|Photo of our group in Hebron, shared by Alan; 500 Jews live apart from 165,000||Arabs.|
Last month, I joined a week-long study mission of Israel and the Palestinian territories sponsored by Partners for Progressive Israel, an American group closely tied to Meretz, a left-wing Zionist political party in Israel. Over the week, the group met with many prominent Israelis (including two government minsters), as well as Palestinian leaders. The mission, my conversations with Israelis and Americans since, and the conflict with Hamas in Gaza, brought into sharp focus for me the hard issues facing Israel. What follows is some of my personal thinking based on these experiences.
Israel’s current harsh policies towards Gaza are not sustainable. The recent conflict demonstrated that there was strong international support for Israel’s right to defend itself against missiles and terrorism; however, reading the international press, it is clear that there is little support for the debilitating sanctions which Israel has imposed on Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007, sanctions that have in many ways strengthened Hamas politically. Israel’s go-it-alone attitude, including the alienation of past allies such as Turkey, is self-defeating. My belief is that Israel needs to leverage widespread international support for its borders to ensure that militant factions can no longer launch missiles against Israel. In the long term, the best way to ensure a secure future for Israel is to work towards normalizing life for Gazans, with some third country or an international force ensuring that militants are kept under control.
The occupation of Palestinian territory on the West Bank, continuous for the past 45 years, prevents the emergence of normal society for the Palestinians in the West Bank. From an American businessman (Sam Bahour) whose Palestinian roots brought him back to his homeland after the Oslo Accords were signed almost 20 years ago, we heard firsthand how Palestinians live under restrictions of their personal movement and economic activities which make normal lives impossible. We heard from an Israeli civil rights lawyer (Michael Sfard) and from Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights how Palestinians are also subject to lawless attacks by the settlers for which they have little recourse. Israeli police stations are typically located within settler communities; to report an attack, Palestinians would have to enter into a hostile setting.
Israel must stop placating the many ultra-religious and right-wing Israelis who see the occupation of the West Bank as re-claiming the land of our forefathers. These lands are now Palestinian, and Israel needs to recognize and support this current reality—for its own survival. A West Bank with rising prosperity has the potential to be a hopeful beacon to Palestinians living in Gaza, giving them a better option than Hamas can offer.
|IDF patrol in what was a busy Hebron marketplace, now shuttered and deserted, as are many homes (photo courtesy of Alan).|
The occupation of the West Bank erodes Israeli society. The settlements in the West Bank require the stationing of Israeli military units to protect them. In our visit to Hebron, we saw the large number of troops required to protect the handful of Israeli families, whose actions towards their Palestinian neighbors are increasingly provocative, even criminal. Our visit to Hebron evoked images for me of totalitarian control of populations. Young Israelis who serve in the occupied territories face a civilian population that is largely peaceful and an Israeli settler population that has become increasingly provocative. Many young people and their families dread having to serve their country in such a morally compromised way.
Because of the costs of maintaining its military, especially in the occupied territories, and the subsidies to the settlers, Israel is not able to meet the pressing social needs and aspirations of its own citizens. The outcry for greater “social justice”—evidenced by the huge demonstrations in the streets of Tel Aviv in 2011—are understood by many to be another consequence of the diversion of funds to occupation and settlement of the West Bank.
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