The death toll in Israel’s military offensive against Gaza has now surpassed 1,939 Palestinians and 67 Israelis and a second 72-hour ceasefire is underway. According to the UN, over 75 percent of those killed in Gaza are innocent civilians. The continued cycle of violence begs the question: why would Israel sacrifice its image by targeting densely populated civilian areas and why would Hamas continue to fire rockets knowing that more children will be killed? A similar motive lies behind the competing narratives advanced by both Hamas and hardliners in Israel. Hardliners perpetuate conflict and want to silence the moderate voices that exist on both sides. They thrive on sensationalism and the knee jerk reactions of the masses. They also know that continued hostilities will strengthen their base. They are to each other the perfect enemy, each needing the other to dance to the song of hate.
Before the latest conflict broke out on July 7th, there was a fragile reconciliation underway between different factions of Palestinians under the leadership of Abbas. In a recent Washington Post article, Palestinian political scientist Ibrahim Ibrach noted that both Hamas and Israel did not want the national unity government to succeed. Instead, they both presumably want to weaken the Palestinian Authority, making them appear as futile bystanders. A top foreign policy advisor for Abbas’ Fatah Party, Husam Zomlot, even blamed Israel for instigating the conflict as “revenge” against Abbas for restoring relations with Hamas: “Israel wants to pull all of us into the military arena because that is where they have the advantage.”
Ironically, instead of debilitating Hamas, Israel’s military campaign broadens the group’s support and sympathy. “The Israeli bombing raids on Gaza and casualties inflicted on its civilian population have cast Hamas once again as the main pillar of resistance against the evil Zionists,” writes Chemi Shalev in Haaretz. According to Shalev, though their importance was waning, Hamas is now in a position of prominence in the US and Egypt efforts to broker a ceasefire. Mahmoud Abbas, whose calls for peace and wisdom have been sidelined by the conflict, has criticised Hamas for “trading in Palestinian blood”.
Under the unity government, Abbas would be given authority over both Gaza and the West Bank although currently no ministers from Hamas were included. This came at a time when a weakened Hamas had also come under pressure from neighbouring Arab countries. This could have been the perfect opportunity for Hamas to be neutralised. Khaled Meshaal, political leader of Hamas, grudgingly admitted that the reconciliation with Abbas was testimony to the fact that they too would also have to accept the two state solution and abide by international law. It was upsetting to Israel that the international community, including the US, had welcomed the move and expressed a willingness to work with the new Palestinian unity government. If Hamas is neutralised, it also means Israel no longer has an enemy to blame to keep the two state solution from becoming a reality. The current conflict has once again allowed the hardliners an opportunity to maintain the status quo and keep peace from becoming a reality. And thus a vicious cycle continues.
If we do not want to strengthen the hardliners on both sides we must resist hatred and allow saner voices to prevail. When we delve deeper to understand what our opponents fear most, we open doors for a more meaningful exchange. Palestinians want dignity, Israelis want security and both want to feel they have the right to exist. There is much talk about what is just and what the rights of each are but calls for true justice are futile because too many have lost too much that they can never get back. It is time to focus not on what one has the right or ability to do, but what is actually in the best interests of both parties in this conflict. Is it in Israel’s best interest to defend itself by punishing civilians and creating more hatred amongst Palestinians? And is it wise for Hamas to continue firing rockets as a means of resistance?
A closer look at the views of the hardliners on both sides show that those driven by hate are ironically more alike than different. They often cannot sympathise with the other, seeing those on the other side as devoid of the same humanity and rights. Hamas does not recognise Israel but the charter of Netanyahu’s Likud Party also rejects a sovereign Palestinian state. A recent editorial in Haaretz suggested that Israel must “undergo a cultural revolution based on humanist values” to fundamentally change the way Israelis view Palestinians. The Muslim world could use a similar cultural revolution, as there have been many hateful messages on social media sites, including those that went as far as praising Hitler. For example, on Tuesday July 15, the hash tag #IfHitlerWasAlive was trending on Twitter in countries like Pakistan. Many made the abhorrent claim that Hitler “did not do anything wrong”, oblivious to the fact that they too would have been his victims.
This current conflict started when three Jewish children, Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraebkel and Gilad Shaar, were kidnapped and murdered, and a Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, viciously burned to death. Soon after, the victim’s Palestinian-US cousin, 15-year-old Tariq Khdeir was seen being brutally beaten by Israeli police in a video. When news came of the tragic death of Mohammed, an uncle of one the slain Jewish boys, Yishai Fraenkel, and Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat reached out to offer heartfelt condolences to his family. Palestinians also offered condolences to the bereaved Jewish families and Abu Khdeir’s father called for “both sides to stop the bloodshed”. It is not the families of slain children who are calling for violence; in fact they are calling for peace.
Had more people showed restraint and reached out to console one another, perhaps the two sides would not have exploded in violence. I am reminded of a Hadith in which the Prophet (PBUH) saw the body of a Jewish man at a funeral procession and immediately stood up out of respect. His companions asked him why he did such a thing. He replied by asking them, “Is it not a human soul?”
As the graphic images from the humanitarian crisis in Gaza continue to tug at our hearts, Syria saw its deadliest week with 700 people killed in just two days of fighting. In Paktika, Afghanistan, within minutes, 89 innocent people, mostly women and children, were killed in a car bombing in a market place. The harsh reality is that they are among the tens of thousands of innocent civilians who are routinely targeted without warning for simple things like going to the market, going to school, voting or being from the “wrong sect”. Although that in no way excuses any civilian death, it must be understood in the context that what is happening in Gaza is a fraction of all that. We cannot let our love for humanity be conditional on our hatred for a country, any group of people, nor isolated to only one political cause. We should be equally pained to see Shias and Christians ruthlessly murdered by ISIS in Iraq and Boko Haram ravaging Nigeria. While such crimes are happening in larger numbers, surprisingly, a similar rage is missing from some Muslim quarters.
Meanwhile, as moderates like Abbas continue to get disenfranchised, it can have disastrous effects on the upcoming Palestinian elections, the results of which may threaten the chance of a two state solution and all hopes for peace. Perhaps that was the plan in the first place.
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