Thoughts on Gaza—by Peter Eisenstadt

Thoughts on Gaza
Peter Eisenstadt

How can I write about the Gaza War? How can I not write about the Gaza War? These are the questions I have tormenting myself with this summer, trying to write something and finding, time and again, that I can’t.

On the one hand, the Gaza War has been an absolute horror, a war blundered into by both sides, a war that has accomplished nothing, has solved nothing, has created over 2,000 corpses, destroyed countless buildings, and has made, if possible, both sides hate and fear the other side more than before.   And if you add the still developing story of ISIS to the mix, this August is right up there with the famously unfun summers of 1914 and 1939 as one of the most unrelievedly gloomy and depressing summers of all time.

But when I have started to write about the Gaza War, I find myself tongue tied, ending up in a muddle of clarifications and reservations that reduce my statements to the clarity of mud. Israel’s war against Gaza is indefensible, but then so Hamas’s war against Israel.   When you choose to fight an insurgent army in an urban area, you will end up killing a lot of civilians, so please, no hand-wringing from Israel supporters on the use of Gaza civilians as human shields. On the other hand, if you are an insurgent army fighting a war in an urban civilian area, you better be damn sure your cause is worth the civilian casualties that are likely to ensue. Israel has an obligation to ensure that its citizens are not living in terror of rocket attacks, by force if necessary. Gaza has an obligation to end the horrible constricting blockade that Israel has imposed on it, by force if necessary.   And I am sick and tired of occupying a rapidly narrowing middle ground, that respects the legitimate national aspirations of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, and sick and tired of the shrill catcalls of the partisans on both sides, utterly unable to hear the suffering of the other. And then I worry that this middle of the road plague on both your houses stance is simply a lazy person’s evasion, a way of standing above the fray, and that in the end, this is a war, and in a war there is only one question—which side are you on? And if you ask me to tell you, in the deepest center of my moral resolve, which side I am on, I can only say; I don’t know, both sides, or neither side, I don’t know.

But if I don’t know how to write about the Gaza War, I have pretty clear ideas about how not to write about it.

1)   Let’s call it what it is, a war. And it is not a war of Israel against Hamas, it is war of Israel against Gaza. It is not a fight between political factions, or even between governments. It is a war of one people against another people.

2)   Take responsibility for the misdeeds on your side; acknowledge, if you support Israel, that it has killed far too many civilians, and don’t be outraged when the international media criticizes you for killing far too many civilians. If you are sympathetic to Gaza, admit that Hamas, as much as Israel, is responsible for the war, and if you start a war, you are responsible for all the death and destruction that follows.

3)   Keep the discourse civil; find the humanity on both sides. One of the biggest issues in recent weeks on the home front has been the decision of the University of Illinois to “unhire” Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor who evidently has no impulse control, and who tweeted such gems as “I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would vanish” and “Zionism: Transforming “anti-semitism” from something horrible to something honorable since 1948.” He has become a martyr to free speech in the academy, and in truth, I think he does have a case, which I guess he will pursue through the appropriate channels, but to use his language, he can go fuck himself. What is sad about the potty-mouthed Mr. Salaita is that his coarse and vulgar hatred of Israel has been entirely acceptable in many quarters of the academic left. Far too many of his defenders are outraged that people are outraged about his slurs. He is not an outlier. Unless we can find a common language to discuss both sides, without rhetorical excess, without demonizing what we find distasteful, we are lost. No side has a monopoly on terrorism, fascism, or anti-democratic practices, and no side has a monopoly on good intentions and high minded aspirations.

4)   Stop writing articles, please, saying the two-state solution is dead, because the alternative that most of these articles advocate, a single unitary democratic state in all of former Mandatory Palestine, is deader, as beautiful as an idea, and as completely stillborn as ever. This is not a time for much optimism on the peace front, obviously, but nothing has fundamentally changed.   What needs to be fought for is justice and freedom for the Palestinians and fairness and security for the Israelis on an ongoing practical basis. Work to end the inequalities in Israel and the territories. Work for open dialogue. Eventually the outlines of a solution will emerge .

5)   Stop trying to decide who won and who lost the war. This wasn’t a damn football game. Both sides won, and both sides lost. And if it was a football game, the score would be something like minus 21 for both teams. Stop complaining about “moral equivalence.” There was no moral high ground in this war.

To me, what is saddest and most tragic about this war has been the confirmation that there has been absolutely no progress in resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict since Oslo, since 1967, really, since ever. The two sides have never been as far apart as they are now, have never hated each other more intensely, never more committed to the destruction of the other; the lovers of peace, have been entirely out-shouted, out-maneuvered, and out-politicked. I never expected the plowshares and pruning hook thing to happen, but I expected a little more than this.

How many more generations will die before Israelis and Palestinians stop killing each other? I thought of this when Leonard Fein, the doyen of the pro-Zionist left in this country for many years, passed away a few weeks ago. I thought of it when my dear friend Aaron Braveman, died last year at the age of 94. A lifelong supporter of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, he had told me shortly before his passing that he thought, because of his long life, he had hoped he had put in enough years to see, at least, the first serious steps towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But he didn’t get his wish. And I fear that, if God grants me similar longevity, in 2048, when I am 94, I will look back at the centennial of Israel’s founding with the same rueful feeling of countless opportunities wasted and countless lives ruined.

This war, if nothing else, like most wars, should have shattered illusions. On one side the illusion that Israel can indefinitely sustain the status quo at little expense to itself, that Israel can perpetually mock Palestinian moderates and then expect them to pull their chestnuts from the fire; on the other the recognition that acts of outrage against the Israeli occupation, if they are not part of a conscious strategy of positive political change, will accomplish anything. This has been a “Leninist” war, heightening the contradictions on both sides. The lesson of this war is simple. This cannot be allowed to happen again. And if people on both sides, on all sides, really don’t want it to happen again, if they are courageous enough and creative enough; and if we in America are also brave and fearless in our thinking and in our actions, it won’t.