In 2009 I met Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and I asked him how he would, if he were in such a position of political power, resolve the recurring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
He very calmly laid out a plan that he had in fact already sent along to the King of Jordan, a plan for the mass peaceful mobilization of the Palestinian population. His plan mobilized two million protestors and relied on only a small number of critical prerequisites. That Israel would not live-fire on a large crowd of peaceful Palestinian demonstrators, in front of TV cameras, was the most important prerequisite for this plan to work.
Palestinians feared then that this prerequisite had not been met, and after the most recent episode of violence on Monday that fear remains built into their thinking. Although Jihadist fighters were among the 58 killed on Monday, Palestinians also buried a dozen of their children and an 8-month old baby.
The plan Arun detailed could still work. And I continue to hold out hope for it. It requires wisdom, foresight, empathy, and restraint on all sides. That's what makes it so difficult in a conflict zone where all such things are in short supply.
For the plan to work we must confront three concurrent problems, one of them Israeli, one of them Palestinian, and one of them American.
In short, the solutions are these: For Palestinians, embrace nonviolent activism, denounce the culture of militant martyrdom, and reform Hamas. For Israelis, denounce Zionist extremism, return stolen lands, acknowledge the Palestinian Right of Return, and return settlements to Palestinian ownership. For Americans, enact sanctions against Israel to pressure the state into taking the above course of action while safeguarding nascent nonviolent movements inside of Palestine. All sides should employ the language of international law and human rights, rather than allowing religious extremism to dictate their actions. If each side speaks in the rational language of laws and morals, they will find sufficient common ground to transcend their religious differences.
I make these suggestions freely as a neutral outside observer, and I acknowledge that none of these proposals are popular among hardliners in any state. I have no stake in this conflict, and that leaves me free to speak my mind without preferences for any one particular group or the other. These are the provisions which have the support of the common people in Palestine, in Israel, and in America. More important still, these are the measures necessary for peace. World leaders may dismiss them only if they are willing to accept blame for the ongoing deaths of innocent people.
This article is targeted respectively to concerned citizens and officials in Palestine, Israel, and America.
The Palestinian Problem
First, for as long as the above reality remains the case, we have to fear that any mass mobilization of Palestinians fighting for their most basic human rights would be met with Israeli gunfire. The more people you mobilize, one can assume, the more people would die. This puts pressure on Palestinians to avoid protesting and in fact avoid politics altogether, because participating in politics as a civilian in Palestine can get you killed.
From the viewpoint of a Palestinian nonviolent activist, that situation is already daunting enough. It is hard to mobilize activists when they face the imminent risk of their own death. But in Palestine it’s harder still, because any planned nonviolent action could be (and will be) infiltrated and corrupted by any one of a number of different armed, violent groups. Some of those groups are domestic, some are international, and some are backed by particular foreign powers with precise foreign policy objectives, like Iran. Any one of them all could ruin your nicely planned nonviolent movement. Journalists will be too lazy to trace the origin of those fighters, and will usually make the mistake of assuming that they are a part of your nonviolent organization even when those fighters are not even Palestinian at all.
And then there is Hamas, which itself could (and will) jeopardize your movement.
While continuing to organize, Palestinian nonviolent activists must denounce militant ideologies loud and clear. To denounce Hamas in Hamas-controlled Gaza is not an easy or simple thing to do, but no nonviolent movement in Palestine can succeed if any militant ideology is stuck to its side. Such a movement must break free of all ideologies, separate itself forcefully from them, and proceed on its own merits to achieve progress for Palestine.
But the real trouble is this: For as long as those movements are infiltrated by militants, the foreign media will identify those militants and assume the whole operation is a military one, not a civilian one. They will give Israel a free pass to fire on crowds, and your nicely-organized protestors will all be shot down by a rogue land-gobbling ethno-state whose soldiers don’t frankly care whether you’re armed or not. And for as long as there are even a handful of militant, martyrdom-dreaming men, they will seek to infiltrate any organized nonviolent movement and turn it violent. Palestinian organizers must confront disagreement and disunity within their own Palestinian people, and they must also confront self-serving foreign agents backed by regional powers. They should call out and denounce those agents, even if it risks alienating nearby powers, because no nonviolent revolution can succeed in Palestine if violence hijacks all of its vehicles.
