A Sad Fight, But Not Ours
Egypt’s recent brokering of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas comes as the devastation of the most recent 11 days of war stacks up: 253 Palestinians dead according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, including 66 children, 39 women, and 17 seniors, as well as 1,948 injuries, while Hamas fired over 3,150 rockets at Israel, killing 13 and injuring several hundred. The bulk of Hamas’s strikes were stopped by Israel’s effective Iron Dome defense system. Israel has also made over 1,550 arrests of activists and protesters.
In late 2019 I spent around five weeks in Israel and the Palestinian territories reporting and traveling. I was mainly in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Hebron.
In my time in Israel, I found the country to basically be a narrow strip of land with ultra-modern, clean cities and brash, no-nonsense people. The prevailing atmosphere was one of getting on with business, with sky-high prices and an attitude of living in one of the world’s best countries. In general, Israel struck me as a military base disguised as a country; the presence of many soldiers carrying automatic weapons in public and on buses didn’t faze me, but then again I’m not Palestinian. I experienced none of the tribal solidarity or dynamic cultural life I expected to find, and the society just seemed like a high-tech offshoot of California or Florida.
In east Jerusalem there was an immediate shift. Small markets, delicious food, hospitality, and tea. A Palestinian hostel owner told me the world will soon end and that Netanyahu’s provocations and aggression are actually a “gift from God” because they will lead to the end times, end of Israel, and return of Mohammed. He gave it five years before Armageddon. He then shouted at visiting Orthodox Jewish yeshiva students smoking weed in the atrium and laughing with various prostitutes up and down the staircase.
“Every day, these f****** people!” he complained to me, craning to the side around his glassed-in reception booth. “No smoke here! Stop now or get lost!” he shouted at the teens.
An American evangelical staying in the hostel said we had three years max, telling me about how Christians were hiding Bibles in the caves of Petra, Jordan, for Jews to find and convert when the Great Tribulation came, and how Syria and China would end up in the final battle with Israel and America as predicted in the Bible. “These Muslims are crazy, friend. They’re all waiting for their false prophet, but we understand that we have to stand behind the state of Israel.” He also showed me a creative impressionist painting he did of Jared Kushner, who he believed had been sent from God to help usher in Israel’s coming apex of power and return of the Messiah.
Entering Hebron on a minibus I passed the fertile fields and large signs telling Israelis it was illegal to enter the West Bank and that doing so could cost them their lives. IDF soldiers manned checkpoints, including at the entrance of the Al Arroub refugee camp on the way to Hebron. I visited the camp several days later with a guide and small group of foreigners, but our car broke down and residents parading in remembrance of Yasser Arafat became angry and tried speaking Hebrew to me, attempting to expose whether I was from the “other side.” We got out safely, but the next day fighting broke out, and IDF soldiers shot at youth throwing Molotov cocktails at them, killing 22-year-old Omar Haitham al-Badawi, who was later found not to pose a threat to them.
Past Al Arroub, pristine roads led to settlements where new settlers come from a mixture of the religiously and nationalistically motivated trying to reclaim historical land of the Jews and young Israelis looking for some more affordable living options outside the incredibly expensive real estate available in Israel itself.
Once in Hebron I noticed the streets were more unkempt, disembarking next to a small gas station where a man immediately came out and offered me coffee, smiling and friendly. A woman and her two kids walked around to ask about directions for me to get to my guesthouse, going out of their way to use what little English they had to assist a foreigner they’d never met.
At the guesthouse in Hebron, I met Westerners volunteering as part of a local organization improving sports, medical care, career opportunities, and life in a poor local neighborhood. Checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers controlled access to the central Jewish area by the Cave of Machpelah, an all-important mosque and synagogue where Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Sarah are buried, which was the site of the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre.
