Comment: Letter to a colleague in Gaza

"His words touched a nerve because they serve to perpetuate a narrative that will entrench this conflict even further."

Palestinians walk past a damaged car as they return to their house after filling containers with water from a public tap in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians walk past a damaged car as they return to their house after filling containers with water from a public tap in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In journalism school at Columbia in New York, I met and worked with Mohammed Omer, a Gaza-born Palestinian man I sincerely admire and respect. Mohammed is known for his reporting from the territories and, in 2008, for accusing Israeli forces of abusing him at the Allenby Bridge, in an incident that drew international attention.
Imagery over the last two weeks of mothers frozen by the sight of their fallen children, and of ramshackle homes reduced further to rubble, has brought Mohammed to mind. And this past week, he wrote in The Nation that he is back in Gaza, with his wife and their newborn child, living once again through the percussion of an Israeli military campaign.
Having never lived in a city under siege, I can only imagine the fear. Certainly, as a resident not directly affiliated with Hamas, Mohammed has some legitimate questions over why he, his wife and child are living through what surely constitutes a Palestinian nightmare.
As a colleague, a friend and a human being, I will be praying for the safety of Mohammed and everyone else affected by this conflict. But as a journalist, Mohammed’s words in The Nation touched a nerve – not only because they present inaccuracies as fact, but because they serve to perpetuate a narrative that will entrench this conflict even further.
Most egregiously, Mohammed calls Gaza a ghetto, the size of “Lodz, Krakow and Warsaw rolled into one,” in which the government of the Jewish state is committing crimes reminiscent of the Holocaust. It should not take an article in The Jerusalem Post, or in any newspaper, to remind people what happened during the Holocaust; and yet in the Arab world, there is a relentless effort to simultaneously deny that the event occurred and to also use the event as a point of comparison for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Israel’s operation in Gaza does not constitute a war crime – not even by the standards of the secretary- general of the United Nations, where the General Assembly serves as a forum for the maligning of Israel on a weekly basis. Comparing the historic genocide of 6 million people to the unintended deaths of hundreds of civilians – who have been warned through text message, leaflets, free media calls and every other notice possible before each precision strike against Hamas, an organization recognized as a terrorist enterprise by the European Union and the United States – is beyond uneducated.
In fact, it is dangerous: because not only does it grossly understate what large-scale, state-sponsored, systematic murder actually looks like, but it suggests that the Israeli government wants Palestinians to die. And that is simply false.
Perhaps the fact that this notion prevails can explain, even before this conflict began and three Israeli teenagers were shot in the West Bank, why a commanding 68 percent of Gazans were found to actively oppose a two-state solution, according to a poll sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Most Gazans support continued violent “resistance” against the very existence of Israel as a state; and even those in the minority, ostensibly in favor of a peace accord, see such a deal as merely one step in a longer process toward the “restoration of historic Palestine” – Israel, a country of 8 million, disappeared.
Swallowing those numbers is difficult. Because throughout conflicts past, on every continent throughout the last century, there have been peoples that have felt desperate and oppressed; and yet not all have resorted to terrorism and violence in pursuit of independence.
Non-violent civil disobedience shook India in 1915, Egypt in 1919, Germany in 1989 and the United States in the 1960s – and yet no such political debate exists in Gaza, where the conversation defaults to a sense of victimhood, and to an assumption that only “resistance” is a feasible manifestation of their anger.
And so a blockade is formed, because Israel is told, in no uncertain terms, that when permits are granted to Gazans for concrete for the construction of infrastructure, schools and hospitals, a majority of that material goes instead to the construction of tunnels, used to smuggle in projectiles aimed at whomever they can possibly hit on the other side – “all Israelis are targets,” Hamas has said, repeatedly.
There are so many decision points that have led to this moment, where Israel is acting, at great risk and expense. Hamas does not have to rule; the tunnels do not have to be built; plumbing pipes can replace rocket components in shipments; those rockets don’t have to be fired. The children can and must be moved when they are warned that strikes are coming.
And yet at each of these decision points, the Palestinian community in Gaza assumes not an iota of responsibility. All of those actions are apparently a foregone conclusion; they must resist, toward the completely futile goal of Israel’s ultimate disappearance.
They fail to entertain the possibility that Israel’s policies might be a reaction to that absurd, yet existential notion, and to a series of actions taken over a sustained period by a leadership the people of Gaza have chosen, and continue to endorse.
This Palestinian complex of victimhood, and perspective that Israel is an aggressor, fundamentally clashes with the fact that Israelis hate these conflicts, and are, like everyone else, sickened at the thought of children dying. A majority of Israelis still actively favor a permanent two-state solution. But these military operations will continue until one of two events occurs definitively: the Gazan government of Hamas chooses to prioritize the construction of Gaza over the destruction of Israel, or the international community mandates it through the demilitarization of Hamas.
That is Israel’s stark imperative; and casualty counts will never reflect that. Perhaps resistance is a manifestation of pride among a people ambivalent in their self-identification as victims. But Gaza must understand that all of these decisions made along the way guarantee an Israeli response, every time, not because Israel is an aggressor, but because it is one of 196 states with a basic requirement to protect its citizens.
That is why all parties in the Quartet on the Middle East – the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia – called on Hamas to renounce violence, recognize the State of Israel, respect previous agreements and work with Israel’s security forces. Hamas is not a foregone conclusion; Hamas, and the hate it represents, is a choice.
In a pointed choice of composer, Mohammed said that Israel’s operation is like a Wagner crescendo to the ears of his three-month-old newborn; that, despite holding EU citizenship, he has brought his young boy to his “beloved ancestral home,” because, “what else can I do?”
Mohammed: just like your community, of course you have a choice. Choose better governance, reflecting the interests of your family instead of vicious sensibilities. Choose to push back against the false notion that an entire nation to your north wants your child dead when, in reality, your neighbors simply want your government to prioritize civil projects over projectiles. And should you choose to reject all of these fateful decision points along the way, and find yourself shocked that there are consequences: choose to keep your child out of a war zone if you have somewhere else to go.