By Khaled Diab
Although violence is all too often the path of least resistance, Israelis and Palestinians urgently need to navigate a peaceful path out of the quagmire.
Thursday 20 October 2016
The first involved a group of 13 courageous international peace activists, all of whom were women, including an Irish Nobel peace laureate, a former South African Olympic athlete and a retired American colonel. They were on board a small yacht with the grand name of the Zaytouna-Olivia flotilla, which sought “to break the blockade and celebrate on the shores of Gaza,” according to Wendy Goldsmith, a Canadian on board. Instead, and as was expected, the Israeli navy intercepted the flotilla while it was still in international waters and forced it to dock in Ashdod.
Meanwhile, a previously unknown Salafist group fired a rocket into Israel, which landed claiming no casualties, in the name of their “oppressed brothers and sisters” living under Israeli occupation. As has become routine in such incidents, Israel struck back hard with its superior firepower, bombing numerous targets in Gaza, also with no casualties.
But neither of these incidents would have occurred had Israel and Hamas reached a fair deal to lift the blockade on Gaza.
For all the efforts of mediators and go-betweens and all the reports of planned or indirect negotiations, there has been little or no perceptible change to the status quo since the ceasefire of 26 August 2014, except for the continually deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation in besieged Gaza. War has cost the Strip at least three times its annual GDP and the Israeli blockade has shrunk the economy to a quarter of the size it would have been.
Even these pitiful efforts to carry out a dialogue have been condemned by the hawks, such as far-right Israeli politicians, including current Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and fringe militant groups in Gaza, who prefer war-war to jaw-jaw. Sadly, the ingredients for an explosive new war are packed into a rapidly decaying toxic status quo; all that is missing is the spark.
At the core of the Gaza quagmire is a fundamental misunderstanding of what war and political violence can achieve in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Whenever violence flares up or war unleashes its ugly devastation, Israeli and Palestinian hawks take wing to persuade large portions of their populations that there is no choice but to take up arms and that, this time, a decisive blow, which never actually materialises, will be dealt to the enemy and victory assured.
This attitude is particularly prevalent when it comes to Gaza. For instance, the 2014 war enjoyed almost universal support in Israel, as did the earlier 2012 conflict.
On the other side of the divide, not only did a majority of Palestinians believe, shortly after the end of the 2014 war, the Hamas rhetoric that it had defeated Israel, 86% supported the resumption of rocket attacks if Israel did not lift its blockade of Gaza.
This jingoistic attitude was not just the statistical quirk of overzealous pollsters but reflected a palpable reality. I was taken aback by the antagonism and hostility expressed by normally sensible and moderate Israeli and Palestinian voices I knew, or the wave of attacks my criticism of the war and my advocacy of non-violence provoked at the time.
And these polls hint at one war aim that is never publicly articulated. Both Hamas and the Israeli government may shoot at each other, but these are only proxy targets for the enemy they seem to hate even more than the other side: the Israeli left and centre, on the one hand, and Fatah and the non-Islamist parties, on the other. There's nothing like a war to silence Netanyahu's and Hamas's critics and boost their popularity – at least for as long as the war lasts.
Beyond the cynical manipulation of fear and hatred for short-term gain, there also exists a fundamental misunderstanding of the other side's mentality – and of human nature itself. There is a widespread conviction among Israelis and Palestinians that the other side only understands the language of violence and, hence, the only way to get them to prick up their ears is to give them a bloody nose, or worse.
But all this achieves is that it breeds a surfeit of bitterness, hatred and outrage on the other side – and the greater the devastation, the greater the resulting determination to seek vengeance. Peaceful resistance and activism, on the other hand, are far more powerful weapons, as was demonstrated by the flotilla.
While the Salafist rocket unlawfully targeting civilians provoked destructive airstrikes and gave Israel a fig leaf for its militarism and unjust blockade, the flotilla caught the entire world's eye and made Israel look like a bully. This may help explain why some on the Israeli right seem to fear peaceful activism more than violent extremism.
Paradoxically, although this cyclical violence almost invariably fails, its credibility remains undiminished. This is because every shot fired at the enemy eliminates the doves at home who are either shot down in the crossfire or morph into hawks. Bloodshed also strengthens the hands of extremists and fragments the political landscape, until violence becomes the path of least resistance, rather than last resort.
However, if Israelis and Palestinians are to consider abandoning the way of the sword and pursue the way of the word, this moral murkiness and relativism needs to be abandoned by the people who should constitute society's living conscience.
Just as the ingredients for devastating, outright war are there awaiting yet another spark, the components for navigating a relatively non-violent path out of the impasse are also in place.
Despite the impulse of closing ranks during times of war, a minority of Israeli and Palestinian activists and individual citizens opposed both Israel and Hamas during the Gaza war. Enduring allegations of being sellouts and traitors, not to mention threats to their person, some went as far as to make their criticism public in a number of small anti-war protests.
In addition, movements like Combatants for Peace (which was the subject of a moving documentary), which brings together Israeli and Palestinian refuseniks, reject violence perpetuated by both sides and believe not only that the occupation must be resisted peacefully but that it must be actively opposed by Israelis of conscience as much as it is by Palestinians.
And despite the risks involved and the increasingly shrill opposition to co-operation and co-resistance, Palestinians and Israelis of conscience continue to stand shoulder to shoulder against the occupation in myriad ways, from collaborations to improve daily life to the weekly joint protests in villages like Bil'in.
I regularly pass and, on occasion have joined, the small group of joint protesters in Sheikh Jarrah who come together every Friday, come rain or heatwave, violence or quiet, to oppose in silence the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem.
So long as these courageous, determined voices remain, no matter how relatively few, hope will continue to flicker. However, I, like so many disillusioned observers, fear that its weak heat may be extinguished, with the worst-case scenario being a multi-fronted Syria-like conflict, involving not just war between Israelis and Palestinians, but also violent civil conflict within each society, as growing polarisation and animosity tears them apart.
Nevertheless, I still hold out hope. As war and violence continue to prove their ineffectiveness, the ranks of those seeking a peaceful alternative path to peace will likely swell over the coming years. Their power will be unwittingly amplified by the crumbling of the ossified occupation. Although it may appear solid and durable today, the reality of the occupation is more that of a wall of cards than an impenetrable fortress.
As has occurred so many times in the past, once enough people decide, together, to act as a popular opposition, it will be enough to bring the edifice crashing down. This will clear the way for a future founded on, rather than undermining, the potential of two gifted and diverse peoples.
This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 6 October 2016.