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Madre Q & A: The Prospects for Peace in Israel and Palestine

Today, at the United Nations, governments are voting on granting Palestine non-member observer status, implicitly recognizing it as a state. Meanwhile, a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, ending eight days of bloodshed, is holding as negotiations continue.

In recent weeks, as MADRE mobilized a campaign to provide urgent aid to children and families in Gaza facing Israeli military assault, many people responded generously.

We also received comments, some critical and some questioning, about MADRE’s work in Palestine and our views of the conflict. Below are a few of these questions and our responses.

Who started this violence?

It all depends on when you start counting.

Before the ceasefire was agreed on November 21, there had been eight days of attacks that killed more than 160 people in Gaza and five people in Israel, injuring hundreds more.

The first day was marked by Israel’s assassination of Ahmed Jabari, a Hamas military leader. Before that, Hamas fired rockets on Israeli communities, Israeli soldiers killed a boy in Gaza, and Palestinian militants attacked Israeli tanks inside Gaza.

This is only a fragment of the full picture. Moving along the timeline reveals more violence, stretching back even before 1948, when Israel was founded. The problem with asking “who started it?” is that we tend to pick the point on the timeline that suits the story we want to tell. We need to devote just as much energy to asking “how can we support an end to this violence?”

If you want to stop the violence and bring about peace, why don’t you just call for an end to the rocket attacks by Hamas?

Ending the violent attacks on both sides is a necessary precondition for peace. But just as many people have rightly pointed out that no government should tolerate rocket attacks against its people, it is also true that no government can accept a military blockade designed to crush its economy and which causes sickness, hunger and despair.

A US embassy document revealed by Wikileaks stated that, “Israeli officials have confirmed … that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.”

But Israeli policies are, in fact, pushing people in Gaza past a tipping point. In August, the UN announced that, if the blockade remains, Gaza will be unlivable by 2020. Already 75 percent of people are forced to depend on aid to survive. In hospitals deprived of supplies, doctors are sometimes forced to re-use rubber gloves and are equipped with only 40 percent of the medicines they need. Water, electricity and other vital resources are in short supply. The misery that leads people to support the attacks is getting worse instead of better. The blockade drags on while Israel shows no willingness to negotiate an end to its 45-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

Doesn’t Israel have a right to defend its population from rockets?

Yes. Every country has a right, even an obligation, to protect its people from armed violence. The rocket attacks by Hamas are acts of aggression against Israeli civilians, in stark violation of international law.

But any military response, even self-defense, must be proportional to the threat that justifies the attack, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention.  Israel’s attack on Gaza is more destructive by orders of magnitude than the rockets fired—also illegally—by Hamas into Israel.

Finally, the attack constitutes collective punishment by gravely harming all residents of Gaza, in retaliation for the violence of a small group of militants. Entire families are among the dead. Gaza’s hospitals are full of mothers and children, not just Hamas fighters.

Why is MADRE still talking about Israeli occupation, when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005?

Israel evacuated its soldiers and settlers from inside the territory. That was a welcome development, but only a first step towards ending the occupation. Since then, Israel has continued to control Gaza’s borders, coastline, airspace, telecommunications, water and electricity. Because Israel still exerts effective control over Gaza, it remains the occupying power there according to international law.

Moreover, as the occupying power, Israel is obligated by the Hague Convention to safeguard the welfare of people in Gaza.

Does support for Palestinians mean support for Hamas?

No. When MADRE provides humanitarian aid, we partner with grassroots Palestinian groups who share our progressive vision of human rights and gender equality. Our partners in Gaza are part of a secular civil society movement, and they work to meet the basic needs of people cut off by the blockade for health care, clean water and more.

Moreover, not all Palestinians identify with Hamas. But support for Hamas swells when Israeli policy creates grinding poverty and the threat of bombings, and when Hamas appears to offer real resistance.

If MADRE is sending help to Gaza, why aren’t you also sending help to Israel?

The pain, loss and fear that people who are under violent attack feel are the same, no matter where they are.

But a key difference is that the Israeli government is able to provide for the health and safety of its people. There are neighborhood bomb shelters. And when injured or traumatized people need help, local hospitals and clinics are well-resourced to meet their needs.

This is not the reality in Gaza, where people without bomb shelters are left defenseless, and where clinics are constantly low on vital medical supplies. In order to address these unmet needs, MADRE partners with local groups who are filling the gap.

What needs to happen to bring about lasting peace?

A long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. It is crucial to expand the current ceasefire into a settlement that addresses issues at the heart of the conflict, including lifting the blockade entirely, ending occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, negotiating equitable land and water use, and addressing the question of Palestinian refugees.

Reaching a settlement will require Israel and Hamas to engage in direct talks. And it will require prioritizing peaceful channels for conflict resolution. This includes using the UN, the option of “non-member state” status for Palestine, and the legal avenue of the International Criminal Court to address human rights violations—and not resorting to more bombings.

Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians will have to struggle with each other in inhabiting the same territory. The challenge is to do it without violence.