Meanwhile, Palestinians must seize the reigns of their own political destiny. They should seek wherever and whenever to avoid the involvement of any paramilitary parties in their nonviolent protests, and, when those parties do infiltrate the protests (and they will), organizers should respond by denouncing militant involvement and publicly reaffirming the nonviolent philosophy of their movement. To sustain the political difference between them, organizers should actively denounce the militant groups which infiltrate their movements, and might even consider cancelling a nonviolent march completely if too many people show up armed. An armed militia could forcibly take command of a planned nonviolent event, and preventing that is the first priority of any nonviolent organizer hoping to achieve sustainable political progress. As we have seen in the past two months, even a dozen armed men can cloud the picture for international journalists, who become less certain about who is to blame and who is at fault with every single additional armed protestor.
Hamas, if it intends to remain as a permanent political force in Palestine and the wider Middle East, must take the radical step of normalizing its speech and behavior. Incendiary politics (surprise!) leads to violence. Calm, civil, collected voices shape the future. Palestine has no future if Hamas remains committed to an extremist agenda. Hamas should refrain from relying on religion to validate its actions and opinions. It should seek to validate those actions and opinions through established international law. Hamas will find that the law actually defends the rights of the Palestinian people. Doing this will remove the overtones of violence associated with Hamas, will strip away the religious extremism which separates it from Western empathy, and will reaffirm, in language stronger than ever before, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people that are being suppressed and erased by its rogue Zionist neighbor, now in a language that the Western world can understand and respond to. And rather than building up the image of a violent martyr, Hamas leaders should consider the appeal of a nonviolent martyr, which, after all, was the actual fate of so many martyrs—that they died in peaceful rebellion, defiant of war.
The Israeli Problem
The second problem is an Israeli one: The fact that IDF soldiers so willingly commit these crimes suggest that they are doing so within the confines of their own moral worldview. Objectively wrong as it seems to outside observers, to these Israeli soldiers who actually are doing the killing, their actions are justified. This is actually the greater problem of the two. It requires a thoughtful self-reflection on the part of Israel’s own people.
As we saw in the previous conflict here, some of these soldiers believe openly in the genocide of all Palestinian—or even all Arab—people. Images from 2014, 2012, and before still stay with us, pictures of signs saying “Kill them All” and crowds of Israeli citizens cheering from the hilltops while they watch rockets destroy Palestinian civilian neighborhoods with a smile on their face, just miles away from their own homes and their own children. To anyone who sees and hears those terrible things, there can be hardly any argument made in defense of Israel’s behavior. And they can spare no optimism regarding Israel’s and Palestine’s future.
Other soldiers are more concerned with Israel’s own territorial expansion, and the fact that innocent civilians die, to them, is an insignificant afterthought. Simply an acceptable byproduct of what must occur. Their destiny is the occupation of all of the Biblical Promised Land, and anyone else who happens to already be living there must be forcibly evicted or killed.
This kind of thinking is objectively evil and wrong to any third party observer, and for those of us in the West, who rarely see the world through a religious worldview, it’s almost impossible to fathom at all. But the Israelis who participate in these actions—and the Israeli citizens who support this behavior from their soldiers—frankly do not care at all what other people think. They believe that they are God’s people, and that their destiny requires either the oppression or the murder of the Palestinian people as they work to reclaim the land that God promised them thousands of years ago. That is how these people see the world, and before we solve any of these issues we must first take a step back to realize just how sincerely these people believe in that worldview.
The extremity of their beliefs, and the fact that they are fundamentally opposed to all the rules of international law and all the norms of international ethics, makes it difficult for foreign diplomacy to play any real role in this conflict. That diplomacy for decades has failed is a testament to that fact. If an outside nation is to change Israel’s behavior, they will need to employ more forcible weapons, including sanctions, the freezing of assets, travel bans, trade embargoes, and the severing of diplomatic ties altogether. The United States must pursue this course of action, and should lead by example for other countries to follow suit.
Even so, all the Americans can do is provide incentive for a solution to occur. The Israelis must confront their half of the issue alone, and the Palestinians their half as well. If the Americans do assist in the development and the security of Palestinian nonviolent activism, and if they crack down hard on Israeli religious extremists, then they can lay the groundwork for the Palestinian people and the Israeli people to confront their respective issues at the same time—which is the ideal way forward.
