Imagine what a new Israel could be, an Israel for all peoples. If all the young lives, Jewish and Arab, cut short by this violence could instead be harnessed to irrigate the desert, desalinate the sea, create music and translate love poems into each other’s (very similar) languages! Now that would be an Israel to inspire the world.
Nineteen years ago, I rehearsed a play with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers at Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine. Forging a script both sides could stand behind took perseverance. But at our cast party, Arabs and Jews leaned on each other and sang songs. It gave me a glimpse of what could be.
I contrast that hopeful moment with the appalling news coming out of Israel and Gaza. While Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli forces were firing on (mostly unarmed) Palestinian protesters gathered along the fence between Gaza and Israel, killing at least 60, and injuring more than 2,000.
Israel defends its response, claiming that the demonstrators were trying to breach the border. But the absence of any casualties on the Israeli side proves the response was grossly disproportionate. This is not an isolated incident, but an ongoing saga since 2007, when Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza following Hamas’ election victory. Nearly 2 million Gazans are squeezed into a virtual prison one-ninth the size of Rhode Island. Israel and Egypt control the borders and access to water, fuel, medical supplies and electricity. It doesn’t take a leap of logic to see that Gaza has become a concentration camp, and the demonstrations at the border are a desperate response to a humanitarian crisis.
How can we talk of human rights and ignore them for the Palestinian Arabs? How can Israel talk of the Jewish right to a homeland and deny one to the Palestinians? How can there be peace without some measure of justice?
Abstractly speaking, I should be quite a popular person in the American-Jewish community. I am a dissident. I am also, at a time when the search is on for moderate voices on the Palestine question, a moderate. And I proved my devotion to displaced persons in and out of the Middle East years ago. I have a medal to prove it, from the Haganah — the illegal Jewish army that fought what Prime Minister Begin calls the Jewish war of liberation and established the state of Israel in 1948.
Yet despite all these credentials I find myself — like many fellow American intellectuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, ostracized whenever I try to speak up on the Middle East. It demonstrates what slight changes in time and space can do to familiar categories. Dissidents, Jewish and non-Jewish, in the Soviet Union are — deservedly — heroes. They may be forced to circulate their views in samizdat, they may be dependent for circulation in their homeland on the typewriter and carbon paper. But at least they make the front pages of the American and world press, and the correspondents in Moscow hang on their words. Here at least their books are bestsellers.
But it is only rarely that we dissidents on the Middle East can enjoy a fleeting voice in the American press. Finding an American publishing house willing to publish a book which departs from the standard Israeli line is about as easy as selling a thoughtful exposition of atheism to the Osservatore Romano in Vatican City.
Gaza is sinking, if not into the sea, into desperation. The Israeli embargo has rendered 65 percent of Gazans under the age of 30 unemployed. Health care suffers from lack of equipment and medicine. People cannot leave to find work outside, and children live with the trauma of never knowing when their homes will be bombed. When I was there in 2002, Dr. Eyad Sarraj of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program told me that almost half the children under 16 suffered bed-wetting due to constant fear. That was before the military invasions of the last 10 years.
Israel celebrates a double anniversary on May 15 this year, the founding of the state and the formal establishment of the Israeli Defense Forces, the name the state gave to its combined army, navy, and air force. Armed statehood fulfilled the political Zionists’ dream of gathering Jews from the ancient Diaspora under their own government in what they declared to be their “promised land.” During the battle over the land between 1947 and 1949, the IDF expelled three-quarters of the indigenous population. Of the 750,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled, 250,000 took shelter in Gaza, a tiny pocket of southwest Palestine then occupied by the Egyptian army. The destitute and traumatized refugees were three times more numerous than the 80,000 Gazans who took them in.
The United Nations passed but did not enforce annual resolutions calling for the refugees’ return. Israel invaded the territory in 1956, withdrew under American pressure in 1957, and invaded again in 1967. As its population grew to nearly 2 million souls packed into a pocket five miles wide and 40 miles long, Gaza has become a byword for misery. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, no advocate of the Palestinian cause, called it “an open-air prison.”
“Cutting or attacking the fence is an offense. It has to be countered, but countered with reasonable force. There is no meter that I know of that would put the safety of the border fence at the same importance of the life of a 14-year-old.”
— Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer
Fourteen-year-old Wisal Sheikh Khalil had wire cutters out and was trying to break through Gaza’s boundary fence into Israel when she was shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Monday, according to her younger brother, who was with her at the time.
She was one of at least 60 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops during protests this week along the fence, according to local health officials.
Israel’s sharpshooters, looking down from their nests on mounds of earth on the other side of the fence, have been permitted to use lethal force against those “endangering” the barrier, Israeli military officials say. These officials also say that Israeli soldiers have been allowed to use live ammunition to shoot “instigators” among “rioters” on the de facto border.
In both cases, the orders are to aim for the legs, they say, though Khalil was shot in the head.
Trump has empowered what’s worst in Israel, and as long as he is president, it may be that Israel can kill Palestinians, demolish their homes and appropriate their land with impunity. But some day, Trump will be gone.
The juxtaposition of images of dead and wounded Palestinians and Ivanka Trump smiling in Jerusalem like a Zionist Marie Antoinette tell us a lot about America’s relationship to Israel right now. It has never been closer, but within that closeness there are seeds of potential estrangement.
