Visiting Israel Palestine is a sobering experience for a scholar of peace. The ubiquitous Wall of separation, the constant sense of insecurity and fear, knowing as we walk through Jerusalem’s Damascus gate for example that a number of fatal shootings and attacks have occurred there recently. The pervasive military presence in Israel, the 20-somethings in uniform carrying Uzis in train stations and malls, troops on duty in so many public places and check points.
Our sympathies naturally lie with the Palestinians, whose land has been stolen historically, with settlers encroaching ever more, their right to statehood denied, the West Bank under military occupation, their communities walled off and isolated, transportation disrupted, with drastically lower living standards and access to water and sanitation.
But I also sympathize with Israel, which has the right to exist, and to be safe from invasion by neighbors and terrorist attacks against civilians. Israel is a prosperous democratic country, but its success is built on the back of Palestinian suffering. It is tragic that a people who suffered so much from separation in the past should now feel compelled to impose it upon another.
The political situation seems hopeless and is getting worse. Several interlocutors predicted an explosion in the coming months. Hardliners are gaining ground in the Israeli government and Knesset. Hamas retains its grip in Gaza and belief in terrorist methods. It praised as ‘heroic’ the fatal shooting of civilians in a Tel Aviv restaurant this past week.
In this bleak setting it’s hard to have any hope or sense of a solution, but a few facts seem indisputable.
For the Palestinians there can be no military solution. The resort to violence and terrorism only makes matters worse. In the 1980s and during the first mostly nonviolent intifada there was some hope for improvement. Then came the second intifada and the killing of more than 800 Israeli civilians, leading to the Wall and increased militarization. No just cause is gained through the killing of innocent people in cafes.
Israel’s security is based on an unsustainable foundation of oppression. The occupation of the West Bank and the building of settlements in Palestinian territory is a violation of international law. Israel can never be truly free and secure without justice for the Palestinians.
The core parties to the dispute—Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas—remain light years apart in their positions and show no interest in negotiating a genuine settlement. The Oslo framework has collapsed and a two-state solution seems ever more distant, made less relevant daily by Israeli facts on the ground and the re-engineered landscape of enclosed Palestinian ‘bantustans.’
In light of these facts, or so they seem to me, initiatives for change are needed from the outside. These could take several forms, all aimed at encouraging reconciliation. The US and EU could use their diplomacy, international aid, security assistance and other policy instruments to orient Israel away from occupation and settlements toward compliance with international law. They could also engage with the Palestinians to find achievable political solutions that assure their dignity and freedom as a people within the context of the same rights for Israelis.
Civil society must play a role. Especially important are the international solidarity programs that have been created by religious groups and NGOs to accompany and protect Palestinians at check points in Hebron and other sites of Israeli and settler abuse. These programs should be supported and expanded to bring into the West Bank and eventually Gaza the presence of ever growing numbers of international observers and peace builders from global civil society.
In the United States we bear a heavy burden. It is our government more than any other which sanctions, funds and arms Israeli crimes and thereby upholds the cruel separation and oppression of the Palestinian people. Israel is on a reckless path, and it needs tough love to come to its senses. The Palestinians too are in bad shape with corruption in Ramallah and militancy in Gaza. They also need our help.
For civil society our duty is to organize politically in support of a policy for Israel Palestine that helps the parties find a way of living together, two peoples in one land, free from violence, fear and oppression.