Israel must acknowledge that a dramatic portion of their population, both military and civilian, dreams of and pursues the ethnic annihilation of the Arab Palestinian people. They must do more than acknowledge their guilt in crimes against humanity—they must take the larger step of never committing those crimes again. While acknowledging the illegality of their land grabs, they must also pass legislation to return those lands into their rightful Palestinian owners. While acknowledging the illegality of settlements and state-sponsored settlers, they must also return “settled” lands to their original Palestinian status, and recall “settlers” back into the legal borders of Israel. And wherever Israel finds a man or a woman calling for genocide, the state has a moral duty to shame that man or that woman, or even to jail the man or woman if his or her words and actions could actually lead to someone’s death. Those who tolerate genocide share the guilt of those who commit it.
When war is the status quo, peace is a revolution. Revolution requires such drastic actions as these listed above on the part of Israelis and Palestinians both.
The American Problem
War requires mediation. America is an opportune mediator because of the weight and relevancy that it carries, but to succeed in mediation America must first overcome its own issue.
That issue is the refusal of the United States to acknowledge the situation that it is already involved with. A point-blank disacknowledgement of even the most basic facts.
A minority population within the United States actually shares the militant belief voiced by Israeli extremists, that the whole Levant and biblical Israel belong by “birthright” to the modern Jewish people of this millennium. These individuals believe that all other religions or ethnicities should be cleansed from the region through military invasion, and that all civilians currently living there should be murdered, displaced, or force-converted into Judaism. These individuals believe that biblical Judea should be resurrected as modern Israel, and that modern Israel should be a Jews-only ethnostate.
Such people uniformly fail to recognize that their own worldview is even more radical and blasphemous than that of their enemies, usually because they rarely encounter the opposite end of this worldview (that is, the people who hold these beliefs are almost always spared the experiences of actually knowing and caring about refugees and survivors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and therefore they are never forced to confront their own opinion, or to even recognize that it is a violent opinion in the first place). Within the United States, these people make up a sizeable minority constituent of voters.
Ironically, it is often the “Christian” right and other Church-affiliated groups which espouse this most un-Christian ideology. As Arun’s grandfather once told an interviewer, “I love your Christ, but your Christians are so un-Christlike!” These voters attach themselves to Republican platforms and Republicans, consequently, feel obliged to see the world through such an extremist lens.
It places American policymakers in a peculiar position. They might have access to the facts. They might know that what Israel is doing is wrong, evil, even sinful. But their electorate thinks the exact opposite. A portion of their electorate even believes in a violent Jewish crusade to reclaim the Holy Land.
The solution is for American policymakers to do what they know is the right thing to do. Senators and Representatives, diplomats and staffers and aides, none of them can expect the American people to act with the wisdom and the certainty that we would like them to. They do not have any of the history lessons or the video footage or the in-person interviews that are available to Congresspeople. Congresspeople themselves must lead the American people by example, because they are the only ones who can. Setting aside what their constituents may or may not know, or may or may not think, these elected officials must pursue justice, transparency, accountability, and peace, regardless of American political opinions or religious leanings.
Duty is handed gravely to those who have access to the most information and who possess the most worldly understanding of these sensitive affairs. Those people, our Congress and our Department of State, must do what is right even if it flies in the face of what ordinary Americans expect them to do. Not only on behalf of their own country, but also on behalf of the wider world beyond our borders, for the continued security of America, of the Middle East, and of civilization as a whole.
Sanctions should be exhaustive and should not only be linked to ongoing violence. They should be tied to prohibitions against illegal settlements, set metrics on the return of stolen lands, and a clear requirement to return back into the folds of international law from which Israel has hidden now for so many years.
Modern Israel is a rogue extremist state that pursues a path of its own self-interest in open defiance of our entire world’s most fundamental morals, laws, and basic human rights protections. For almost half a century Israel has refused to abide by international law, and it has done so largely without consequence. No further excuses can be made. It is not just that Israel disavows Western values, it actually breaks the laws and accords agreed upon by the entire world. If the United States stands for any of the values which it pretends to, then it has an obligation, in the name of those values, to face down Israel without blinking.
We Americans could wait for Palestinians or Israelis to begin making progress in any of the above points, but there is only time lost in waiting. It is unlikely that either side will be the first to take these risks. We must be the ones to bring about this change. In war, where two sides do not trust each other, it is the third party which can begin the work of peace. America requires bold men and women unafraid of risk and unafraid of change to initiate these revolutions both inside and outside of government. It requires leaders and citizens dedicated objectively and without bias to all our established conventions of international law, human rights, and peace.
This is only the most recent of conflicts in a list that already defies finite limits. It will not be the last unless the United States of America stands up and speaks out.