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Blog: January 2009 Archives

(Washington, D.C.) Seidemann is an Israeli lawyer and Jerusalem expert

Having recently read David Grossman's wonderful book on the biblical story of Samson, I think the lead of this piece is brilliant. One may disagree with Grossman's conclusion that Israel must speak to Hamas. But his fundamental point is so simple and so correct, so profound: Israel cannot and must not address the Palestinians only by force. It must always remember that its ultimate goal is to live in peace with its neighbors. 

This piece, in tomorrow's Haaretz, is really worth reading.



David Grossman / Israel's success in Gaza only proves it is strong, not right

By David Grossman

Like the pairs of foxes in the biblical story of Samson, tied together by their tails, a flaming torch between them, so Israel and the Palestinians - despite the imbalance of power - drag each other along. Even when we try hard to wrest ourselves free, we burn those who are tethered to us - our double, our misfortune - as well as ourselves.

And so, amidst the wave of nationalist hyperbole now sweeping the nation, it would not hurt to recall that in the final analysis, this last operation in Gaza is just another stop along a trail blazing with fire, violence and hatred.

As satisfied as Israelis are that the technical weaknesses of the Second Lebanon War were corrected, we should be paying heed to another voice - the one that says the Israel Defense Forces' successes in the confrontation with Hamas do not prove that it was right to embark on such a massive campaign, and are certainly no justification for Israel's mode of operation in the course of the fighting. These military successes merely confirm that Israel is stronger than Hamas, and that under certain conditions it can be tough and cruel in its own way.

When the guns become completely silent, and the full scope of the killing and destruction becomes known, to the point where even the most self-righteous and sophisticated of the Israeli psyche's defense mechanisms are overcome, perhaps then some kind of lesson will imprint itself on our brain. Perhaps then we will finally understand how deeply and fundamentally wrong our actions in this region have been from time immemorial - how misguided, unethical, unwise and above all, responsible, time after time, for fanning the flames that consume us.

Obviously, the Palestinians cannot be let off the hook for their crimes and mistakes. That would be tantamount to belittling and condescending to them, as if they were not mature adults with minds of their own, responsible for their own decisions and failures. The inhabitants of the Gaza Strip may have been "strangulated" in many ways by Israel, but even they have other options for protesting and drawing attention to their misery than the launching of thousands of rockets against innocent citizens in Israel.

We must not forget that. We cannot pardon the Palestinians or treat them forgivingly, as if it were obvious that whenever they feel put upon, violence will always be their sole response, the one they embrace almost automatically.

Yet even when the Palestinians act with indiscriminate violence, when they use suicide bombings and Qassam rocket fire, Israel is stronger than them, and it can have a tremendous impact on the level of violence in the conflict as a whole - and hence on calming it down and even bringing it to an end. The current confrontation has not shown that anyone in the Israeli leadership really grasps the critical significance of this aspect of the conflict in any fully conscious or responsible way.

One day, after all, we will seek to heal the wounds we inflict today. How will that day ever come if we do not understand that our military might cannot be the primary instrument for carving out a path for ourselves in this region? How will that day ever come if we fail to comprehend just how graveness is the responsibility that lies on our shoulders by dint of our complex and fateful relations, both past and future, with the Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Galilee?

When the clouds of colored smoke dissipate from the politicians' claims of sweeping and decisive victory; when we discover the actual achievements of this operation, and how far they are from what we really need in order to live a normal life here; when we finally admit that a whole country eagerly hypnotized itself, because it needed so badly to believe that Gaza would cure it of Lebanon-itis - maybe then we will settle accounts with those who, time after time, incite the Israeli public, whipping them into a frenzy of arrogance and a euphoria of power. Those who have taught us over the years to scoff at belief in peace and any hope for change in our relations with the Arabs. Those who have convinced us that the Arabs understand only force, and therefore that is the only language we can use in our dealings with them.

And because we have spoken to them for so long in that language, and that language alone, we have forgotten that there are other languages for speaking to human beings, even to enemies, even bitter foes like Hamas - languages that are as much our mother tongue as the language of planes and tanks.

