A ceasefire has been reached, now what?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The other day a friend of mine returned from a group trip to Israel and she seemed changed. I’ve never seen her get emotional or caught up in anything, but as she described one particular story, her eyes welled up with tears and her lip quivered for a moment before she blinked it all back.

She talked about an Israeli girl at a cross-cultural meeting of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans. This local girl was confused at much of the talk about Israelis and Palestinians hating each other. She asked an adult nearby my friend why the Palestinians didn’t like her and her family.

“It’s complicated,” the adult replied. “It’s difficult to explain.”

“Well maybe,” the girl bravely replied, “we can send my friend over there to talk to them. He speaks their language very well. He can tell them that we’re nice.”

This was the point where my friend’s big brown eyes turned red.

It truly is complicated, as the adult so matter-of-factly stated to the girl, but it’s also very simple-- it's hatred bred from years of violence based on religion and territory.

The recent events in Gaza were essentially inevitable. Hamas militants were lobbing rockets into Israel, a sovereign state. How long would it take the United States to react defensively if it was being attacked from the south by Mexico, or Cuba? Not long indeed.

However, true to form, Israel reacted disproportionately. Some Israelis have been killed but more than 1,000 Palestinians are dead. A UN school and center for humanitarian aid were shelled (which also brings up the moral question—are the ones who attack the civilians guilty of war crimes or are the ones who hide behind civilians and store weapons in Mosques and schools guilty of war crimes?). So although Israel’s reaction is inevitable, it is disproportionate and, quite frankly, counter-productive.

Hamas gains its strength and support not only from regional nations with similar hatred of the Israeli state, but also from Palestinians who have no one else to turn to. When Israel blockaded Gaza, Hamas was one of the only organizations providing adequate support to a very needy and lost population of first and second generation refugees. So it seems only natural that Hamas receives support from the Palestinians-- “people support the source that meets their needs” (Major Erik A. Claessen, Belgian Armed Forces. “S.W.E.T. and Blood: Essential Services in the Battle Between Insurgents and Counterinsurgents.” Military Review Nov-Dec 2007, p.91).

And those ‘needs’ aren’t merely physical. For a population who has lost hope in peaceful methods of obtaining a land for themselves and adequate jobs and education, who has lost hope in democracy after seeing the world turn its back on their (more or less) democratically elected party, the only hope they can find is in religion. Sadly, many of the religious leaders then use that faith against them to breed violence and more hatred.

With Israel continuing blockades and these past few weeks of air strikes and bringing ground forces into an already dire situation, the religious zealots’ jobs are, unfortunately, much easier. Israel is painted as the evil aggressor and Hamas the defender. No matter how successful Israel believes itself to be after this incursion into Gaza, Hamas will continue to flourish and quite possibly more so.

But then what can be done? Now with a ceasefire agreed upon (albeit, temporarily), what can we do to move forward? Honestly I think the little Israeli girl had it right. We need to start with the youth.

Now this is no short-term solution. This would be a long-term, hard-fought siege against a violent racism that has been stoked and prodded for years upon decades upon centuries. This presence of such deeply engrained prejudices has even forced the international community and country leaders to see very little hope of a light at the end of the tunnel. But if we start now—if the Palestinian refugees were given more aid and unbiased education, clean places to live with health services and food security, if Israel was a part of providing those food and health and educational services to Palestinians, then this majority youth population might choose peaceful economic and political opportunities instead of resorting to violence. If schools were integrated or had regular cross-cultural meetings of children so they could see that the other ‘really is nice,’ then maybe in a generation or two we can quiet the voices of racism and hatred and bring up a generation of those who understand the conflict’s history (from both points of view) and can work towards a more peaceful future.

No this doesn’t solve the territory issue, or stop other nations from funding terrorism, but it’s a start.

And I’m idealistic, I know. But someone’s got to be.


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