I asked my friend Shalom Sam to write a piece exploring the situation in Gaza, and as usual he has come through with an excellent summation of the historical and cultural context that has led us to this point. Sam holds a PhD in Biblical Studies and has traveled and worked extensively in Israel and the Palestinian territories. — Kathy
For the last several days, the evening news has covered the events in the Gaza Strip in the first few minutes of the broadcast. Horrific scenes of mangled bodies, crying children, and wailing women who have lost husbands, sons, and daughters have assaulted our senses. Videos of rocket trails racing skyward are followed by images of missiles exploding in cities. Pundits from all sides have weighed in with their opinions. What in the world is going on?
First, let us review some background information. The Gaza Strip is a small (139 square miles) ribbon of land beside the Mediterranean Sea that is densely populated by approximately one and a half million people. Originally acquired by Egypt in the 1948 War of Independence, it was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Held as an occupied territory for thirty eight years, Gaza was evacuated by Israel in 2005 and left under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Finally, the Palestinian Authority was overthrown by the Hamas militia in 2007. Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip ever since.
Hamas is a creation of two separate events. The first was the first Intifada, or uprising, that took place in the occupied Palestinian territories from 1987 to 1993. The second was the 1991 Gulf War. Up to that time, most Arab nations helped fund the massive humanitarian efforts of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Although the occupied territories were claimed by Israel, Israel provided no social services such as schools or hospitals. This void was filled by the PLO, funded by the other Arab nations.
During the Gulf War, every Arab nation backed Kuwait – and the United States coalition – against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. However, Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the PLO, endorsed Iraq. This caused the Arab nations to withhold their support of the PLO, but they wanted to continue the humanitarian work in the occupied territories. The fledgling Hamas organization, having declared its opposition to the PLO, was the choice to step in and run the humanitarian work previously done by Arafat’s organization. Hamas was extremely efficient in carrying out this work, which gave it immediate credibility with the local population. Many people are surprised to learn that over 90% of Hamas’ funds and manpower are dedicated to humanitarian work.
Hamas, an acronym of Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamat al-Islāmiyyah, or Islamic Resistance Party, is a fundamentalist Islamist organization. Its members believe that the Levant, historical Palestine, is a holy land and should therefore be controlled by Muslims. That the majority of this land is controlled by a nation dedicated to another religion is an anathema to the members of Hamas. It should be noted that Hamas is a Sunni Islamic organization, so any speculation that it would cooperate with the Shiite Hezbollah organization in Lebanon is uneducated and baseless.
The current crisis began in November of 2008 after Ismail Haniyah, political leader of Hamas in Gaza, said that Hamas was willing to accept a Palestinian state within the 1949 armistice lines, and offered Israel “a long-term truce if Israel recognized the Palestinians’ national rights.” As there was no response from Israel, Hamas allowed a six month truce with Israel to expire and began firing crude rockets from Gaza into southern Israeli towns.
After Hamas ignored repeated warnings from both Israel and Egypt to stop the rocket launches, Israel began air strikes against suspected missile sites on December 27. This was followed up by a ground invasion on January 3. Israel claims that it does not intend to reoccupy the Gaza Strip but only to make sure that the rockets to be fired from Gaza are destroyed. To date, four Israeli citizens have died as a result of the Hamas rockets. (It is curious to note that the first of the four to be killed was a Palestinian construction worker.) Six Israeli soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the ground invasion; four by “friendly fire”. Since the beginning of the air strikes, 688 Palestinians have been killed. It is estimated that of this number, 350 are civilians; approximately a third of whom were children.
Hamas has been portrayed as using civilians as “human shields”, resulting in the horrifically high death toll among non-combatants. There are two aspects of this phenomenon. The first is that the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. It is almost impossible to strike any target without causing “collateral damage”. The second is that with no social services provided by Israel, which has controlled both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since 1967, almost all schools, libraries, orphanages, soup kitchens, and hospitals are run by Hamas. If one targets a “Hamas facility”, a school or hospital is as likely to be struck as a military target.
How this situation will end is unknown. At this point, France and Egypt are trying to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas who have agreed to “technical talks” on how such a cease-fire would work. The United States is supporting the efforts of these two countries. Hopefully, these efforts will bear fruit soon.
What is the long term solution? Far greater minds than mine have despaired over finding an answer. Yet I believe that one part of the solution lies with a better understanding of the Eastern – especially Middle Eastern – mind.
Unlike our Western ethos, Middle Eastern culture is honor-based. There is nothing more important to a person of this culture than upholding his honor. It is more important to him than his own life. (One of the chief demands of upholding one’s honor is the safety and hospitality shown to guests. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Lot is willing for a mob to gang-rape his daughters if it will keep his guests safe.) Our Western culture is more competitive. We want winners and losers. During the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant did not become a war hero for capturing a small fort; it was his demand for “complete and unconditional surrender” that won him fame.
What does this have to do with Middle Eastern negotiations? Hamas, or any other group, will not be backed into a corner where they have to say, “We were wrong.” They will not say, “We once declared this but we have changed our minds and now we say the opposite.” The negotiations must be phrased in a way that allows each side to claim a “victory”, even if that victory is purely symbolic. There are myriad obstacles to overcome in working out peace in the Middle East; details that must be worked out to provide for the welfare and security of Israelis and Palestinians alike. In every point, the honor of both sides must be preserved. Otherwise there will be no agreement, even if those agreements would be in everyone’s best interests.
Will it be easy to create a Middle East peace? No, it will be a painstaking and difficult work that will stretch the wisdom and skill of everyone involved. Do I have all of the answers? No, no one does. I am convinced, however, that killing innocents – especially children – is not the solution.