We must speak to the Palestinians: That is the most important conclusion from the most recent round of bloodshed. We must speak also to those who do not recognize our right to exist here. Instead of ignoring Hamas at this time, we would do better to take advantage of the new reality that has been created by beginning a dialogue with them immediately, one that would allow us to reach an accord with the whole of the Palestinian people. We must speak to them and begin to acknowledge that reality is not one hermetic story that we, and the Palestinians, too, have been telling ourselves for generations. Reality is not just the story we are locked into, a story made up, in no small measure, of fantasies, wishful thinking and nightmares.

We must speak to them, and create, within this closed-off, deaf reality, the very possibility for speech. We must create this alternative, so mocked and maligned today, which in the tempest of war has almost no place, no hope, no believers.

We must speak to them as part of a calculated strategy. We must initiate speech, insist on speech, let no one put us off. We must speak, even if dialogue seems hopeless from the start. In the long run, this stubbornness will contribute much more to our security than hundreds of planes dropping bombs on a city and its inhabitants.

We must speak out of understanding, born as we look out at the horrible devastation, as we grasp that the harm we are capable of inflicting on each other, each people in its own way, is so enormous and so destructive and so utterly senseless, that if we surrender to it and accept its logic, it will end up destroying us all.

We must speak, because what has happened in the Gaza Strip over the last few weeks sets up a mirror in which we in Israel see the reflection of our own face - a face that, if we were looking in from the outside or saw it on another people - would leave us aghast. We would see that our victory is not a genuine victory, and that the war in Gaza has not healed the spot that so badly needs a cure, but only further exposed the tragic and never-ending mistakes we have made in navigating our way.

Rally to be Sunday evening, 1/18, in front of the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem

Yossi Alpher in today's IHT: Now Stop Starving the Gazans

Today's edition of the International Herald Tribune includes an important op-ed by Yossi Alpher, entitled "Now Stop Starving the Gazans."


"For the past year and a half, Israel, with the full backing and encouragement of the quartet of Middle East mediators (the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and Russia), as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even the West Bank-based PLO, has maintained an economic blockade on the Gaza Strip.

"Generally it has allowed into Gaza only the equivalent of the UN minimum number of calories required daily for subsistence, multiplied by the 1.5 million or so population of the Gaza Strip, along with minimal medical supplies and fuel.

"This economic-warfare strategy against Gaza has failed totally; indeed, it has proven counterproductive...


"Arguably, the current military campaign might have been avoided had the economic war ended. Even if the Israeli bombing and invasion were unavoidable, open land crossings between Gaza and Israel would have allowed Gazans to stock up with emergency provisions rather than be caught by this war with empty shelves, thereby avoiding at least part of the current humanitarian crisis..."

Join the call on Wed., January 14, 2 p.m. (Eastern Time) to hear the latest update and analysis from Israel. Open link for instructions.

Israeli Human Rights NGOs Welcomed on the Hill

Last week, representatives of two leading Israeli human rights organizations - Tania Hary from Gisha, and Ran Yaron from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel - made a last-minute, whirlwind trip to Washington.  Their goal was to try to convey to Congress and the Administration the gravity of the humanitarian situation on the ground, right now, in Gaza.  They were accompanied by Libby Friedlander, an indefatigable mover-and-shaker on the Israeli pro-peace NGO scene.

APN, which is not a human rights organization, does not usually handle this kind of visit.  But I was asked to help and given the enormity of the unfolding tragedy, the clear implications that it has on the hopes for ever achieving Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace, and the evident hunger for information here in Washington from within Congress and the Administration, I agreed to try.

With very little time to organize (they told me Tuesday afternoon that they would be arriving Thursday morning), I told them to keep their expectations low.  While I hoped that members of Congress and staff would be receptive to the visit, I feared that, with all the political jockeying going on over this issue, they might balk.  My fears did not materialize.  To the contrary.