My Palestinian host was a personable and hilarious guy in his late 20s who became a close friend. The other Westerners volunteering at his organization were well-intentioned, although it was a bit odd to find social liberals who didn’t respect Muslim beliefs or culture but cared about the injustice against Palestinians. Personally, I found them to be somewhat tokenizing and Orientalizing these people, appreciating and loving the hospitality and kindness but subtly scoffing at the strict gender roles and conservatism. The Palestinians were obliged to turn a blind eye to the foreigners’ largely progressive views on sexuality, drugs, and gender roles in order to accept their financial and moral support, with the younger generation also increasingly convinced by Netflix and Western media and people that more social “freedom” was the answer to their ills and ticket to acceptance by the outside world.
This is not about which side is moral, racist, or “wants peace” or not, although liberals and conservatives want to make it about that. Being humane does not win wars, and when Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in late 2018 at the renaming ceremony for the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center, he made clear his lack of interest in the “moral” angle.
“In the Middle East, and in many parts of the world, there is a simple truth: There is no place for the weak,” Netanyahu said. “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”
Israel has one of the best militaries in the world, thanks in part to the United States. It also has broad strategic vision, alliance-building, advanced weaponry, and political capital, including the recent Abraham Accords. Palestinians have ramshackle rockets, feuding political factions, haphazard foreign support, and some piles of old rifles. The greatest danger comes from internal division and civil strife within Israel itself, as could be seen during the recent conflict with rioting and violence in places with high Arab Israeli populations like Lod, near Tel Aviv.
The murder of Palestinian civilians and seizure of their land with American approval does not mean that Palestinians will win based on the injustice of what is happening. This is a brute struggle for conquest disguised as a fight against terrorism, and Israel barely even cares who buys it anymore, coasting on PragerU videos and the support of evangelical Christians. This is about land and control, including control of key religious sites such as Al Aqsa and holy cities such as Jerusalem and Hebron. Simply put, Israel has the power and is using it to expand and press its advantage; Palestinians are robbed of power and want to get back land and control of their destiny.
That said, the thousands of rockets from Hamas are also not for show. They are certainly intended to kill any Israeli possible and those who downplay that fact are not serious participants in any debate about the conflict. The approximately 20 percent of failed Hamas strikes that land on their own territory and kill Palestinians are another part of the tragic situation, which Hamas uses to its benefit.
However, automatically trusting the word of the IDF on what constitutes a legitimate Hamas-affiliated target is similarly naïve. Ben Shapiro may be able to sleep well at night believing every square inch of Gaza is a Hamas launch site with jihadis hiding under the bed, but not all of us are willing to write off the deaths of kids so glibly.
The awkward fact of the matter is that Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh are entwined by default in a struggle to politically benefit from war and suffering. With Bibi’s back to the wall politically, he had all the more motivation to have escalated the confrontation at Al Aqsa (or what Ruthie Blum claims is the “Al Aqsa hoax”) that precipitated this bloodbath.
Contrary to many, I do not believe this conflict directly concerns American interests either way. Israel’s brazen spying in the United States and meddling into Washington’s political affairs and priorities should feature higher on Washington’s calculus than moving the embassy in Jerusalem or talking about “Israel’s right to defend itself” (as if turning apartments into dust in a massive ghetto next to Egypt is the world’s defining moral battle for dignity and “self-defense”).
Reconciliation and peace are easy to talk about. But two groups who both want the same land is not a theoretical exercise. The truth is that if the Palestinians took Netanyahu’s advice from 2018, they would be doing all they can right now to fight and enact deadly violence and destruction in order to gain a bigger seat at the table and be worthy of having “peace made.”
The slow-motion torture of the Palestinian people won’t be solved by boycotts and protests, that’s for sure. And Hamas rockets infuriating Israel isn’t going to do anything but justify a harsher crackdown that Hamas can then use to consolidate its power and accelerate its own domestic hold. Full war or full peace is the only real prospect at this point, and full peace will require shutting down Israel’s radical antagonists and Palestinian militant wings.
This is not America’s fight, and the deeper Washington gets involved here the more it stands to lose. Still, what a disaster in such a beautiful and sacred part of the world.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to the Week, the Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.