On Monday, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and other leading lights of the Trumpist right gathered in Israel to celebrate the relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, a gesture widely seen as a slap in the face to Palestinians who envision East Jerusalem as their future capital.
The event was grotesque. It was a consummation of the cynical alliance between hawkish Jews and Zionist evangelicals who believe that the return of Jews to Israel will usher in the apocalypse and the return of Christ, after which Jews who don’t convert will burn forever.
Religions like “Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism” lead people “to an eternity of separation from God in Hell,” Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor, once said. He was chosen to give the opening prayer at the embassy ceremony. John Hagee, one of America’s most prominent end-times preachers, once said that Hitler was sent by God to drive the Jews to their ancestral homeland. He gave the closing benediction.
This mass mobilization around the core principles of Palestinian liberation — arising from civil society independently of discredited political leaderships — holds immense power to disrupt the status quo. Whether this movement, from East Jerusalem to Gaza, Israel to the West Bank, eventually bends toward justice depends on whether the international community will tolerate Israel’s capacity to deny an entire people their basic rights and rob them of a future because they are not Jewish. The past record is not encouraging, but something new has started.
“The battle against infiltration in the border areas at all times of day and night will be carried out mainly by opening fire, without giving warning, on any individual or group that cannot be identified from afar by our troops as Israeli citizens and who are, at the moment they are spotted, [infiltrating] into Israeli territory.”
This was the order issued in 1953 by Israel’s Fifth Giv’ati Brigade in response to the hundreds of Palestinian refugees who sought to return to homes and lands from which they had been expelled in 1948. For years after the war, the recently displaced braved mines and bullets from border kibbutzim and risked harsh reprisals from Israel’s army to reclaim their property. The reprisals included raids on refugee camps and villages that often killed civilians, as the Israeli historian Benny Morris and others have laid out. Still, refugees persisted in their attempts to return, and Israel persisted in viewing these attempts as “infiltration.”
Over the past six weeks, Israeli soldiers have killed some forty Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the majority of them unarmed civilians, and injured more than five thousand protesters. As the US relocated its embassy to Jerusalem Monday, the violence escalated alarmingly. Israeli forces shot dead at least another fifty Palestinians and injured more than 2,400, making it by far the bloodiest day yet in the current round of protests in Gaza.
Do we really imagine this so-called “March of Return” to be an existential threat to the strongest army in the Middle East? Demonstrators might be wild with rage and even psyched up by Hamas slogans, but they’re not armed and equipped to take on Israel.
The loss of life in Gaza at the ends of Israeli army snipers is not only gruesome, it’s reprehensible — because lethal force is not the only way to confront protesters.
We in America know that from our own history.
We’ve been thinking a lot about civil rights in America, recently. Last month marked 50 years since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.
In the year-and-a-half since Donald Trump was elected, we’ve seen a resurgence of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic incidents, and signs of white supremacist groups moving out of the shadows and into town squares not en masse, but enough to make us realize that America remains rife with racism.
“[We are] alarmed, concerned, and profoundly saddened by the growing number of Gazan dead and wounded. It does not have to be this way.”
— Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Union for Reform Judaism president
The opening ceremony for the new US Embassy in Jerusalem was, essentially, an invitation-only Trump campaign rally.
Those in attendance had all sworn loyalty to the president and belonged to one of the groups that has hailed him as a modern-day Cyrus the Great: Orthodox Jews, right-wing Israelis (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and the pro-Trump Republican base — particularly those in the evangelical community.
This was all on display from the ceremony’s opening blessing, by Texan Baptist megachurch pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress. His eyes squeezed closed in prayer, he thanked God for “our great president, Donald Trump,” lauded how Israel “has blessed this world by pointing us to you, the one true God, through the message of her prophets, her scriptures, and the Messiah,” and praying for Jerusalem “in the name of the spirit of the Prince of Peace, Jesus our lord.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
1. A predictable disaster in Gaza: Israel did not lift a finger to prevent lethal clashes
The plumes of smoke rising in the distance from Gaza were already visible on the drive from the Negev town of Netivot Monday morning. Over the next several hours, the smoke from burning tires grew thicker at dozens of protest sites along the entire Strip, from the area across from Moshav Netiv Ha’asara in the north to the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings in the south. Read Amos Harel’s full analysis here →
2. Messianic US–Israel axis showcased at Jerusalem embassy ceremony is gut-punch for most American Jews
The stark contrast that played out on split screens throughout the world Monday, between the Israeli celebration in Jerusalem and the Palestinian casualties in Gaza, was worthy of Charles Dickens’ immortal opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Read Chemi Shalev’s full analysis here →
I finally learned the wounded woman’s name — Alaa Asawafiri — when I found her mother in a hospital corridor, her cheeks smeared with tears, clutching her daughter’s silver sneakers in a plastic bag.
A nervous frisson ran through the crowd as it pushed toward the fence between Gaza and Israel on Sunday evening, halting 75 feet from the wire.
I had traveled to Gaza from Cairo ahead of what are expected to be enormous demonstrations at the border fence this week. I wanted to first see the site of the protests on what I thought would be an uneventful evening.