To be clear, I believe it is wrong for militant groups in Gaza to fire rockets at Israeli towns and cities. While most of the rockets are primitive, they causes psychological trauma for many Israelis and physical harm and death for a few.
For Palestinian militants, it is a losing strategy for gaining justice. It also violates international law.
But it is also wrong for the Israeli government to ignore the historical and continuing grievances of the Palestinian people, to maintain a ruthless economic siege on Gaza, and to respond to rocket fire with disproportionate and overwhelming force — resulting in the deaths of large numbers of civilians.
For Israelis, it is a losing strategy for building security. It also violates international law.
Already more than 430 Palestinians and nearly 20 Israelis have been killed in 13 days of fighting.
What is happening in Gaza today seems very much like a repeat of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in late 2008 and early 2009. In that three-week-long war:
- Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 750 rockets into Israel, killing three civilians and wounding 182 more.
- Israel dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on the Gaza Strip, killing nearly 1,400 Palestinians including 454 women and children, according to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group.
At the time, Cindy and I were working for an international development agency in the Middle East. We visited Gaza a month after the fighting stopped.
We witnessed devastation from the north to the south of the 25-mile-long Gaza Strip — especially in areas closest to the border with Israel. Hundreds of houses were flattened. Olive trees and grape vines were uprooted.
We saw schools and even a hospital that had been bombed. Ironically, the elite American International School in Gaza — built with $4.0 million of U.S. taxpayer money – was destroyed by a bomb dropped from a U.S.-donated F-16 jet.
“Thirty years of hard work were gone in 30 minutes,” lamented a religious leader in describing the Israeli destruction of Beit Hanoun.
As a final act of the war the Israeli military destroyed all the cement factories in Gaza, making it difficult to rebuild.
We heard stories of resilience and horror.
“We were like falafel in hot oil,” said the leader of a Christian organization in Gaza, describing what it felt like to bounce up and down during Israeli attacks. “Really you get afraid.”
Small children were everywhere. Many were bare-footed in spite of cold weather during our visit. Parents told us that they tried to hide their own fears in order to keep their children calm. Some told their children that the bombing noises were thunder and rainstorms.
But the children were not fooled.
Near Khan Younis, we viewed their artwork. Their drawings were filled with fighter jets, helicopters, bombs, blood and dead bodies. In one school we visited, the children re-enacted the scene of Israeli soldiers killing a student’s parent.
When we entered a home in the northern community of Beit Hanoun, a young boy immediately wet his pants, fearing that we were there to do further harm. His grandmother tried to reassure him otherwise.
Unlike wars where civilians can flee to neighboring countries, Gaza’s current 1.8 million residents are trapped in a tiny strip of land just twice the size of Washington, D.C. They have nowhere to go. In our February 2009 visit, some described receiving calls from the Israeli Defense Force, warning them to leave their neighborhoods. “But where were we to go?” they asked.
“We are civilians. We are humans. No one deserves this,” an elderly woman from Jabalia told us angrily. She had become a refugee in 1948 and lost her husband in the 2009 war. “What did we do? What do we have? The U.S. government allows Israelis to do this.”
In spite of the devastation, Gazans we visited didn’t want handouts. They wanted Westerners to know their story. “Tell them the truth about what you see – that is all,” said Rifqa, the leader of a Palestinian development organization.
Getting to the roots
Five years after the 2009 war, have we learned nothing about how to change the dynamics of this conflict?
For centuries, church leaders espoused a harsh anti-Jewish theology that led to terrible persecution of Jews. Eventually it created the climate that permitted the Holocaust, with its implicit message that the world has a high level of tolerance for Jewish suffering.
Today, Palestinians are paying the price of this tragedy, which largely unfolded in Europe.
To create the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish military leaders depopulated and, in many cases destroyed, more than 500 Palestinian villages, producing more than 700,000 refugees. Hundreds of thousands of those refugees and their descendants now live in Gaza.
International peace negotiators for the last 20 years have largely ignored these narratives, unwisely believing that a just and secure peace can be fashioned without repairing past harms. Many have disingenuously tried to convince the rest of the world that this is simply a Palestinian-Israeli problem.
Sadly, until the international community acknowledges and more appropriately addresses these historical harms, we are likely to see wars in Gaza again and again.