Thoughts from a Gaza voyeur

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'zoriah_gaza_tunnel_tunnels_egypt_rocket_jihad_hamas_rafah__2008081308FD9T0187_1', Flickr image by ZoriahWhat do we do with our distress at the escalating horror in the Gaza Strip? My own ability to empathise with the situation is heavily weighted on the Israeli side, no doubt like the majority of Eureka Street readers.

I grew up as an adolescent when the revelations about the death camps began to pour out, and have been marked for life by visits to Maydanek and Dachau, and to the marvellous Jewish museums in Melbourne and Berlin. The writings of Martin Buber, the novels of Amos Oz, and the musical genius of Daniel Barenboim have become part of my life, to mention but a few of the most significant names.

I have close friends in Israel, and have never forgotten the hope that many of us harboured that the obscenity of the Shoah could, to some extent at least, be 'redeemed' by the burgeoning of the new Israeli state.

As a historian and theologian I have studied the relations between Christians and Jews, and cannot forget the catastrophic failure of the Churches in the Third Reich, with very few exceptions, to distance themselves from anti-Semitism and to take any effective stance against the atrocities on the Jewish people.

So the over-used word 'tragedy' does seem in place to describe what is unravelling in Gaza, with high-minded, utterly determined political leaders on both sides exuding self-righteousness. Given the politics both in Israel and in Gaza the prospects for any settlement which is more than an illusory truce seem utterly remote.

Here in Australasia we seem condemned to a voyeur role, and as a practising Christian it is hard to know what it would mean to pray for peace at this time, unless the peace be that of the charnel house.

The foreshortened view of most commentators in the West doesn't help. It's instructive to compare the coverage of Al Jazeera news with that of the BBC or CNN. The whole Islamic world is in uproar, and the focus there is much less on the immediate issue of the Hamas missiles, and the grossly disproportionate Israeli response, than on the longer term strangulation of any economic, cultural and social life in Gaza by the land and sea siege.

This can be, and is, temporarily modified by the grace and favour of the Israelis, but the overall effect is an awesome humanitarian crisis. Everything is missing: food, medicine, power supplies, so one has a whole civilian population scrabbling for dignity and naked survival.

What are the ethical parameters for such policies, and what are the likely long-term political outcomes? There appears to be a yawning gap between the Israeli rhetoric, that such measures are not directed against the people of Gaza, and the eloquent language of their actions. Economic activity has become virtually impossible. The general population is bearing the brunt of the suffering.

Now, on top of this, comes a ground offensive, supported of course by air and sea, into a densely occupied area, with the declared aim of changing, once for all, the whole scenario.

But what can this mean in practice, given the way in which Hamas resistance is folded into the civilian population? Tunnels can be bombed, Hamas fighters killed, key elements of governmental infrastructure reduced to rubble, missile sites destroyed, but unless the battle for the mind is won all of these achievements are reversible.

The deplorable and intolerable attitudes of Hamas to Israel have been fostered by precisely such policies in the past. An accentuation of them is hardly going to change anything, indeed will encourage the delusion of ordinary Palestinians and their supporters that the only way forward is the militant option.

The situation, therefore, may in the long run be even more tragic for Israel than for the Palestinians, as hatred mounts and erstwhile political allies are alienated, one after another. Their sole unconditional supporter now is the discredited Bush regime.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that an overweening trust in overwhelming military muscle has led Israel into this campaign, and harder still to overlook the painful parallels with the Shock and Awe curtain-raiser to the Iraq debacle.

Secondly, the right to self-defence has been elevated into an absolute principle, sweeping aside normal ethical concerns for a degree of proportionality in any response to hostile action.

Thirdly, and one walks with due caution here, it would appear that an unspoken assumption is that Palestinian lives are not so important as Israeli ones.

What points of hope, then, if any? Exhaustion usually terminates such conflicts. It may gear in here eventually. It appears that Al Fatah and Hamas are being driven closer to one another, which would strengthen the Palestinian cause. Obama may be less one-eyed than Bush. Any real turnaround, however, can only come from quite new Palestinian and Israeli attitudes and initiatives. I guess we can pray for that.


Peter MathesonPeter Matheson is a leading scholar of 16th Century Reformations, based in New Zealand.

 

 

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Existing comments

Peter's article is fair, and generally attempts to inform rather than
score points as do many partisans on both sides. But I do feel a couple
of his end comments lack balance as they imply that Israelis are uniquely
ethnocentric, and are narrowly applying a military solution to a
political problem.

I would suggest the following to Peter: have a read of the 2004 book
Still Life with Bombers by the prominent centre-left Israeli journalist David Horovitz, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, in order to understand why many progressive Israelis and Diaspora Jews who had long supported a two-state solution felt betrayed by the brutal and indiscriminate violence of the second intifada, and its trashing of the Oslo Peace Accord.

Also remember how so few Palestinians - other than a few brave intellectuals - dissented from the suicide bomber paradigm. The
Palestinian Authority continually honoured and named public monuments
after the leading suicide bombers. This context may explain what appears
to be the current insensitivity of many Israelis to Palestinian suffering.
Philip Mendes | 14 January 2009


Of course we can't possibly have agreement on everything, but only through continued dialogue can we come to an agreed point & move on. Blame has no place. This latest devastating tragedy in Gaza demonstrates little interest from Israel in seeking a peaceful resolution. And who suffers? Who is dying? Hundreds of Palestinians, men, women & children. So many ordinary people wanting a life that offers some positive possibilities in the future for themselves & their children.
Kerry Gartland | 14 January 2009


I have no claim to knowledge of the rights and wrongs of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and find news of the death toll of innocent people as abhorrent as anyone else. There is a point though. The road death toll in Australia is usually in excess of 2000 per year isn’t it? And I read somewhere that each year there is a huge road death toll in the United States - I don’t know the figure but suggest it is well over 30000 per year. Imagine including Europe, Asia and Africa. Yet such statistics are not newsworthy.
Peter Beeson | 14 January 2009


I must say this is a well written article but it still has the hint of what someone should believe. I am not one to be won by having my mind believe one or the other but to assume that I am a "supporter" of one side or another is nothing more than ludicrous. Neither side is winning my mind, it is winning my disgust.
Atheistno1 | 17 January 2009


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