The War in Gaza: Reflections on An Interview in the Midst of War at the Half Year Anniversary

In a December 31, 2008 conference call with Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, an American grassroots Jewish organization dedicated to promoting a negotiated two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Marc shared his “on-the-ground perspective of the…violence in Gaza and southern Israel and the need for U.S. Leadership.”

Listen to the call here or read a transcript of the interview here.

Marc reflects  now:

I stand by much of what I concluded in that interview. I remember vividly the circumstances of that interview. I was on the floor of a very cold apartment at night, unsure if i would be heard because my only connection was skype (as usual no budget for my work), and my computer only worked with skype on the floor.

I was impressed with the questions I received, and it was rather a relief to reflect on the issues instead of living it. In the first days we had no idea what the repercussions would be in Jerusalem, or whether the Gaza War would cause an all out war with the Palestinians. There were small riots in some nearby villages, and I was amazed at how much Israeli society is designed to make the ongoing tragedy rather nonchalant. I remember taking a cab and roads being blocked on the south side of Jerusalem where I was staying. I asked the soldier why it was blocked. He looked away, not wanting to bother answering, and then just said, “Just a little bit of trouble”. Yes, a little bit of trouble. My Palestinian friends were crying their eyes out, the bitterness and worry for family was all around us, and yes, some teenagers in various small villages were burning tires.

Until I sat with friends in tears over relatives in Gaza I never related to male teenagers burning tires in protest, a television scene that I have literally grown up with for forty years. But on that trip in those circumstances I somehow could just see inside the homes. People are screaming in anguish, mothers crying for cousins and relatives, and so the teenager goes out and burns a tire, not knowing what else to do with the rage.

And in the Jewish homes, it was all fireworks all the time, just a dazzling display on the television screen of modern Jewish fireworks, modern rockets, pouring into Gaza, in revenge for years of the humiliating Sderot and Ashkelon rockets.

Cycles of revenge, two eyes for an eye. I was sick to my stomach from this new Jew and new Judaism. When I grew up  in my traditional Orthodox environment I understood guns and weapons and police and militaries to be tragic necessities at best, mostly horrible realities for which one fast day after another were instituted. I was shaking walking around Jerusalem, always passing in between Jewish and Arab worlds, frankly afraid of all of them. But mostly realizing just how many people, how many Palestinians were truly innocent civilians, and how destructive and inconclusive this war would be.

But there is something I did not know then that I know now. Now I know that there were scores of influential Jews and non-Jews  at the highest levels of American politics, who knew full well that this Gaza war was a last hurrah of neoconservative faith in beatings and humiliation as diplomacy. And they were angry, much angrier than they ever told me. They were about to take over the reins of government in every branch, with a massive mandate for change. This war, they saw, as an attempt to etch in stone the impossibility of a settlement between Israel and Palestine, thus destroying the momentum of a new Middle East policy. And that is why I think that the Obama Administration, all of its Jews and its supportive senators and congressmen, embarked on such a resolute stance to Israeli policies.

Gaza broke the back of Israeli/American cooperation. I do not for one believe that it is only Bibi and Avigdor’s right wing universe. The camel’s back of American solidarity has been broken on Israeli military solutions, period. And what may frighten Jews is that there is such a massive split between American Jewish attitudes and Israeli Jewish attitudes to this very change. I think that in hindsight, the major era of Middle Eastern suicide bombing, from the 90’s in Jerusalem through 2003, including the bombings in the U.S. and Europe, solidly put much of the world behind Israel’s radical solutions, overwhelming punishment and imprisonment in Gaza and the West Bank, the Wall, the starving of Gaza.

But that started to ring hollow the more that the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld nightmare in Iraq unraveled. And Israel’s war in Gaza was the last straw. Israelis really did not see this coming, but I knew in my heart that Mr. Obama must have been seething at the destruction in Gaza, and he planned real change with a very willing constituency. The so-called pro-Israel Lobby did not see it coming either because they had grown so used to gathering Congress to their imperial gatherings, always saying everything their donors want to hear, and then keeping inside every frustration they had with suicidal violent policies that were bad for America and bad for Israel. Some of us in Washington knew, because so many of these folks only expressed their anger in the most oblique and indirect ways so as not to be targeted. But now, in the last six months, we see the change, we see what was inside, spoken of only in bathrooms and private dinners, now emerge into a fundamental shift.

So, as I reflect on the last six months of change in policy, I keep having a vision of listening to Bogey Yaalon, now Deputy Prime Minister, coming to Washington time after time talking about how ‘they’ needed to teach the Palestinians and the Arabs ‘a lesson’. And so he did, as he has done decade after decade, a lesson that pain is the only thing the enemy understands.  But who got punished? Whose hands have been slapped? Who is not believed anymore when it really counts, like with Iran’s nuclear policy?

Those of you who know my writings and work know that I do not have a huge amount of faith in elite peace processes, nor in elite impositions of peace on unwilling populations. And to make peace here we must impose it on those who put Bibi into office. We will see what happens, but I believe that the overwhelming lesson of the 90’s and this present concluding decade is that force, Islamist or Jewish, does not work, it gets nowhere, and that the only relationships I see working are between very special Arabs and Jews who have deep friendships and equal partnerships. That is the only future without war. I wish President Obama well, and I support him every step of the way, but he stands atop an infrastructure of Western imperial selfishness that does not know or understand subtlety, respect, anti-corruption, listening, humility, equality and social justice. And there is no way that the Palestinian people will come to the table in massive numbers unless there is a profound change in their treatment by everyone. And, in turn, I know the Jewish people very well, and there is no way that the rank and file supporters of militarism will aquiesce unless they see a profound change in attitude of the Arab world to them. In other words, this is a very messy, damaged psychological situation, and I hope that President Obama and Senator Mitchell understand their limitations, no matter how excellent their skills and intentions. They need the rest of us to help, to gain far more ‘buy-in’ from these damaged peoples. I see it coming, but it is all so slow, so slow. We need more people to engage and show the policy makers the way forward.

© Marc Gopin