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Sympathy for Gaza?

June 4, 2018

For the past several weeks a human tragedy has been playing out day after day at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been coming to the border to protest. They are protesting the desperation and poverty they live in, protesting the blockade imposed by Israel, protesting the recent opening of the U.S. embassy to Israel in the disputed city of Jerusalem, and protesting for the right to return to their lands and homes in Israel.

Most of the marchers are unarmed and nonviolent. Some youth throw stones toward the Israeli Defense Forces on the other side of the border. Some set tires on fire and roll them toward the fence. Some have tried breaking through the fence. No Israelis have been harmed. In response, the Israeli Defense Forces have been using tear gas to disperse the protesters, or shooting with live ammunition at the legs of those who approach the fence. As a result, thousands have been wounded, and well over a hundred have died–including children, women, a medic, and a journalist.

The response I’ve been hearing from people living around me has been mixed. Most, however, have little to no sympathy for the protesters. They point out that Gaza is in the deplorable state it is in because the Palestinians who live there elected the terrorist organization Hamas to represent them. Hamas is publicly dedicated to the utter destruction of Israel, and over the years it has been responsible for many of the most bloody terrorist attacks against Israelis. In addition, Hamas periodically (and currently) fires rockets into Israel, and has also been sending kites rigged with burning rags to set fire to forests and agricultural fields in Israel. Hamas has been using the protests for its own ends, to stoke anger at Israel, and it uses the protesters as human shields as it tries to get through the security fence. The reason Israel blockades the Gaza Strip is to try to prevent Hamas from receiving more weapons and materials for building tunnels to attack Israel. So the Palestinians have only themselves to blame for their situation.

As far as I am aware, that information is largely–maybe completely–correct. But I think we need to keep some other important pieces of information in mind as well:

  • Hamas won elections in 2006 because the Palestinian Authority was generally seen as corrupt, and Hamas had a better track record of providing social services. The election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip does not mean the Palestinians living in Gaza favor terrorism or are terrorists.
  • The protests and marches along the border in Gaza were initiated by the Palestinian people, not Hamas. Hamas may be trying to use the protests for its own ends, but the protests themselves are an expression of real and widespread grievances against Israel.
  • The population of the Gaza Strip is made up primarily of refugees (and their descendants) who fled from their homes in 1948 due to war and acts of terror by Jewish forces. They are now people without citizenship and without a state. Israel refuses to let them return to their homes (so as to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel). It is politically unrealistic that Palestinians will ever be given the right to return to their homes (homes which have either been destroyed or taken over by Jewish families), but they have never been compensated for their losses, and the Israeli government has never acknowledged the wrong done to them.
  • It is against international norms to fire live ammunition at protesters who are posing no immediate threat. Israel’s response to a largely nonviolent protest has been harsh and violent, resulting in the deaths and serious injury of many innocent people.
  • Until we have lived in the shoes of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, we are not likely to understand and fully appreciate their plight, and we should be slow to be dismissive.

The journalist Thomas Friedman has suggested that the Palestinians in Gaza would have a much more effective protest if they held signs saying, “Two states for two peoples.” In other words, if the Palestinians in Gaza would visibly show they are renouncing the aims of Hamas to destroy Israel, this would put moral and political pressure on Israel to get serious about peace negotiations.

No nation is perfect. Israel was founded on contradictions–but so was the United States. Despite its unjust  policies (such as building Jewish settlements in the West Bank), Israel is a remarkable nation serving the Jewish people and seeking to be a just democracy. Let’s support Israel and its very legitimate security needs. But let us also support the Palestinians and their very legitimate desire for equal rights and self-determination. The path forward must be a commitment to nonviolence by Israelis and Palestinians, a willingness to acknowledge the pain and injustices suffered by both sides, and a solution grounded in compassion and fairness. An impossible task? At the moment, yes. So let’s begin by changing attitudes on both sides.

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