaps the best illustration of this a vituperative exchange of letters in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals. Other major journals – the British Medical Journal, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine – have been more or less silent about Gaza. The Lancet, however, has a taste for controversial social issues and ran an incendiary letter from a score and more of academics and doctors with Palestinian sympathies. The letter spoke of Israeli “lies” and described the 95 percent of Israeli academics who did not openly oppose the war as “complicit in the massacre and destruction of Gaza”.
Enraged Israeli doctors responded immediately. The President of the Israeli Medical Association, Leonid Eidelman, and the Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Health, Arnon Afek, compared the letter to Nazi doctors’ anti-Semitism and denounced it as “a clearly political and biased letter”. They pointed out that Israeli hospitals treat Israelis, both Arabs and Jews, without distinction and even give Palestinians medical care. Others stressed the implacable hostility of Hamas towards Israel, its refusal to allow Gazans to receive Israeli health care and the thousands of rockets which it has launched at Israel.
If doctors – who are supposed to be united in their Hippocratic commitment to heal and save lives — fail to disagree in a civil manner on how to frame the deaths of innocent people, what chance have the rest of us?
It is difficult. But we cannot just channel-surf until we find Happy Days reruns. We all have a stake in this war – especially Americans, who have helped to finance it. Here are six guidelines for framing a discussion of the conflict.
Can we agree on one thing: civilian casualties are abhorrent? Hamas seems savagely indifferent to the fate of civilians, whether they are Israelis or Gazans. If it were really interested in minimising deaths of its own people, it would have constructed shelters along with its tunnels. But Israel’s bombs have killed hundred of civilians. Both sides are treating the elderly, the disabled, women and children as acceptable collateral damage. Justifications abound for these tactics but the death of so many innocent people gives a moral urgency to the task of finding peace.
Search for an historical perspective. To judge from comments on social media sites, the war began about six weeks ago when three Israeli youths were killed and an Arab teenager tortured and killed in retaliation shortly afterwards. Hamas launched rockets, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge… In fact, this is just the latest incident in a conflict which dates back at least to the British Mandate over Palestine which began in the early 1920s. The basic position of Jewish Israelis is that they have a right to a national homeland; the basic position of the Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, is that their homeland was stolen from them. Thousands on both sides have died for these opposing claims over the last 100 years, so passions run high. Don’t even attempt to discuss the issue without some appreciation of what is at stake for both participants.
Distinguish between the people and their governments. Hamas is a group of murderous thugs. The Israeli government is a hard-line, right-wing coalition. Neither speaks for everyone governed by them. Both were democratically elected, but that does not mean that everyone in Gaza supports everything Hamas stands for or that everyone in Israel support the iron man bluster of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Can’t we hope for a negotiated peace? The Israelis refuse to negotiate with any party which refuses to recognise Israel’s right to existence. The charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel. Their positions are so opposed that negotiation seems impossible and unconditional surrender the only solution. But the underlying assumption here is that Hamas is not rational. Admittedly its rhetoric is so malevolent that it borders on the deranged, but its leaders are human beings and human beings are rational. The negotiations which led to the end of apartheid in South Africa are a good model of what both sides ought to hope for. We should never give up hope of a negotiated settlement.
The question is not who has suffered the most harm, but justice for both parties. Both Israel and the Gazans are afraid. Israel fears that Hamas’s erratic rockets will be replaced by more accurate missiles. Gazans dread death from the skies. Any aggressive move can be justified by past atrocities; what is needed is the desire to give to each party what is rightfully theirs, not unconditional surrender. Unhappily both sides have mental blocks. Hamas is appallingly anti-Semitic and believes that Jews do not deserve justice. But the Netanyahu government appears to think that savages do not deserve justice either. Both sides ought to desire justice for their opponents as well as for themselves.
What is in Israel’s long-term interest? It’s definitely not war. This is its third war with Gaza. After this one is over, Hamas will rearm and try again. Israel will respond with overwhelming force and Hamas will rearm and try again. With Gaza’s growing population, the casualties are bound to grow and Israel’s international support will dwindle. How much longer can Israel treat Gaza as a mortal enemy? Simply by virtue of its population growth, Gaza will grow more and more menacing. Its high birth rates guarantees a limitless supply of energetic, unemployed, resentful young militants thirsting to avenge the deaths of relatives in the previous war. There is an end point to this game of “you hit me first”. What all minds should focus on is enduring that this is peace and not mutually assured destruction.
Sometimes media pundits ask why the conflict in Israel gets so much attention when far more people have died in places like Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Syria. But this war is unique because it is being fought over the birthplace of Judaeo-Christian culture, the culture which has shaped international law and inspired the dream of universal peace which underlies the United Nations. If we give up hope of achieving a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the cause of peace everywhere is weakened. Here, if anywhere, might must not make right.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.