Thursday, July 17, 2014

Israel: Love and Disappointment


“If you ask now, most Israelis will tell you it’s time to give up the West Bank and share Jerusalem as a capital.” This was in 2008. My guide, Charles, and I were standing at the Western Wall in the late September heat.

By “most Israelis” he meant moderate Jews and secular citizens. He explained that the average, educated Israeli doesn’t see the sense in continuing to occupy and suppress an entire Palestinian nation. It’s pointless and people are getting tired of it, old grudges held by old men in government.

But, Charles emigrated from Canada as a young man and though he has called Israel home for decades, he is too young to have been around for the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 in which Israel won control of the West Bank and Gaza from its neighbors. He’s progressive.

And this is the West Bank we’re talking about, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is recognized internationally on the diplomatic scene. Not the Gaza Strip, which has been under the thumb of Hamas for seven years, a group that most Western countries view as a terrorist organization, and with whom, currently, Israel is trading bombs.

I’ve been to Israel just that one time, and my only regret is that I didn’t go into Palestinian towns in the West Bank when I had the chance. Israel was a place of surprise to me. I didn’t know what to expect but I loved it. It was safe and culturally rich, austerely beautiful and people were kind.

But, it saddens me to see what’s happening there again. Regardless of how most Israelis may actually feel, Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are practicing the same old heavy-handed, knee-jerk brand of defense that has kept Israel and the Palestinians on the same merry-go-round for generations now.

In June, the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank prompted full-blown raids of Palestinian territory and retaliation has escalated to war in the southern enclave. Again.

Hamas is dangerous, no doubt. And realistically, they probably are outright crazy. In less than a decade they’ve misgoverned Gaza further into the ground than it was. The group still claims to want to wipe Israel off the map and, according to some reports, has now declared that all Israelis are viable targets, not just the military.

The problem is that’s exactly the way Israel has been behaving since bombing started earlier this month. Israeli strikes have killed more than 220 people – many civilians – in Gaza. They’re killing children and somehow justifying that in the name of sovereign defense. Earlier this week they were kind enough to start warning people in Gaza that strikes were imminent so some might be able to save their own lives.

Israel has spent years flouting international treaty by continuing to settle the West Bank and has walked away from U. S.- and Egypt-sponsored peace talks time and again, refusing to deal in a serious way with the PLO. It pulled out of Gaza in 2005, claiming its occupation there was over, but kept tight control of its borders, restricting trade and movement, effectively trapping Palestinians and paving the way for radicalization. Hamas stepped in and took advantage.

Today, there was a five-hour cease-fire to allow the United Nations to get aide into Gaza. During that window mortars were launched into Israel. It’s unclear if Hamas was doing the firing. After the cease-fire, Israel went back to work with its strikes. And now, as I write this, Netanyahu is sending ground forces into Gaza.

People on both sides of that border are suffering. People are dying on both, though far, far more in Gaza. People are burying their loved ones on both sides. 

I developed a keen affection for Israel in the short time I was there, but it’s heartbreaking to see it overreacting one more time, killing people one more time. I’m afraid until the old men with old grudges die off, none of the senseless retaliation, the decades-long cycle of repression and violence will end for longer than the time of the next tenuous cease-fire.