On Thursday, I organized a public briefing for them in the Rayburn House Office Building.  Ever the optimist, I scheduled it in one of the larger rooms, but fearing a small turnout, we only set up about 60 chairs.  The event was jointly presented - and advertised - by a coalition of groups:  APN, J Street, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, Churches for Middle East Peace, the Arab American Institute, and B'tselem.  The result exceeded all expectations:  more than 100 people came - standing-room only with people sitting on the floor.  And at least 50% of the attendees were congressional staff, split almost evenly between the House and Senate.  Even one member of Congress came.

The event was amazing - as much for the tone as anything else.  The speakers - both young, eloquent, knowledgeable and extremely sympathetic - never engaged in polemics or Israel bashing.  Rather, they offered a quiet and effective description of the humanitarian problems in Gaza, including the impacts of the boycott/blockade/siege that preceded the current conflict, the immediate crisis on the ground in the context of the current fighting, and the some of the new challenges that will emerge once the fighting ends.  In what was one of the most powerful sound-bites of the event, Tania noted that she agreed with (link has expired) Secretary Rice that under any new ceasefire there must be no return to status quo ante - but where Secretary Rice meant this only in terms of rocket fire from Gaza, Tania made clear that it must mean both in terms of rocket fire into Israel and in terms of Israeli policies that, in an effort to hurt Hamas, hurt innocent civilians.  For any ceasefire to be sustainable there can be no return to "status quo ante" by either measure.

The event lasted an hour and half and most people stayed for the entire thing.  Many staffers stayed on after the event ended to talk to the speakers, and one senior staffer for a solidly pro-Israel member of Congress stopped to thank me for this "excellent" event.  (Hopefully we will have an audio file of the event - keep checking back for that).

In addition to the public event, the visitors met with State Department officials and at least one member of the press.  They were also were welcomed in private meetings with a total of 7 members of the House and Senate, as well as staff from 5 other offices (and a hat tip to Joel at J Street and Julie at Churches for Middle East Peace for their part in helping with the schedule).  This included a meeting with a group of House members (this meeting, and several others, included B'tselem's new Washington Representative, Mitchell Plitnick, who had just returned from an extended visit to Israel).  The almost immediate upshot of that meeting was a letter sent Friday (1/9/09) to President Bush, Secretary of State Rice, President-elect Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton and Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor.  The letter, led by Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and signed by 24 members of Congress, lays out detailed concerns about the humanitarian situation.  Coming on the same day that the House passed its resolution calling for a ceasefire and expressing concerns about the humanitarian situation (among other things), the letter offered an important, complementary message.  The letter, and the visit, have already resulted in an article in the Jewish press.   And there may still be a similar letter in the Senate -- stay tuned.

Overall, in the course of these meetings it became clear that across the board, most members and staff - including from offices that are not considered part of the traditional "peace caucus" in Congress - clearly "get it."  Most recognize that the current humanitarian situation is a disaster for civilians on both sides.  Most recognize that, however and whenever this military engagement ends, the needs of the people in Gaza simply cannot be wished away or ignored.  Most recognize that a situation in which the entire civilian population of Gaza is suffering cannot be conducive to peace and security for Israel.  Most recognize that blaming Hamas for the situation cannot be an excuse for policies that perpetuate and deepen the suffering of innocent civilians.  And most recognize that failing to address the immediate needs of civilians in the battle zone, now - like failing to set up and maintain humanitarian corridors to evacuate wounded and bring in fuel and other vital supplies, and failing to enable international agencies access and protection - is unconscionable and, in the end, counterproductive for Israel.

Finally, for up-to-the-minute (or as close as possible) updates on the situation in Gaza from Israeli NGOs, Israeli NGOs have cooperated to set up a one-stop website.

Call upon the government to end the action in Gaza; a ceasefire that is in Israel's own interest

Reprint of my column in The Forward Newspaper

By Leonard Fein

In August of 1973 I arrived in Israel as a guest of the Foreign Ministry. For reasons I no longer recall, the Ministry had decided that my conversion to its view of Israel's policies regarding the Palestinians was a worthy investment. This was six years after Israel's stunning victory in the Six Day War, hence of its conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza District; it was six weeks before the Yom Kippur War, which Israel won only after suffering significant losses (2656 dead, 7250 wounded).

1/13: Where to from Here? Prospects under the Obama Administration and in the wake of the Gaza war