Gaza and Israel: Time for self-reckoning

November 27, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] With a sigh of relief, another ceasefire is in place between Israel and Gaza. The optimistic gloss is that this will hold better than in previous times, especially with the prospect of opening up the blockade on Gaza, and with promises given from both Hamas and Israel that appear to have prevented an irreparable breach of trust on both sides. Past experiences, however, show that we need to be cautious about being over optimistic.

The eight days of fighting felt like a long time for many living here as we saw the images of destruction, of slaughtered children in Gaza, and damaged infrastructure both in Gaza and in Israel. The images make us feel less optimistic about a sustainable, more comprehensible settlement.

In such circumstances, non-governmental organizations in the Holy Land play an important role in providing humanitarian aid and some immediate necessary repairs. But, we need to be reminded of the important work that the churches play in these parts too. The Anglican Church’s Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza remains steadfast despite its fragile budgets and the level of casualties that depend on its free services. (In fact a hopeful recent report shows that the hospital has been offered some tangible advice outlining options for keeping this ministry going despite recent lack of funds from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and everyone is invited to keep that support growing.) The truth is that NGOs would do a better job responding to a community’s needs, and could avoid the abstract and secular assumptions they often make, if they worked more closely with the churches, because churches are better connected at the local level. This of course puts a responsibility also on the churches to reach out to the relevant NGOs who could help them bring a difference to local communities.

But, all of this remains short-termist. An ecumenical prayer service called upon by the good offices of Sabeel in Jerusalem reminded people of the need for justice. Now, the nagging questions remains: what do we mean by justice here? If we are concerned for a long-term settlement, justice cannot mean a comprehensive victory of one side over the other, for both sides have their share of delusions. We see those underlying delusions at work when Israel is surprised that Hamas does have the resolve to engage with escalation despite Israel’s superior power. Yet, Israel continues to believe that its military might and sophistication could determine the result of the conflict.

Israel’s economic embargo on Gaza has not worked effectively and did not achieve its diplomatic goals. It is also such a shame that every Palestinian whether in Gaza or in Jerusalem becomes a de facto member of militant Hamas in the eyes of security forces. Young Palestinian men are often seen harassed on the streets of Jerusalem when they are not carrying anything to suggest a threat.

On the other hand, Hamas’ unfortunate delusion has been that further atrocities perpetrated by Israel could push the world to stand on its side; it does not seem to mind that the infrastructure in Gaza is ravaged. Somehow in God’s future time, all will be restored, but this time under the banner of victorious Islam, as if Palestinian lives are cheap enough to be slaughtered as part of a strategy. It is important to register too that Christians in Palestine, like Christians in the rest of the Middle East, do have concerns about the triumph of certain elements in the Islamic world, a fact that shows how much the state of affairs in the Holy Land is also connected with the stability of the rest of the region. Of course, Israeli short-termist politics exploit that sensitive nerve, but it remains a concern indeed for the Christian communities.

The point remains, however, that both sides need to come to terms with their delusions and accept that neither is going to win over the other in this kind of context.

Israel has constantly argued that it has to defend itself against enemies who would not grant its right to exist, most notably Hamas; but we have been reminded by various Israeli commentators that the problem lies less with aggressive neighbors than with a failure to tackle the underlying issues about Gaza’s stability, economically and politically, which encourages a complex tit-for-tat policy on both sides producing indiscriminate rockets and desperate anxiety in Israel over security. Therefore, it remains important to clarify from the ceasefire (which remains unclear) as to who will take responsibility for mutual failed concerns that may arise in the future and that could threaten the achieved stability.

Gaza needs to maintain the integrity of its civil society, and Israel wants assurances against further attacks.

This of course puts lots of responsibilities on both sides. Israel has to ask what sort of neighbors it wishes to have – stable or unstable? If Israel wants secure borders, it needs to encourage and work actively for the stability and flourishing of its neighbors. Similarly, if Hamas is truly interested in enhancing a good Islamic ethos in Palestine, it could benefit immensely from the teachings of the most celebrated medieval Muslim theologian al-Ghazali who focuses on self-reckoning for the true reform of the self. Hamas could do with – like we are all called to – a collective self-reckoning, muhasabah, as al-Ghazali called it, instead of finding solace with war.

Israeli fear and Hamas’ unstable tactics have simply eroded the rule of law. Only the presence of accepted law by all would provide the guarantee for well-intentioned negotiations and the ability even to exercise one’s religion properly. Al-Ghazali, like Augustine before him, argued that good order in the world is the only guarantee for the good order of religion. Similarly, the law is a gift in the Hebrew Bible that regulates the affairs of the people of God so that they can achieve what God truly calls them to be as free human beings. A common religious witness from the leaders of all the Abrahamic traditions on the need for law let alone other humanitarian concerns remains weak but could have a strong positive impact. Meanwhile, I shall be thinking and praying for the many other wasted lives in a conflict that is overdue to have the resolve once and for all of a firm policy declaration from the U.N. and more importantly perhaps the State Department in Washington.

 — The Rev. Yazid Said is a Palestinian Anglican priest and scholar in residence at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.

Related Topics: