Essays

Reflections on Critical Responses to the Tragedy of Gaza

As the years progress, I am becoming convinced that most people can’t walk, chew gum, and think at the same time.* Why did people who were highly critical of American capitalism feel compelled to overlook the atrocities associated with Stalinism? Why did other people critical of Soviet power look favorably upon the “authoritarian” but reliably anti-communist Latin American dictatorships as part of the free world? And to get to my present discomfort, why do those who are highly critical of Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank, ignore the terrorist tactics of Hamas? And why is it that those who are concerned with Palestinian terrorism ignore deeply problematic qualities of the order of things in Israel today?

As editor of Public Seminar, I’m thinking about this having received private correspondence from colleagues who worry about the series of highly critical pieces we have published on Israel: Yossi Gurvitz’s scathing criticisms of Israeli propaganda, analyzing Netanyahu’s support of terrorism and that the IDF is the largest terrorist organization in the Middle East, and Omri Boehm’s demonstration how the words of Benjamin Netanyahu reveal the logic of a terrorist regime. I have reservations about some of the implications of Gurvitz and Boehm, but I think they do reveal a crucial point. Israel’s policies toward Palestinians are deeply problematic, on both sides of the Green Line, in the Gaza strip, with greater brutality in the occupied territories than in Israel proper, yielding the greatest suffering in Gaza today as I write. This is underscored even more directly in  Nahed Habibabah’s telling le cri du Coeu.

Yet, I worry as I read about the tragic events and as I have suggested in my replies to Boehm’s piece. While I think it is important to both recognize and thoroughly analyze the deeply problematic qualities of Israeli policies and practices, especially as the war in Gaza escalates, I think it is also important to recognize that both the ruling coalition in Israel and Hamas present military solutions to problems that ultimately must be addressed politically, and because of this, they share responsibility for the escalating inhumane death and destruction. They are collaborators.

Netanyahu needs Hamas to rationalize systematic domination of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and to exclude the Palestinian citizens of Israel proper. Hamas, depends on Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces to work to counteract its waning popularity in Gaza, as support from Egypt disappears and turmoil spreads in Syria, Iraq and beyond. Those who continue to shoot rockets, ineffective as they have been, from Gaza into Israel, and those who systematically work to eradicate the capacity to launch these rockets are allies in their terrorism. Instead of addressing the enduring political challenges, the pursuit of justice, dignity and decency for the people of Israel–Palestine, Hamas launches rockets and Israel shoots back with great force and sends in the troops.

Thus, while basically I agree with the arguments of Boehm and Gurvitz, and find Habiballah’s perspective compelling, I think something substantial is missing, a more critical understanding of the meaning of Hamas’ military actions. We should critically consider the united terrorist front. When we don’t do this, criticism of one party of terror, can and often does become apology for the other. We need to chew gum, walk and think at the same time.

Thus, while I don’t generally agree with J. Goldberg on the conflict, I think he raised an important issue when he asked “Is Hamas trying to get Gazans killed?” But when that question is opened, it is also important, indeed crucial, to pay close attention to how the killing of Gazans and the mass arrests and harassment of Palestinians on the West Bank have been based upon deliberate lies of Israeli officials. This has led to escalating collective outrage and a pointless search for kidnapped hitchhiking Israeli teenagers, long after the authorities knew the boys had been killed, as J.J. Goldberg has demonstrated.

J. Goldberg notes that the Hamas rocket attacks assured Israeli counterattacks, leading to the deaths of many Gazans, militants along with innocent civilians. The cynicism involved in this maneuver is lamentable to say the least. J. Goldberg, further, ponders what would have happened if the Palestinians years ago used the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, not as a base for rocket attacks, but as an opportunity to carve out a zone of self rule and economic development in the fashion of the Kurds in Iraq. They could have established state structures and constituted civil society institutions for the Palestinian public good and against the Israeli adversary. As someone who has observed how “acting as if one lived in a free society” worked to foster a fundamental and radical transformation in Central Europe, this makes sense to me. There is the very real power of the powerless, the power of what I call the politics of small things.

Yet, one must face hard facts. J.J. Goldberg reveals how the Israeli officialdom cultivated and heightened a broad public alarm, fostering hatred, providing a shield for mass arrests in the West Bank, and preparing Israelis for war in Gaza. Here too the cynicism is outstanding. Instead of seeking to quiet hatred and conflict, they were stoked. It is a policy of acting as if there is a commitment to peace and reconciliation, covering a policy of overwhelming military action, as we are now observing. J. and J.J. illuminate a significant problem and as a result, there seems to be no exit.

But only seems so. They, we, can begin anew.

There are glimmers of hope against hopelessness. This is how I read Benoit Challand’s analysis of a shift in Hamas’ wording, which suggests constructive moves towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and how I understand our Israeli colleagues’ protest petition, which in no uncertain terms say no to the destructive military action in Gaza. There are people who are addressing the pressing political problems through politics and not the barrel of the gun.

This leads me to want to act. I think a letter of solidarity should be circulated around the world, in solidarity with the Israeli protesters, and the politicians on both sides of the conflict, when they can be found, committed to the power and importance of words working towards peace. More about this very soon, I hope.

*Original phrase was how the press reported the then President Lyndon Johnson’s evaluation of the intellectual capacities of  future President Gerald Ford. For more on this, read Gerald Ford’s obit in The Guardian.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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