A Human Tragedy Called Gaza
The picture of the human tragedy in Gaza is appalling. In the space of a few days, the Israeli army managed to kill 126 Palestinians and injure over 300. Over 40 of those killed were children. On the Israeli side, 2 soldiers and one civilian were killed and 7 injured. Watching the news on different TV channels and seeing the dead and injured was heartbreaking. Violence has a very ugly face and it has trapped both sides by its snares.
This is not the first time that the government of Israel has used disproportionate force against Palestinians. Some analysts feel that Israel‘s objective was to pressure the Palestinian leadership into calling off the bi-lateral talks resumed after Annapolis and especially after President Bush‘s January 2008 visit to the area.
At Annapolis, it was agreed that negotiations would resume in order to address the core issues of the conflict. After 18 rounds of talks between Abbas and Olmert, the negotiations have not advanced one iota. The fact is that Israel does not want the talks to come anywhere near Jerusalem, refugees or the settlements. As for the final borders, Israel has taken care of that by building the wall. Apparently Israel is unable to face the moment of truth. The pattern is now clear for any observer to see. In order to disrupt the talks, Israel carries out a series of provocations: Daily incursions into the West Bank, arrests of scores of Palestinians every night, expansion of settlements, demolitions of homes, erection of checkpoints, assassinations, killings, and suffocating closures. The list goes on and on. As a result, the rockets start flying from Gaza but Abbas carries on with the so-called negotiations despite pressure from his people. Israel‘s provocations escalate until they reach the level of carnage carried out in Gaza. Abbas halts the talks and Israel is relieved. The blame is placed squarely on the Palestinians and Israel can claim that they do not want to talk.
It is worth mentioning that when excessive force is used by Israel, its message to the Palestinians is clear: We have the power to wipe you out. If you even scratch us, we will clobber you. Many westerners justify Israel‘s actions because they believe that Israel, as a sovereign country, has the right to defend itself. The truth is, so long as the government of Israel is occupying the Palestinian territories, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip and denying the people their freedom, dignity, and human as well as political rights, international law gives them the right to resist and to defend themselves.
In that sense, Israel has no superior right to defend itself than is equally due to the Palestinians. It has no a priori moral right to defend itself when it is dominating, oppressing, and violating the human rights of almost four million people. When Israel ends its occupation and is attacked then it has all the right to defend itself. Israel has no right to defend its occupation and definitely no right to ask the occupied Palestinians to protect it. Israel‘s only moral responsibility today is to end its occupation and set the Palestinians free.
One and a half million Gaza Palestinians – Muslims and Christians, men, women, and children – are incarcerated in the largest prison on earth. Gaza is also one big refugee camp. Over seventy percent of its population are refugees living in eight large refugee camps. These refugees were driven out of their towns and villages in the south of Palestine by the Jewish Zionist forces in 1948. The Gaza strip is totally encircled by walls, fences and towers. The Israeli army controls its air, sea, and land, with nowhere to escape. The people of Gaza are suffocating. Visitors who go to Gaza have testified to this fact.
The desperate situation of the people explains the firing of the qassam rockets. From our faith perspective, we do not at all condone these rocket attacks or any form of violence. We condemn the indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians perpetrated by both sides. However, we feel the government of Israel bears the greater responsibility because it has created this situation with its over 40 year-long occupation that contravenes international law.
Palestinians resisting the occupation interpret the message of the rockets as a distress signal of a hurting and wounded community. It is a cry of desperation for help sent to the community of nations to come to their rescue, to lift the Israeli siege, to end their occupation, and to give them freedom. It must be remembered that according to international law, Gaza is still under occupation even after Israel‘s redeployment.
The message of distress is not heard by the international community largely because many leaders are prone to stand with the strong against the weak and because they lack the courage to face the Israeli leadership with its injustice. The international community has lacked the political will and the guts to resolve the Palestinian conflict. It has been 60 years and the cries of the Palestinians have been falling on the deaf ears of the world leaders. Consequently, some Palestinian groups have resorted to violence but their message of need and despair has not been heard. The humanity of the Palestinians has been suppressed and censored. They have been perceived as “terrorists” when in fact they are seeking justice and freedom.
Although the qassam rockets have caused relatively small damage on the Israeli side, their psychological effects have been significant. In fact some Palestinians feel that the logic behind the firing of the rockets is: We cannot match the Israeli military might but we can match terror with terror and fear with fear. Those rockets have been a blow to the arrogance and hubris of the Israeli government. Israel has not been able to stop them in spite of its repeated incursions against the Gazans. Israel‘s frustration caused the deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai to say, “The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, [the Palestinians] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah [holocaust] because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.” To this a Hamas official from Gaza commented, “We are facing new Nazis who want to kill and burn the Palestinian people.” (Haaretz, Februray 29, 08) It is tragic that the oft-repeated slogan of “never again” has now found exception when a senior Israeli official wishes the holocaust on the Palestinians. (It is worth pondering what would have happened to any one of us if we had used the word “holocaust” in the way Vilnai has.)
From Sabeel‘s position of faith, we believe that for a genuine peace to be achieved, the government of Israel must first terminate its injustice against the Palestinians, cease its violations of international law, and end its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.
For the immediate future, the Israeli government must accept Hamas‘ offer for a long term hudna (ceasefire) and enter into negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in good faith.
We also appeal to the Palestinian fighters in Gaza to abandon violence and to choose the way of nonviolence. It is a much stronger and more effective way of resistance. It has been tried by many people in the past who through nonviolence, stood against empires and were able to gain their rights and achieve their liberation.
We also plead with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas leadership to transcend their differences and to reconcile with each other. It is mandatory that they maintain the territorial integrity of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as well as the unity of all the Palestinian people.
To all the people of this land – Israelis and Palestinians – we say: It is only when we recognize the humanity of the other and possess the courage and the humility to honor each other‘s rights and submit to the demands of international law that we can hope for peace and security.
Our faith teaches us that ultimately, the oppressed will be set free and peace will triumph over violence and liberation will prove to be stronger than occupation.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center