What We Get Wrong About Israel and Gaza

With the bilateral slaughter in the Middle East unleashing poisons that are worsening hatred worldwide, let me outline what I see as three myths inflaming the debate:

The first myth is that in the conflict in the Middle East there is right on one side and wrong on the other (even if people disagree about which is which).

Life isn’t that neat. The tragedy of the Middle East is that this is a clash of right versus right. That does not excuse Hamas’s massacre and savagery or Israel’s leveling of entire neighborhoods in Gaza, but underlying the conflict are certain legitimate aspirations that deserve to be fulfilled.

Israelis deserve their country, forged by refugees in the shadow of the Holocaust, and they have built a high-tech economy that largely empowers women and respects gay people, while giving its Palestinian citizens more rights than most Arab nations give their citizens. Israel’s courts, media freedom and civil society are models for the region, and there is something of a double standard: Critics pounce on Israeli abuses while often ignoring prolonged brutality against Muslims from Yemen to Syria, Western Sahara to Xinjiang.

Likewise, Palestinians deserve a country, freedom and dignity — and they shouldn’t be subjected to collective punishment. We’ve reached a searing milestone: In just five weeks of war, half of 1 percent of Gaza’s population has been killed. To put it in perspective, that’s more than the share of the American population that was killed in all of World War II — over the course of four years.

A great majority of those killed have been women and children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled Health Ministry, and one gauge of the ferocity and indiscriminate nature of some airstrikes is that more than 100 United Nations staffers have been killed, which the U.N. says is more than in any conflict since its founding. Perhaps that’s because, as an Israeli military spokesman put it early in the conflict, “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.”

“We are normal people, trying to live,” an engineer in Gaza told me by phone. He despises Hamas and would like to see it removed from power, but he says that Hamas fighters are safe in tunnels while he and his children are the ones most at risk: “We’re the civilians paying the price.”

Whichever side you are more inclined toward, remember that the other includes desperate human beings merely hoping that their children can live freely and thrive in their own nation.

The second myth is that Palestinians can be put off indefinitely, strung along by Israel, the United States and other countries. That was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy, his way of avoiding a Palestinian state, and it worked for a time — the way a pressure cooker works, until it explodes.

It’s difficult to know the counterfactual, whether a Palestinian state would have been better for Israeli security. But Palestinian statelessness in retrospect has not made Israel safe, and risks may increase if the Palestinian Authority collapses from corruption, ineffectiveness and lack of legitimacy.

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, said that one of the Hamas attackers on Oct. 7 was carrying instructions for releasing chemical weapons, and that’s a reminder of the risk that terrorism experts have worried about for years of extremist groups turning to biological and chemical agents.

Israel has a right to feel anxious in any case, but I suspect that the best way to ensure its security may be not to defer Palestinian aspirations but to honor them with a two-state solution. This is not just a concession to Arabs but a pragmatic acknowledgment of Israel’s own interests — and the world’s.

The third myth is found on both sides of the conflict and is approximately: It’s too bad we have to engage in this bloodshed, but the people on the other side understand only violence.

I hear that from friends who support the war in Gaza and regard me as well-meaning but misguided, as a naif who fails to comprehend the sad reality that the only way to keep Israel safe is to pulverize Gaza and uproot Hamas at whatever human cost.

Hamas indeed understands only violence, and it has been brutal to Israelis and Palestinians alike — but Hamas and Palestinians are not the same, just as violent settlers in the West Bank do not represent all Israelis. I’m all for surgical strikes against Hamas and I would be delighted if Israel managed to end extremism in Gaza. But so far, I’m afraid that the ferocity and lack of precision in Israel’s attack has fulfilled Hamas’s goal of escalating the Palestinian issue and changing the Middle East dynamic (and Hamas is indifferent to Palestinian casualties).

In that sense, Hamas may be winning.

Five weeks into this war, I don’t see evidence that Israel’s military has degraded Hamas in a significant way, but it has killed vast numbers of civilians, put the Palestinian struggle on top of the global agenda, dissipated the initial torrent of sympathy for Israel, prompted people around the globe to march for Palestine, distracted attention from kidnapped Israelis and ruptured any possibility soon of Israel’s normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia.

My friend Roy Grow, an international relations specialist at Carleton College who died in 2013, used to say that a crucial goal of terror organizations was getting the adversary to overreact. He compared this to jujitsu, with terrorist organizations using their opponents’ weight against them — and that is what Hamas has done.

Each side has dehumanized the other, but people are complex and neither side is monolithic — and remember that wars are not about populations but about people. These are people like Mohammed Alshannat, a doctoral student in Gaza, who has been sending desperate messages to friends who shared them with me; he agreed to allow me to publish them as a glimpse into Gazan life.

“There was heavy bombing in our area,” he wrote in English in one message. “We run for our lives and I lost two of my children in the dark. Me and my wife stayed all night searching for them amidst hundreds of airstrikes. We miraculously survived an airstrike and found them fainted in the morning. Please pray for us. The situation is beyond description.”

“I see death a hundred times a day,” he wrote another time. “We defecate in the open and my children defecate on themselves and there is no water to clean them.”

If he survives the war, what will we Americans say to him and his children? How will we explain that we supplied bombs for this war, that we were complicit in his family’s terror and degradation?

If there is a path forward toward peace — whether in two states or one state — it will begin with all of us moving beyond stereotypes. Israelis are not the same as Netanyahu, and Palestinians are not the same as Hamas.

Seeking humanity in each side means demanding the release of Israeli hostages and calling out the dehumanization that leads people to pull down posters for kidnapped Israelis. It also means renouncing what Netanyahu called “mighty vengeance” that transforms entire neighborhoods of Gaza into rubble, with bodies buried underneath.

I’m exasperated by people whose hearts bleed for only one side, or who say about the toll on the other: “It’s tragic, but ….” No “buts.” Unless you believe in human rights for Jews and for Palestinians, you don’t actually believe in human rights.

If you weep only for Israeli children, or only for Palestinian children, you have a problem that goes beyond your tear ducts. Children on both sides have been slaughtered quite recklessly, and fixing this crisis starts with acknowledging a principle so basic that it shouldn’t need mentioning: All children’s lives have equal value, and good people come in all nationalities.

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